Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

War on the Weak

We’re in the midst of a war on the weak. And I don’t just mean the unborn. We have a right to die, or so we’re told, and therefore we must legalize doctor-assisted suicide. Nobody is harmed, we’re again told, by the free decision of a terminally ill patient to end his life. Creating the freedom to end one’s life requires putting an end to various legal prohibitions, as well as significantly reducing, if not eliminating, the moral censure of suicide.

Many see this as a singularly positive development. Rigid, one-size-fits-all rules are eliminated and people are allowed to decide personal, private matters for themselves. But as the legal strictures and social consensus in favor of life are relaxed, those who are confused, depressed, and vulnerable receive less protection and find less support. Freedom for the strong—the option of suicide for the active man who doesn’t want to suffer the indignities of a terminal disease, for example—is bought at the expense of the weak.

This is not a theoretical transaction. In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that suicide rates have risen dramatically, up nearly 30 percent among adults age thirty-five to sixty-four in the last decade. The state with the greatest increase was Oregon, which saw an as­tounding 49 percent increase from 1999 to 2010. Oregon was the first state to legalize doctor-assisted suicide.

The decriminalization of marijuana will very likely follow the same pattern. Like Bill Clinton, who famously never inhaled, elite Americans have developed a functional and relatively disciplined approach to drugs, and many insist we need to put the failed, expensive, and socially disruptive war on drugs behind us.

Again: Is anything bad going to happen? For the strong, almost certainly not. For the weak, almost surely yes. A 2011 study reported that parents who have not completed high school are twice as likely to have children who use marijuana as those who completed college.

We see a similar pattern in studies of the frequency and harmful effects of gambling. The less educated a person, the more likely he is to gamble regularly—and thus lose money he can’t afford to lose. This widely known fact does little to stem the ever-expanding legalization of gambling.

Sexual freedom provides yet another example. Upper-middle-class Americans have endorsed and adopted sexual freedom to varying degrees, but they have done so in relatively disciplined ways. Although cohabitation is widely accepted, by and large the strong eventually get married. Divorce rates in the upper levels of society rose in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s but then leveled off at relatively low levels.

Meanwhile, in working-class America, marriage rates have declined dramatically, divorce rates are high, and a high percentage of children are born to unmarried mothers. Among white women without a high school degree, illegitimacy is above 60 percent. By contrast, children born out of wedlock are a rarity among the successful. Here again, the strong enjoy the new freedoms (some of which they largely forgo), while the weak suffer from them.

War is a metaphor, and in some ways an inaccurate one. No central command encourages suicide, the use of ­marijuana, or illegitimacy. To understand the proper sense in which the weak are under assault, we need to turn to Natural Symbols, a brilliant, uneven, and passionate book of social anthropology written by Mary Douglas in the late 1960s. Written in part “as a comment on student revolt against dead ritual and meaningless forms,” she developed a close analysis of conflicting systems of social control, arguing in so many words that we now organize society for the sake of the new meritocracy.

After Vatican II, the English bishops lifted the requirement of the Friday fast from meat. As a student of culture who recognized the important role of ritual and clear rules in the religious and social imagination of Irish Catholic immigrants in London, Douglas (a Catholic) thought the decision misguided. More significantly, she found the rationale for the change illuminating. “When I ask my clerical friends why the new forms are held superior, I am answered by a Teilhardist evolutionism which assumes that a rational, verbally explicit, personal commitment to God is self-evidently more evolved and better than its alleged contrary, formal, ritualistic conformity.”

To explain this dismissive assumption about rules and rituals, she turns to Basil Bernstein’s study of working- and middle-class London families. He distinguished between two modes of social control. Working-class families tended toward what he calls positional control systems and restricted speech codes. Social roles are assigned rather than negotiated (thus “positional control”), and their obligatory demands explained in clear and unequivocal terms (thus “restricted codes”). “Why can’t I play with dolls?” Answer: “Because you’re a boy.”

As the child develops, Douglas explains, “his experience flows into a grid of role categories; right and wrong are learnt in terms of the given structure; he himself is seen only in relation to that structure.” Thus the progressive criticisms of unthinking conformism, empty ritual, and rigid rules that suppress individuality.

In this mode of social control, a successful, honorable life flows from settled habits encouraged by clear rules. What it means to be a good Catholic, a good father, or a good worker largely depends upon reliably occupying the sharply defined social positions. This certainly requires self-discipline and sacrifice. But roles are easily identified, and the rights and wrongs can be simply stated.

Middle-class families socialize their children differently, emphasizing reflective analysis more than clear rules. They use personal control systems and elaborated or enhanced speech codes. Parents explain the whys and wherefores of rules. “Why should I do my homework?” Answer: “Because your mother and father want you to succeed.” Or “Because it’s important to live up to expectations.” As Douglas explains, in this instance “control is effected through either the verbal manipulation of feelings [or] through the establishment of reasons which link the child to his acts.”

