Several years ago I was introduced to the idea of “the culture of character” and its near opposite “the culture of personality.” Before I plunge into today’s societal navel-gazing it is worth the time to look at and define these two types of social structures.
They may appear to some people to be synonymous. Other people will see them as vastly different approaches. In order for this essay to be cohesive I need to take a few moments to set my definitions first.
Warren Susman, a social historian coined these terms. He pointed to the turn of the 19th century to the 20th as the moment when American culture began the shift from being a ‘culture of character’ to a ‘culture of personality.’
What he was observing and commenting on was the 19th century’s culture which demanded ‘character’ – a person’s oath is their bond, morality, being honest and upright – was losing ground to an up and coming ‘culture of personality.’ The new culture of the 20th century was centered not on the individuals interior qualities, but instead on the personal qualities of being liked and admired.
Character Takes on Personality, Henry Allen January 5, 1986, Washington Post
we began trading in self-sacrifice for self-expression, the work ethic for the leisure ethic and integrity for charm.
What we didn’t see at the time was the cost that came with this alteration in our cultural priorities. We can see it now. On full display in the American political arena is the result of the clash between the ‘culture of character’ and the ‘culture of personality’.
It reminds me of a quote by John Adams that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
I do take issue with the mention of religion – because it perpetuates the myth that a person cannot be moral without identifying as religious, but that is representative of the 18th century.
The rest of the quote I find to still be accurate. We are seeing the proof of it today.
It is imprudent to paint everyone in a culture as adhering to a single set of priorities. As in any mass of people there will be those who are and those who are not representative of the cultural climate.
So, what is the cost that I mentioned above? It may be the very democracy that we as Americans claim to cherish. We are seeing the ‘culture of personality’ engaging in an active attempt to undermine the government.
Until now the political arena for the highest political post in the American government operated on character. Indeed, it operated this way for centuries and we did not perceive how dependent our institutions had grown on the possession of character by our leaders. We had never witnessed a product of the ‘culture of personality’ in this position.
We have now. John Adams was right, democracy cannot endure in an atmosphere where morality is dismissed. The sheer audacity of a person indoctrinated solely in the ‘culture of personality’ to believe that it is their right to be liked astonishes. This is also what is driving the current Trump/GOP push to invalidate the election. The idea that Trump is not liked, loved, admired, worshiped is intolerable to him, as well as his followers, and therefore they insist it must be false.
They are insisting, repetitively. Over and over the GOP and its operatives are putting forward the baseless narrative that the election was somehow tampered with and therefore the results are illegitimate. This is despite the total lack of evidence for their claims. But, even tough it is tempting to sit back and comfort ourselves with the knowledge that these unfounded and frivolous attacks have been dismissed in nearly every court what we should be concerned with is the persistent drip of poisonous unreality into our electoral process.
Even a fiction can become reality if repeated often enough.
Denial of the truth, or the selective picking and choosing of what is true is a hallmark of the erosion of democracies throughout history. There is no doubt that the rise of a ‘cult of personality’ can be the death-knell for attempts at democracy or governmental reform. History bears this pattern out again and again.
So, what is the future of a democracy that confuses personality for character? What happens when the populace chooses the sweet-rotting fruit of the huckster that can intoxicate them over the plainer fare of the candidate with character?
You end up in a situation much like our current one, where it was more important to one person to be liked than it was to deal with reality. The important mundane needs of running a nation go unmet. The result of that fundamental neglect of the duties of leadership results in what we see today. Thousands dead, thousands facing the prospect of homelessness, hunger, despair are what follows the con.
And yet, in that wake you still find people hoping to capture the candy floss reality that they have become so sick from ingesting. They are still chasing that high heedless of the cost, not only to themselves, but to the community around them.
It sounds very much like an addiction.
A diet of sweets and intoxicants can’t sustain the body. The high will be followed by the inevitable crash. Trust me, when the crash comes the dealer will be long gone. Those who willingly took his poison will deny their own responsibility leaving the remains to those of character to restore.
Those driven by the ‘culture of personality’ will abdicate the responsibility for the results of their actions. No matter how deep the hole they find themselves in, no matter how weak or malnourished, they will keep digging in an attempt to find another colorful, distraction to provide them entertainment. Someone to tell them what they want to hear, that they aren’t in a hole, everyone else is just too tall.