The concept of evil and its behavioral equivalent, sin, came to the United States with the Pilgrims. Back in the early days, ordinary people examined their every decision and action through a moral compass—and constantly found themselves wanting. (For, as the Reverend Jonathan Edwards famously fulminated, “God will not hold them up in these slippery places any longer, but will let them go; and then, at that very instant, they shall fall into destruction.”)
These days, examining actions in ethical terms seems all too rare, except in religious circles, and public figures are apt to behave more like John Edwards than like the judgmental Puritan. Over the last century or so, the discussion of how we behave has morphed from “good vs. evil” to “virtue vs. vice” to our 21st-century dichotomy, “healthy vs. unhealthy.” The idea of fault gets very little attention; indeed, when people say they feel “guilty” about something, they are usually referring to overeating, or skipping the gym.
And yet so much bad behavior is still going on! Some might even argue that there is more “sin” in our midst now than ever before. What has changed is the way we look at our actions. A pundit recently joked that the Bridgegate scandal involves almost all of the original seven deadly sins, except perhaps lust—but then there are so many other governors covering that one!
The original list, it seems, is out of date. Some of those original seven (lust, pride, envy) are viewed as not so bad anymore; some (anger, greed) have been elevated to virtues; the others (gluttony, sloth) are now equated with the Devil himself. Of course, as with so many things in our culture, these faults are judged differently in men and in women.
LUST, for example, is seen now as a badge of honor among men, and unless it is horribly misdirected (toward your neighbor’s wife?—“I’m only human”) vs. toward your neighbor’s child (seen more as perversion than lust), it is certainly forgivable, if not always applauded. Women are still judged by different standards, though. While in some circles lusty women have come to be appreciated, in others a woman with a sex drive is suspect. Just this week, Mike Huckabee made headlines by claiming that in offering to pay for birth control, the government is saying that women cannot control their libido (a bad thing, of course) without their help. Why are we denigrating our women, he asks, by assuming they need help controlling themselves?
PRIDE is also judged differently in men than in women. A recent podcast on NPR examines how women are still reluctant to brag about their accomplishments. They are less likely than men to engage in self-promotion, and they feel distinctly uncomfortable about it. While it is more and more acceptable for a woman to be ambitious, she still feels constraint about showing it. The stereotype of a woman who “claws her way to the top” is still current, whereas men who toot their own horns are doing what comes naturally.
In general, though, it is much more acceptable in our society to promote our accomplishments and possessions that it used to be. There was a time when it was considered poor taste to show off; indeed, wealthy people strove to be elegant but understated. Now the reverse is true, whether your boast is about cars, clothes, or the size of your home. If you’ve got it, flaunt it—better still, report it on Facebook in case anyone has missed how wonderful your life is (parodied beautifully in a post on the website Wait But Why).
Pride’s inevitable companion, ENVY, is also not always seen as negative anymore. Much of the reality TV industry’s success can be attributed to our envy of others, as well as the delicious schadenfreude that we enjoy when they fall on their faces. Still, envy is another trait that is judged more harshly in a woman. It makes a man more competitive, which is good. It makes a woman more competitive, which is bad.
What really looks bad on a woman, of course, is GLUTTONY, which has been elevated in our culture to the pantheon of—if not sin, something to “feel bad about.” According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg in her important 1997 book The Body Project: an Intimate History of American Girls, modern women are obsessively focused on their physical selves. Making a comparison with their forebears, going back as far as 1830, the author looks at the diaries of young women and traces the evolution of their preoccupations. While 100 years ago a young girl’s goals were to develop her moral and spiritual sides (resolutions often involved promises to be kinder or more helpful), today girls are consumed with the need to control their appetites and “look better” as a result. Even when not motivated to lose weight for cosmetic purposes, we are burdened by the knowledge that being overweight is unhealthy, and that is the only standard that has real impact on many of us these days.
SLOTH, likewise, is unhealthy. Even our downtime is now supposed to be oriented toward health: We are advised to do yoga, exercise, develop a hobby. If we insist on sitting still, we should not just sit there, but meditate! Wasting time is “sinful,” and even children are expected to be continuously engaged in productive activities. The long afternoons of spontaneous play that psychologists believe are essential to social and creative development are unknown to many children. These children are influenced, as well, by observing their parents, whose leisure hours are ever diminishing. Children of average-wage parents see them working two jobs, while the well-to-do are slaves to “the Cult of Overwork” as described by New Yorker writer James Surowiecki. In the same issue, editor David Remnick’s article about President Obama cites Dan Pfeiffer, an aide so overworked that he suffered several mini-strokes last year—“But no worries . . . I’m good!” Remnick quotes. Parents, for their part, push their kids and their schools as hard as they can. And when a child is caught doing something “wrong” in school these days, parents are likely to protest and complain rather than support the school’s efforts at moral education.
If sloth and gluttony have become more unacceptable qualities, GREED has become, shall we say, shameless. This past week brought a spate of jaw-dropping reports, including the study by OXFAM that said the world’s 85 richest people have as much wealth as 3.5 billion of their poorest fellow humans. Meanwhile, billionaire Ken Langone warned that Pope Francis might want to watch his step. He cautioned that the pope’s remarks disparaging the great inequality between rich and poor might be insulting to rich people and cause them to be less charitable as a result. Of course, research shows that poor people are already more charitable than the rich, but I suppose that divide could get worse, too.
It seems that not a week goes by without a story about someone who is already fabulously wealthy being caught doing something illegal in the quest for “more.” The architects of the Great Recession have not been penalized, and are busy giving themselves raises and bonuses, yet The New York Times reported another startling statistic this week: the costs of the recession may be as great as $120,000 and counting for every single person in the United States.
Not one person has been indicted to date, and it’s pretty much business as usual for the 1 percent. It’s enough to make you angry. But don’t worry—let it out. It’s not healthy to stifle ANGER! And, of course, what’s most important is that we stay healthy and feel good about ourselves.