Tuesday, November 3, 2009

David Brooks Gets Judgy on Relationships, Fears Text Messaging

Today David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, seems to have been reading a few too many New York magazine online sex diaries. Brooks seems horrified at what he reads, saying "the choice of a Prius can be a more sanctified act that the choice of an erotic partner."

Brooks goes down the tired old path of decrying the "hookup culture," where people occasionally have causal sexual encounters rather than asking partners to the sock hop and grope each other in the back of a car. Brooks wistfully says:

Once upon a time — in what we might think of as the “Happy Days” era — courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts — dating, going steady, delaying sex — was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment.

I get really tired of this attitude from the older generation of people looking down at young people because they have more choices with their sex lives than the previous generation. The same, tired tropes of feminism and technology are destroying the "good ol' days" era of dating is absurd and reductionist.

Brooks seems to be selectively remembering the glorified version of Happy Days, a show created in the 1970s that depicted an idealized version 1950s. Brooks' so-called Happy Days era is a nice idea, but the trouble is that it's a fantasy that never existed in real life. Brooks seems to forget a lot of people had really unhappy marriages in the 1950s.

Anyone who watches Mad Men has seen the struggles of Sal, a man who is curious about his attraction to men but feels obligated to have the wife and home that social pressures demanded. Sal was not happy, and his experience is probably more historically accurate than that of the characters depicted on Happy Days. (As I recall, "The Fonz" always had multiple women hanging off of his arms, yet Brooks hardly decries him. Perhaps he's only bothered by the fact that women can have multiple partners now.)

Today, thanks to more open attitudes about sexuality, people can seek the kinds of sex that were taboo in the 1950s and have more fulfilling partnerships. It's true that relationships today aren't still without their problems, but the freedom to be honest about sexuality and not being tied to partnerships where people are unhappy is a good tradeoff. Furthermore, many people still manage to find happily committed relationships in this era of "general disenchantment."

Brooks thinks this denigration is all because technology. "Suitors now contact each other in an instantaneous, frictionless sphere separated from larger social institutions and commitments," Brooks writes. Brooks seems to believe that etiquette and communicating through technology like texting are completely separate. But much as social rules have developed for communicating in person and over the telephone, the similar rules have developed about communicating via text messaging. Brooks himself even hints at this when he says, "The atmosphere is fluid, like an eBay auction. This leads to a series of marketing strategies. You don’t want to appear too enthusiastic. You want to invent detached nicknames for partners."

I hate to break it to Brooks, but such "marketing strategies" are nothing new. Women have long been used to "marketing" themselves with makeup, clothing, and behaviors. Now that the dating playing field has leveled a little bit, men are on the hook for marketing themselves as well. Whether that happens through the technology of texting or through fashion is merely a matter of medium.

In the end, Brooks ends up sounding like a cranky old man.

This does not mean that young people today are worse or shallower than young people in the past. It does mean they get less help. People once lived within a pattern of being, which educated the emotions, guided the temporary toward the permanent and linked everyday urges to higher things. The accumulated wisdom of the community steered couples as they tried to earn each other’s commitment.
Today there are fewer norms that guide in that way. Today’s technology seems to threaten the sort of recurring and stable reciprocity that is the building block of trust.

Um, help? Brooks seems to think that young people are stumbling around blindly, struggling to tie their own shoes without the social norms outlined by Happy Days. Every generation is always trying to figure out the rules of relationships, not because of technology or texting, but because they don't have as much life experience with relationships yet. Technology is no "threat" to today's relationships.

Young people today are using the same rules about social interactions as they always have; it's just that they're no longer confined to a limited amount of possibilities depicted on a mediocre sitcom.

Cross posted.

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