My friend Jim Baucom pointed me to a column written recently by one of my favorite writers, David Brooks. Brooks wrote a wonderful, breezy book in 2001 called Bobos In Paradise, a self-described “comic sociology” of sweeping generalizations about the class system in the United States and chock full of insights. (By the way, a “Bobo” is a “bourgeois bohemian,” a moneyed hippie!)
In a May New York Times op-ed column, Brooks cited the Google “ngram” database project of over five million books published from 1500-2008. Citing linguistic analyses, Brooks reports that since 1960, individualistic words and phrases have increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases. He says, “In the past half-century, 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.” Daniel Klein of George Mason University found that the word “preferences” was barely used until about 1930, but usage has surged since.
Brooks admits that he may be reading his bias into the data. Having said that, he also believes that “these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.” So, like Karl Marx, while contemporary politicians ramble on as if our national problems “are fundamentally economic, and can be addressed politically … maybe the root of the problem is also cultural.”
This not new news about the rise of individualism, which has been noted in great studies like Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. What it points to, though is that our problems don’t start with our politicians. They start with our self-absorption. Language creates culture, and when we are railing at the problems of our nation, we should look in the mirror (something we are, apparently, used to doing). Our very words betray a narcissism that revolves the world around ourselves, to the detriment of community, neighborliness, and a calling to something greater than ourselves.
Perhaps our churches might have a word that addresses this core cultural problem?
John Chandler ([email protected]) is leader of the Spence Network, www.spencenetwork.org. Follow the Spence Network on Facebook and Twitter.