Is America Becoming One Big 12-Step Program? Lessons from the Contemporary Vocabulary

Steven Hayward

August 1, 1997

“Now and then,” the late literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote, “it is possible to observe the moral life in process of revising itself.” If you look closely at the way the vocabulary of compassion and “conflict resolution” are being used these days, the new direction in America’s moral sensibilities can be discerned.

For a long time conservative critics have attacked the “therapeutic ethic” behind much of modern liberalism, and the phrase “social engineering” has a companion popular pejorative—the nanny state. Most middle class Americans rightly recoil from the intrusions of the nanny state, which explains why support for the welfare state has been steadily declining, such that a welfare reform plan that was unthinkable under Ronald Reagan ten years ago became a necessity for President Clinton last year.

The popular suspicion of government, however unmodulated, represents progress, and we should celebrate this turn in our political affairs. However, in a deeper level, there are signs that the therapeutic ethic is prospering in the sensibilities of Americans, that our moral life has entered a new revision. It is affecting our political judgment. Clifford Orwin’s article in the latest issue of The Public Interest entitled “Moist Eyes — From Rousseau to Clinton” explores how compassion — “I feel your pain” — has become a substitute for individual moral goodness in the modern world. Compassion is to be distinguished from charity, which is a Christian duty rooted in our ultimate concern for the other fellow’s eternal soul. Compassion, on the other hand, is a largely self-indulgent and this-worldly virtue, especially on the political level. Look how good I am: I feel your pain.

The ascendancy of political compassion explains the success of President Clinton and his amazingly durable popularity. Clinton is a politically virtuous person because, well. . . because he just cares, and by implication Republicans, by opposing “caring” policies, whether hospital stay mandates for new moms or new air quality regulations, don’t care. It was the genius of Dick Morris (another moral reprobate) to figure out that there was more political mileage to be gained through a lot of small ideas (school uniforms and V-chips) than through big ideas, such as sweeping health care reform. People are resistant to big changes, like the New Coke or wholesale health care reform, even when they say they favor “change.” But small measures such as the summit on voluntarism are big symbols of compassion. This is especially useful for a liberal in times of constrained opportunities for new welfare state programs.

The rise of political compassion, and not single issues such as abortion, is at the root of the so-called “gender gap.” And it is not fundamentally a gender question; this same sensibility is catching on quickly with SNAGs (Sensitive New Age Guys), the 90s successor to the yuppies of the 80s.

The political impact of compassion as a crowning virtue can be seen also in the very language we increasingly use to discuss our disagreements. An entire vocabulary of soft jargon about consensus is nowadays used to shroud fundamental disagreement the way Novocain is used to deaden a tooth. Nothing is more common these days than to hear someone offer the peroration, “This is not about A versus Z (A and Z representing the opposing viewpoints on an issue); it is about finding common ground to solve the problem and move us forward together; it is about embracing consensus rather than conflict; dialogue instead of argument,” and so forth. Of course, the matter is about A versus Z; common ground, consensus, and dialogue are mere balms to disguise this unfriendly fact. The pervasive appeal to such watery sentiments are examples of our tendency to let cliches do our thinking for us (as in, “We need a paradigm-shift“).

Increasingly it seems that America has become one vast 12-step program. To borrow the pop vocabulary, we seem to be obsessing over Happy-Talk, and in denial about our real disagreements. (Though in denial usually indicates the healthy resistance ordinary people have to elitist agendas, as in “the people are in denial about the need for higher taxes. . .”)

This is the language of the increasingly popular technique of “conflict resolution.” Resolving conflicts today does not involve the Socratic process of deliberating over who is right. Socratic argument, in fact, is considered bad form. “Conflict resolution” aims at reaching a “consensus” that is usually the lowest-common-denominator of the various “stakeholders” present around the table. In fact, such processes (I have been a part of a few) resemble nothing so much as a polite labor negotiation. It is significant that we call people in such processes “stakeholders” rather than “interests.” “Stakeholder” implies an equality between interests, when in fact self-seeking interests vary widely in their moral stature.

On the surface it might seem that the softness of language we use these days is merely a hyperextension of the civility we are supposedly so short of. But in fact these linguistic evasions serve a liberal agenda, for they cause a kind of rhetorical disarmament that makes effective resistance to nonsense extremely difficult. The “consensus/dialogue” is always about how far we should move to the Left, and seldom the other way around. But if you stand publicly for argument instead of dialogue, for conflict instead of consensus, people who are increasingly conditioned to respond to Happy-Talk will instantly think you are a Bad Person, that you lack compassion and sensitivity.

Margaret Thatcher, as so often is the case, had the right attitude about consensus, once describing it as “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner ’I stand for consensus’?” And Winston Churchill remarked, “What is the good of speaking one language if you can’t put your differences to each other plainly?”

The ascendancy of compassion as a political virtue, along with the soft language of consensus, represent a new turn in our moral life, just as Trilling had identified the rise of sincerity several centuries ago as a brand new moral sensibility. Conservatives face a difficult task. Just as liberals consistently underestimated the skill and appeal of Ronald Reagan, it would be a mistake for conservatives to underestimate the seriousness of this profound turn in our moral sensibilities. A way must be found to bridge the compassion gap that doesn’t involve becoming Clinton-lite. Otherwise the gap may turn into an abyss, into which the political sense of the country will be swallowed up.

Dr. Hayward is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.