Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

In 2007, 13 years after the brutal murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, 12 years after a jury found O. J. Simpson innocent of those murders, and 10 years after a civil jury found him liable for them, Simpson published a book called If I Did It. Outrage ensued. To the many who needed no further evidence of Simpson’s guilt, the book was the horrific culmination of his long slide into desperation and depravity. Can a person not only get away with murder, they wondered, but profit from it in open daylight? Aren’t there any rules?

Last week’s Omarosa-driven frenzy of speculation over whether a tape exists of President Donald Trump using the N word brought the book back to mind. (Tellingly, this frenzy is also tinged with the question of what people with little credibility will do in the name of book profits, but that’s another story.) The conversation seemed to focus less on whether such a tape exists than whether it would “matter” if it did.

The past two years have offered a master class in the construction and destruction of norms, yet people still, somehow, seem to find themselves asking versions of these neat little black-or-white questions: Does it matter? Can he do it? The recurrence of these questions speaks to a craving for binaries—for rules—even after such clarity has proved unattainable, again and again. Countless sacrosanct, “inviolable” boundaries have been flagrantly and repeatedly trespassed. As rules matter less, we must all become much more capable of navigating the blurrier universe of effects, outcomes, and consequences.

I know that when people talk about whether the president’s behavior “matters,” they are asking about consequences. They’re speculating about the answer to a meaningful question: If Trump were found to have violated America’s most potent verbal taboo, would he at last lose a significant part of his political support? And let me also acknowledge the thoughtful answer to that question that many have reached: Trump has lived the vast part of his life fully in the public eye. It is quite unlikely that new revelations about his behavior will yield any new information about his character. To wit, Trump’s conduct at this point reveals very little about him, but our reactions as a society reveal a great deal about us.

That means we have a definitive answer to the question “Does it matter?” Yes. All of this matters. It matters what the president does, because it matters how each of us responds. If I could at this point, I would find and replace every variation on that question with another: “What would happen?”

Let’s play this out for a moment. What would happen if a tape surfaced featuring the president using the N word? History is useful here. For a subset of the country, it would weaken the taboo on using the word. Some of these Americans would likely litigate whether the usage was, in fact, a slur directed at black people, or whether he was merely discussing the word. It was very improper language, and he’s acknowledged that, but I don’t characterize it as a slur. It's always wrong to use that word. But as the president today he has not used that word. It was a quip. Locker-room talk, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Talk and action are two different things. Also within this subset would be the vocal contingent of folks—most, apparently, white men—for whom the proscription on saying the word constitutes the last, totemic vestige of racial discrimination. This is part and parcel of the left’s hypocrisy when it comes to the N word. The question is, will the American people be smart enough to see beyond the manipulation? I expect this group already glories in the usage of the word in private, and if the president used it, they would consider that full license to take their newly desegregated word public, and shout it from the mountaintops. Free at last.

From other parts of the country, I would expect marches, demonstrations, and boycotts. The press would howl, certainly. Some supporters of the president—perhaps not many, but a few—would soften or abandon altogether that support; for them, the tape would actually be a more meaningful revelation about his character than any they’d heard. Some, finding no remedy in the political system, might resort to violence. This, of course, would have consequences of its own.

Somewhere on the internet, the tape would be dissected and—for a tiny, viral fringe of heaven-touched souls that some corners of the media would find themselves obsessed with—debunked. The things the deep state can do with Pro Tools these days; it’s a marvel. Alex Jones enhanced the audio—the president is clearly saying “bigger.” If only America was more media-literate.

Those with outsize power to protect—the moneyed class, the politicians, the people with platforms—would make their cost-benefit analyses. They’d each determine for themselves how much outrage to project, where to take advantage, where to apply leverage, where to expend social capital. Some politicians would distance themselves from the president, some would make fund-raising appeals, some would post a statement on their website expressing mild disapproval, and certainly some would vote on something—whether it were symbolic or meaningful would depend to a great extent on how many joined in.

Most Americans would probably find themselves in the murky but familiar territory of feeling stunned, saddened, and repulsed. They might take some brief solace in a session of furious retweeting, or a call to a legislator, or the crafting of a protest sign, and then, as their actions seem to dissipate into the ether, that curious state of feverish numbness they’ve felt for the past two years, as norm after norm has crumbled without apparent consequence, would grow a notch or two more intense.

I am not a gifted enough sociologist or historian to have imagined all the most plausible effects, or how vast or minor each of them might be. This type of speculation is an uncomfortable exercise for a journalist. But the point of this form of imagining is that every single one of these effects would matter. Even that first one, which you might have swept right past—“It would weaken the taboo on using the word”—would matter a great deal to some of us. I will confess, with apologies to Gwyneth Paltrow, that I have not the slightest whit of interest in granting any more white folks any more license to use that word, whether I’m listening or not.

This is what I, at least, have discovered in these past few years: The lines I once thought existed, by and large, do not. Peer closely enough at any line that you imagined when all of this was an abstraction—Can the president really pardon himself?—and what you will find instead is this highly complicated, hopelessly blurry cacophony of effects, of consequences, of outcomes. This is the combustive, alchemical system that governs what we are willing to do to and for one another. Are there any rules? Of course there are. What happens when they’re broken? That’s the rub.

After hundreds of thousands of copies of O. J. Simpson’s book were printed, the publisher—facing public outrage—canceled the book’s release. Fox News canceled a companion special it was planning, and Rupert Murdoch issued a formal apology to Ron Goldman’s family for the project. The Goldmans’ successful civil litigation against Simpson wound its way to bankruptcy court, where a federal judge granted the family the rights to the book. They published it under an adjusted title—If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer. Simpson, desperate, out of money, already a criminal in the court of public opinion, robbed a hotel room in Las Vegas and got caught. He served a nine-year prison sentence before being paroled last year.

So can a person get away with murder and profit from it in open daylight? My condolences that the question does not resolve to “Yes” or “No.”

As individuals, the only personal anchors we can have in this chaos are not society’s rules, but our own principles. You are at liberty, right at this very moment, to decide one thing for yourself: Where, in the cacophony above, would you reside? But you have to understand that if the hypothetical were to come true, there would be consequences for holding to that position. And you’d eventually have to determine what sort of consequences you’d be willing to abide.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.