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Reilly: Defining Moral Decline

Since Gallop began polling on the subject in 2002, a majority of Americans consistently report they believe America is in moral decline.

It’s an amorphous idea - one that’s been used for years by partisans to explain a host of social and political trends that are deemed unacceptable by one demographic or another - and it’s so slippery we could argue it serves no real purpose in public discourse.

Broad hysteria is never constructive, particularly in times of crisis.

But the acclaimed author John Biguenet recently caught my attention with an eloquent and actionable description of a very particular kind of moral decline – one he believes America is currently undergoing.

“We are witnessing a period of moral erosion,” he writes, “in which the cult of unrestrained individualism refuses to subordinate itself to shared standards of morality.”

As I understand it, he’s talking about a kind of American-ness run amok. The idea that any of us can do anything we choose, with all the legal weight of the constitution behind us - whether it’s saying something offensive to a stranger, or walking around with a lethal weapon.

It’s an ethical argument, not a legal one, since many actions that can be defended on constitutional grounds are also contributing to the breakdown in social and civic trust today.

As a result, we’re challenged to rebuild the social contract, to proactively reassert what we previously believed had been agreed upon: that racism is unacceptable, and truth in reporting matters, that the most vulnerable among us deserve protection, and that public spaces should be safe for all.

Such beliefs should again serve as the starting point for public policy discussions and a bridge between political parties.

With some effort, these bridges can be rebuilt. Teachers, artists, and journalists all have opportunities to do this directly in their work. But so too does anyone who manages a team, interacts with the public, or mentors a young person.

Such “shared standards of morality” – as Biguenet puts it – are a necessary counterweight to that rugged American individualism that’s so often misconstrued and fetishized in modern politics.

It’s this tension between the individual and the collective that makes America work, that defines us as a unified body.

And without such standards, we’re not a civilized nation at all.

Meg Little Reilly is the author of the novels EVERYTHING THAT FOLLOWS and WE ARE UNPREPARED. Prior to writing novels, Meg worked in national politics. She has a B.A. from the University of Vermont and an M.A. from the George Washington University. She grew up in Brattleboro, moved away for a time, and now lives in Hinesburg with her husband and two daughters.
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