Our New Culture of Fragility

The values of modern society often surface in our discussions about athletes and celebrities. These figures receive so much publicity that many people feel that they know them and thus, they become figures in a morality play. This scrutiny is in a sense unfair to them. We do not actually know them as we know our family and friends and are in a poor position to judge them. Yet the wide-ranging dialogue about their actions can provide a window into how societal values are changing organically, without the direction of the government or the pressure of some great event.

Thus what is most interesting about the withdrawal of Simone Biles from several gymnastics events at the Tokyo Olympics is not her action but the public reaction. Athletes withdraw from competition all the time, and Biles in no way deserved the thoughtless and unkind personal comments that she received particularly from figures associated with the political right. It is the more deliberate commentary that is socially revealing, precisely because it is more thought through and seeks to construct a world of meaning around the decision. Her action, for instance, was hailed as an act of “radical courage.” Her prioritization of mental health and peace of mind has been used to record with approval the decline of stoicism in athletics. Such commentary underscores a new addition in the public sphere to the values of grit and stick-to-itiveness that were prized by prior generations.

And this is not the first such recent incident. A highly ranked tennis player, Naomi Osaka, withdrew from the French Open because she found taking questions after matches disquieting. In many quarters it provoked praise similar to that which Biles received. It is in striking contrast with stories and celebrations of old—where athletes were only lauded for showing up and playing hard even when not a hundred percent, for staying in their game day after day without complaint. The traditional storyline is that these athletes were not deterred by aches and pains, and sometimes serious injury, let alone by unease with journalists’ questions.

And it is not only in sports we see evidence of the radical transformation of values. Prince Harry’s flight from his royal family—to avoid the “toxic atmosphere” that he claimed to have faced has also been greeted favorably by some. This reaction is even more extraordinary than that toward athletes. They are people of genuine accomplishment. But one does not become a member of the royal family on merit. Instead, the implicit deal had been that in return for immense privilege and wealth, one embody some very traditional values, duty and stoicism in the face of criticism being among them. The contrast between the Queen’s code of duty and the Prince’s code of fragility captures a generational change.

That generational shift becomes even clearer when we consider higher education. The movement for “safe spaces” is often considered simply an ideological project of the left, but it also reflects many of the same values emerging in celebrity and athletic culture. To demand a safe space is to ask for a place where one’s peace of mind will be protected from trauma. Of course here the trauma comes from disquieting ideas that a university education requires a student to confront.

It is easy to mock safe spaces, and I believe they are indeed antithetical to a liberal education. But the demand for them also captures changing priorities. Many profound ideas can indeed be deeply disturbing, socially and personally. Kafka said “A book must be an axe for the sea frozen inside us.” Breaking up that ice may be painful. What the move toward safe spaces shows is that psychological peace is preferred over the liberal, sometimes romantic, idea of the transformative power of knowledge.

At law schools, Socratic dialogue is disappearing for much the same reason. The famous scene in The Paper Chase, in which a law professor cold calls a student and grills him on the facts and reasoning of a famous case, has become largely an anachronism—and for much the same reason as the rise of safe spaces. It is seen as demeaning and upsetting. But law is an adversarial business. The decline of the Socratic method represents a judgment that such useful preparation should be subordinated to a more pleasant, consumer-oriented experience, at least within the confines of the university.

The therapeutic society is not just about methods but about the measure of man. The ultimate metric is one of subjective feeling about the self. That measure contrasts with ones where worth is defined by tradition, religion, or natural law.

What are the causes of this elevation of peace of mind and, in some instances, the cultivation of fragility as transcendent values over so many others that have been ascendant in Western civilization, like duty, honor, stoicism, and the search for truth? As with any important social phenomenon, it is a mistake to try to find a single cause. The world is a complex place being tugged and pushed by many forces. But here are three factors working together that have helped to bring about this transmutation.

The Decline of Masculine Virtues. Many of the values here displaced became ascendant in a society much more male-dominated than our own. Duty, honor, and stoicism were at their height in societies that might be seen today as patriarchal.

While there are of course exceptions, on average, men are more comfortable with overt competition and conflict outside of intimate relations, and such conflict is often a consequence of fulfilling duty and obligations of honor. Sometimes this gender dynamic is made explicit in demands that some practices be discarded because they have a disparate impact on the psyche and performance of women. That has been a complaint about the Socratic method at law schools.

Some of this change is inevitable. The values of a society where women work outside the home necessarily differ from those in which they were dependent on the earning and brawn of their male relatives. What we are struggling with is how to preserve some of the venerable virtues in a world where the relations between men and women have been transformed.

The Therapeutic Society. As others have noted, our society is a therapeutic one, where we seek ways to feel better about ourselves. We have a self-esteem movement to aid those feelings in school and a self-help industry to facilitate them in adults.

The therapeutic society is not just about methods but about the measure of man. The ultimate metric is one of subjective feeling about the self. That measure contrasts with ones where worth is defined by tradition, religion, or natural law. And some of the values celebrated by those objective measures become open to being subordinated. Duty, honor, stick-to-itiveness, even truth-seeking, are not about promoting self-satisfaction or assuring tranquility. Indeed they can lead to discomfort, even agony.

The subjective feelings that must be accommodated often appear anomalous with what might seem to be a more objective reality. An outside observer would consider Prince Harry one of the more fortunate people on the planet. Without the benefit of any great talents, he lives a life of wealth and comfort that is beyond the reach of almost anyone. But a therapeutic society focuses on the part of his life that has most hurt his own sense of self-worth and thereby offers some justification of his extraordinary steps to help himself feel better.   

That perspective helps explain what would have seemed incredible a century ago—the immensely privileged second son of a British monarch using his emotional fragility as an excuse for abandoning his familial duty.

The Wealth of the West. This transformation of values is made possible by the great wealth Western societies have built up—wealth that has depended directly on the willingness to sacrifice for the long term. Such commitments are undergirded by older values like duty and persistence in the face of adversity. It is far more difficult to focus on good feelings about the self when external dangers threaten the very existence of self or of society. But wealth provides a substantial cushion for indulging the valorization of feeling, and at the margin there is less interest in making society richer the more wealth society enjoys. Values come to reflect that changing margin.

This latter point suggests that older values could gain priority again should the United States face a major war or some other extended existential threat. But until that kind of calamity occurs, the values of peace of mind and internal tranquility will often crowd out other ones. The skepticism about masculine values, the therapeutic society, and the demand for respect for what is most fragile within us seem all to be increasing.

The larger lesson is that the great changes in society often do not come randomly from signal events or top-down through politics. They come incrementally but systematically through social experience that prompts subtle changes in the conception of the self and relations with others.

Generational differences today reflect the fact that the younger Americans are, the more they have grown up in a wealthy, therapeutic, and less masculine society. One may deplore or celebrate the new world, but it should not be dismissed simply as a product of left-liberalism or the malevolence of higher education. It is more rooted in our underlying way of life and likely more enduring than anything that partisan politicians or teachers can create or cure.