Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Sky Is Falling: Beyond the Myth of Moral Decline

Recently several of my Christian Facebook friends shared and liked blog post The Christian Myth of America's Moral Decay by John Pavlovitz. Pavlovitz basic thesis is that in terms of individual behavior and action people are no more immoral and wicked than they have ever been;  inhumane, intolerant and hateful behavior is no more common than in the past, and corruption and injustice has been with us always. Pavlovitz suggests that what makes today different is that we now have the technological means (cell phones with cameras and video and an internet) to bring all the human nastiness to light and make everyone continuously (24/7) aware of the dark side of human behavior.

Moreover, there is substantial sociological evidence (real hard, historical data) to go even further and say that violence, crime, and physical brutality are actually on the decline in America. Although flawed in a number of ways (including being overly psychological), The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker provides ample data to show that this decline is a long term one world wide. So as I read Pavlovitz piece, I sat nodding my head in agreement with his argument:
"I’m out here every day and I see heroic, compassionate, reckless acts of beauty all the time. I see and speak to lots of inherently good people doing their best; slipping and then getting back up again. We’re all flying and failing simultaneously; gaining and losing ground and doing it again and again. I reject the myth of our downward spiral because I know how hard I and so many others are working to get this life right and to love well. I don’t believe I am in personal moral decay and I imagine the same is true for you, which is the point."
The problem is Pavlovitz prefaced the statement above with "I don’t believe we’re all slowing sliding off into the abyss, despite what some religious people say."  There I have to disagree, because we are all slowly sliding off into the abyss. At the very end of the piece Pavlovitz states: "Look up, the sky is not falling." And once again I disagree, because the sky is falling.

Where I  part ways with Pavlovitz is that while I agree that the notion of moral decay is a myth, as a sociologist I see potentially insurmountable problems facing American society that are not problems of individual morality, but rather problems of social structure. Those problems are many and wide ranging. We have an economic system (abetted by the political system) that often rewards businesses for using non-renewable resources over those that are renewable, and the increase of pollution over its minimization. By design our economy encourages businesses push the costs (in the form of health hazards and environmental degradation) out onto workers and communities, while retaining the benefits (profits) for themselves. Moreover, individuals as consumers are by design, encouraged  to use more, waste more, spend more and save less. 

We have an economic system in which there is a growing divide between the employment opportunities for those with and without an education. We have fewer and fewer employment opportunities that can sustain a person  much less a family for a lifetime without substantial educational investment. 

Our economic system is structured (with lots of help from the political system in the form of the tax structure, trade agreements, etc.)  in such a way that there are substantial rewards cost cutting - especially labor costs - and little reward for expanding employment domestically. 

Blogger Anne Amnesia of More Crows than Eagles coins a new term for all the people who are being left behind by our current economic system: the unnecessariat.  The unnecessariat are the jobless refuse of our economic system. They are the one who have been pushed out of the labor force because their labor is unnecessary to the pursuit of profit. However, as Anne Amnesia so aptly puts it "there’s certainly an abundance for plans to extract value from them." The unnecessariat become legs that make the drug distribution networks,  the incarcerated bodies that mean profit for private prisons, the communities where prisons or toxic waste facilities can be located. 

So we try to funnel more people into a higher educational system for which they are inadequately prepared and often unsuited. The educational system is unprepared and increasingly underfunded to deal with their deficiencies, their needs and their desires. Worse than that many people who are prepared and engaged educationally, who actually make the educational investment do not recognize economic or financial rewards - especially when they live in communities that have fallen by the wayside (I think everyone gains something from engaging in the learning process and gaining knowledge but that's a different article).   

Over the past 240 years Americans have built a society that makes some types of choices easier than other types of choices, that favors some actions over other actions, and makes some outcomes more likely than other outcomes.  

This does not mean that people lack free will. It does not mean that we are not responsible for our decisions. It does not mean that we cannot and should not make different choices. 

What it does mean is that each individual, each family, each business, each government decision-maker finds that some choices are easy both to see and to act upon. They are the choices pointed out to us over and over again by family, school, media, leaders, etc. These are the choices that our high school guidance counselors know about, the choices that are represented by the majors at our local community and state colleges, the choices offered in our local stores or easily accessible on-line, the choices presented by our local and state government.  Other choices always exist, but they are not visible, audible to us. Some alternatives are deliberately blocked by a multitude of obstacles. We may learn what other people in other countries do, but are told that it is unAmerican, anti-capitalist, immoral, and unthinkable. We risk ostracism, intimidation, threats, and worse if we make some choices. 

So not by moral decay, but by the pressures of social structures that shape our decisions, American society is not on the brink but rather has already slid over the precipice. We are sliding downward already. The unnecessariat is growing  - they have already gone over the cliff. As for the  "precariat" Guy Standing's term for the
" multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development, including millions of frustrated educated youth who do not like what they see before them, millions of women abused in oppressive labour, growing numbers of criminalised tagged for life, millions being categorised as ‘disabled’ and migrants in their hundreds of millions around the world. They are denizens; they have a more restricted range of social, cultural, political and economic rights than citizens around them."
They are dangling by a thread ready to follow the unnecessariat over the edge. 

We are seeing whole communities, even whole regions that are losing or have already lost the battle. This shows in myriad ways: rising death rates for white rural men and women, the physical erosion of community physical infrastructure (think Michigan cities like Detroit and Flint which are merely the canaries in the coal mine), the political gridlock of Congress, and so much more. 

We are fraying at the bottom and the edges, and those in the middle know if even if unconsciously. They realize that they are vulnerable if not why. The causes are complex, multifaceted, involving multiple social systems, and cannot be solved by simple slogans or by a single new leader.

But wait, it gets worse. Because global warming is real. The earth's climate is actually changing. The consequences are already affecting us, and are going to become increasingly disruptive of our economic and social systems.  Just one little example to make my point - weather related power outages have been on the rise for the past twenty years. Some of the responsibility goes to increasingly extreme weather events (a consequence of climate change) and some of the responsibility to the fraying of community infrastructure (declines in public and private spending on shared infrastructure). The picture is pretty clear: 

There will come a point, when climate related changes will over-come our capacity to cope. That time is likely to come sooner rather than later, because we are also eroding the decision-making capacity of our governments, and creating larger and larger populations of people who do not have the resources to cope with catastrophe. 

1 comment:

Optimistic Existentialist said...

I have always strongly rejected the myth of moral decline...it is something that, in my opinion, is a social construct. Always has been. GREAT blog!