June 15, 2024

Word: How we've lost our moorings as a society

Thomas L, Friedman, NY Times  -  Almost 30 years ago I visited the Atlantic Forest in Brazil with a team from Conservation International, and its members taught me about all the amazing functions that mangroves — those thickets of trees that often live underwater along tropical coastlines — perform in nature. Mangroves filter toxins and pollutants through their extensive roots, they provide buffers against giant waves set off by hurricanes and tsunamis, they create nurseries for young fish to safely mature because their cabled roots keep out large predators, and they literally help hold the shoreline in place.

To my mind, one of the saddest things that has happened to America in my lifetime is how much we’ve lost so many of our mangroves. They are endangered everywhere today — but not just in nature.

Our society itself has lost so many of its social, normative and political mangroves as well — all those things that used to filter toxic behaviors, buffer political extremism and nurture healthy communities and trusted institutions for young people to grow up in and which hold our society together.

You see, shame used to be a mangrove. It used to be that if you were a candidate for president of the United States and it was alleged — with a lot of evidence — that you falsified business records to cover up sex with a porn star right after your wife had given birth to a child, you would lower your head in shame, drop out of the race and hide under the bed. That shame mangrove has been completely uprooted by Trump

The reason people felt ashamed is that they felt fidelity to certain norms — so their cheeks would turn red when they knew they had fallen short, explained Dov Seidman, the author of the book “How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything” and founder of the How Institute for Society and LRN.

“But in the kind of normless world we have entered where societal, institutional and leadership norms are being eroded,” Seidman said to me, “no one has to feel shame anymore because no norm has been violated.”

To be clear: People in high places doing shameful things is hardly new in American politics and business. What is new, Seidman argued, “is so many people doing it so conspicuously and with such impunity: ‘My words were perfect,’ ‘I’d do it again.’ That is what erodes norms — that and making everyone else feel like suckers for following them.” Whether President Richard Nixon was or was not a “crook,” he gave the impression of feeling ashamed that anyone would think that he was. Not so with Trump.

Nothing is more corrosive to a vibrant democracy and healthy communities, added Seidman, than “when leaders with formal authority behave without moral authority. Without leaders who, through their example and decisions, safeguard our norms and celebrate them and affirm them and reinforce them, the words on paper — the Bill of Rights, the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence — will never unite us.”...

Trump wants to destroy our social and legal mangroves and leave us in a broken ethical ecosystem, because he and people like him best thrive in a broken system. He keeps pushing our system to its breaking point, flooding the zone with lies so that the people trust only him and the truth is only what he says it is. In nature, as in society, when you lose your mangroves, you get flooding with lots of mud.  MORE

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