I mentioned my Comment review of Jamil Jivani’s debut book Why Young Men? before, and he’s done a follow-up interview with the associated Convivium:
One of the things I explore in the book – which is a pretty defining part of my life – is what I would call a poverty of imagination, that transcends material comfort. You could look at people who are materially deprived, like some of the Baltimore neighborhoods that a show like The Wire talks about. But you could also find a lot of the same cultural circumstances in a wealthy suburb, or in a place where someone has been given many of life’s gifts, yet still doesn’t have a great sense of what they’re supposed to do with them, or what a good life looks like.
That is the benefit, I think, of looking at these problems not just from an economic perspective, but understanding them from a cultural perspective, and from a community perspective, how someone perceives him or herself, and the future that they might imagine. There are so many variables that don’t get captured just by looking at whether you’re poor or not. There’s also a whole other host of factors that shape us.
What Jivani has to say in this interview is so, so important. There’s a tendency, I’ll admit, among people like myself to flatten everything negative in the world and attribute it to poverty and racism. But what I found so compelling about Jivani’s book and what he explicates in this interview is how widespread this sense of meaninglessness is among young men and how important it is that we think through how we mediate messages about masculinity and femininity culturally. Here’s another quote from part 2 of the interview, on inequality:
I suppose one of the most helpful ways of thinking about inequality is that some people are allowed to fall into lockstep and their life turns out okay, and others if they fall into lockstep, they suffer for it. In an ideal world, no one would be born into a situation where just going with the flow or just accepting the cultural influences that come to you, or failing to exercise an optimal amount of agency and choice, would result in suffering. Right? Maybe I would make the distinction as this: if I go to a high school and I talk to a bunch of teachers, I’m going to emphasize the importance of [what results from] not choosing. Right? I’m going to say that teachers in that system have to treat children as if they’re not going to make the best choices, and that the adults in their lives have a responsibility to help them do so.
A well-ordered society is one in which good choices are the most accessible path and the habits that form virtue are culturally normative — which means it has to be one in which we recognize that most people have a hard time making the best choices and we give them all as many onramps back to the road to virtue while removing as many of the barriers as possible.