Monday, October 15, 2018

American Culture: From Community to Individualism

In 2011 Google published a database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008. You can do a word search and find out how many times a word was used, at different times in history.

In "What Our Words Tell Us," David Brooks shows how the results indicate interesting cultural shifts. For example, "cocaine" was common the Victorian era, then gradually declined during the 20th century. Until 1970, when use of "cocaine" skyrocketed.

Here are some especially significant findings.

Individualism, not Community; Me, not Us

Between 1960 and 2008 "individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases." (Pastors - in our individuated culture it's hard to form community, right?) Brooks writes:

"Over those 48 years, 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."

Demoralization, not Virtue

"A study by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir found 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."

On the general subject of demoralization, Daniel Klein of George Mason University "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.”"

Preservation, not Courage

"Usage of courage words like “bravery” and “fortitude” fell by 66 percent."

Entitlement, not Gratitude

"Usage of gratitude words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” dropped by 49 percent."

Pride, not Humility

"Usage of humility words like “modesty” and “humbleness” dropped by 52 percent." 

Apathy, not Compassion

"Usage of compassion words like “kindness” and “helpfulness” dropped by 56 percent."

Brooks concludes that these word trends show a society that has become more individualistic, and less morally aware. This is because moral awareness diminishes as individuality increases. 

Jonathan Merritt, in Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing - and How We Can revive Them, shows how God + virtue words have severely diminished among professing Christians, indicating how the Church has been overtaken by the form of this world.

Merritt writes:

"In the Western world, religious and moral terms have significantly declined over the course of the twentieth century. One study in the Journal of Positive Psychology analyzed fifty terms associated with moral virtue using Google Ngram data. They discovered that a whopping 74 percent were used less frequently over the course of the last century.

  • “Grace”…declined. 
  • “Mercy”…declined. 
  • “Wisdom”…declined. 
  • “Faith”…declined. 
  • “Sacrifice”…declined. 
  • “Honesty”…declined. 
  • “Righteousness”…declined. 
  • “Evil”…declined."

(Merritt, p. 17) 

To be morally aware one must be habituated in community. Only in the tribe do the virtues flourish.

The words we commonly use indicate our level of compassion.

For my take on the importance of a common language in religious experiencing, see Chapter 7 of my book Leading the Presence-Driven Church ("The Language of the Presence-Driven Church").