Durkheim, modern American hyper-individualism, and moral consensus today

One commentator links Durkheim’s ideas about suicide, anomie, and society to individualism in America today:

Here in the West, we take individualism and freedom to be foundational to the good life. But Durkheim’s research revealed a more complicated picture. He concluded that people kill themselves more when they are alienated from their communities and community institutions. “Men don’t thrive as rugged individualists making their mark on the frontier,” the University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox pointed out recently: “In fact, men seem to be much more likely to end up killing themselves if they don’t have traditional support systems.” Places where individualism is the supreme value; places where people are excessively self-sufficient; places that look a lot like twenty-first century America—individuals don’t flourish in these environments, but suicide does.

Durkheim’s work emphasizes the importance of community life. Without the constraints, traditions, and shared values of the community, society enters into a state of what Durkheim called anomie, or normlessness. This freedom, far from leading to happiness, often leads to depression and social decay (as the “twerking” Miley Cyrus perfectly exemplified recently at the Video Music Awards). Durkheim thought that the constraints—if not excessive—imposed on individuals by the community ultimately helped people lead good lives.

But we live in a culture where communitarian ideals, like duty and tradition, are withering away. Even conservatives, who should be the natural allies of these virtues, have in large part become the champions of an individualism that seems to value freedom, the market, and material prosperity above all else, leaving little room for the more traditional values that well known thinkers like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver cherished. “Man is constantly being assured today that he has more power than ever before in history,” wrote Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences (1948), “but his daily experience is one of powerlessness. . . . If he is with a business organization, the odds are great that he has sacrificed every other kind of independence in return for that dubious one known as financial.”…

Let’s return to the Google Books Ngram Viewer to illustrate the point. When Twenge, Campbell, and their colleague Brittany Gentile analyzed books published between 1960 and 2008, they found that the use of words and phrases like “unique,” “personalize,” “self,” “all about me,” “I am special,” and “I’m the best” significantly increased over time. Of course, it is not just in our books where this narcissism appears. It is also throughout the popular culture, not least in pop music. When a group of researchers, including Campbell and Twenge, looked at the lyrics of the most popular songs from 1980 to 2007, they found that the songs became much more narcissistic and self-centered over time. In the past three decades, the researchers write, the “use of words related to self-focus and antisocial behavior increased, whereas words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion decreased.”

Durkheim was very much about social cohesion, moral consensus, and the interdependence of individuals in modern society. Individuals may think that they are self-sufficient or able to do a lot on their own but much of their lives are built on the efforts of others.

Another aspect of this might be the declining participation of Americans in civic groups as outlined by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. This doesn’t mean Americans are completely withdrawn but it does suggest they might be more wary of collectives or only choose to participate when it suits them. This is how you can view online social networks like Facebook and Twitter: they enable social interaction but it is at the demand of individual users as they get to decide when and how they interact.

You could flip this this around and ask a different question: what are Americans all committed to? Where do we still have moral consensus? Perhaps in declining trust in institutions. Perhaps in celebrating Super Bowl Sunday. Perhaps the idea that homeownership is a key part of the American Dream. Perhaps in religiosity (even with the rise of the “religious nones,” some of whom still believe in God). Here are a few other things 90% of Americans can agree on:

Yet there are some opinions that 90% of the public, or close to it, shares — including a belief that citizens have a duty to vote, an admiration for those who get rich through hard work, a strong sense of patriotism and a belief that society should give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. Pew Research’s political values surveys have shown that these attitudes have remained remarkably consistent over time.

The proportion saying they are very patriotic has varied by just four percentage points (between 87% to 91%) across 13 surveys conducted over 22 years. Similarly, in May 1987, 90% agreed with the statement: “Our society should do what is necessary to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” This percentage has remained at about 90% ever since (87% in the most recent political values survey).

It is not that we don’t have zero social cohesion these days. The argument here could be two-fold: (1) social cohesion has declined from the past; (2) social cohesion today has changed – it might be more “alone together” than everything else where we can be around others at times and share some common values but we generally want to follow our own paths, as long as they aren’t impeded too much by the paths of others.