012 Culture Problem: culture collapse
the weeping can go on for hours
In 001 we talked about the FTL (Failure to Launch) problem:
This is 7 million young people standing on the verge of adulthood unable to move forward.
I think there’s a cultural reason for this crisis.
But first more on the sheer scale of the problem.
It’s bigger than I thought.
I had lunch recently with a friend who teaches on a university campus. He said that he observes a new burden on his colleagues, the role of counselor.
Not infrequently, he says, he will pass the open door of a faculty office, and there, within, a student weeps.
This can go on for hours. A succession of students crying. This means hours of valuable scholarly time devoted to pastoral care. Students so desperate for counsel they seek it from people who are not counselors.
Beth McMurtie describes a campus problem that goes beyond weeping.
In 20 years of teaching at Doane University, Kate Marley has never seen anything like it. As many as 30 percent of her students do not show up for class or complete any of the assignments. The moment she begins to speak, she says, their brains seem to shut off. If she asks questions on what she’s been talking about, they don’t have any idea. On tests they struggle to recall basic information.
“Stunning” is the word she uses to describe the level of disengagement she and her colleagues have witnessed across the Nebraska campus. “I don’t seem to be capable of motivating them to read textbooks or complete assignments,” she says of that portion of her students. “They are kind kids. They are really nice to know and talk with. I enjoy them as people.” But, she says, “I can’t figure out how to help them…”
And this suggests that “FTL” actually follows people out of their adolescence into college.
Derek Thompson helps us see the origins of FTL.
The United States is experiencing an extreme teenage mental-health crisis. From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 percent to 44 percent, according to a new CDC study. This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.
What have we done to our young?
Thompson offers four reasons to help explain the problem.
I would like to add a fifth, a cultural account.
In 001, I suggested that FTL exists because our rites of passage are in trouble. These rituals are little pieces of cultural machinery that normally carry young Americans from “adolescence” to “maturity.” We could think of them as a “light rapid transit” system delivering kids into adulthood. Ours is broken.
But there is another, still deeper problem.
It’s that our culture categories have multiplied and in some cases collapsed. And this must, I think, make the world simply buzz with imprecision and confusion. A teenager looks into the social world and goes,
“Oh please. I’m supposed to navigate that? What do I aim for? If there’s a selfhood waiting for me out there, I can’t see it.
So what are “categories?” They are the boxes into which we divide the world. (If you want a more formal account, check this out.)
We create categories of
And here’s the challenge. These categories are changing, multiplying, rise and falling, taking on currency or losing it, suffering fatigue, being disputed, being declared off limits. Most of all, they are, for newcomers to our culture, hard to read.
Look at at the way categories of sexual orientation have expanded.
Florence Ashley offers this account of LGBTQIA2S+ language. There is a brave undertaking because the distinctions are not always clear.
Take for instance Ashley’s account of the word “queer.”
Queer: That's the really difficult, big word. It's used in so many different ways. The most common sense is as any orientation other than straight. Basically, queer means LGBQ. In another sense, it's everyone under the acronym: LGBTQIA2S+, all queer! That sense is a bit less common, in part because many trans folk aren't particularly fond of labels that also stand for sexual orientations given that the world still commonly conflates "being trans" with "sexual orientation". The last sense and the coolest if you ask me is a politicisation of sexual orientation in a way that rejects cisheterocapitalist values.
Ashley carries on. Here are the terms she defines.
“Asexual” for those who “do not experience sexual attraction.”
“Allosexual” for those who “do experience sexual attraction.”
“Aromantic” for those who “do not experience romantic attraction.”
“Gay” for those “exclusively attracted to people of the same gender.”
“Lesbian” for those who are “gay and a woman.”
“Heterosexual” for those who are “exclusively attractive to people of the ‘opposite’ gender, whatever that means.”
“Bisexual” for those who are “attracted to people of the same gender and of other genders.”
“Pansexual” for those who are “attracted to people of all genders, men, women, non binary folk.”
“Queer” (as above)
I think this multiplication of categories is a good thing. It creates a world in which there’s a place for most everyone. Surely this is much better than creating a world with constraining categories that force some people to forgo the expression of their sexual identity or expose the identity choices they do make to reproach and hostility.
A profusion of categories multiples the opportunities for human happiness.
