Political commentator George Will told graduating seniors at Princeton University on Sunday that he is alarmed by the infantilization of America and the culture of contempt.
“Today, there is a serrated edge to America life. The nation is awash in expressions of contempt and condescension,” Will said. “What are called social media — and which might more accurately be called anti-social media — seem to encourage snarky expressions of disdain.”
Will, a 1968 graduate of Princeton University, was addressing seniors and their guests at the university’s baccalaureate service, one of the school’s oldest traditions. He began his speech, held in the Princeton University Chapel, recalling another recent graduation where he spoke at Sing Sing Prison. “The 37 men were incarcerated because they had committed serious crimes. But during their incarceration they had earned college degrees. They did so in order to show, as one of them said, that prison was ‘not a landfill but a recycling center’,” he said.
“The striking thing about the 37 prisoner-graduates was that when they talked about their crimes they all — to a man — used the same vocabulary. They said they had made bad choices,” Will said. “This recurring phrase, this emphasis on choice, affirmed their agency, their status as moral actors. These men, many of whom had not had what you and I think of as a childhood, were adamantly insisting on their adulthood.”
Will said he mentioned his visit to Sing Sing Prison because he is “alarmed at the infantilization of America,” and by what Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse calls “the vanishing American adult.”
“This cultural phenomenon matters because, as has been well-said, politics is downstream from culture, and there are deleterious political consequences from the weakening of the adult culture of confident, measured and generous judgments about people and events,” Will said. “Sasse, a Yale history Ph.D., reminds us that there was a time, before people commuted to work, when Americans in a mostly rural nation worked where they lived. Before the ‘generational segregation’ of modern life, children saw adults doing the adult activity of work, often physical and gritty, and sometimes hazardous. Seeing this, the children learned an important truth. It is a truth expressed by a Princetonian, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said: ‘Nothing any good isn’t hard’.”
Children in the proximity of hard-working adults learned that adults are not just enlarged children, he said. They learned that adults do praiseworthy things, and the children learned to praise and admire.
“In this age of rage, disparagement is the default setting for many Americans. They seem to think that expressing admiration for someone or something is evidence of deficient critical faculties. To these habitual disparagers, maturity means a relentlessly-exercised capacity for contempt,” Will said. “Intelligent praising is a talent. It is learned. Like all virtues, it is habitual. It is a habit. And it is a virtue we need more of, right now. It is the virtue of recognizing virtue, and saluting it.”
Will said we live in what Arthur Brookes has called a “culture of contempt” that is rooted in envy. Envy, Will said, is the desire to see others diminished, even if we gain nothing from their diminishment. “Envy is, therefore, the opposite of praise, which is the act of celebrating others without feeling oneself diminished,” he said.
Praise is how people articulate admiration. Developing a talent for admiration is how people become less susceptible to feeling envy that stokes anger, he said.
“Praising is an activity that does benefit the people who praise. It helps them to flourish by recognizing and savoring admirable attributes wherever they occur,” he said. “Praise is, therefore, an antidote to something that today’s America has too much of: anger. One reason we have this unpleasant surplus is that anger has become fun for many people.”
Will cited Arthur Brookes, saying that anger can trigger dopamine in the brain, creating a potentially addictive pleasure. “And the addiction to anger, like an addiction to heroin, must be fed by ever-more intense doses, until the anger-addicted person feels fully alive only when he or she is incandescent with indignation,” Will said.
He then gave an example of how someone was triggered and went on Twitter to express indignation about a Ku Klux Klan sign at a ball park, when the three Ks the person saw actually represented a strikeout. “What really interests me is how eager the person on Twitter was to be angry about something — anything. And how eager this person was to think the worst of others,” he said. “I doubt that this person is given to generous praising.”
Students who are taught how to praise are taught the standards by which society decides which people and things are praiseworthy, Will said. They learn the pleasure of praising, which is the pleasure of savoring the acknowledgement of excellence. “This is a pleasure more durable, more lasting than the curdled pleasure of anger,” he said, adding that praising can help people make good decisions.
“It is more than my hope, it is my assumption, that you who are now leaving this university have been equipped by it to become, yourselves, standards of excellence in your professions and in your lives. You will be more apt to do this the more you exercise your talent for praising others who deserve emulation,” he said.
Will then recited lyrics from “Old Nassau,” the Princeton University alma mater: “Tune ev’ry heart and ev’ry voice, Bid ev’ry care withdraw; Let all with one accord rejoice, In praise of Old Nassau. “
“Note well the words ‘rejoice in praise’,” he said. “These are words to live by — delighting in excellence, and in acknowledging excellence.”