Let me explain. I have been reading Charles Murray’s new book “Coming Apart” as well as an article about Melvin Kohn’s ideas on social values, and putting the pieces together. What they suggest is something that at first blush sounds antithetic to the American Dream.
Murray richly documents the diverging fates of those at the upper and lower ends of our social class system. While members of the upper middle class are doing very nicely, the lowest 30 percent are trapped in a cycle of crime, unemployment and disintegrating marriages. Moreover, they are unhappy.
Meanwhile, Kohn has provided evidence that middle-class parents teach their children to be self-directed, whereas lower-class parents demand conformity. The latter insist on obedience and if it is not forthcoming have no compunctions about imposing physical discipline.
What this results in are upper-middle class children who are capable of self-discipline and lower class children who have difficulty with self-control. The former internalize social standards such as morality, while the latter become oppositional and seek to get away with what they can.
The difference in these orientations is on display in the sports they favor. Thus, the middle classes enjoy golf, an activity that is notorious for the personal concentration it requires. The lower classes, however, are enraptured by pro wrestling, a spectacle in which large-bodied paladins often cheat.
This disparity may seem amusing, yet is anything but. When it is translated onto the larger social scene, it means that middle-class persons are more worthy of trust than their lower-class peers. Because they monitor their own behaviors and control their selfish impulses, they can be allowed to function without external controls. Indeed, as social leaders they often control others.
Meanwhile, those belonging to the lower strata more often seek to elude social constraints. They hate being bound by rules, thus if they believe their activities are not being monitored, they over-step the lines. I saw this when I worked at a methadone clinic where the attitude was that lawbreaking was OK — as long as you didn’t get caught.
Put this together with the fact that our society today believes in “tolerance” and the consequences are alarming. We are now supposed to offer everyone “unconditional positive regard” and refrain from being “judgmental.” This stance appears humane, yet is fraught with danger.
We can take a hands-off approach with people who are self-directed. Because they discipline themselves, they can be allowed to make independent choices. On the other hand, those who are not self-directed cannot be extended a similar independence.
In short, members of the lower classes require a greater variety of external constraints. If they are to behave in a disciplined manner, they must be subject to exterior sanctions when they violate social standards.
Nonetheless, we as a society have decided that imposing standards on people violates their rights. This tactic, while it works perfectly well with most middle-class folks, invites irresponsibility and lethargy from lower-class folks.
Once upon a time, most people understood this. They realized that social discipline was required if we were to have an orderly society. The founding fathers recognized this when they endorsed religion as a means of keeping people socially accountable.
Most ordinary people endorsed it when they subscribed to a legal system that punished the guilty. They also approved it when they scorned those who broke their marriage vows.
Regretfully, we too must uphold social discipline. The fact is that there are some folks who need it and others who suffer when it is absent.
Melvyn L. Fein Ph.D. is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.