In this system, becoming a moral person—a good, sensitive, caring person—flows from endless negotiations with a wide variety of demands. For example, a good father needs to know what society expects (all social systems have rules), but he must also help his children navigate expectations in ways that blend or balance social conformity with individuality. In this and countless other ways, moral success requires adept manipulation of the open-ended, enhanced code.

Since a positional control system and restricted code shaped the moral universe of Irish Catholic working-class life in London, lifting the prohibition on eating meat undermined this mode of social control and the identity it sustained. To a great extent, that’s what the Church’s leaders wanted: Catholics should be freed from their “medieval” ritualism so as to attain a more sophisticated and “committed” mode of Catholic identity.

Although Douglas suggests more than she spells out, this episode in Catholic ecclesiastical life after Vatican II epitomizes the post-war transformation of our public culture. Heretofore the upper levels of society, although they often raised their own children in the personal control system, also trained them to sustain society’s positional designations and restricted codes, which is to say the established social roles reinforced by clear rules. They may have explained the whys and wherefores of rules, but their children were still to show respect for adults, boys were to open doors for girls, and so forth.

To a great degree, that was true when I was a child. My parents ran an “enhanced code” household, to use Bernstein’s terminology, but they also made sure I went to church dressed in coat and tie. Public life ran on the principles of a restricted code.

Already when I was a child, however, those in positions of authority were beginning to dismantle the restricted code. The work continues. The elaborated codes of the personal control systems are now used to root out the older restricted codes of positional control systems. No stereotypes! Use neutral terms like “out of wedlock” instead of “illegitmate”: Nobody should be stigmatized! Sex should be safe but never wrong, or at least rarely so: We must be inclusive! And, of course, it’s important for everybody to decide just what they’re personally “comfortable with.”

By and large, this now dominant mode of social control works, but only for those with the education and aptitude to manipulate enhanced codes. As I discussed in the February “Public Square” (“America Divided”), a recent study of family cultures identified this cohort: the progressive family, which turns out to be the most highly educated and most thoroughly in control of public administration and education.

Douglas saw that this triumph amounts to a new kind of class war. She was right. Our public culture today suits the needs of the strong. The weak—those suffering from depression or addicted to drugs, those raised in a dysfunctional family, or those who drop out of high school—have fewer and fewer moral resources to help them navigate through life.

Moral Inequality

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 post-industrial society, economic success increasingly depends upon education. The old work ethic of showing up on time and doing one’s job well—the positional system Douglas describes—no longer provides a path to middle-class success. These days we’re told we all need to be smart, creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative so that we can navigate from job to job in an ever more dynamic economy.

The weak are being hit hard culturally as well. For the most part, the new mode of social control works for the strong. But how it works is difficult to explain, which is why we see a growing body of literature, mostly written by women, that carefully parses the psychological, social, and quasi-ethical variables of what constitutes a good life for the top 20 percent.

To marry or not to marry? To freeze your embryos or not? Are men necessary for raising children? Sex with whom, when, and under what circumstances? Super-subtle analysis considers personal factors and broad, often unarticulated ethical principles that combine in endlessly ­different ways. Consult the Atlantic for the latest iterations.

As Douglas recognized, success in the personal system of control, to say nothing of playing a leading role, requires the same qualities necessary for economic success in a post-industrial society: education, creativity, and a capacity for innovation. That’s why we now see a moral inequality that parallels—and reinforces—income inequality. The strong organize their lives and argue about what’s permitted and prohibited in ways that can never be accessible to a poorly educated person, because the capacity to use an enhanced code is restricted to the new meritocracy defined by intellectual aptitude and education.

The top 20 percent don’t just have the lion’s share of income; they have a monopoly on the means for articulating, imposing—and, most important, being themselves formed, guided, and disciplined by—an undoubtedly flawed but nonetheless reliable personal system of social control. By contrast, the bottom third Murray analyzes in Coming Apart cannot manipulate enhanced codes, and therefore have no effective system of social control with which to discipline their children—or themselves.

Which is why elite Americans are largely functional and relatively happy, while those on the bottom live increasingly dysfunctional, unhappy lives. In September 2012, the New York Times ran a shocking story. Educated Americans are making consistent gains in life expectancy, but the well-being of Americans without a high school diploma is collapsing. Between 1990 and 2008, the life expectancy of white women who haven’t completed high school fell by five years. For white men without high school degrees it declined by three years. This is by any measure a social catastrophe, not unlike what happened in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“It’s very puzzling and we don’t have a great explanation,” said Harvard economics professor David Cutler of these horrific statistics. Is it so puzzling? We’ve deconstructed the moral universe that once worked for the working class for the sake of the dominance of the modes of social control that are favored by the strong—and inscrutable to and unusable by the weak.

As University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax has observed, vulnerable, socially disoriented people need clear rules. Our dominant culture refuses to meet this need. Indeed, it rejects it root-and-branch, consistently treating clear moral strictures with suspicion, seeing in them a dangerous regression back to the positional system of social control and its restricted code. It’s a mortal sin to answer a child’s question: “Because you’re a girl.” If the preferential option for the poor has any force in our approach to morality and culture—and it should—we need to recognize and put an end to this war on the weak.

