In her excellent new book, “Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty,” the sociologist Jennifer Silva analyzes the ways in which neoliberalism has radically transformed our sense of self. As Silva argues, the assault on working-class organizations and living standards has led many young adults to adopt a profoundly individualistic and therapeutic view of the world and their personal development.
The scores of young workers that she interviewed for her study had no faith in politics or collective action to address their problems or to give their lives meaning. Instead, they deal with the traumas of everyday life by crafting “deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from painful pasts — whether addictions, childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment — and forging an emancipated, transformed, adult self.”This author goes on to argue that this intense individualism, telling ourselves stories about ourselves only, is part of the problem. We liberals are too enamored of our uniqueness to make effective coalitions to build change.
The appeal of individualistic and therapeutic approaches to the problems of our time is not difficult to apprehend. But it is only through the creation of solidarities that rebuild confidence in our collective capacity to change the world that their grip can be broken.We've done this to ourselves,of course, by favoring self-expression and independence, by building self-esteem in our children, to the point where they can no longer deal with failure or setbacks. (As a college teacher, I get a flood of emails at the end of every semester from students who didn't earn the grade they wanted but demand that I give it to them anyway.)
We've cut ourselves off from community. And we see politically that the conservatives who maintain that group identity are often more disciplined and effective at getting what they want. Think of the difference of the political mobilization that lead to the Tea Party, which now holds a power balance in the GOP, whereas the political mobilization from the Occupy movement....oh, right, there WAS no political effect of the Occupy movement.
Elizabeth Drescher recently wrote about a different study suggesting something similar-- that those more liberally inclined have a greater sense of uniqueness and non-confomity.
Overall, Stern, et al found that “liberals underestimated their similarity to other liberals, whereas moderates and conservatives overestimated their similarity to other moderates and conservatives.”
She argues that this is a reason for declining youth engagement in mainline Protestant denominations.
While the former Evangelical Christians I’ve talked with in my research on Nones have tended to express anger with the religious traditions of their youth, and many former Catholic Nones express hurt or sadness, Nones raised in Mainline Protestant traditions have tended to express a “been-there-done-that” boredom with the traditions in which they were raised. They’ve graduated, matured out of the need for regular reinforcement of the ethical teachings of the church….
Though of course further research would be required to bear this notion out, we may fairly wonder if the personal “specialness” and “uniqueness” that is often at the center of Christian formation programs is perhaps over-amplified in more progressive Christian traditions.
Are liberal Christians encouraging and affirming themselves to the point that they no longer feel the need to occupy their own communities?I've commented before that my mother doesn't really "get" my participation in our church community. She is the definition of a rugged individualist. But I've converted to seeing the good in community, and only wish we'd found it a lot sooner, when it might have made a difference to the kids.