Moral decline and moral panic

Pen Stuart writes:

A recent study in the long tradition of talking about American moral decline has created a lot of buzz. It trawled through the 5.2 million strong Google Books archive to find that the use of words related to ‘moral virtue’ (e.g. “kindness”, “humbleness”, “helpfulness” etc.) has declined over the period from 1901 to 2000, which is read as indicating moral rot.

One interpretation is that extreme individualism is leading the nation on a dangerous path; words related to independence and self-direction are now used more than they used to be. While there may be some truth in this, and most commentators have stuck to this interpretation, looking harder we can see that what morality is has not so much been undermined as fundamentally redefined.

Looking at the words that have declined, it is an elitist view of morality that is waning – in particular a 19th century and aristocratic sense of honour (words like “charity”, “grace”, “humility”, “justice” are in decline). According to the rules of this game, people went on at length about morals (hence them appearing in books a lot), but there was little substance to them: they were a political language behind which slavery, sexism, racism and privilege lived and even flourished.

Indeed “charity” and “grace” were seen as markers of the elite, who could afford the time, money and education for them. Meanwhile “humility” was important, as part of people staying in their place and not challenging social hierarchies.

Looking more closely at the study, although ‘moral’ words are down overall, some words have increased in usage. These include  “compassion”, “tolerance”, “fairness” and “selflessness”. If “justice” is down, but “fairness” is up, this could be seen as a more open and inclusive form of morality. Similarly “compassion” and “tolerance” can claim to be a ‘better’ form of morality as they engage with people, rather than just forcing them to act their part in a grand hierarchy.

The point is that we need to move away from lazy assumptions that cultural change is just about decay or triumph – often it is about shifting the landscape as people find virtue in previously neglected places, changing the definition of what is ‘better’. By doing this we can understand better where cultural shifts are headed next.

The image at the top comes from The O Project, and is used with thanks.

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