from ToTheSource and Dr. Ross Porter this week comes a spectacular column on our culture’s worship of dis-education and vice:
“Humankind cannot stand too much reality.” -T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
A recent Gallup poll found that 76% of Americans believe moral values in the United States are getting worse. This is the highest percentage in nearly a decade. A recent decision by Rutgers University sheds some light on why there is mounting concern.
Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of “Jersey Shore” reality television fame was paid $32,000 to speak to the student body about her “GTL lifestyle” (that would be Gym-Tanning-Laundry for the uninitiated). One might begin with the decision that she was someone worth bringing on campus at all (the major takeaway from her talk: “Study hard, but party harder”); and that she was paid with money from a mandatory student activity fee; and that her appearance fee was more than the fee paid to Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison for giving the commencement address at the very same school one month later.
But there is something larger at stake here. What many of us fear is that “Snooki” is a symptom of a broad based cultural disease. Perhaps even a pandemic. She has created nothing, taught nothing, sacrificed nothing, yet she has an huge audience ready to listen to her and even imitate her. She is celebrated and rewarded for…well, for nothing more real than being famous. She represents so well a culture that increasingly appears unsure of what constitutes reality.
There was a time when reality-testing was a hallmark of good mental health. The presumption was that a psychologically well person could distinguish between what was objectively good behavior and what was inappropriate; what was natural and what was unnatural; what was creative and what was destructive. Psychologically unhealthy people, in contrast, struggled consistently with making these same kinds of fundamental discernments. Responsibilities, both to self and others, were understood and taken seriously. Duty was not a four-letter word, and giving back was not the punch line of a joke.
We need no Gallup poll to confirm current American culture is not our grandparent’s generation. The increasingly self-indulgent, secularized, nihilistic America that followed The Great Depression and World War II has left our culture both psychologically immature and morally confused about meaning and purpose. Like never before in America, subjectivity is becoming the sole source of both reality and truth. And there’s the problem, pure subjectivity does not provide a shared standard for judging reality or truth.
How does this exhibit in our culture? Americans increasingly fall prey to a phenomenon known as the “self-serving bias”, exhibiting a reliable tendency to interpret events in ways that are favorable to them, or show them in the best possible light, even when objective facts don’t justify these judgments. So all successes are attributed to me, but all failures are blamed on others. If I get the job it’s because I’m wonderful, but if I don’t it’s because I was discriminated against. If I stay with my wife it’s because I’m wonderful, but if I leave it’s because she wasn’t meeting my needs. If my son excels in school it’s because he’s my son, and I’m wonderful, but if he rebels it’s because of the school. This is consistent with what Paul Vitz has called “selfism”, and what Christopher Lasch has called “the culture of narcissism.”
Counseling offices are excellent places to study societal trends. My colleagues and I have observed this “self-serving bias” over our twenty years of counseling work. If we were asked to identify the number one problem we face in counseling, it would be reality testing based only on one’s subjective experience. When one person’s inner reality crashes into another’s, how is compromise found? Who gets to define healthy and dysfunctional, normal and abnormal? Why should I listen to your version of truth? What makes your truth any better than mine? In the end, whose subjective reality wins?
Western culture developed over thousands of years with considerable agreement that one good source to understand reality was in the natural world. There we could find what constituted objectively good habits (virtues) and bad habits (vices). And it was understood that there are certain good habits that should be acquired and certain bad habits that should be broken. The world received this Natural Law message from Moses and the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus, Paul of Tarsus, Aristotle, Maimonides, Averroes (Ibn Rushd), and Aquinas. Lasting and constructive personal and cultural change happens when people choose good habits.
Therefore, people need to be affirmed, celebrated, and emulated for behavior that is worthy of affirmation, celebration, and emulation. Such virtue makes both the person and the action good. Self-esteem should be based on objectively good behavior, not on a humanistic philosophy based in unfounded optimism about human nature or pure subjectivity.
Virtues are never practiced or acquired in a vacuum. So a “systems perspective” that takes into account the social context within which one is attempting to practice and acquire virtues is critical. This systemic/contextual issue must also take into account “sensitive periods” of emotional/psychological development when particular virtues can be best understood and practiced for the broadest and deepest positive impact.
At our clinic, we’ve built behavioral plans into our therapeutic work that include understanding and practicing virtues specifically for these periods in our client’s lives. For instance:
Adults: Responsibility, Forgiveness, Availability, Patience, Gratitude
Couples: Chastity, Play, Generativity, Empathy, Remembrance
Parents: Nurturance, Protectiveness, Adaptability, Communication, Foresight
The Family: Justice, Prudence, Courage, Moderation, Religion
Teens: Friendship, Modesty, Humility, Audacity, Patriotism
Children: Order, Generosity, Obedience, Industriousness, Honesty
These virtues, of course do not constitute an exhaustive list. There are certainly other virtues worthy of study and practice, but these form a good starting point, and have presented themselves time and again in our therapeutic work. From this same work I can confirm that virtue can be taught, and it is transformative.
If we embrace virtue, our lives will not be as depressingly superficial and self-obsessed as our culture is. In fact, we will help others see the value of these objective moral standards. We will reclaim not only the best of Western Civilization, but encourage healing and change that is eternally significant.
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