Savvy Steinbeck

“We value virtue but do not discuss it.” -John Steinbeck

I came across this post today and it struck me as an interesting point for discussion. I’m not sure who said this to me, it may have been my Dad, but a saying I grew up with is this,

It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation and a single poor decision
to destroy it.

I have generally found this to be true. It takes a long time to establish yourself as a responsible, trustworthy person in the eyes of others, but one poor decision can flush all that hard work away.

I don’t necessarily think it’s true in all cases. Certainly some people make many mistakes and are still thought well of, but I think that people in general have a much easier time remembering negative occurences.

For example, let’s look at Bill Clinton. From what I understand, he was a very successful president. The nation flourished while he was in office and he did a marvelous job brokering good relationships with other countries.

What is he remembered for, though? Is it his foreign policy? His positive effect on the economy? No, it’s his blunder with Monica Lewinski. He spent eight years serving his country and all it took was an hour (+/-) to cast a pall over all his accomplishments.

What I wonder is whether this is a cultural thing. Do we, as Americans, sink our teeth into bad news like a hungry dog on a steak or is this just human nature?

John Steinbeck seems to have nailed it on the head in saying that, while we value virtue, it’s not really our favorite thing to talk about. A recent example is the popular show “Extreme Home Makeover.” This show orchestrates the construction of beautiful homes for families across the country and then we never hear from the families again. We never hear about how they’re faring, what they’ve done with their extreme good fortune, nothing.

But, when a family forecloses on their dream home because they mortgaged it to start a lawn-mower business (What’s that saying about shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves?) it’s on the front-page of MSN. I bet there are a lot of families who have done great things with the blessings they received but none of those great things will land them on the MSN homepage.

What do you think? Do you agree with Steinbeck that we don’t like to talk about virtue? Is this just an American thing?

6 thoughts on “Savvy Steinbeck

  1. “It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation and a single poor decision to destroy it.”

    Sorry, it was not me. There was Volvo ad that said something very close.


  2. It becomes very hard to say in this modern/postmodern society we live in to say what is virtue and what is vice. If we’re all just animals trying to survive, morality doesn’t exist.

  3. @Wes – There is plenty of morality to go around, only no one can agree on what that is! : P

    I’m a fan of the old “do unto others” maxim.

    As for Bill Clinton, talk to any Democrat, and they’ve looked past his tryst. I did, I’m more concerned with some of his political legacies myself, one of them being Algore.

    But you ask if we ignore discussions of virtue, I would say yes, but I hardly think it’s an American trait. I think it’s a human trait. We are all hedonists by human nature, as such, we focus on the bad to improve our lives. It’s sort of a backwards approach to leaning towards virtue.

    I think. : )

  4. -Dadio, Kudos for the clear attribution. I still would like to thank you for choosing this axiom to repeat to me. After all, you could have chosen something like, “No one doesn’t like Sara Lee” and THEN where would we be?

    -Wes, Yes, this is true. I do think that, however, as a society, there are certain things we can all agree are wrong and right (almost everyone can agree apartheid is wrong and free Starbucks is right, for instance.) The question I’m interested in answering, then, is whether as a society we tend to prefer discussing the negative because we’re Americans or because we’re human.

    -Milena, Ooh, good point! I’m interested to know what your reservations are regarding Al Gore. I have my own, and it would be interesting to see if those match.

    In regards to the idea of humans being hedonistic by nature. I agree with this to a certain extent, but if we are purely hedonsistic we would be incapable of self-sacrifice. There are many examples of people’s actions that negate the idea of pure hedonism. We might be a kind of half hedonistic people, like Hedonist Lite or something.

    I do like the idea of our tendency to focus on the negative being an attempt to better ourselves by learning from example. The only thing I would then wonder is, are we, as a society, learning from our mistakes? For example, did parents learn more about car seat safety by watching Britney Spears get in trouble?

  5. These ideas become very interesting depending on which lens you view them through. Is there a God? If there is, you might say we all have virtue imbued within us from creation. No God? Virtue and Vice simply become components of herd instinct along the path of evolution.

    You will find this has become quite the topic among scholarly circles these days. Is it possible for morality and virtue to exist objectively outside of a theistic framework? Are morals really just subjective asuming we are all just high functioning primates? Great debate on the subject here:

  6. @Erika –

    I don’t know if I’m really qualified to talk about Americans as a whole, but I do know that no news sells like good news! I think most people realize that to get someone to care about something to pay attention to it for a good while, they have to have some kind of an emotional response. I hear that shock is a great way to get that going. I would side with; “Becasue we’re Human”.

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