In 1987, Allan Bloom wrote abook called “The Closing of the American Mind.” The core argument was thatAmerican campuses were awash in moral relativism. Subjective personal valueshad replaced universal moral principles. Nothing was either right or wrong.Amid a wave of rampant nonjudgmentalism, life was flatter and emptier.
Bloom’s thesis was accurateat the time, but it’s not accurate anymore. College campuses are today awash inmoral judgment.
Many people carefully guardtheir words, afraid they might transgress one of the norms that have come intoexistence. Those accused of incorrect thought face ruinous consequences. When amoral crusade spreads across campus, many students feel compelled to post insupport of it on Facebook within minutes. If they do not post, they will benoticed and condemned.
Some sort of moral system iscoming into place. Some new criteria now exist, which people use to definecorrect and incorrect action. The big question is: What is the nature of thisnew moral system?
Last year, Andy Crouchpublished an essay in Christianity Today that takes us toward an answer.
Crouch starts with thedistinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized, between a guiltculture and a shame culture. In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad bywhat your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad bywhat your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In aguilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culturesocial exclusion makes people feel they are bad.
Crouch argues that theomnipresence of social media has created a new sort of shame culture. The worldof Facebook, Instagram and the rest is a world of constant display andobservation. The desire to be embraced and praised by the community is intense.People dread being exiled and condemned. Moral life is not built on thecontinuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion andexclusion.
This creates a set of commonbehavior patterns. First, members of a group lavish one another with praise sothat they themselves might be accepted and praised in turn.
Second, there are nonethelessenforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation bypolicing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social mediacan be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridiculefor anyone who stumbles.
Third, people are extremelyanxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instantrespect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has beenperpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the mostviolent intensity.
Crouch describes how videogamers viciously went after journalists, mostly women, who had criticized themisogyny of their games. Campus controversies get so hot so fast because even aminor slight to a group is perceived as a basic identity threat.
The ultimate sin today,Crouch argues, is to criticize a group, especially on moral grounds. Talk ofgood and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition. Crouch writes,“Talk of right and wrong is troubling when it is accompanied by seeming indifferenceto the experience of shame that accompanies judgments of ‘immorality.’”
He notes that this shameculture is different from the traditional shame cultures, the ones in Asia, forexample. In traditional shame cultures the opposite of shame was honor or“face” — being known as a dignified and upstanding citizen. In the new shameculture, the opposite of shame is celebrity — to be attention-grabbing andaggressively unique on some media platform.
On the positive side, thisnew shame culture might re-bind the social and communal fabric. It mightreverse, a bit, the individualistic, atomizing thrust of the past 50 years.
On the other hand, everybodyis perpetually insecure in a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion.There are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd. Itis a culture of oversensitivity, overreaction and frequent moral panics, duringwhich everybody feels compelled to go along.
If we’re going to avoid aconstant state of anxiety, people’s identities have to be based on standards ofjustice and virtue that are deeper and more permanent than the shifting fancyof the crowd. In an era of omnipresent social media, it’s probably doublyimportant to discover and name your own personal True North, vision of anultimate good, which is worth defending even at the cost of unpopularity andexclusion.
The guilt culture could beharsh, but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner. Themodern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can bestrangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don’t fit in.
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