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Examining How America Got Mean

America got mean

David Brooks wrote an important article for the Atlantic that was simply titled, “How America Got Mean.” His conclusion was both insightful and deeply disturbing.

No one denies that we’ve become a mean-spirited culture. We’ve become increasingly rude and cruel and abusive and violent. Whether it’s toward a waiter at a restaurant, a nurse at a hospital, a teacher at a school or road rage on the interstate, we’ve become…mean. Coupled with this is our increasing lack of compassion and empathy for others. In 2000, two-thirds of American households gave to charity. In 2018, fewer than half did.

As Brooks notes, there are many reasons offered for this.

There’s the technology story—that social media is driving us all crazy.

There is the sociology story—that we’ve stopped participating in community organizations and are more isolated.

There is the demography story—that America, long a white-dominated nation, is becoming a much more diverse country; a change that has millions of white Americans in a panic.

There is the economy story—that high levels of economic inequality and insecurity have left people afraid, alienated and pessimistic.

And obviously, all of these are having an effect. But Brooks argues, and I agree, that the deepest issue is that we are no longer schooled in kindness and consideration. Which means we live in a world where people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein.

It’s all about morals.

In a healthy society you have a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations and workplaces—that help form people into kind and responsible citizens.

We don’t have that today. We don’t have moral formation, which, Brooks outlines, involves three things: first, helping people learn to restrain their selfishness; second, teaching basic social and ethical skills—things like welcoming a neighbor into a community or disagreeing with someone constructively; and third, helping people find a purpose in life.

We used to be concerned with teaching and developing virtue—with molding the heart along with the head. This wasn’t just in schools, but rather throughout all of culture—Sunday school, the YMCA, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.