What's Tony Thinking

More on Chicken Little


As I mentioned in my Saturday post, I thought David Brooks current article in The Atlantic especially timely and helpful. Brooks names a pervasive spirit of pessimism that has settled like a heavy fog over the land, red and blue alike. And like a dense fog, this makes it difficult for us to see clearly; for us to see things as they actually are.

Here I want to overview what I see as four major themes of his “Chicken Littles Are Ruining America” essay. Or we might call it “The Boom in Gloom and Doom.”

First this caveat, neither Brooks nor I are saying everything is really hunky-dory. No, lots is wrong. Lots that is very, very challenging. But that is not new or unique to our time or place. What may be unique is the pervasive sense of despair with outrage as its ride-along.

Theme one is a pervasive pessimism that afflicts all sides but, oddly, establishes one’s legitimacy. Here’s Brooks:

Groups on each side of the political divide are held together less by common affections than by a common sense of threat, an experience of collective oppression. Today’s communal culture is based on a shared belief that society is broken, systems are rotten, the game is rigged, injustice prevails, the venal elites are out to get us; we find solidarity and meaning in resisting their oppression together. Again, there is a right-wing version (Donald Trump’s ‘I am your retribution’) and a left-wing version (the intersectional community of oppressed groups), but what they share is an us-versus-them Manichaeism. The culture war gives life shape and meaning.”

[P]essimism becomes a membership badge—the ultimate sign that you are on the side of the good. If your analysis is not apocalyptic, you’re naive, lacking in moral urgency, complicit with the status quo.

This despair especially afflicts the young, often in ways that are contrary to available evidence.

This deep sense of pessimism has become more and more predominant, especially among the young. Since about 2004, the share of American 12th graders who say it is “hard to have hope for the world” has been surging, according to surveys by Monitoring the Future, which has tracked the attitudes of high schoolers since 1975. There’s also been a rise in 12th graders who agree with the statement “Every time I try to get ahead, something or somebody stops me.” Since 2012, the share of 12th graders who expect to get a graduate degree or a professional job has plummeted.

The prevailing culture nurtures these attitudes. But there is a giant gap between many of these negative perceptions and actual reality. For example, since the mid-1970s the number of women who have earned college degrees and graduate degrees, and taken leadership positions in society, has risen dramatically; women’s wages are also much higher than in previous generations. Yet, as the psychologist Jean Twenge shows in her book Generations, teenage girls today are more likely than teenage girls in the ’70s to believe that women are discriminated against. Surely that’s partly because successive waves of feminism have raised women’s awareness of ongoing discrimination. But women are doing meaningfully better by these measures, and yet young women are feeling worse.

Theme number three: don’t you dare be happy. If you happen to be enjoying life, or some aspect of it, don’t tell anyone!

Even institutions as wholesome as motherhood have come to be seen as horrific. In December, Vox ran an essay titled “How Millennials Learned to Dread Motherhood.” A couple of weeks before that, The New Yorker published “The Morality of Having Kids in a Burning, Drowning World.” In previous eras, people were enculturated to see parenthood as a challenging but deeply rewarding and love-drenched experience. Now motherhood is regarded as a postapocalyptic shit show. Recently published books on motherhood include Mom Rage, Screaming on the Inside, and All the Rage.

In a culture where negativity is aligned with righteousness, anything good can be seen as a mark of ill-gotten privilege. And if by chance one does experience pleasure, don’t be so insensitive as to admit it in public, because that will reveal you are not allying properly with the oppressed: “When I started asking women about their experiences as mothers,” Rachel Cohen wrote in that Vox essay, “I was startled by the number who sheepishly admitted, and only after being pressed, that they had pretty equitable arrangements with their partners, and even loved being moms, but were unlikely to say any of that publicly. Doing so could seem insensitive to those whose experiences were not as positive, or those in more frustrating relationships. Some also worried that betraying too much enthusiasm for child-rearing could ossify essentialist tropes or detract from larger feminist goals.” Publicly admitting that you love and enjoy motherhood has come to be seen as a betrayal of feminism.

Fourth and last, the problem with this spirit of pessimism, outrage and despair, is that it deprives people of agency.

The problem is that if you mess around with negative emotions, negative emotions will mess around with you, eventually taking over your life. Focusing on the negative inflates negativity. As John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister note in their book The Power of Bad, if you interpret the world through the lens of collective trauma, you may become overwhelmed by self-perpetuating waves of fear, anger, and hate. You’re likely to fall into a neurotic spiral, in which you become more likely to perceive events as negative, which makes you feel terrible, which makes you more alert to threats, which makes you perceive even more negative events, and on and on. Moreover, negativity is extremely contagious. When people around us are pessimistic, indignant, and rageful, we’re soon likely to become that way too. This is how today’s culture has produced mass neuroticism.

More . . .

But another explanation for this phenomenon that I find persuasive is that contemporary left-wing discourse tends to rob people of a sense of agency, what psychologists call an “internal locus of control.” For example, in one 2022 survey 53 percent of those who identify as “very liberal” agree with the statement “Women in the United States have no hope for success because of sexism.” Meanwhile 59 percent of people who call themselves “very liberal” agree with the statement “Racial minorities in the United States have no hope for success because of racism.” If you have no hope of success because you are a victim of injustice, how can you possibly be motivated to do anything? How can you have a sense of agency? 

Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life are “vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt and a sense that life simply happens to them,” the journalist Jill Filipovic wrote recently on Substack. And yet victimization, pain, and powerlessness are now the approved postures of our time . . .

We have produced a culture that celebrates catastrophizing. This does not lend itself to effective strategies for achieving social change.

I hope this captures the main themes and gives you something to chew on. Again, this is not to say everything is really just fine and that what we need is “the power of positive thinking.” But we do need perspective, courage and faith. In a secular and judgmental society, we seem to take ourselves very, very seriously but are increasingly less able to take seriously the power and faithfulness of God a Higher Power or perceive an outline of grace amid the clouds. There is an Other to whom we can turn, trust in and rely upon as we rise to face the challenges that are ours. That is the message of faith.

As Montaigne wrote, “There is in the universe a power forever on the side of those brave enough to trust it.”


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