Racist. Intolerant. Oppressive. Inequitable. Classist. Violent. Arrogant.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been paying particular attention to the ways Americans describe themselves. When people use words like these, they are rarely talking about their own character; they are making the claim that these traits describe the prevailing attitudes of many or most other Americans.
There is a widespread assumption that we can improve people by calling out their worst qualities and demanding they change. There are two problems with this assumption:
1. It doesn’t work.
2. It runs the risk of making the worst traits socially acceptable.
The strategy doesn’t work because it is more likely to make people defensive than repentant. This is especially the case when the words are used not to describe particular behaviors but rather the way people are.
Parenting experts know this well. They advise one never to say to a child “You are rude.” Instead, the parent should call out specific undesirable behaviors and say something like, “It is rude to talk with your mouth full.” By attaching the trait to the behavior, the parent gives the child a way of separating themselves from the undesirable quality—by stopping the behavior. But calling a child “rude” attaches the character trait to the child, and the childish response to hearing such criticism repeatedly is to think, “Well, if I’m a rude person, I might as well just act like it.”
Calling out bad character traits has an even greater problem, however. It makes the trait seem more acceptable through a process known as social norming.
That is why binge drinking campaigns on many college campuses have been counterproductive. By focusing overmuch on the dangers of alcohol consumption, incoming students may develop the false impression that most of their peers engage in binge drinking on a regular basis, making them more likely to do it themselves. By contrast, drawing attention to studies showing that the majority of college students do not participate in binge drinking has the effect of making moderation seem like the most socially acceptable behavior among their peers.
The British novelist Iris Murdoch observed that we tend “to make pictures of ourselves and then come to resemble the pictures.” It doesn’t matter whether we think the pictures are good or bad; it is the depiction that influences, not our judgment about it.
Does this mean we should stop pointing out the flaws in our society? Not at all.
But we ought to keep in mind no country and no individual is just one thing. People’s character is complex and often contradictory. The path to moral improvement is to acknowledge bad behavior and identify concrete ways to change it while also focusing intently and persistently on the kind of people we wish to become.
Is our country plagued by racism? Then identify racist behaviors and work to stop them while focusing intently and persistently on treating all people with reverence and respect.
Is our country plagued by oppression and inequity? Then identify specific behaviors and policies that contribute to inequity and work to change them while focusing intently and persistently on being fair-minded.
Is America plagued by violence? Then identify violent behaviors and work to resist them while focusing intently and persistently on being a peacemaker.
Many people in our society today believe fervently that to look forward is to ignore our sins. They urge us to continue looking backward, endlessly picking at the scabs of wounds inflicted by our culture wars. They defend this behavior by saying they have to “raise awareness” and “point out injustice.” They preach change and practice stagnation.
When Lot’s family departed Sodom, the angels warned them not to look back. Lot’s wife turned her eyes back to the city and became a pillar of salt. You cannot leave your old self behind by looking backward. If you do, you will never leave.
So, what is the path forward?
When I teach ethics, whether in a university classroom or in professional workshop, I ask people to write down the name of the person who has had the most positive influence in their lives. Then I ask them to write down the character trait that comes to mind when they think of that person. All over the country, with people from many different backgrounds, I hear the same traits mentioned again and again: compassion, empathy, hard work, generosity, kindness, service, perseverance, courage and honesty.
These may not be the traits we see depicted in media images of celebrated athletes, movie stars or politicians. But they are the virtues of the most influential people in the world: parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, teachers and friends.
The question that faces us as a nation is whether America will be defined by its best qualities or its worst. To focus on our best qualities is not to deny our faults; rather it is to point to a direction forward.
Each of us knows the virtues of the people who have influenced our own lives for the good. It is then up to us to decide whether we also will be such an influence.
Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse.