What Our Words Tell Us: David Brooks on the Rise of the Individual

What Our Words Tell Us: David Brooks on the Rise of the Individual May 23, 2013

I love to talk about words. 10 Great Words You Should Know & Use part 1 & part 2 & part 3 have been big posts here at Paperback Theology. I love to talk about the words we use not as an expert, but as an observer and lover of culture..

That’s why I was excited when David Brooks, whom I think is one of the most thoughtful conservatives in the media, wrote an interesting column in the NYTimes a few days ago about the words we use in our society. Google’s phenomenal project in which they digitized 5.2 million books published between the year 1500 and 2008. Using key-word searches one can get a feel for how often a word has been used over that period of time. The project can yield a very interesting look at trends in regard to word usage. What words do we use in different eras? What does that tell us about who we were, and who we are becoming. Brooks sees three trending word groups that indicate:

  • rising individualism
  • increasing demoralization
  • growing governmentalization
The payoff section says:

“…the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

This story, if true, should cause discomfort on right and left. Conservatives sometimes argue that if we could just reduce government to the size it was back in, say, the 1950s, then America would be vibrant and free again. But the underlying sociology and moral culture is just not there anymore. Government could be smaller when the social fabric was more tightly knit, but small government will have different and more cataclysmic effects today when it is not.

Liberals sometimes argue that our main problems come from the top: a self-dealing elite, the oligarchic bankers. But the evidence suggests that individualism and demoralization are pervasive up and down society, and may be even more pervasive at the bottom. Liberals also sometimes talk as if our problems are fundamentally economic, and can be addressed politically, through redistribution. But maybe the root of the problem is also cultural. The social and moral trends swamp the proposed redistributive remedies.”

Brooks makes a couple of incredible points. To the political right he says that reducing gov’t size won’t solve the underlying social and moral issues we face as a society. To attempt to drastically reduce government size without addressing the serious underlying social/moral change that is necessary would be cataclysmic. The problem is that the right is part of the problem here. To the political left he says trying to solve the issues economically and politically forgets that the root of the problem is also cultural and again, the left cannot be part of the solution because it does not possess the kind of cultural virtues the society needs to develop.

Brooks has a very Hauerwasian point to make here. The basic virtues that are embedded in the culture are not sufficient to create a just society. Instead we are embracing radical individualism. You can redistribute all the wealth you want and this will not change. You can reduce the size of government all you want and it they impact would be cataclysmic. You can have culture wars till the cows come home and this will not… you get the point. Brooks seems to be pointing to the idea that we need to take seriously the kind of virtues that we embrace as a culture. Here’s a list of words that are slowly disappearing from our vocabulary:

tribe, share, united, band together, common good, virtue, decency, conscience, honesty, patience, compassion, bravery fortitude, thankfulness, appreciation, modesty, humbleness, kindness, helpfulness, discipline, dependability, faith, wisdom, ought, evil, prudence.

I hope they don’t disappear altogether. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“…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.

…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.

Daniel Klein of George Mason University has conducted one of the broadest studies with the Google search engine. He found further evidence of the two elements I’ve mentioned. On the subject of individualization, he found that the word “preferences” was barely used until about 1930, but usage has surged since. On the general subject of demoralization, he finds a long decline of usage in terms like “faith,” “wisdom,” “ought,” “evil” and “prudence,” and a sharp rise in what you might call social science terms like “subjectivity,” “normative,” “psychology” and “information.”

Klein adds the third element to our story, which he calls “governmentalization.” Words having to do with experts have shown a steady rise. So have phrases like “run the country,” “economic justice,” “nationalism,” “priorities,” “right-wing” and “left-wing.” The implication is that politics and government have become more prevalent.”

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  • Jerry Lynch

    Superb! (Has that word diminished?) Fascinating article and implications. Could a grassroots movement to start using again these fading words possibly bring about change? I wish I could remember the recent blog here that made a strong point that words are action, not just commentary. Could the re-usage actually create a resurgence of the morality we need?

    • julia brown

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  • montanajack1948

    I”m sorry–David Brooks has just noticed the rise of individualism in the West? I’m so glad a Google search has confirmed what all sorts of writers, philosophers, theologians and social commentators have been telling us for decades, if not for centuries. I’m 64 years old, and I’ve been reading critiques (from both the left and the right) of the rise of individualism and the loss of community and traditional values/virtues for the past fifty years. Welcome to modernity, Mr. Brooks–and, I guess, Mr. Suttle. Now, if we all just close our eyes and say words like “collective” and “common good” three times while clicking our heels together, I’m pretty sure we can get back to Kansas.

  • julia brown

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