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Thursday, December 27, 2012

“Eating Rocks May Lead to Broken Teeth”

The winner of David Brooks's Sidney Awards winners: "Death by Treacle." I have no idea if such generalizations as "our culture is getting increasingly sentimental" are ever true, or can be verified, since I think we can say with equal intuitive force and different evidence that "our culture is getting increasingly violent" or "our culture is getting increasingly rationalistic," and these would seem to contradict a growing sentimentality, though without necessarily disproving it. And Haag does argue that public anger and public outpourings of sympathy go together:
Today, it so happens that rage is all the rage. Yet the problem is more metaphysical than a matter of Americans having meaner emotions in 2011 than they did in the hyper-self-congratulatory mood of the 2008 presidential election. Our civil society’s syntax and logic are awry. The habit of thought that a pop culture of treacle and a pop culture of anger hold in common is that we needn’t polish the expression of our private feelings and sorrows into a form that’s relevant and useful, even to strangers and fellow citizens in the commonweal. We can take for granted that our treacle or our anger speaks for itself and presume the relevance of private feelings to public discourse. If, in fact, we’re drowning in a public culture of meanness, it is one that the public culture of cloying sweetness unwittingly helped create.
It’s also likely that our exposure to public displays of sentiment inoculates us just a bit and leaves us requiring ever more dramatic displays of real, raw feeling. As with any other discourse, we’ve learned to decode the genre: having watched a stranger grieve and suffer or having been a stranger who grieves and suffers in public, we know what to expect. This pushes us to find really and truly extreme anger, or really and truly blameless victims who can stir an unmodified empathy in our stonier hearts or sharpen our blunted sensibilities. For social conservatives, the most blameless and absolutely inculpable victim today might well be the unborn fetus. For liberals, the most unimpeachably blameless creature on the margins might be the suffering lab animal or the endangered whale. As for sentient humans, who most often suffer under a complex amalgam of social circumstance, inequality, character, injustice, and bad luck, the narrative standards of pure victimhood are higher, the skepticism sharper, and sympathy now harder, not easier, to come by.
But I don't mind impressionistic expositions of these claims, especially when they help me to grind my own axes, which in this case is that "our culture's" lionization of victimhood is bad, and that what passes for noble realism in books and movies is political trauma porn. This doesn't grind the thing down to a perfect shine, but maybe, like B. Franklin, I prefer a speckled ax anyway.

9 comments:

Andrew Stevens said...

Okay, I'll bite. What's the evidence that the culture is getting increasingly violent, given that the homicide rate has been cut in half in the last 20 years and the violent crime rate has almost been cut in half in the same time frame?

Miss Self-Important said...

Culture is a big enough field that you could say, it's not murder rates per se, but entertainment and rhetoric - video games or movies or whatever, the way people speak to each other anonymously online, episodes of large-scale or random killings, or even public perceptions of violence that may be entire phantasms, like when people announce that they "feel unsafe" in place X, regardless of whether they've been a victim of or observed any violence there. The more violence thesis is not one I think is true; my point is only that "our culture" is a wide field about which many unverifiable generalizations about it could be made with selective evidence. "Our culture" is getting more sentimental b/c the number of runs-for-a-cure have gone up. Well, maybe. That could be an element of it. But there could many forces undermining the running-for-a-cure contingent.

Andrew Stevens said...

Fair enough. May not have been the best example simply because we can actually measure how much violence there is in society, unlike sentimentality or your other example, rationalism. If somebody says "the culture is becoming increasingly sentimental," I'm inclined to shrug and say, "Maybe, maybe not." If somebody says "the culture is becoming increasingly violent," I'm inclined to say that they're wrong. (If they mean to say "video games are becoming increasingly violent" or "television is becoming increasingly violent," they should say that.)

Withywindle said...

I would suggest that "society" should refer to the homicide rate; "culture" to the video games. Elite medieval attitudes toward women in society and in culture differed drastically, but using the two words allows for a useful distinction between Woman as Near-Chattel and Woman as Beloved.

Andrew Stevens said...

Withy: Surely, "the culture is getting increasingly violent" is a criticism only because it implicitly rests on the assumption that this makes society more violent. If it doesn't, then who gives a damn?

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure that's exactly true - does culture exist only for the sake of keeping the homicide rate down? If our literature and music and conversation became dominated by depictions of grisly ways to kill one another, but we didn't act on these depictions and so the murder rate stayed low, I'd think this would still be a pretty grim situation for us. Sayeth the (often-mistaken) Miss Brodie: "Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan 'Safety First.' But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first."

Don't read too much endorsement of Fascism into that, though.

Andrew Stevens said...

I agree with your hypothetical. If the culture consisted solely of that (e.g. back when we had a more monolithic culture, like if all three TV stations in the '60s were like that), then sure, but such a criticism doesn't make sense with the highly fractured culture we currently have. The people who criticize violence in video games don't do so because they don't think there's enough non-violent video games for them or their children to play, but because they believe it leads to violence in society at large through desensitization or whatever.

I'm not saying such a critique couldn't possibly make sense, just that when someone offers that critique, that is not what they mean. They mean society is getting more violent (which, of course, it isn't, as we are still in a centuries-long downward trajectory in the private violence rate).

Of course, I suppose we could also hypothesize a person who has plenty of beautiful culture to enjoy, but just doesn't like cultural artifacts with violence in them and wants them all banned for aesthetic reasons, even though she never looks at them herself. But then I don't think I can muster up even a small shred of sympathy for that position.

Withywindle said...

AS: On the whole people do only care about culture if it effects Real Things like Society (sigh), but I do think that, regardless, distinguishing the words culture and society is useful for conversation.

Andrew Stevens said...

Just to clarify my position, I regard the evidence on whether the culture has become more violent to be very mixed. It is unquestionably true that video games and television have gotten more violent, but as I said earlier, both media have gotten more everything. I firmly believe that films are considerably less violent than they were in the '70s, when violent culture was (I believe) probably at its peak. Literature is too broad for me to get a good handle on, so I will leave that to experts. It is my anecdotal experience that people are much less likely to speak using violent metaphors or to threaten violence than they were in my youth, but this could easily be a result of my changing circumstances and aging than anything real occurring.

It is unequivocally false that society is getting more violent. I regard the assertion that the culture is getting more violent to be probably false, but with some evidence to support it. (Obviously I believe that the weight of the evidence is against it, but I can't prove that.)