Skip to content
Culture & Religion

We Need to Develop Character Instead of Celebrity

In The Road to Character, David Brooks argues that our moral vocabulary is severely lacking.
A Muslim man prays at Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden on February 18, 2011 in London, England. Around five thousand Muslim men and women converged at the mosque today, which is Western Europe's largest, to Unite against Extremism and pay vigil following a s

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.”

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

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.


Up Next