Moral Nostalgia and the Myth of the Authoritarian Past

February 27, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brad Wright, on his Christian sociologist blog, talks about “moral nostalgia.” Great coinage. It might even join those few other terms that have crossed over from sociology into the general vocabulary — terms like role model and self-fulfilling prophesy. (Can anyone think of some others?)

The idea that people, especially young people, are less moral than the previous generation is apparently irresistible. Blogger (and Montclair State sociology alumna) Trrish P has a link to a version of moral nostalgia called “Take Me Back to the Sixties.” Ah yes, the moral paradise of the sixties. Of course, this guy’s counterpart in the 60s was complaining that society then represented a sharp decline from some earlier golden era. And in the fifties too, parents lamented the moral decline among youth— the sort of thing satirized in the song “Kids” from Bye-Bye Birdie. The show opened on Broadway in 1960, so its sensibility was pure 1950s. Paul Lynde sang the song, and he did a great job of mocking the moral nostalgia while pretending to espouse it. Here’s a link to him doing a brief version at the 1971 TONY awards.

Kids! I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!
Kids! Who can understand anything they say?
Kids! They are disobedient, disrespectful oafs!
Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers!
And while we're on the subject:
Kids! You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
Kids! But they still just do what they want to do! . . . .

Kids! They are just impossible to control!
Kids! With their awful clothes and their rock an' roll!


(Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams)

Sociologists are not immune from moral nostalgia. In class, I often use an essay from an intro text which explains the truly steep rise in juvenile homicide in the late 1980s by pinning the rap, in part, on the “decline in the moral authority of the family.”

When I read that phrase, in my mind’s ear I always hear Paul Lynde singing “Kids!” But students see the statement as an obvious truth, and most of them say that in the ten years since the essay was written, the moral authority of the family has continued its regrettable slide.

The essay presents absolutely no evidence that the decline has occurred (it’s a short essay, and the authors have many fish to fry), so I use it as an example of how difficult it is to operationalize a concept like “moral authority of the family” and get evidence about it, especially for comparing past eras with our own. But I also suspect that the decline in family authority, at least among middle-class families, is a myth.

Has there ever been a generation when parents said, “You know, kids today are a lot better behaved than we were”? I suspect that even the parents of the “Greatest Generation” didn’t think the kids were so great. At least in the US, the idea that morals are slipping and that kids are less respectful and obedient is as old as the Republic, and it may have to something to do with our relatively non-authoritarian family and our emphasis on independence even for children.

But I think there’s a more general source for this myth of the authoritarian past. It’s common to hear parents say something like, “The things kids say and do today — I could never have gotten away with that with my old man.” (I usually imagine a man saying this, perhaps because authority is not so much an issue for women.) The man who says this pictures his own father as much more powerful than he, the speaker, is now. But that’s only because he is remembering his father from the perspective of a child. When he was a child, his father really was much more powerful than he was — so much bigger and stronger, it seemed the father could do whatever he wanted. But when that child grows up and thinks about himself today, he is not looking up from the viewpoint of his own small children. Instead, he sees himself from his own place in the larger world. He knows that he is certainly not the biggest or strongest person around, he knows that his actions are limited by all sorts of constraints that are largely invisible to children. He sees that he cannot control all aspects of his children’s lives.

It’s a short and obvious step from this perception — my father was more powerful when I was a kid than I am today — to the general idea that kids these days are disobedient, disrespectful, and impossible to control. And no doubt, his children will grow up remembering their own childhood as relatively authoritarian, and on and on through the generations.

1 comment:

Dan Myers said...

I'm going to get very micro on you here, but I'll go ahead with my N of one and say, "My kids are a lot better behaved than I was!" :)