On the other hand, if you are 18, this may strike you as a new and daunting order of complexity. For starters, finding the right identity and taking possession of it, this is not straightforward. Those who are clumsy in their adoption of new identities are criticized. What looks like a sensible identity choice will look like appropriation to others, and the punishment is swift and cruel. For some kids, growing up must feel like bomb disposal.
Not very long ago, the path to your sexual identity was clearly marked. Yes, it was constricting. Yes, it was a forced march. Yes, it punished those who failed to follow the prescribed route to the prescribed identity. But it was clear.
Again, I do not praise the old order. I think the new categories are better than the old ones. But the new regime is complicated and difficult for newcomers. And it’s worth asking if we have made any effort to help kids find their way.
Some categories were more or less navigational. Take the distinction between high and low culture. This cast a distinction over most everything in our culture. Books, movies, language. Some of these were high, by which we meant they were charged with high status and to this extent promised upward ascent in the status hierarchy. Some were low, by which they were charged with low status, and threatened a downward movement in the status scheme of things.
Now of course status matters much less than it used to. (And this is an anthropological shocker, especially when we think of how the high/low distinction ruled American lives, governing virtually every expressive choice.) The status compass is broken. And, without it, some of us wander.
Consider this image from Highsnobiety.
We have been crossing categories in American culture at least since Andy Warhol. But it, as Highsnobiety says, a fascinating collaboration “across disciplines and creative realms.”
Fair enough and most interesting. But this means that things that were once well contained, now refuse to stay in their lanes. This means that if you are under 25, popular culture is on perpetual spin cycle. Everything is in motion. Except you.
We see this slipperiness in the world of knowledge. Take the moon landing as a case in point. This was originally accepted as a great feat of engineering and bravery. In 2019, according to Vox, as many as 20% of Americans believed that it had been faked.
Donald Trump is routinely blamed for this sort of thing, but there are many culprits, including Richard Linklater and his film Slacker (1991). This was a study of absolute credulity in Texas and a starter gun for an alternative culture that challenged a great many conventional categories.
the Liberal arts
And if all this is not sufficiently perplexing, there’s the university seminar in which someone labored to induct you in the new orthodoxies brought to us by a variety of French intellectuals who favored the idea that generalizing about anything was now off limits for epistemological, moral and or political reasons.
That was the end of the Liberal arts for many kids. And to think that the Liberal Arts had originally been created to endow kids with epistemological, moral and political advantages. The Liberal arts were the equivalent of the Grand Tour. They made us more sophisticated, more worldly. Now these programs were turning out kids who felt they had just taken a shot to the noggin. The thoughts on Aristotle and the works of Shakespeare were now replaced by a woozy sensation and a faint ringing in the ears.
Let’s review. You made it out of adolescence. You “launched” and, hooray, you made it to college. But, oops, what confronts you now are a set of confusions, indeterminacies, prohibitions, and anxieties.
Your parents left college as if shot from a cannon. You. Not so much.
There are many reasons why the world has fallen out from under you, but one of them is little acknowledged. Category confusion and collapse has attacked the very infrastructure that shapes and builds our understanding of the world. A great many things are difficult to think. The world is very much more like a muddle.
How can we have failed to see that postmodernism would end this way? What made us think this was going to be straight forward? How could we possibly think we could turn our upside down and “everything would take care of itself”? What were we thinking?
Many of these changes are good changes. We are more inclusive, more nuanced, more careful because of them. But they are all changes that test the fundamentals of thought and action. And that should have given us pause. The cultural categories that are supposed to help us think are confusing us instead. When are we going to step up and do something?
Here’s how this Substack argument here is shaping up.
We have covered seven culture problems:
001 Culture Problem: the “Failure to Launch” people are stalled waiting for adulthood
002 Culture Problem: vibe shifts in decline: evidence that culture is not cohering
004 Culture Problem: decline of the water cooler: our ability to calibrate is failing
006 Culture Problem: bad food: something as fundamental as food was corrupted
008: Culture Problem: celebrities are sometimes a bad influence, colonizing our kids
010: Culture Problem: common sense is being emptied out
012: Culture Problem: culture categories on which thought depends are now confusing
We have suggested five culture solutions:
003 Culture Solution: fluidity can serve us as an adaptation
005 Culture Solution: big pictures are available and improving
007: Culture Solution: good food and a massive revolution, proof of our power to repair
009: Culture Solution: The Denzel Washington School for Drama can help us use culture to fix culture
011: Culture Solution: There are ways to use culture to address the crisis in culture. Encouraging people to enter the Artisanal economy is one of these.
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