The Solitary Moral Reductionist

David Brooks on Edward Snowden is everything you’d imagine it to be; an armchair psych profile that naturally supports his hobbyhorse outlook on society that ends rather flat. The progression from psychoanalysis based on media reports to serious-seeming sociological framing to an utterly banal ‘get off my lawn’ judgement is peak Brooks.

In other words; it’s a typical Brooks column on non-political issues greater than himself. As Steve M. writes:

David Brooks has a hammer — a shelf of sociology books he half-understands — so he thinks everything is a nail. His nail is the tiresome notion that “social capital,” or the lack thereof, explains everything in the universe involving human beings.

This isn’t a problem particular to Brooks. In fact, it’s a pervasive-enough tendency that we have a term for it — confirmation bias. Usually this is talked about in terms of epistemological closure, or limiting one’s exposure to sources of information that is most likely to confirm pre-existing perspectives. But it also covers interpreting information outside that enclosure in such a way that inevitably confirms how a person views society working. For Brooks every macro-related event is an occurrence in support of his thesis, and Snowden is just another opportunity to offer the faux-profoundness endemic of the punditry elite.

Given his proclivity for using sociological tools, he strikes me as someone who’d wish they had double-majored in sociology while in college. Yet this idea that Brooks is simply misusing academic assessments only tells a partial truth; that he’s just another amateur peddler of pop-applications from a swag-bag of social theories with a loud microphone. His preferred ‘hammer,’ social capital, is a well-established concept in academia but Brooks only sometimes correctly places himself in how he utilizes it; as a moral reductionist.

The Constructions of Deviance is a book of selected readings on the sociological aspects of deviance, something I read as a part of one my required courses, and includes a piece written by Anne Hendershott. In the reading Hendershott makes the case for examining contemporary deviance with moral absolutism, arguing that modernity needs a new moral order and consensus. Towards the end Brooks merits a mention as ‘social critic’ (p 50);

Brooks reminds us that in order to cope with the implications of the new reality, we must “construct hard principles” of moral consensus. “When you are faced with the problem of repelling evil, you absolutely must be able to reach a conclusion on serious moral issues.”

Perhaps this re-moralization of our public discourse — despite the agitation and murmuring it has caused in certain academic circles — will b eth only good to come out of our national tragedy [note; 9\11]. Perhaps we will begin to recognize that a society that continues to redefine deviance as disease, or refuses to acknowledge and negatively sanction the deviant acts our common sense tells us are destructive, is a society that has lost the capacity to confront evil that has a capacity to dehumanize us all.

That phrase, social critic, is a wonderfully obtuse term. It can apply to almost every field of interest, and is one of those dream careers for people that like to view every action as having broader significance. As I said, though, for Brooks it amounts to moralizing in an era that’s often criticized for a perceived rise in secular apathy — a phenomenon that is easily and always worsened through the advancement of technology.

The argument then starts with the supposition that the social world can only be stable through consensus. Most would probably agree with that beginning, but in previous writing it’s clear that for Brooks this requires a broad moral agreement on good and evil. The editors of Constructions of Deviance describe (emphasis mine) such a perspective as a “morality-based approach to defining deviance [that] is inherently absolutist because it advances a situationally and temporally consistent universal yardstick for accessing the meaning of behavior that is lodged in the essence of the behavior itself” (p 46).

This is the proper foundation for Brooks seeing Snowden as emblematic of a breakdown of society. The whisteblower’s (or leaker’s) actions can only be explained by a lack of a properly moralized community, resulting in a deficit of social capital needed to prevent such deleterious actions, exacerbated by the adoption of depersonalized technological interactions, and leading to a destructive Randian sense of social autonomy. Any other causal description violates the sin-based approach to judging deviant behavior in a sociological context; hence, Brooks’ confirmation bias in analyzing Snowden’s implications for society.

Thus Brooks confuses the individual tree for the social forest; Snowden as a mascot for generational decay rather than as a reactionary to a massive surveillance state gone awry. The former leaves us with inane columns on one person’s “moral dilemma,” while the latter provides a path towards serious conversations that have nothing to do with whether Snowden is a hero or a villain. Steve M. has the same objection as I do, that Snowden really is “just who he is,” and Brooks’ opinion is irrelevant to the greater danger from society accepting a government that holds a blanket disregard for privacy as ‘it is what it is.’


One response to “The Solitary Moral Reductionist

  1. Pingback: Blog Note To Self: Don’t Read David Brooks | Punditocracy·

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