One hears periodically that our culture, the Western or American culture, is “exhausted.” This is alleged to be an indicator that it is on its way out. Symptoms of cultural exhaustion disease include the inability or unwillingness (or both) of the culture’s members to defend it, to take pride in it, or even bother to understand it; the tendency to make excuses for it or to feel embarrassed for it; and the tendency to focus on its shortcomings, even to experience Schadenfreude when it suffers a comeuppance.
A lot of that has been going on for some time with respect to Western culture and American culture. Jacques Barzun, for example, argued a few years ago that our culture has completed its cycle “from dawn to decadence.” That might be one factor explaining the “culture wars” that pit the defenders of the culture against its perceived enemies—some of which are active, but most of which are merely passive and apathetic. It is also part of the Marc Steyn-esque narrative that has the West finally succumbing, from lethargy and ennervation if not exhaustion, to more robust cultures like Islam.
But there is another phenomenon that is related but distinct: cultural confusion. Cultural confusion results from a growing lack of consensus about what is proper or appropriate in given circumstances. If people get the idea that there are no society-wide or community-wide standards of behavior and comportment that one really ought to follow, not because one might otherwise be punished but because it is simply the right thing to do, cultural confusion can result: There seems to be no answer to many of life’s daily questions of manners, etiquette, and propriety. People might come to conclude that more or less anything goes in the service of people’s individual preferences—as a former professor of mine put it, “you should do whatever you can get away with.” Although this kind of freedom may gratify and serve the individual in the moment, it threatens social order in the long run.
Let me give an example. I recently attended the commencement of my son from middle school. It was held in the school gymnasium; the principal, the superintendant, and lots of family and friends were there. The students were there too, of course, all in their gowns, and the entire ceremony was videotaped for posterity. One striking feature was the attire of the people who attended. For the adult men, the range went from some wearing suits and ties to others wearing shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops—and everything in between.
My own preference runs rather more toward the former end of the spectrum, on the view that important and formal occasions require formal dress. But put my, and your, preference aside for the moment, and consider that the sheer size of the range of acceptability means, in effect, that there is no consensus, no joint or shared culture, bringing people into community on this issue. We were all there for the same general purpose, but our widely disparate views about what was appropriate indicates, I think, a kind of cultural confusion.
A second example. Consider people’s complete uncertainty about what children should call adults. Everyone from my college-aged students to high school students to middle-school students: they have no idea whether they should call me by my first name, by “Mr. —,” by “Dr. —,” or by “Professor —.” This confusion besets the adults as well. I have been introduced by parents to their children by my first name and by various honorifics. Often parents and young people feel a latent sense of guilt at their uncertainty—as if they somehow think they should know what to do in this case, and maybe they think they the more formal is appropriate, but it’s uncomfortable and they lack the confidence to assert themselves. The result is often that they call me nothing. They say simply “hey” when they see me, or they do not address me at all.
Perhaps these are trifling examples, but they may be indicative of a more pervasive uncertainty and diffidence in what our culture is and in what we are. Principles of propriety are the scaffolding that give the edifice of society its shape and its strength. Because they are given and because people can rely on them, it gives people a feeling of social unity and a calming confidence that they are part of a sympathetic group.
Adam Smith and Edmund Burke articulated the importance of consensus about these “trifling” matters. In many ways it is not the big moral issues that matter to common life. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty may occupy our attention in philosophy class, but the daily graces of life are what we experience, and when we meet with harmony, concord, and sympathy about these graces, it enables both community and a comforting assurance of some solidity in an otherwise turbulent world. When, by contrast, we meet with every reaction under the sun, with little hope or expectation of agreement, then we have cultural confusion and the low-level but real anxiety, and thus detachment, this can cause.
There is no policy recommendation that follows from this. If I am right, the joy of shared community and the pleasure of mutual sympathy of sentiments (to coin a phrase) that make life so much more humane and pleasant, can come only from concerted widespread individual action. No top-down policy can succeed. But there might be a hypothetical imperative here: If you care about contributing to and maintaining a mutually sustaining and vivifying community, then be confident in its culture. You have little lose, but potentially a great deal to gain. Everyone else stands to gain too.