The Corner

Culture

Our Social Pathologies Are Changing — and Maybe for the Worse

(Sneksy/Getty Images)

Yuval Levin has an excellent essay in The Dispatch in which he describes the changing nature of our underlying social pathologies.

For many decades in America, it seemed like the chief obstacle to human flourishing was our impulsive recalcitrance—an excess of dynamism and energy that our society failed to shape into responsibility and constructive action. Chaos broke down the lives of millions and denied the promise of the free society to countless children, who then seemed destined to fall into chaos for another generation. Too many Americans were living their lives out of order—having sex too soon, becoming parents too early, jumping into life too quickly and without restraint or preparation.

That is certainly a dangerous kind of disorder, and one that is still very much with us too. It has not gone away by any means. But it has been joined by a more profound and fundamental problem that might be best described as a disordered passivity—a failure to launch, which leaves too many Americans on the sidelines of life, unwilling or unable to jump in.

The pathologies of passivity are more fundamental challenges to flourishing because they strike deeper and earlier than the dangers of unruliness. Habits and institutions of restraint can work like sculptors of the social order—selectively chipping away at our wild, boisterous pursuit of happiness to shape it into more beautiful forms of energetic human action. But what if we fail to act on our longings to begin with? What if there is nothing to restrain, and so no raw material for the sculptor to work with? The right to pursue happiness won’t do us much good if we don’t exercise it.

Levin, my colleague at AEI, links this to politics:

Social inertness is surely a response in part to the breakdown of the traditional social order itself: The waning of the life scripts provided by family, religion, and widespread traditional social norms leaves younger Americans less sure of where to step and how to build their lives.

Among other things, this likely contributes to the growing tendency to look to politics for such scripts, and so to seek more assertive and moralistic social agendas, whether of the left or right. The case for such agendas easily becomes too strident and desperate, and it runs the risk of drawing some among the young into a depraved and vicious vitalism. But it is rooted in the valid perception of a moral void that is surely at the bottom of much of the pathological passivity we now encounter.

But perhaps more so:

While these cultural and material forces do drive a few young Americans toward combative modes of political rhetoric, they mostly add up to a rising generation acutely averse to risk, and so to every form of dynamism. Excessive risk aversion now often deforms parenting, education, work, leadership, and fellowship in our society. It is intertwined with a more general tendency toward inhibition and constriction—with Americans walking on eggshells around each other in many of our major institutions, and with codes of speech and conduct becoming increasingly prevalent. We live in a time that is prudish yet not prescriptive—that stifles the public arena while denying us recourse to private arenas and tells us how not to behave without showing us how to thrive.

“Seeing it doesn’t mean we know what to do about it.” But in the essay, Levin sketches a vision that is well worth considering.

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