August 27, 2014

The decline of stoicism during status-striving times

One of the most palpable changes to the social climate during times of rising competitiveness, with its norm of me-first and dog-eat-dog, is how emotionally unrestrained people become. Each individual no longer feels like it's their duty to regulate their emotions in the presence of others, no matter how positive, negative, or neutral the feeling is.

Soooo stoked for the beginning of pumpkin spice latte season!!!!

Soooo depressed that Wendy's is discontinuing the Tuscan chicken on toasted ciabatta :((((

Fuck yeah, George Takei for the epic motherbitching win!

It's my opinion, douchenozzle, if you don't want to hear it then go somewhere else.

Older and higher-status people are no less on-edge emotionally than those who are younger and more status-insecure. Steve Jobs, John McCain, and their fans, and their haters.

In more accommodating times, the norm is reining-it-in. Don't work 100 hours a week out of ambition, if that work could have been divided into two 50-hour schedules and given someone else a job too. Don't get overly excited when you feel positive, since you'll look like a poor winner or like you're trying to lord it over those who are feeling only so-so. And when you're feeling down in the dumps, don't whine so loudly about that either, since excessive emotion may be drawing more attention to your problems than is necessary to help you out, leaving the problems of others unattended to. Thus does stoicism support a more egalitarian society.

The removal of emotional restraint was already under way in the '80s, when the strong silent type like Clint Eastwood had become replaced by high-energy loose cannons like Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, and Bruce Willis. Eastwood was not only popular in the '60s (continuing on the popularity of Westerns back through the '50s), but into the early part of the '70s as Dirty Harry, another strong silent type. Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones was less unpredictable than other in-your-face heroes of the '80s, but he wails and grimaces in pain more than the Western stars of the Midcentury, and is more likely to unload on an enemy in a rage.

Consciously retro characters like the Fonze and Special Agent Dale Cooper derived their appeal in large part from harking back to a time when men kept it together emotionally.

The same changes can be seen in the prose styles of popular authors. During the Great Compression of roughly 1920 to 1970, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Kerouac, and Mailer all wrote in a terse style, and kept their works fairly short in length, to nip sentimentality in the bud. Contrast with the verbose, florid, and treacly prose that was more typical of the Victorians, as well as the self-indulgent 800-page novels of our neo-Dickensian era.

Also from the Victorian era were public intellectuals with such nicknames as "Darwin's Bulldog" (Huxley), who have only started to come back into fashion with New Atheist types and their immediate predecessors like Richard Dawkins. In fairness, The Selfish Gene was an early example before things got as heated as they are now, and he was fairly sympathetic to religious thinking and wrote in a milder tone. Still, I don't recall there being a Fisher's Bulldog or a Wright's Bulldog in the Midcentury, although in 1930 Fisher was somewhat his own bulldog when he wrote an inflammatory second half about eugenics in his book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection.

Returning to an earlier post about the rise of road rage, what kinds of solutions do we hear for folks with an aggressive driving problem? "Anger management." As it turns out, that phrase appears in Google's digital library (Ngram) only in the 1970s, and rises steadily through the late 2000s. A quick check of the Wikipedia article for "anger management" shows that the academic literature on the topic shares this timeline.

Andy Griffith may have had to deal with the occasional hot-head picking a fight in a bar, but not everyday road rage, and he did not have to refer one offender after another to anger management programs.

But the clearest demonstration of the link between falling competitiveness and stoicism is the original, capital-letter Stoicism of the Roman Empire. As a practical philosophical school that led by example, it flourished from Seneca, to Epictetus, to Marcus Aurelius, which coincides with a long period, from emperors Augustus to Marcus Aurelius, of increasing stability within the Empire (particularly among the elites, who had been at war with one another not so long before).

Once internal competition began to rear its head again under the reign of Commodus, Stoicism went up in a puff of smoke. We can tell that this was due to a social-cultural shift, rather than the introduction of newer, weaker blood because Commodus received half of his genetic stock from the Stoic philosopher-emperor himself. Recall this earlier post, using Commodus as an example, about how bombastic and unrestrained the leaders become as society creeps toward civil war.

Increasing levels of rage, excitement, and so on, are symptoms of the underlying cause — the rise in competitiveness, and its accompanying norm of me-first. Don't make me contain my emotions, and I won't make you contain yours. We'll just have to see whose emotions are stronger than the other's. So, going to those anger management programs, or taking a DIY approach, probably won't do all that much long-term. We need to attack these problems at their root, which is the laissez-faire attitude and hyper-competitive behavior toward others.


  1. This ngrams paper showed emotion related words dropping through the whole Twentieth Century.

    But with a divergence where American writers are a bit less emotional than British ones until about the 1980s, at which point they become much more emotional. So this is really a case of American books becoming less unemotional than British ones, while they all become more unemotional (or maybe they have become more emotional but have managed to do it obliquely without using emotion related words).

  2. I wonder how bombastic American politicians were in the roaring 20's. Harding, Silent Cal, and Hoover don't seem to qualify. On the other hand, the decade saw the height of the Klan.

