David Brooks’s recent New York Times op-ed column on Google’s “ngram” analysis revealed a stunning surge of individualism reflected in our language and literature in recent years. Another element revealed by analysis of words trending upward is what Brooks calls “demoralization.” Citing a study by Pelin and Selin Kesebir, Brooks notes 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.
Brooks writes, “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.”
Apparently we are more comfortable using such language in the context of business and commerce rather than in terms of personal and interpersonal moral virtue.
Daniel Klein of George Mason University conducted a similarly broad study of the Google search engine. Regarding demoralization, he also 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.”
Perhaps William Bennett had it sniffed out when he wrote The Book of Virtues in 1996. As our culture has become increasingly individualistic, therapeutic and technical, we have lost our language of moral awareness and virtue. As Brooks concludes, “Because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked … the atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown.”
One of my great prayers is that the church in North America will rediscover its voice in using moral and theological language for social good. A lot is riding on it.
John Chandler ([email protected]) is leader of the Spence Network, www.spencenetwork.org.