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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Is America Losing Its Moral Fiber? Google Big Data Suggests We Are

David Brooks has written an article in the New York Times (5.21.13) describing how the frequency of words describing social, moral, ethical, and civic attitudes have changed over time.  Based on this exhaustive Google big data search of over 5 million books in its database, we are using far more words which pertain to individualism than communalism, and fewer words which reflect more traditional values such as honor and courage.  His conclusion is that word frequency is a good indicator of changing societal values and that we are indeed becoming more self-centered, amoral, and less grounded in values than ever before.

I am not so sure.  First is the question of usage. He notes that the words “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” are appearing far less frequently than in previous decades; but rather than suggest that the concepts are also disappearing, one might equally assume that a more modern usage or lingo has replaced them.  For example, the world ‘collective’ has singularly negative connotations, resonant of Soviet-era agriculture and social engineering.  ‘Tribe’ is a word that is always on the fringes of PC, and most modern-day historians and social critics have either removed it for its lack of precision, or replaced it with ethnicity.  ‘Band together’ is very old-fashioned, and while Shakespeare’s ‘band of brothers’ is often recalled, the idea of group solidarity is better expressed by ‘posse’, ‘crew’, or simply ‘brothers’.

A recent study cited by Brooks suggests that moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” have been used less and less frequency; as were words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion”.  Again, I would argue that disuse may be more a factor of changing cultural expressions rather than a more fundamental change in attitudes. ‘Virtue’, for example, may have been replaced by ‘Do the right thing’ or ‘Man up’ or a thousand other expressions of respect; while ‘decency’ is too vague and general for the more precise demands of a very diverse, multicultural society.  I am not sure that ‘common decency’ would be understood today.  In the Victorian Age, when courtly values of decency – manners, politeness, respect for neighbors of a similar class – were understood, the term would definitely apply.  But has the concept of treating others decently disappeared?  I doubt it.  Although we might not like to descend from a Victorian moral throne to the inner-city, isn’t ‘disrespect’ an equally appropriate and apt word for the idea of treating people properly? A lack of Victorian decency and ‘dissing’ will both result in expulsion from the group.

The words “wisdom,” “ought,” “evil” can be also seen as archaic phrases.  I read about evil in Kierkegaard, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Augustine, but infrequently in conversation.  I am fascinated by the concept of evil in Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Marlowe, and Machiavelli, but I do not expect to raise the issue at dinner parties.

More importantly than the words themselves, perhaps, is the context in which words have been used.  Shakespeare used the word ‘valor’ a lot and wrote about the principles that underlie it in many of his plays; but it is rare to see an unequivocally positive outcome.  Henry V was valorous, except for the fact that he led thousands of his men to death because of a tenuous political claim. Troilus and Hector debated honor and virtue, but the Trojan War went on endlessly because of the venality behind these ideas.  High principles were always promoted and debated in Greek and Roman times; and martyrdom (i.e. courage to face death for a just cause) was a common rallying cry for the murderous Crusades.

I think that the dire predictions of an erosion of community are ill-founded.  America is a dynamic, ever-changing country, and the configurations of community also change.  Although it is easy to pick on the electronic neighborhoods of Facebook and Twitter, these are, for better or worse communities; and if one did a search for ‘friend’, ‘chat room’, ‘group’, a not very surprising social bonding would be discovered.  New immigrant groups have very strong communities; and our country is becoming more and more ethnically diverse.  Koreans and Ethiopians, among others, have done well because of strong community ties.  We are still a churchgoing nation, and each of the many churches I have visited in the South are mini-communities with as much focus and integrity as any secular grouping.

Without a doubt, we have become more focused on individual enterprise as a nation; but this too is subject to the ebbs and flows of history. The individualism of the Google words is but an expression of the turning of the socio-political wheel.  We are casting off older versions of a liberal, statist, and government-ordered community and forming a new body politic with new dynamics and unusual potential.

So, I agree with Brooks that the word search does provide interesting insights into the way language is used; but I think it is too much to conclude a correlation between words and cultural shifts.

1 comment:

  1. I would agree with the conclusion of this article, though it is worth noting that since it is becoming ever increasingly hard to just make ends meat in this day and age I have noticed a change in people. After all it is people that make society, and society that make people.


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