    Were Gilded Age politics bombastic, despite the trivial political differences between the parties? How about early Republic politics, when Federalists and Jeffersonians were at each others throats?

  3. "I wonder how bombastic American politicians were in the roaring 20's. Harding, Silent Cal, and Hoover don't seem to qualify."

    The status-striving trend had reached its peak a little earlier, in the 1910s. Changes in inequality lag behind changes in status-striving by 5-10 years, going from Turchin's analysis. (At the other end, Silent / Boomer striving was evident around 1970, but inequality didn't start rising until later in the decade.)

    The height of bombastic politicians wouldn't be the '20s but the early 1900s -- Teddy Roosevelt. Even by the time Wilson took office, he had arrived on a promise to stay out of WWI. Americans had started to sour on the idea of kicking ass as foreign policy. But he was strongly ideological about the League of Nations, spreading democracy, etc., so he wasn't exactly as silent as Coolidge either. The '10s were the turning point.

    "Were Gilded Age politics bombastic, despite the trivial political differences between the parties?"

    Well there are real differences no matter when you look. One of the most notorious incidents of a politician not keeping it together, and acting more like a gladiator, was in the lead-up to the Civil War. In 1856, a member of the House of Representatives charged into the Senate and beat one of them into unconsciousness with his cane (the Southern Brooks beat the Northern Sumner).

    "How about early Republic politics, when Federalists and Jeffersonians were at each others throats?"

    Like the Jeffersonian Aaron Burr challenging the Federalist Alexander Hamilton to a duel and mortally wounding him in 1804?

    The nadir of competitiveness was during the Era of Good Feelings, around the presidency of James Madison. Already when Andy Jackson came to power, politics would begin to move back toward the showboating direction.

  4. "or maybe they have become more emotional but have managed to do it obliquely without using emotion related words"

    Right, they seem to be dancing around things. Instead of saying "excited about the new Baconator," it's "fuck yeah, epic Baconator for the motherbitching win!"

    If we're looking at how restrained or unrestrained emotional expressions are, we have to look at a higher level than use of emotion words, like prose styles. That's hard to do with Ngram, but it's not like it's a mystery when prose styles have been more flowery or more terse.

  5. Ironically, Tom Wolfe, my favorite contemporary novelist, tends to write in a pretty verbose style while simultaneously bringing up themes of Stoicism in the face of a status-driven world.

    Regarding politicians, I wouldn't describe any of the ones from the 00's-present as particularly bombastic. Obama had kind of a personality cult in '08 but other than that it seems like boringness is the recipe for success. Think Kerry vs. Dean in 2004. On the other hand, you get a lot of overblown political rhetoric these days whereby an extremely trivial issue is made into a huge freaking deal; gay marriage is probably exhibit A but there's plenty of others.

  6. quoted at CH8/27/14, 8:53 PM

    The obvious problem with this analysis is that both men and women were non-histrionic in the 1950's, which was a time of high status striving, as told in books like The Status Seekers (Packard) and The Lonely Crowd (Riesman). I don't know why a phenomenon like road rage couldn't be chalked up to simple overcrowding. Don't most Americans live in much greater density than they did in 1985? Don't they have far more frustration at work? The things about which to be stoic have really been piling up, haven't they? Now throw in the women's movement, which validates "passion" as equal or superior to reason.

  7. The '50s saw a quest for lots of new-fangled material distractions, but it was otherwise a period of falling status-striving. Hardly anyone went through credentialing factories ("higher education"), lack of interest in keeping up with the Jonses kept home prices flat throughout the Great Compression (aside from a one-time rise after the Depression / WWII), homes were way smaller for the elite and they didn't have armies of hired help, and folks married early because they weren't striving and holding out for a 10/10 -- more like the homely person who sat next to you in high school English class.

    Touched on some of those topics here:

  8. "I wouldn't describe any of the ones from the 00's-present as particularly bombastic."

    Bush II as the global cowboy.

  9. Really, really love your blog. Competitive environment with a hierarchy(work) tends to be emotionally flat. This is my current experience. Too big a personality steps on too many toes unless they are fairly high up the food chain. Personally, I like positive exuberance as opposed to apathy or crabbiness. Share your joy but modify your disappointment if that is possible.

  10. " Competitive environment with a hierarchy(work) tends to be emotionally flat."

    You've indirectly raised an important point, which is that competitiveness and status-striving are not the same thing. Times of equality are competitive, but in a more fair, meritocratic way, instead of a naked striving for status. Afterall, the 1920s, a time of rising equality, saw competitive men like Charles Lindbergh strive for sole accomplishments - but in a more fair way - Lindbergh wasn't connected to anybody important nor have important titles.

    Per the topic, it goes back to the idea of status being all-important. If you have the status, the title, then it doesn't matter how well you do or don't get along with people in your everyday life.

  11. In fact, times of rising equality are even more competitive, because you can't hide behind your status, because the rules are fair and success is based on ability, and because people are more likely to give their all in a fair contest.

    status-striving limits competitiveness, because someone can sit on their status and not feel compelled to give others a chance.

