In a recent New York Times post, columnist David Brooks opined on The Cost of Relativism. Brooks references a recently-released book by Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam entitled Our Kids (with the subtitle The American Dream In Crisis). Putnam’s book provides data with incisive analysis and the stories of real people to conclude kids (and young people) no longer have a shared system of values.
In his column, Brooks uses one comparison to make the point. In the 1960s and 1970s, whether parents were college graduates or never went beyond high school, the norms of behavior for parents and children were roughly the same. Families ate dinner together, attended church together, engaged in activities as families.
Today, family wholeness is diminishing and the norms of behavior within the family have been shaken. There’s a huge and worrisome gap between offspring of college grads and high school grads: only about 10% of children born to college grads will grow up in a single-parent home, while nearly 70% of children born to high school grads will. That’s a sobering reality!
Author Eric Metaxas calls this concern “the new normless.” He suggests David Brooks could have been channeling Prison Fellowship’s Chuck Colson who observed the degradation of men in prison and came to understand there was a “surging moral relativism in our culture [that] was eroding our value system.“
Brooks and Metaxas and Putnam (as current social commentators) and by extension the now-deceased Colson have coalesced on what Brooks calls this “plague of nonjudgmentalism.” The unwillingness or inability to recognize certain standards of behavior as “good” and a competing list of behaviors as “bad” has created its own culture of chaos.
Brooks observes: “The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens.” The basic values of our culture were once taught within the family and absorbed with general consistency. In contrast today, there’s not (as Brooks notes for an example) a common standard for what it means to be a father. A child who’s never experienced the presence of a father in the home perceives his or her lack (of a father) as the “norm” when every fiber of the soul cries it’s not.
Read the Brooks piece and the Metaxas post for the full flavor of their astute comments. If you want the meaty statistics and human-interest anecdotes, read the Putnam book as well. What struck me about this discussion was how closely associated it is to another story that’s been in the news this week.
I refer to the very public battle between designers Dolce and Gabbana and musician Elton John. All three of the aforementioned men live openly gay lifestyles. However, during an interview with an Italian magazine, the designers revealed their surprising views on gay marriage. Messrs. Dolce and Gabbana expressed opposition to gay-oriented families.
Dolce explained, “You are born to a mother and a father, or at least that’s how it should be. I call children of chemistry, synthetic children. Rented uterus, semen chosen from a catalog.”
Taking personal affront, Elton John called immediately for a boycott of D & G designs. Comments and other expressions of outrage came from various celebrity sources … as well as the predictable multitude of “no comment” for those unwilling to engage in the imbroglio.
For me, the battle illustrated the poison resulting from this plague of nonjudgmentalism. Two men express their opinion (an opinion actually based in deeply-rooted social and cultural norms) and are then castigated for supporting what centuries have shown to be the best and healthiest culture within which children can thrive and develop.
David Brooks asserts: “People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.” He offers suggestions for how we might recover our cultural standards and bring healing to our society. The first suggestion is adopting a definite “moral vocabulary.” (In other words, reject moral relativism and the awful plague of nonjudgmentalism!)
His next suggestions call for personal and universal responsibility. Even the child born on the wrong side of the tracks makes personal choices. They can be coached about the desirability of exercising responsible choices. As to universal responsibility, every segment of society needs re-orientation toward the shared standards of behavior that challenge people to be the best they can be.