Is American Society Descending into “Anomie?”

Is American Society Descending into “Anomie?” June 16, 2016

Is American Society Descending into “Anomie?”

I learned a new term while studying theology in Germany years ago: “anomie.” Wolfhart Pannenberg liked to use it to describe a social and cultural condition of loss of meaning. Technically it means “no law,” but Pannenberg and others used it for a broader social condition.

According to Pannenberg, and I agree with him, transcendence is necessary for healthy community; a society that loses its sense of transcendence eventually descends into either anomie or tyranny. Anomie was the cause of Germans’ embrace of Hitler in the early 1930s. Of course there were other factors such as fear of communism, but, according to some historians, Germany was “set up” for the rise of National Socialism by its cultural of anomie—loss of meaning—during the 1920s in the aftermath of World War 1.

What characterizes anomie? It is a cultural condition evidenced by a loss of any consensus about calling, purpose, transcending sheer individualism or nationalism. In anomie a society simply limps along by not believing together in anything—other than individual self-fulfillment.

It seems to me that the only value all Americans (or almost all Americans) hold in common in this second decade of the twenty-first century is “freedom.” We hear it all the time. It seems to be the only common thread tying American culture together. But, of course, the question then arises whether “freedom” alone—understood as lack of constraint—can serve as a cultural and social force binding diverse people together in community. I doubt it.

Sometime in the 1960s, it seems to me, America lost its unifying ethos. Before then we had a general, overriding sense of purpose other than individual liberty to self-actualize and indulge in whatever gives pleasure. Tolerance of individual “lifestyles” became the highest value; “Be true to yourself” became the overriding motto in culture.

Paul Tillich labeled such a state of culture as “autonomy”—the opposite of “heteronomy.” In reaction to the perceived heteronomy of 1950s “patriarchy” and “conformity to tradition,” the “sixties revolution” went to the opposite extreme. In spite of divided opposition, this emphasis on individualism, hedonism, tolerance of all lifestyles rolled on in popular culture. All calls for a unified sense of higher purpose that might limit individual freedom to self-actualize in whatever way people wanted were condemned as intolerant. Bare “communitarianism” was largely ignored or scorned as a call for return to the much despised “1950s” when God, country and family were higher values than individual self-actualization.

Who can read the newspaper or watch television or scan the magazine covers in stores and fail to see the emphasis on sexual gratification, materialism, violence and struggle between competing special interest groups? What holds us together as a people? We have no common heroes worthy of honor and respect; we revel in guns, sex, fashion, mindless entertainment, and celebration of celebrities who have done nothing truly admirable.

Our culture celebrates youth and beauty over wisdom and humanitarianism; we honor and envy the rich, powerful and mean. Our public “talk” is mostly arguing and bickering. We hate our government and its leaders; we defend the “rights” of those among us who flaunt their decadence. Everywhere we turn we see evidences of anti-social behavior: littering, noise pollution, mean-spirited slogans, “in your face” attitudes. Good manners are considered “old school.”

No, the 1950s was no utopia, there was much oppression and intolerance; liberation from those was a great achievement of the 1960s and beyond. But with that achievement came a loss of values higher than individual freedom from constraint and tolerance of virtually everything that we had considered mean and low and decadent and corrupt and anti-social.

Who can seriously deny that our American culture has become “coarse?” “Coarse” as in rough, angular, edgy, hostile, sensual, and hard? Where are the “tools of conviviality” that we share to smooth the way into friendships and neighborliness?

What underlies this cultural condition of coarseness? Ultimately it has to be a loss of community and what accounts for that? I believe it is the idolatry of individualism and tolerance of every lifestyle choice including anti-social ones. What underlies that? The loss of any common meaning and purpose. What is the result? Anomie. “If it isn’t illegal, do it.” And “If it feeds your individual fulfillment and self-actualization, it shouldn’t be illegal.”

A society cannot survive on such radical individualism and libertarianism. We are descending into utter cultural decadence, decay through loss of community values higher than “Feels so right it can’t be wrong” (a phrase from the theme song of the wildly popular television series “Happy Days”).

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