I Can’t Quit You, David Brooks

This is an interesting column, or, at least, it’s a column that raises interesting questions. (I don’t want to dole out the praise to David Brooks too vociferously.)

I must begin by questioning the survey, and David Brooks’s quoting of the surveys. For one thing, 230 individuals interviewed is not a huge sample size. It’s not nothing, but David Brooks wants to leap to national trends and the way youth are now, and in that context, 230 isn’t nearly enough. It’s also unclear to me what his source is. Has he read the survey conductors’ book Lost in Transition and is quoting from that? Did he interview one of the authors of the study? Is he, himself, looking over transcribed interviews? Then I need to ask, how representative of the United States are the 230 young adults interviewed? Where did they come from? How were they chosen? David Brooks says they’re “from across America” but that doesn’t really mean anything. I suspect the 230 were chosen from the more interesting or willing of the respondents to the more general surveys that Christian Smith and team were conducting, but I don’t know that and I don’t know if David Brooks knows that. How well were the interviews conducted? Christian Smith is, according to David Brooks, an “eminent sociologist” (and I’m not doubting him on that point; how would I know if he is or isn’t?) but a) David Brooks isn’t, and b) I remember being pissed off at Caitlin Flanagan for not understanding how to ask young teens about their sex lives. Not that she’s an “eminent sociologist.” But I’d just like to know.

Beyond that, the puzzle that David Brooks brings up is troubling. Because on the one hand, I have officially become too old to be a respondent in this study, so I’m more than willing to be all “These kids today with their low morals and disgusting behavior and they should GET OFF my goddam LAWN!” And I’ve already discussed in my somewhat discombobulated post about rape that I think part of the problem there is that our discourse on the subject leaves young men and young women unsure of what even constitutes rape. I think that uncertainty is applicable to other areas of life as well.

On the other hand, I don’t really want anyone but me deciding what the moral code in this country ought to be.

I have been known, on occasion, to tell friends and family what I would do if I were dictator. Maybe I’ll write a post about that soon. And I’m mostly joking about it. But underlying the joke is the idea that, while I would like to be dictator because I know how best to run things, I don’t want to live under a dictator who is not me. Because they’d do it wrong. So if I can’t be dictator, I want, more or less, what I’ve got now – people who have to appease and please the citizenry if they want to lead.

It’s the same issue here. I can clutch my pearls and nod along with David Brooks, “Yeah, yeah, these kids, they need a strong moral code; they need a culture that fosters right thinking and behavior, so that they have the categories and vocabulary to understand moral dilemmas,” but the truth is, I only want that if I get to define morality. Sure, I’d love to be in charge of the moral instruction of America’s youth (and, well, I’m a Hebrew School teacher, so I am in charge of the moral instruction of a very small group of America’s youth for a very short period of time), but I don’t want someone else to be in charge of my moral education or my daughter’s. Unless I agree with them.

And the truth is, if this country right now had some sort of Board in Charge of Deciding Morality, it would be staffed by the same people who think homosexuality is an evil sin and that social programs designed to cushion the blows of poverty are a waste. I really, really, really don’t want those people in charge.

Given that we don’t live in Rickitopia, but instead the epitomatically pluralistic United States of America in 2011, I don’t think the sentiment expressed by some of these respondents and quoted derisively by David Brooks are necessarily bad or amoral positions to hold. He quotes one respondent as saying, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.” Yes, that’s definitely moral relativism. But it’s also non-judgmental and respectful of differences between people. Those ARE moral positions that are, to my liberal way of thinking, ideally suited for a country like ours.

On the other hand, David Brooks doesn’t think, and I don’t think, that these respondents are necessarily staking a claim to a certain moral position, like “I respect all values systems,” or “I rely on my own inner goodness to find the Truth.” David Brooks and I suspect that they’re more accurately saying, “Uh . . . I dunno.”

If, for whatever reason, you’re not clicking the link to his actual column, here’s his last, “back in my day” paragraph:

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

He’s more or less right about that. Back in the day (back in some day), a person’s world was smaller and more defined by the community in which they lived, which was in turn more often than not defined by a specific religion. Ah, the good old days. Just ask Nathaniel Hawthorne about them. (Seriously, ask. He’d probably cross over from the world beyond just to hate on Puritans some more, don’t you think?)

This “old” way of doing things (which is older than David Brooks is making out; it started eroding for Western culture with the Romantics, who were the ones saying “Morality should emerge from the privacy of your own heart!”) is really, truly fantastic in a lot of ways. A sense of place in the world, a connection to a group of people, a purpose – all great things. But they can come with a load of shit that American artists have been depicting for centuries now. And even as I long for the good stuff that comes with that kind of community, that load of shit is a load I’d personally like to do without, as it includes hatred for outsiders, judgmental attitudes, small-mindedness, pettiness, and hypocrisy. Not to mention phoniness.

But given the kind of America most people live in now, those flaws are killers. Moral relativity does seem like the only way to get along in an ever-more pluralistic society.

This is not to say that I think all moral judgment should come from one’s heart. I am, after all, a Hebrew School teacher. And here’s where I get a little religious on your asses. The Book of Judges (which, for those of you who really don’t know, is one of the books of the TaNaKh. It’s the second book after the Torah ends.) is a propaganda piece (by which I merely mean it has a point it’s trying to make in its relating of the stories) in favor of the notion that Israel should have a king. To that end it portrays the pre-having-a-king Israel as a place of chaos and violence. And the phrase that crops up over and over again is that people “did what was right in their own eyes.” That’s when you know a storm of shit is about to happen in the Book of Judges – some person or group of persons decides to do “what is right in their own eyes.” That’s how you end up with raped and dismembered young women and a really bloody civil war that nearly wipes out one whole tribe – people doing what’s right in their own eyes.

I think David Brooks and I agree that it’s sad (if it’s really true) that young people cannot express themselves on moral issues, lack the categories and vocabulary to understand moral issues, and lack any sort of moral conviction or even an understanding that to have morals is a good thing. Where we differ is that, for David Brooks, the ideal (I think) is that young people should be able to say, “This is right, and that is wrong, and I’m sure because I have the values instilled in my by age-old religion, culture, community, etc.” I want young people to say, “I have thought this out, using factors such as religion and community, but also what is in my heart and what I see in the world and what I can discern from that, and I’m pretty sure this is right and that is wrong, but I’m open to changing my mind about that if new information does not fit my schematic. And in the meantime I’m going to try really hard not to hurt anyone.”

So that should be easy-peasy, right?


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