The Language of Our Time: The Disappearance of Words Like “Conscience” and “Compassion”

Some days back, David Brooks in the New York Times took note of words that we rarely use anymore

A study by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile found that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases.

That is to say, over those 48 years, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” receded.

The second element of the story is demoralization. A study by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir found that general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were used much less frequently.

The Kesebirs identified 50 words associated with moral virtue and found that 74 percent were used less frequently as the century progressed. Certain types of virtues were especially hard hit. Usage of courage words like “bravery” and “fortitude” fell by 66 percent. Usage of gratitude words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” dropped by 49 percent.

Usage of humility words like “modesty” and “humbleness” dropped by 52 percent. Usage of compassion words like “kindness” and “helpfulness” dropped by 56 percent. Meanwhile, usage of words associated with the ability to deliver, like “discipline” and “dependability” rose over the century, as did the usage of words associated with fairness. The Kesebirs point out that these sorts of virtues are most relevant to economic production and exchange.

Now along comes Sen. David Vitter, who has given us a vivid example of the culture we have become: 

In today’s Senate debate on the farm bill, Senator David Vitter offered — and Senate Democrats accepted — an amendment that would increase hardship and will likely have strongly racially discriminatory effects.

The amendment would bar from SNAP (food stamps), for life, anyone who was ever convicted of one of a specified list of violent crimes at any time — even if they committed the crime decades ago in their youth and have served their sentence, paid their debt to society, and been a good citizen ever since.  In addition, the amendment would mean lower SNAP benefits for their children and other family members.

So, a young man who was convicted of a single crime at age 19 who then reforms and is now elderly, poor, and raising grandchildren would be thrown off SNAP, and his grandchildren’s benefits would be cut.

Given incarceration patterns in the United States, the amendment would have a skewed racial impact.  Poor elderly African Americans convicted of a single crime decades ago by segregated Southern juries would be among those hit.

The amendment essentially says that rehabilitation doesn’t matter and violates basic norms of criminal justice.


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