David Brooks believes that they do. I’m not so sure, but am open to suggestions.
Some time ago I heard an elected official state in a public meeting that “words mean something.” I don’t recall the context, but I thought I’d have a little fun with it. I happened to work at the place at which the meeting was held, so I found a picture of a cow then drew a rope around the cow’s neck with a sign hanging below that read, “I’m a horse.” I captioned the makeshift cartoon, “Words mean something,” and pinned it on a board in my office. It must have been a very private joke, as no one who saw the picture offered any reaction.
Back to Mr. Brooks. He writes:
People see patterns they already believe in. Maybe I’ve done that here. But these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.
In the documentary Manufacturing Consent, based on a book of the same title by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, we’re shown the side of an apartment building with windows open to the world. The viewer sees the occupants planted in front of their television sets watching a program. Each is alone, disconnected from neighbors, save for the possibility that they might be watching the same program at the same time.*
Chomsky and Herman suggest that such atomization is deliberate, an attempt by corporations, mostly, to ensure that we are consumers rather than citizens. Our consent to the status quo and the powers that be is being manufactured through the media, especially television, but also via mass culture. Besides, how much easier it is to plop oneself down before the tube to watch anything, than it is to organize a bunch of people for political ends, people that we couldn’t possibly know, since we’re either working at a boring job or consuming alone.
David Brooks cites the results of Google searches of words. Increasingly, terms used to connote community fall in usage against those about the individual and preferences (and the two combine within a market economy). He writes:
So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.
Is Brooks channeling Chomsky? I should think not, even if they’re arguing similar points. For example, I would not expect Brooks to advocate political resistance, to urge his readers to engage in mass protests, as Chomsky has done; he, himself, spent time in jail for expressing his views. I find it difficult to imagine Brooks behind bars following an arrest for demonstrating outside the White House or the headquarters of General Electric. Yet, both Chomsky and Brooks offer the same diagnosis of society: we are “bowling alone,” as Harvard professor Robert Putnam argued.
Where Brooks is going with his words is to talk about societal breakdown, beginning with the loss of virtue, a recurring theme of his columns. Chomksy and Herman fault atomization for frustrating what would otherwise be a more just and peaceful society determined by the people acting voluntarily. Herman and Chomsky are not about to bang us over the head with morality, as Brooks is wont to do.
Where I get suspicious is that in Brooks’s ideal world, more of us would be “humble,” “helpful,” “considerate,” and “disciplined.” How to get there? If words truly meant something, then merely uttering such expressions would transform us into a “kinder, gentler nation.”
Bumper stickers, anyone?
* Full disclosure: I’m sitting alone on my butt writing this stuff in front of a computer monitor. But I’m not wearing a tag that says, “I’m Noam.”