Bobo has so many hats! Today he’s wearing his linguist hat. In “What Our Words Tell Us” he informs us that gradual shifts in language use over the centuries reflect tectonic shifts in culture. It’s amazing what you can glean from Google, and of course there’s no link to the “study” he mentions… In “One School’s Catholic Teaching” Mr. Bruni says with just the briefest acknowledgement of her life partner, Carla Hale lost the job she’d loved for more than 18 years. Here’s Bobo:
About two years ago, the folks at Google released a database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008. You can type a search word into the database and find out how frequently different words were used at different epochs.
The database doesn’t tell you how the words were used; it just tells you how frequently they were used. Still, results can reveal interesting cultural shifts. For example, somebody typed the word “cocaine” into the search engine and found that the word was surprisingly common in the Victorian era. Then it gradually declined during the 20th century until around 1970, when usage skyrocketed.
I’d like to tell a story about the last half-century, based on studies done with this search engine. The first element in this story is rising individualism. A study by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile found that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases.
That is to say, over those 48 years, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” receded.
The second element of the story is demoralization. A study by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir found that general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were used much less frequently.
The Kesebirs identified 50 words associated with moral virtue and found that 74 percent were used less frequently as the century progressed. Certain types of virtues were especially hard hit. Usage of courage words like “bravery” and “fortitude” fell by 66 percent. Usage of gratitude words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” dropped by 49 percent.
Usage of humility words like “modesty” and “humbleness” dropped by 52 percent. Usage of compassion words like “kindness” and “helpfulness” dropped by 56 percent. Meanwhile, usage of words associated with the ability to deliver, like “discipline” and “dependability” rose over the century, as did the usage of words associated with fairness. The Kesebirs point out that these sorts of virtues are most relevant to economic production and exchange.
Daniel Klein of George Mason University has conducted one of the broadest studies with the Google search engine. He found further evidence of the two elements I’ve mentioned. On the subject of individualization, he found that the word “preferences” was barely used until about 1930, but usage has surged since. On the general subject of demoralization, he finds a long decline of usage in terms like “faith,” “wisdom,” “ought,” “evil” and “prudence,” and a sharp rise in what you might call social science terms like “subjectivity,” “normative,” “psychology” and “information.”
Klein adds the third element to our story, which he calls “governmentalization.” Words having to do with experts have shown a steady rise. So have phrases like “run the country,” “economic justice,” “nationalism,” “priorities,” “right-wing” and “left-wing.” The implication is that politics and government have become more prevalent.
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.
This story, if true, should cause discomfort on right and left. Conservatives sometimes argue that if we could just reduce government to the size it was back in, say, the 1950s, then America would be vibrant and free again. But the underlying sociology and moral culture is just not there anymore. Government could be smaller when the social fabric was more tightly knit, but small government will have different and more cataclysmic effects today when it is not.
Liberals sometimes argue that our main problems come from the top: a self-dealing elite, the oligarchic bankers. But the evidence suggests that individualism and demoralization are pervasive up and down society, and may be even more pervasive at the bottom. Liberals also sometimes talk as if our problems are fundamentally economic, and can be addressed politically, through redistribution. But maybe the root of the problem is also cultural. The social and moral trends swamp the proposed redistributive remedies.
Evidence from crude data sets like these are prone to confirmation bias. 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.
Now here’s Mr. Bruni, datelined Columbus, Ohio:
No one at the Catholic high school that fired Carla Hale in March claimed that she was anything less than a terrific physical education teacher and coach, devoted to the kids and adored by many of them.
No one accused her of bringing her personal life into the gym or onto the fields. By nature she’s private. And she loved her job too much to risk it that way.
But she lost it nonetheless, and the how is as flabbergasting as the why is infuriating.
Rather suddenly, her mother died, and an hour afterward, she and her brother numbly went through the paces of a standard obituary, listing survivors. Her brother included his wife. So Carla included her partner, Julie, whom her mother had known well and loved. Leaving Julie out would have been unthinkable, though Carla didn’t really think it through at the time. Her grief was still raw.
A parent of one of the school’s students spotted the obituary, and wrote an anonymous letter to the school and to the Diocese of Columbus, saying that they couldn’t allow a woman like Carla to educate Catholic children.
So they don’t, not anymore. In a termination notice, the principal explained that Carla’s “spousal relationship violates the moral laws of the Catholic Church.” That was the sum of the stated grievance against her, and after more than 18 years at Bishop Watterson High School, Carla, 57, was done.
“The way it all came about was just so unfathomable,” she told me on Sunday. “An obituary?”
I met her and Julie, 48, in their house outside Columbus, where the front lawn was neatly tended, the refrigerator was plastered with photos of relatives, the chocolate lab dozed in his reserved spot on the sectional and Carla kept a box of tissues handy. Whenever she’s asked what her work meant to her, she cries.
“Every morning,” she said, “from the time you walked into the building, kids would be yelling down the hall, ‘Hey, Miss Hale, what are we going to do today?’ ‘Hey, Miss Hale, I remembered those shoes.’ It felt so comforting.” She had a sense of belonging. Of purpose.
Even now, after nearly two months of exile from the school, she’s still on what she calls “bell time.” If the clock on her kitchen wall says 10:45 a.m., the voice in her head says, “Fourth period.”
There’s so much in the media, and in this column, about the progress of gay rights, especially on the marriage front. But in the republic of Georgia just days ago, Orthodox priests led thousands of people in an antigay attack. In Greenwich Village, a young gay man was fatally shot in what’s been deemed a hate crime.
And at a kitchen table here in central Ohio, a typically cheerful woman dabbed her eyes and wondered aloud what she’d done wrong.
The answer is in one sense simple: she made a life with another woman. While the Catholic Church doesn’t condemn homosexuality per se, it considers any physical expression of it sinful. And Carla’s “public declaration of an extramarital relationship,” meaning the obituary, indicated that she was flouting Catholic tenets and thus breaching her contract, according to a statement the diocese e-mailed me.
But things get complicated when you consider the selectiveness of the church’s outrage, the capriciousness of its mercy.
Until public exposure shamed them, many church leaders protected priests whose sexual transgressions involved minors and were criminal.
Church leaders tolerate teachers at Catholic schools who are married with no kids or with few. Some are surely using artificial birth control, which the church officially opposes.
Besides which, Carla was guiding students through sit-ups, not psalms. The school hired her though she’s Methodist, not Catholic.
She was then married to a man, but they split and, more than a decade ago, she became involved with Julie.
Perhaps six colleagues met Julie over the years, though they probably weren’t the only ones aware of Carla’s sexual orientation. “I’m sure it was surmised: gym teacher, divorced, short hair, didn’t have a bow in it,” Carla said. “Come on.”
There was no discussion or upset, not until the anonymous letter.
Neither the federal government nor Ohio outlaws employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Columbus does, though whether it can be applied to religious groups is uncertain. Carla’s lawyer, Thomas Tootle, has filed a complaint with the city anyway.
It’s been a big story here, with thousands of people publicly expressing support for her. She’s moved but mortified. She didn’t seek and doesn’t enjoy the media attention.
“A lot of people want me to be bitter and go after the Catholic Church,” she said, adding that others want to cast her as a lesbian heroine. She just wants her job back, a recognition, she said, “that I’m a moral individual who happens to be gay.”