Mean SeasonAre Americans Getting Less Compassionate?

"The Triumph of Meanness: America's War Against Its Better Self"by Nicolaus MillsHoughton Mifflin, 256 p., $25Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention To Sufferingby Elizabeth V. SpelmanBeacon Press, 206 p., $24The way to cook a frog, the old story goes, is not to throw it in a pot of boiling water, because it will jump right out. Instead, put it in a pot of cold water, and heat it slowly till it comes to a boil. Without a shocking increase in temperature, the frog will never jump out. True or not, it's metaphorically true -- consider the ordinary Germans' gradual drift into darkness from 1933 onward. If only something had happened to shock them -- but of course, something did. Just not enough to cause them to jump out of the pot.So, what about us? How's the water in America today? Hotter than you think, says Nicolaus Mills in "The Triumph of Meanness: America's War Against Its Better Self." The title alone carries a shock of recognition. Who could honestly deny there's something to it? Voices from the Right have been saying there's something deeply wrong with America for some time now, but those voices are amongst the meanest, least compassionate ones around. Precisely by focusing on meanness, it's possible to take the kind of synoptic overview of a Pat Buchanan, William Bennett or Rush Limbaugh, and respond in kind with a robust language of living, breathing morality -- perhaps even a Christian language, centered on charity, compassion and the possibilities of redemption.Unfortunately, Mills' argument is as poorly developed as those of the minions of meanness. He's right to argue that there's a connection between a wide range of phenomena -- from the boom in cockfighting, dogfighting and bare-fisted, almost rule-less "ultimate fighting" to the new ruthlessness of the marketplace, the rise of immigrant-bashing, and growing polarization around race and gender. He's particularly savvy to include the dominance of attitude in political reporting, especially when covering the president. But he ignores the fact that so many people hate that kind of mean-spirited reporting.In fact, the world isn't as mean as Mills contends. In part he's a victim of what George Gerbner, former dean of the Annenberg School of Communications, calls "the mean world syndrome," a systemic misrepresentation of the world as far more dangerous and violent than it actually is. For example, crime coverage going up, even when crime itself goes down. Such coverage does make people more afraid, suspicious, possibly even mean. It adds resonance to "tough on crime" politicians, and undermines broad social confidence. But most people remain confident and generous when it comes to their immediate neighborhood, the world they know firsthand.Mills makes his critique too indiscriminate, failing to note enduring sources of resistance. He also fails to identify common causes or connections, fails to compare current conditions across categories to other historical eras, and fails to think in terms of structures and systems, instead of just individual attitudes. In fact, it's characteristic of mean-mindedness not to think in large terms -- of long time horizons, broad communities, or complex systems. Recent computer-modeling research into selfish versus altruistic behavior supports widespread observations that social systems can be designed -- from above or below -- to enhance or discourage cooperative endeavors. In turn these influence our vision of what the world is and can be. There's as much social engineering in making a mean world as in making a compassionate one.Despite these shortcomings, "The Triumph of Meanness" is significant because Mills has an important target, and the germ of the right idea. What's needed is a refined analysis. At some level, "the triumph of meanness" depends upon careful control in directing and qualifying our attention to suffering. After all, we aren't mean to those whose suffering we regard as morally significant and unjust. We even decide on structural and systemic changes -- abolishing slavery, for example -- when we come to see existing systems as the cause of such suffering. Consequently, Elizabeth Spelman's "Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering", a far more reflective book, which looks back as far as Plato, has something important to contribute to refining the kind of critique Mills is mounting.Approaching Plato, Spelman stresses the importance he placed on taking the proper attitude toward suffering, and how this relates to some of his most famous ideas -- including his attacks on poetry and the political organization of "The Republic". His emphasis on the role of reason reigning over spirit and appetite contrasts with Aristotle's view, most notably expressed in his view of tragedy, which Spelman treats in a chapter that demonstrates how misleading it is to speak of slavery as "the American tragedy" in the Aristotelian sense.No doubt, most people use the word 'tragedy' without much thought of Aristotle, so the chapter seems academic. But it prepares us for the next chapter, which revolves around Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl", illuminating the enormous amount of thought and work Jacobs put into directing and instructing the moral attention of her readers. High-stature authors have done the same from time immemorial, but Jacobs was speaking as the subject of her own story, in the process disputing her presupposed status -- not just low, but beneath consideration. The way she worked to claim moral agency without downplaying the horrors of slavery has direct resonance today.The existence of representative, morally authoritative individuals is a key factor in combating "the triumph of meanness." The very purpose of attack ads in politics is to deny these to one's opponent. The backlash against feminism vitally depends upon the almost total absence of true feminist voices in defining the nature and logic of feminism. The demonization of immigrants, welfare mothers, blacks, gays and lesbians ... all depend upon rendering them invisible and inaudible as moral subjects.Spelman broadens her scope, examining the cognitive content of emotions (for example the difference between an institution expressing regret and embarrassment over racist incidents), recent controversies on the treatment of suffering in art, and the problem of appropriation -- when one person or group's suffering is used by another. In each area, she shows how much of crucial importance in forming our judgments occurs beneath our notice. In doing so, she opens the possibility of becoming much more conscious, deliberate and responsible moral agents.While not intended to be read together, these two books directly enrich each other. While the "Triumph of Meanness" runs the risk of mirroring right-wing jeremiads like Alan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind", "Fruits of Sorrow" points the way toward forms of moral engagement that combine intensity of commitment with complexity, openness, vulnerability and deeper levels of understanding.


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