Thursday, March 24, 2005

More on the 1950s

I read the other day in a book called 'Harvard Rules' about an interesting survey that was done. Students at Harvard were asked what percentage of Harvard students they thought had slept with more than one person in the past 6 months. It was something like 90%. The real number of students who had was closer to 20%.

I'd like to retract the cold, polemical, unhelpful last line of my previous posting, but to delete it would be dishonest. So, I'm leaving it for posterity and respectfully withdrawing it from my perspective.

The social problems of the 1950s were different than those of today. My point was NOT to say that the moral climate has not 'changed;' it was simply to say that no coherent case can be made that proves that the 1950s were a more moral time. We've been steeped in I Love Lucy since we were 5 years old and it's vitiated our ability to deal with the past.


At 1:47 PM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

To say that “no coherent case can be made that proves the 1950s were a more moral time” is absolutely right. But that isn’t significant in any way. The reason the statement above is false is because morality is completely non-quantifiable and cannot be compared in ANY way not because Americans are essentially static in terms of morality. There aren’t amounts of morality or even amounts of moral actions floating around that can be counted. Now, in light of that, the most useful thing is to compare private lives with public ideals. Unfortunately, I think that is impossible when dealing with the 1950s, because large-scale research of private morality wasn’t very common. Some of the more publicized attempts at it (the work of Alfred Kinsey for example) were methodological nightmares that give us almost no useful information about private morality. So, I think we are pretty much screwed if we want to quantify that relationship. So, again, we are left with public narratives that represent the moral ideals of an age as perhaps the only large-scale indicator of that age’s morality.

Interestingly, to show how influential those ideals are (and therefore how telling they are about what people actually believe at any given time), I would point to the study in “Harvard Rules” that Charles mentioned. Public narratives of cultural ideals are so influential that, even in an age like ours (one of skepticism and unprecedented information flow), individuals are deeply influenced by what they perceive to be the standards by which others live. Perception is the key to the way individuals orient their lives. If Harvard students in 2004 think their peers are having rampant sex, then they will be more likely to do so themselves, even if their peers aren’t doing any such thing. These things matter in themselves! They perhaps matter even more than what people actually do.

At 1:49 PM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

I think redhurt got the whole thing exactly right. “I Love Lucy” was not what America was like in the 1950s and nobody who made the show or watched the show thought that it was. It was a public narrative that represented the ideals and goals of the era. And we seem to think that people weren’t as savvy back then – that they didn’t do things like that. We seem to miss that media were just as political then as they are now. The difference is, they were political in different ways. There are at least three differences between the 1950s and the 2000s that have allowed for TV programming shifts.

1) Cultural capital (the ability to influence societal goals and aims) has shifted away from local communities leaders, the President, the Church, etc. to entertainment venues. This isn’t a complete shift, nor was there a time when cultural capital was exclusively and statically the domain of the former, but there seems to have been a shift to the latter.
2) As a consequence, media has been able to direct cultural values rather than mimicking what was perceived as being pre-existing cultural values. As the definition of the top shifted (i.e. who was considered an elite in terms of cultural capital), entertainment elites (who displaced other elites as the holders of the most cultural capital) could direct the bottom without hurting ratings or profit.
3) Along with this came a shift in what Americans considered to be moral issues. I am pretty sure that white Southerners in 1950 didn’t think that racism or waging war was a moral issue. They did, however, think that sex was. Against dadman, I would probably claim that the reduction of morality to sexual morality isn’t the right wing’s agenda in 2005, but a habit that Americans have had for a while (say, 17th century to be conservative about it). To talk about sexual morality as morality in the 1950s isn’t a reductionist account, it is being historically consistent.

The shift in the moral climate, then, is both represented by and encouraged by the public narratives that we have. So, today, they may condemn racism and other bigotries, but they may not uphold traditional family arrangements. As a note, I don’t mean to imply that there is a great liberal hegemony in media that aims to crush the moral fiber of the heartland and break down bread-n-butter Americans. It is just the recognition that cultural values are almost always created top-down and almost never bottom-up and that the top (elite) has values that are often more similar to one another than to the bottom (everyone else). When the media and entertainment leaders weren’t part of the top, they were forced to mimic the American ideal. Once they were, they were able to influence the American ideal.

At 2:38 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

I think in your 2nd comment you undermine your own case, and make mine, by claiming that "I Love Lucy was not what America was like in the 1950s and nobody who made the show or watched the show thought that it was." I never made a single claim anything about what 1950s people thought of I Love Lucy; I have avoided taking their view on things. My point, which no one is taking direct issue with, is that 2005 people think that the 1950s were like "I Love Lucy," and that they're wrong.

1) If we're only accepting public narratives as evidence, why does "I Love Lucy" carry so much more weight than "Howl" or "East of Eden"?

2) While perceptions certainly do matter, they are still less relevant than actualities. I think that Harvard undergrads THINKING that everyone is having freaky sex when they're not is significant in itself.

3) I realize that you were not making a huge case during your 'cultural capital' claim, but I think you undermine your own claims again by claiming that the shift has been away from the president and the church (1950s C.C.) and to entertainment (2005.) This just makes my case that perceptions are not matching realities that much stronger!

At 3:58 PM, Anonymous dadman said...

j. morgan caler's two posts in this thread are wonderfully thought provoking, and so is charlespierce's response!


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