Recently, I read David Brooks‘s The Social Animal, an interesting survey of the best current research on psychology, sociology and culture. Though a best-seller, this book received some mixed critical reviews when it came out in 2011. Knowing Brooks to be a strong writer from his New York Times column, I wanted to see which nits the lit-crit world would have to pick with this book.
The Social Animal was written in an interesting way. Instead of writing the standard non-fiction treatise, Brooks creates some fictitious central characters and follows them through their lives. He then uses these characters to illustrate interesting research conclusions. As one character makes a choice or acts in a certain way, Brooks provides a behind-the-scenes look at what’s going on in the mind of that person. He uses this technique to cover an epic scope of material, from unconscious mental processes to cultural impacts to criminology to American politics and the psychological triggers of parties and campaigns.
When I read the reviews for this book, the critical ones came down on Brooks for not being much of a fiction writer – which in this case is an asinine critique. The Social Animal is not a work of fiction. It’s a non-fiction sociological survey written with the use of personae to make the information more accessible and interesting to read. And the technique works. Brooks channels volumes upon volumes of research material and presents it in an enjoyable and thought-provoking way. It seems the literati get thrown off their thing by anything with which they’re not immediately familiar. This book would be a good central text for undergrad sociology survey, or perhaps even advanced secondary ed.
One of Brooks’s more interesting points comes when he discusses political affiliation (one of his favorite topics). He points out that the two most impactful 20th-century political movements – the liberal movement of the 60’s and the conservative movement of the 80’s – were not the direct polar opposites of one another, like some tug-of-war. On the contrary, they were simply two different flavors of increasing individualism.
The heart of the liberal 60’s movement centered on moral individualism. You don’t get to tell me how to live my life. Neither does the church. Neither does any social institution for that matter, and certainly not the government. I will live with whomever I want, divorce whenever I want, conduct myself however I want, and do whatever I want with my body. I will do all this without institutionalized restrictions or social policies designed to nudge my behavior in a certain direction. Non-traditional lifestyles are every bit as valid and welcome and traditional ones, and issues of character are personal matters and not to be discussed in the public sphere.
The eighties conservative movement, by contrast, centered on economic and physical individualism. You don’t get to tell me what to do with my money, and you certainly don’t get to take it away. You can’t tell me what I can and can’t sell, or trade. You certainly can’t force me to assist those who never worked for it. And God help you if you take one step towards my guns!
What was traditionally perceived as a back-and-forth wrangling between two sides is more accurately interpreted as two parallel advancements toward an increasingly individualizing culture. Brooks calls it an “atomized” culture, one in which we have very little vocabulary for emotionally-based aspects of our being like character, morality and transcendence. These concepts are not taught. Literature and art that deals with these concepts is given less and less weight in our society. We increasingly emphasize quantifiable, unemotional concepts like improvement, achievement, demographic placement, and status.
The Social Animal suggests that this atomization has the capacity to rot our culture, and that whatever the answer to it may be, it is not held within the dogmas of either political affiliation. Concepts like character, right action, respect, and value for others, prominent in schools and discourse prior to the 60’s, is treated now as if it was sex education: “Everything will be okay as long as you abstain from any action requiring this kind of knowledge.”
This is only one example of many interesting points made in The Social Animal. It is a great synthesis of the current best ideas in social fields.
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