I keep coming back to Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray's detailed and sobering analysis of the ways in which we've become two societies. The strong are getting stronger, and the weak weaker. I summarized his findings about the successful well-to-do and the sinking bottom third in my March 2012 "Public Square" ("The One Percent").
Murray is good on the data, but less so on culture. He finds himself baffled by the moral attitudes of elite Americans. They lead relatively disciplined lives that accord fairly well with older norms. Yet they affirm a flexible, non-judgmental ethic. They hardly ever have children out of wedlock, but don't speak ill of those who do. They clump in super-wealthy neighborhoods, often for the express purpose of protecting their children from the negative influences of behaviors they refuse to condemn.
He shouldn't be baffled. There's no contradiction between elite non-judgmentalism and their disciplined lives. Their flexible ethic flows from the personal mode of social control and its elaborated codes. Today's wealthy parents exhort their children to "make healthy choices" and "act responsibly."
These open-ended principles leave a great deal of room for judgment, true, but as Douglas explains, living by them is existentially demanding. An elaborated code makes the moral life a complex personal project "continually stirred into a ferment of ethical sensibilities." Successfully achieving moral status--attaining the respect of one's peers--requires a high level of verbal and symbolic skill. For example, what does it mean to be "inclusive"? A Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School student is well trained to answer that question. Not so a kid from Anacostia High School.
"It sounds like this mother's heart is in the right place," explained Kirsten Filizetti, a San Diego psychologist, when asked to comment for a newspaper story about a parent who punished her daughter for cruelly teasing a fellow student. "She was trying to help this girl understand what she had done and teach her a life lesson. However, parents should be careful about introducing shame and guilt onto kids as a form of punishment." She should sit down with the child and help her understand the motivations behind bullying.
It's a small, almost innocent episode of therapeutic hauteur. But it's typical and reflects the way in which our society is now divided by a moral inequality as severe as--and in all likelihood more damaging than--income inequality.
A rule-based mode of social control is egalitarian. Its terms and, application are broadly available. You don t need advanced verbal skills or a high IQ to shame your children for stealing or lying or bullying. But Filizetti wants understanding," something for the most part accessible, as Douglas recognized, only to those who have the aptitude and training to transform simple moral rules into subtle systems of principle, circumstance, and emotions.
"Tolerant" "progressive," and "inclusive" are also part of the enhanced code now dominant. Those who are not adept at using (or manipulating) these terms are largely disqualified from exercising influence. If a working-class parent whose moral outlook is defined by clear rights and wrongs speaks up at a PTA meeting, the educational "professionals" are very likely to respond in a patronizing way: "I can understand why you might not want your child to have to talk about sexual orientation, but here at Glenn Spring elementary school we are committed to creating an open, inclusive environment for all students." Moral authority--indeed, basic moral competence and the right to speak in public without being corrected by one's betters--is restricted to enhanced-code virtuosi.
What Murray doesn't recognize is that the weak are being hit hard--twice. First, economically. In a …