  12. Competitiveness still exists when status-striving is falling, but it spreads to ever more domains of life and ratchets up in intensity when status-striving goes up.

    Housewives during the previous cocooning period were not trying to one-up each other over who had designer vs. standard Tupperware, whose European vacation would be more authentic vs. touristy, and so on.

    We can distinguish good-spirited competition from anti-social competition. Or sportsmanlike vs. dog-eat-dog competition.

  13. I wonder if this explains the cussing phenomenon among the middle and upper-middle classes. Even on, a site for yarn crafters, one can be asked on a questionnaire that is supposed to inform others about oneself, "What is your favorite curse word?" "Bitches" seems especially popular with women who cuss. On the other hand, I've tended to think the rise in cussing and vulgarity, especially among millenials, was related to "bad-assery" being elevated to absurdly high levels amongst the working class (see 9-year-old girl accidentally kills instructor with uzi as just the latest example of this phenomenon). That is another topic, which I'm sensitive to and have been noting since around 1999 when I became a parent and just keeps managing to get worse.

  14. I sympathize with Dahlia. Though I'm not a parent myself I've noticed that people in public and even in the workplace seem to have become potty mouths over the last 15-20 years. Millenials are naturally the worst offenders. It isn't just the language, per se, either. The tone of voice with witch the swearing is done has a noticeably more bitter edge than it did in, say, 1995.
    I think this trend can be attributed to the rising levels of nasty competitiveness that Agnostic has been posting about lately. With the rising selfish, win-at-all-costs mentality there seems to be less and less regard for the most basic courtesies. So the abrasive vulgarity ends up further polluting the public and interpersonal sphere that's in rough shape to begin with.
    The Millenials born since about 1988 never really had a chance. There whole life they've had to deal with virtually everyone around them being stridently self absorbed. They've had nothing in the way of a pro-social environment that would've taught them the rewards of being attentive to those around you.
    Agnostic might agree that the lack of swift retribution for major, let alone minor acts of rudeness and disrespect by Millenials in their upbringing didn't help.

  15. "Badass" is a good word for what they're like (or think they're like). Not just trying to be the center of attention, but in such a high-energy and almost spastic way... when they aren't staring like zombies at their little glowing screens.

    We wouldn't call Clint Eastwood a "badass." Cool, macho, but not trying to show off so that the audience would say, "Dude, that badass is so epicly sick!"

    Swearing is cheap to do, so it'll be one of the first things that people turn to in order to hype up their image as a badass. Anyone can do it, so everyone does.

    Millennials definitely did not have any role models for pro-social behavior, so they lack social intuition. But that still leaves reasoning open as a way to get through to them, and lord knows their minds crave reasons for things. It's like trying to teach a foreign language rather than speaking with someone who already knows it by heart, but just hasn't spoken it in awhile.

    I think as the Millennials get clobbered by one rude awakening after another, they'll be searching for answers and open to guidance. "We did exactly what we were told, so what the shmurr went wrong?" That may take until around age 30 to sink in, which means the early Millennials will be willing to listen in just five years from now.

    That's a lot sooner than it sounds, and normal folks, especially conservatives, should have something clear to say to them. How too much individual competition leads to "over-grazing the commons," how too much demand sends prices soaring (higher ed, housing), and how striving for perfection is going to leave you empty.

    The last point is the most confusing. Usually when you wait, you get something better than if you get it right now. But that doesn't work with finding a job and finding a spouse. A tiny minority will get a dream job and a dream wife or husband by holding out for a long time, but just about everyone is going to end up pissing away their youth when they could've been earning and saving money, and getting married and starting a family.

    Millennials are so paralyzed that they might be overwhelmed by being told to "strike while the iron is hot." What else can we tell them, though?

    1. Good points about striking while the iron is hot. I think a lot of us will be seeing soon what misspent youth looks like at the end of life as the baby boomers move well into old age.
      An anecdote on "badass": last month my 14-year-old shared with his younger cousin an alternate word for passing gas, just like every boy and man I've ever known in my youth; they're quite proud (snake bark, sat on a frog, etc.). My sister-in-law, b. 1981 and admittedly prole, gets upset and says it's "too sissy" and says, "It's 'fart', Zack! Say fart!"

  16. " I don't know why a phenomenon like road rage couldn't be chalked up to simple overcrowding. Don't most Americans live in much greater density than they did in 1985?"

    Calhoun, the guy that did those overpopulation experiments with mice, said that 1984 o '85 was the point of no return when it came to overpopulation. That is around the same time that videogames became popular, which certainly seem like response to overpopulation(I don't have anything against videogames).

  17. About the length of novels, you could also compare novels written in the Regency era - Jane Austen's Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, et cetera - which were all short novels compared to the Victorian era which came after, such as Vanity Fair and Dickens.

    The Regency era being equivalent to the Great Compression era and the Victorian era being equivalent to the Reaganite neoliberal era.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."