We Need to Develop Character Instead of Celebrity

In The Road to Character, David Brooks argues that our moral vocabulary is severely lacking.

A patent attorney is a respectable job. Calvin doesn’t really acknowledge this. He sees his father as an alien or something other than human, choosing to spend his time with a pontificating stuffed tiger. Calvin hates chores and other adult ventures, becoming especially irked when his straight-laced attorney father repeats his famous mantra: because it builds character. 

Six-year-olds don’t want to talk about character. They’d prefer to, at least in Calvin’s case, discuss dinosaurs and claim girls are G.R.O.S.S. This is to be expected at such a young age. Sadly, though, this mindset is lasting longer and longer, with many adults having no need of character either. 

This is a cultural phenomenon. Celebrity has usurped character. In 1976 the goal of being famous ranked fifteenth out of sixteen categories among young people. A 2007 Pew Research poll discovered that 51 percent of youth rank fame as a top goal, with a majority stating that “getting rich” is the main motivation of people their age. 

This drive is not limited to the young. Our language reflects this. For most of history you’d want to avoid anything “going viral.” Today we’ve adopted disease in a way that would make Susan Sontag’s head spin. Sontag was skeptical of the supposedly “liberating” nomenclature cropping up around cancer wards. We should give equal pause to clickbait candy draining our attentional resources, the currency of celebrity.

Social media has many benefits, but occupation description is not one of them. The term “public figure” is used by people who do little more than post pictures of themselves every day. Sontag knew that cancer is not a battle to be waged, but a disease in need of treatment. Public figures have become another disease requiring a cure. 

Language is our major form of communication. How we use it shapes our identities; we understand our societal and familial roles through the language we use. According to David Brooks, there are words we need to reinvigorate. They all have to do with better understanding our moral codes. By banishing words such as “sin,” “virtue,” “character,” and “evil” from general conversation, he claims “that does not make life any less moral.” In The Road to Character, he continues, 

It just means we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language.

In his fantastic biography of important historical figures, Brooks repeatedly returns to the need of cultivating humility to overturn the sins of arrogance and pride. Children are being educated to succeed, but the focus of that success is monetary and status-driven. It has nothing to do with the singular trait Calvin’s father kept returning to during the decade-long life of Calvin and Hobbes. 

Brooks borrows the concepts of Adam I and Adam II from a 1965 book by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik to build his argument. Adam I is career-oriented and ambitious. He wants money, status, and, more than anything, to win. Adam II is our GPS through right and wrong. He sacrifices himself for the good of others and lives for the cultivation of character. By becoming a morally sound person he is able to be in service of those around him. 

It’s obvious which Adam is winning out in modern America, the nation in which we were recently told we’re going to win so much we’ll grow tired of winning. As Brooks puts it,

We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives us little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character. 

Teachers, he continues, look for signs of intellectual strength to help students cultivate them. This is vastly different from school a century ago, when moral weaknesses were spotted so the student could improve upon them. We imagine such a time as stifling and domineering, though Brooks reminds us that liberation and, perhaps more importantly, contentment are found when your weaknesses are strengthened. 

The pursuit of pleasure, the Buddha taught so long ago, can only lead to suffering, or, in Buddhist lingo, unsatisfactoriness. The quick dopamine rush of a hundred likes prohibits us from pursuing the patient goals that arrive with meditation, contemplation, and intense inner speculation. Journalist Nicholas Carr compares this to filling a bathtub with a thimble, the small drops of dopamine never quenching the ocean ahead. Neuroscientist Dan Levitin calls the dings and buzzes of social media alerts “sugar coated,” nutritionally useless fodder leading to an avoidable disease.

If you listen to the endless stream of self-help gurus promoting positive psychology as the ultimate means of creating the best life imaginable you’d think we’d be chilling in Eden. But as journalist Steve Salerno writes, “The self-help guru has a compelling interest in not helping people.” Or, as Brooks puts it, “The existence of more and more self-help books is proof that they rarely work.” 

That’s because the goals of these books usually include money, happiness, and self-righteousness associated with the notion that “your inner voice is the only one you need to listen to.” In the wake of decades of such advice we’ve become a nation addicted to pain-killing medications, to worshipping the cult of celebrity, to scrolling across a screen as actual life passes right in front of our eyes, unnoticed. 

That’s because what we truly need is each other. Character is not an solo affair. Our morals are defined by how we act in society. We should not be turning to an ambitious “inner voice” seeking guidance, but rather look out into our community to discover what we are being tasked to do, where and how we can make a difference. 

Celebrity is not character, but a crisis of character. The need for constant attention is occurring at a time when our attentional economy is already severely taxed. Few desire to write epic novels when witty tweets are so readily shared. And forgotten. Which is why the chase for celebrity will never be anything more than a ravenous beast, a hungry ghost never sated. 

Modernity has not made us “depraved barbarians,” Brooks concludes. Yet it has greatly weakened our moral vocabulary. We might gaze back at the prior educational system incredulous that the focus was on obedience, but such a system has not disappeared. It has just been transformed into “the semihidden world of approval and disapproval.” 

We can rise above this, though we have to gaze beyond our desires to find out what life is asking of us. Character is earned, Brooks concludes, “not by being better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be.” Such humility leads to maturity, the final component of a life well-lived.

The mature person can make decisions without relying on the negative and positive reactions from admirers and detractors because the mature person has steady criteria to determine what is right. That person has said a multitude of noes for the sake of a few overwhelming yeses. 


Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.