Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why so much cynicism?

An Ethical Musings' reader recently inquired: Why do Americans find it so difficult to have faith in the foundations of their community life, locally and nationally? Since 1960, perhaps even earlier, Americans increasingly regard the foundations of community life – both its values and institutions – with doubt and cynicism. Why is that?

First, people now have more awareness of one another's failings and the fallibility of institutions. Some of this awareness is attributable to reporters and others in the public square who have found that often the most effective way to compete for the public's attention is to disclose the juicy dirt. In the absence of hard evidence, smoke, allegedly indicating the presence of evil doing, suffices. The unending 24/7 news cycle has accelerated that competition as has a growing preference for and dependence upon the internet. At some point, this awareness will plateau – people are not entirely fallible.

Second, people are now less connected with one another. For several reasons community is waning, as Robert Putnam meticulously document in his book, Bowling Alone. In the early part of the twentieth century, an evening's entertainment often consisted of spending time with family or friends. In the midst of playing games, participating in civic organizations, and other activities, people interacted. Those interactions created social capital, expressed in more widely shared values, mutual respect that transcended differences, and commitment to communal institutions.

Third, US citizens (any the citizens of other developed nations) are often caught in the grip of two conflicting ideals. On the one hand, they want to believe in individual rights and freedoms. They resent what they perceive as growing government regulation of life and the taxes required to fund that regulation.

On the other hand, most people want the assurances and security that government regulation and services provide. Food, whether purchased in a restaurant or store, should be safe, perhaps even nutritious, as well as produced and packaged in a way that minimizes hazards to those involved, respects the environment, etc. More generally, the warning of caveat emptor (buyer beware) seems less reasonable when dealing with products that can endanger life and about which few consumers will reasonably have any expertise. Similarly, most consumers, employees, and citizens expect government to keep them safe from known carcinogens, protect them from criminals, ensure transportation safety, and provide other basic services.

Independently examining each element of government regulation or service tends to result in an appreciation for the bulk of what government provides, inherently creating a tension with the ideal of individual autonomy and freedom. Few genuine libertarians (a position that approaches anarchism) exist. In an era of heated rhetoric that clamors for our attention, it is easier to trash government and community than it is to advocate more nuanced, better-adjusted approaches to improving government regulation and services.

Fourth, contrary to widespread opinion, some community values have actually improved significantly in the last fifty years. For example, the US is a more just society that more fully (though still very incompletely!) respects the rights of women, people of color, LGBT persons, etc. Similarly, the US has made significant strides to provide a social safety net. (For previous Ethical Musings' posts on this theme, cf. The decline of violence, The U.S. social safety net, Justice for all, and Affirmative action.)

Yet this improved justice has come at a price: we often opt for easy over good, cheap over caring. Illustratively, the US has the largest percentage of people in prison. Prisoners are disproportionately black men, reflecting in some significant measure a legacy of racism, e.g., the penalties for using illegal drugs that African-Americans tend to choose are far more severe than are penalties for using illegal drugs preferred by Caucasians (cf. Ethical Musings Prison is not the answer) . Institutionalizing the mentally ill and disabled got them off the street, but at a high cost and unnecessary infringement of their freedom. The campaign to de-institutionalize them succeeded but failed to achieve its other key element, providing the outpatient care and services these persons need and deserve.

In other words, the assessment that Americans have an increased cynicism toward communal institutions and a diminished sharing of foundational values partially depends upon one's vantage point.

Finally, this is a transitional era. Old institutions are dissolving. New institutions are in their early stages, still in gestation, or not yet conceived. Humans are social animals. Transitions are inevitable but invariably difficult. The question is not whether we will have community institutions but the shape and character those community institutions will take.

For example, marriage is a basic (some might argue THE basic) human institution. Marriage has gone through many changes: polygamy, concubinage, arranged marriages, serial monogamy, and now an expanded understanding to include same-sex couples. Some of the change is good. No longer does secular law treat as the chattel of a man (religious laws, regrettably, frequently still regard women as chattel or at least inferior to men, though there are some hopeful signs that this is changing). Furthermore, secular law imposes safeguards on children's welfare, criminalizing abuse, child labor, neglect, etc. These are good changes (read some of Charles' Dickens stories if you think otherwise).

Some change has resulted in unintended negative consequences, e.g., the good of divorce that frees women from marriages that are empty, unfulfilling, or abusive has created a problem of fathers seeking to evade their parental responsibilities. Single parents, especially if a woman, are more likely to be poor; divorce can be harder on children than is a loveless marriage, raising questions about the extent to which society should reasonably expect parents to sacrifice personal happiness for the well-being of children.

Twitterized communications and a 24/7 news cycle favor polarization rather than the discussion of complex problems, slowing progress toward the compromises that new solutions entail. This polarization is evident in the federal government's inability to deal with core issues, e.g., the federal budget and presidential appointments.

Nevertheless, I am optimistic about the future. Our shared values are in flux, yet society still exhibits cohesion, perhaps more than it did in the 1970s and certainly more than it did in the 1860s. Our institutions are also in flux, but new ones will emerge because we, like all humans, are social animals and require communal institutions to survive.

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