Why Not Shame David Brooks for Divorcing?

This David Brooks piece about how bad it is that we don’t shame and judge people who, among other things, stray from specific family forms is a sight to behold:

Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

Next it will require holding people responsible. People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

I say this is a sight to behold because there has been a quiet story percolating that David Brooks is in the process of divorcing right now. His column prior to this one was basically an extended subtweet to his ex-wife. Conservatives closer to him have said things indicating they believe he is divorcing also. To be clear, Brooks has not publicly said that he is divorcing as far as I know, but he recently sold his home for $4.5 million just two years after buying it for $4 million, an odd move that likely indicates that the reports are true (by the way, the $500,000 of the capital gain on this house goes untaxed because of the capital gains exclusion that basically only benefits people like Brooks).

According to Brooks’ own lesson, he and his ex-wife should be judged extremely harshly for this. And it’s not just him who said we should do this sort of thing. Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat shared similar recommendations in their book Grand New Party about the importance of cruelly shunning people who deviate from traditional family forms.

Yet, despite all of this, not a single shunning word about Brooks has yet to be uttered from anyone in this camp. In fact, when I fired shots at Brooks on Twitter last year for his divorce, shunning advocate Salam said it lacked civility and grace.

This sort of behavior presents an obvious question: why aren’t conservatives practicing what they preach regarding David Brooks? As a public figure, he would seem to be an especially important person to bully and demoralize as part of the norm-setting process. If people close to him just savaged him, that would get the point across that this isn’t something you can do without suffering serious social repercussions.

The reason they don’t shame him, I submit, is because they know David Brooks, they care about David Brooks, they think it would be rude and offensive to kick a hurt and down David Brooks. Moreover, they don’t know and can’t know what happened inside the marriage to cause its dissolution, and therefore probably aren’t in the right place to make sweeping pronouncements about its legitimacy. In short, they have humane concerns about their friend whom they respect as a fully formed human being. They aren’t willing to hang him in the public square to dissuade off others because that would be cruel and they feel that.

Yet, this is precisely what they implore others to do in their books and columns. Of course, I don’t generally want people to engage in the prescribed bullying, for precisely the reasons that prevent these conservatives from doing it when their peers divorce. I am happy that they allow their humanity to overcome their rather absurd blustering about the importance of delivering a second dose of pain on those already suffering from relationship failures. I just wish they’d allow themselves to learn something from it.

  • Henry Vandenburgh

    There should be far fewer sexual “norms.” They’re sort of a blank slate available to slam anyone we don’t like at the moment, but can’t get anything on.