The Marriage Bond of Peace

It was peace, not love, that early Christians emphasized in their rituals and prayers for marriage. I learned this from Robert Wilken’s paper when Evangelicals and Catholics Together met in early June to begin work on a joint statement on marriage. Early collections of official prayers show the important role played by the biblical notion of peace: “We ask you, almighty God, to support with your holy favor that which your providence has established and to keep in lasting peace these persons who are lawfully uniting themselves in lawful union.” And: “You have joined people in marriage with the sweet yoke of concord and the unbreakable bond of peace.”

Peace plays a prominent role in the New Testament. At the birth of Christ, the angelic multitude proclaims peace on earth to the astonished shepherds. Not an­nouncing global government or international treaties, they are instead proclaiming the Messiah’s arrival. No longer will the fallen, wayward human creature be at odds with his Creator. A new age has dawned. God has come to us, repairing the breach. This is the good news the apostles preached: “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Today, few of us think about marriage as a peace­making institution. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul says that the union of a man and woman in marriage is a great mystery, one that reflects Christ’s union with the Church. St. Paul is cryptic, and in the past I thought of it in terms of permanence: The unbreakable bond of marriage is like the permanent covenant of God with his people. Jesus’ promise, “I am with you until the end of the age,” is akin to the marriage vow, “richer, poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”

But permanence is not the theme of Ephesians. St. Paul emphasized the peace-making power of the Gospel. Before Christ, Gentiles were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise.” But now, by the blood of Christ, the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile has been broken down so that God “might create in himself one new man in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thus bringing the hostility to an end.”

When it comes to the relation of Jew and Gentile living under the lordship of Jesus Christ, what God hath joined together let no man put asunder. It’s a declaration St. Paul pronounces, in so many words, on many occasions, sometimes quite warmly.

In Ephesians, Paul is concerned about other sources of conflict in the Church as well. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths.” “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Petty rivalries, unintended slights, long-term grudges, gossip, meddling—these and other problems threaten the peace of the community.

And then there’s the household. Our age is not the first to discover that men are from Mars and women from Venus. From our very beginnings in the Garden, the difference between male and female has been fraught, dangerous, and damaging, as all cultures and societies recognize.

Which is why marriage has played such an important role in human history. The public, legal, and ritual union of male and female creates conditions for harmony. As an institution, it takes many different forms throughout history and serves many different social functions. Some societies allow for polygamy, others arranged marriages, and the conditions for dissolution vary. But the peace-making function remains constant. The two join as one flesh, as the Bible puts it. Marriage brings into being a single body politic, as it were, and the ongoing work of sustaining a household and raising children, however differently configured in different societies and at different times in history, joins men and women in a common project.

Marriage does not guarantee harmony any more than medieval uses of aristocratic unions succeeded in creating and sustaining peaceful dynastic alliances. We all know marriages marred by profound conflict. But by reliably joining men and women together, this age-old institution holds out the promise of a peace between the sexes otherwise difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve.

A peace treaty in the war between the sexes, the institution of marriage reconciles us across one of our most fundamental differences. The relations between men and women are unlikely to be happy if this institution does not remain vital, central, and strong.

From the Editor’s Desk

On the evening of May 15, Anne Conlon and George McKenna spoke to more than fifty people at our office. Anne and George have gathered together and published in book form some of the most important and influential essays from the Human Life Review. We’re honored to have the opportunity to celebrate the publication of the most recent collection, The Reach of Roe, and to support their efforts in the great cause of life.

Williams College art historian Michael Lewis came to the office on May 21 to lead a seminar on the Kulturkampf and the Catholic response. Current threats to religious liberty make this episode in late-nineteenth-century Germany quite relevant. We hope to publish Lewis’ substantive contribution to this seminar in a future issue.

As I mentioned above, Evangelicals and Catholics Together met on June 10. It’s a long-time initiative of the Institute on Religion and Public Life that seeks to clarify and strengthen common witness. Our goal over the next two years is to develop a statement on marriage. We’re very grateful to Timothy Cardinal Dolan for hosting our meeting at 1011 First Avenue, the archdiocesan center in New York.

The First Things Brain Trust (also known as the Advisory Council) met the next day. The discussion was lively, at times intense. I’m very grateful that First Things enjoys such intelligent and committed support from men and women who aren’t bashful about telling me what to think. The papers presented appear in this issue. Enjoy, and join our collective cogitations about the challenges we face.

Summer sees the departures of our Junior Fellows. Anna Williams (now Sutherland) left at the beginning of June. Her reason: a wedding in Michigan, which happened to be her own. We’re pro-marriage here at First Things, so our dismay at her departure was outweighed by our joy for her. As I write, Katie Infantine works on her final number of First Things. She’s off to graduate study in theology at Notre Dame.

We’re fortunate to have the services of three summer interns this year: Katherine Devorak, a recent graduate of the King’s College and World Journalism Institute fellow; Luke Foster, an undergraduate at Columbia; and Br. Dominic Verner from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. We’re grateful to them for their substantial contributions to our ongoing work.