Swimming upstream

One thing that the article we’ve been looking at, “Nourishing the Roots”, brings up is how re-framing our words and actions using the Buddha’s teachings goes against the grain of our culture in the English-speaking world. The evidence is all around us, and I offer an example below.

Excerpts from an Op Ed piece by David Brooks in the NY Times, 20 May, 2013:(http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/21/opinion/brooks-what-our-words-tell-us.html?hp&_r=0)

About two years ago, the folks at Google released a database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008. You can type a search word into the database and find out how frequently different words were used at different epochs…A study by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile found that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases.

That is to say, 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.

…The Kesebirs [in a different study, covering the 20th century] 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.

…So the story [Brooks would] like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

(end of excerpt)

This essay describes part of a trend in which we come to think of ourselves less as citizens and more as consumers. As the markets of exchange become more global, the role of consumer may seem to be the only role we all have in common. I don’t see any evil intent here, just the evolution of our world culture. But an unfortunate by-product of this change is that our self image can be swept up in these assumptions.

As the society (as reflected in word usage) supports our moral aspirations less, we end up carrying our moral framework with us individually. We can seek out people who hold values similar to our own, who support our wholesome intentions, but sometimes it may just seem easier to work and rest and not bother building a network that intentionally supports our moral life.

One could get the sense that it’s hopeless to resist the tide of our culture, but it may be that each of us, with our efforts to speak and act from a clear, wholesome ethical framework, forms a little eddy of countercultural force. As we find others who share our values, our commitment is strengthened. Who knows? Our tiny minority, identifying more as ethical beings than consumers, may start a small tide of our own.

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