David Brooks’ column in the New York Times today, What Our Words Tell Us, illuminates the evolution that cultures experience as they move from traditional to modern stages of consciousness (see an explanation of the stages of consciousness here).
Brooks is commenting on research being done, using a Google database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008, that reveals how frequently different words were used at different times in history.
Brooks focuses on data for the last 50 years, from the 1960’s till now. The data in several studies shows that in these years we have experienced an increase in words connoting individualism and a decrease in words connoting morality.
Words on the increase: “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “discipline”, “subjectivity.”
Words in decline: “virtue,” “decency,” “honesty,” “patience,” “bravery,” “humbleness.”
Brooks’ conclusion from this research is: “Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware …” He calls this, demoralizingly, “demoralization.”
On his first conclusion I concur; our society has become more individualistic and the weakening of traditional communal structures has “led to certain forms of social breakdown.” Traditional social pressures (to stay married, raise your kids, etc.) are necessary to civilize people, especially people who are operating at the traditional and pre-traditional values structures. Otherwise they cannot rise above ego-centrism and hedonism.
On his second conclusion I will disagree, and indeed assert the opposite. People who talk less about virtue are not necessarily less virtuous. On issue after issue, from human rights, to care for the poor, sick and outcast, to animal treatment, to violence (individual and state), even marriage and divorce: people who have adequately integrated the modern and post-modern value systems are more virtuous than pre-modern traditionalists.
The evolution in the historical word cloud revealed by Google is right on schedule with what we know about the developmental move from traditional to modern (and post-modern) value structures. As we move into modernity, people become less communal and more individualistic. We value conformity less and self-expression more. We become less religious and more scientific. In our relationships we trade depth for span as we move away from our families of origin and take up residence in more diverse and bigger communities of association. We begin to consider our own subjectivity to be a legitimate territory for investigation.
About half of the US population is entering or stabilized at this stage of consciousness development, and the segment is growing. We can clearly see that the move from traditionalism to modernism comes with both an upside and a downside. And it can be done in ways that are more healthy or unhealthy. But either way it is inevitable, just as it is that a nine year old grows into a 19 year old. Emergence will not be denied.
A nine year old boy scout is right to be engaged in his oath to be “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” As a child I loved striving for these values with my fellow scouts; it was challenging, fulfilling and in retrospect I see that it helped me organize my psyche into more complex and capable structures. Furthermore, this move represents huge developmental progress from the earlier structures of childhood which are more impulsive, dependent and yes, selfish.
One of the reasons people grow into any new stage of development, whether at an individual or cultural scale, is that they have integrated (and are becoming bored with) the values of the stage they are exiting.
Thus at nineteen I was no longer so concerned with my boy scout morality, not because I stopped valuing it but because I took it for granted. It was stably installed in my psyche which provided the baseline for a new set of values to emerge: the modern values of curiosity, creativity, self-sufficiency, skepticism, achievement, exploration and expression.
Had I lost a certain innocence along the way? Yes. Was I a bit more cynical? Yes. I was also somewhat rebellious against the traditional value set. For example as I thought more deeply about civil rights I began to see the downside of obedience. Again, right on schedule. Part of the emergence of any value system entails some rejection of the previous set of values. But hallelujah, we keep the good stuff.
So as with most 19-year olds a new strata of civilization had been installed in my consciousness. I had literally become more civilized than I was at the previous traditionalist stage. I was able to see and care about more people and types of people. I was able to regulate myself to function in a myriad of social situations. I had acquired a bit of self-reflective capability and could therefore work with my own interior states.
Likewise most 19-year olds have achieved a similar competence without attention in this moral line of development. It’s a little like learning to drive a car. To become competent we must pay close attention to every aspect of the task: first I put it in drive, now I step on the gas, I turn the steering wheel this much, now I press on the break, etc … until it’s all second nature, and we can drive, eat, talk on the phone and search out a parking space all without thinking about it. Let alone talking about it.
Despite (perhaps because of) their evolutionary proximity traditionalism and modernism are at war, in our time and in all times, as the conservative and liberal impulses in humanity always are. This rivets everybody’s attention and we deplore and decry it. But this conflict is evolutionarily potent, as conflict always is, and leads to a stage of consciousness that is friendly to both conservatism and liberalism: integral consciousness.
An integral view stresses that it is never an either / or choice. Integral thinking honors everyone’s right to be who and where they are, and seeks to integrate what is good, true and beautiful from both developmental stages. (Actually, from every developmental stage, including pre-traditional and post-modern stages. For more on this see the “altitudes of development” here).
Even better, more and more people, bored of political polarities and the cable news shouting heads, are growing into this integral consciousness whether or not they’ve heard of integral theory.
NOTE: David Brooks and I have gone around once before (although I’m the only one of us who knows it) on this idea of correlating moral vocabulary with morality itself. See into more of our thinking in this previous blogpost.