Social Process

Chapter 17: Some Factors in Degenerate Process

Charles Horton Cooley

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PROBABLY the phases of degeneration most distinctive of our time are those connected with social change. We live, as we constantly hear, in an epoch of transition, and of the confusion and mental strain that go with such an epoch. Although change may be progressive on the whole, it is apt to break down established social relations and with them the moral order and discipline upon which the individual depends.

We need to distinguish, in this connection, between moderate change, which is usually wholesome, giving us the stimulus needed to keep our minds awake, and radical change, involving displacement. By this term I mean such a break in the conditions of personal life that one can scarcely adapt himself to them by any gradual and normal process; there is a kind of shock which may easily upset his character. We are dependent for moral health upon intimate association with a group of some sort, usually consisting of our family, neighbors, and other friends. It is the interchange of ideas and feelings with this group, and a constant sense of its opinions that makes standards of right and wrong seem real to us. We may not wholly adopt its judgments, or that of any member of it, but the social interplay is necessary to keep the higher processes of the mind in action at all.


Now, it is the general effect of social displacement to tear us away more or less completely, from such groups. When we move to town, or go to another country, or get into a different social class, or adopt ideas that alienate us from our former associates, it is not at all certain that we shall form new relations equally intimate and cogent with the old. A common result, therefore, is a partial moral isolation and atrophy of moral sense. If the causes of change are at all general we may have great populations made up largely of such displaced units, a kind of "anarchy of spirits" among whom there is no ethos or settled system of moral life at all, only a confused outbreak of impulses, better or worse. Or the prevalent beliefs may break down under the impact of strange ideas, and with them may go the ideals, sanctions, standards, which have heretofore lived in the minds of men and sustained their daily striving. Whole communities may thus be demoralized. Indeed mental strain enters largely into all demoralization by change. The adaptation of a social group to its conditions is normally a matter of generations of experiment and adjustment. It is too much to think out all at once, and no wonder if untrained minds, confused and discouraged by attempting to do so, give it up and live by impulse.

It is probably the usual effect of displacement to both intensify and disorganize the processes of selection; there is a livelier conflict of persons and tendencies along with a lack of established institutions to preside over this conflict and regulate the outcome. The result, as regards individuals, is likely to be a greater diversity in their fortunes than could exist under more orderly conditions; opportunity, of certain kinds at least, may be increased,

( 182) and those who have capacities suited to take advantage of it, or who happen to be in favorable situations, will prosper; others, who might have done as well as any in quieter times, will be crowded down. A chance mixture of characters and temperaments, brought into contact with a chance mixture of conditions and opportunities, will naturally produce many new combinations, both fortunate and unfortunate.

The principle applies to moral as well as economic struggles. The unregulated freedom of action, forcing constant choice and self-reliance, develops the mind rapidly, one way or the other, and is likely to produce some characters of great vigor and independence, while others, not necessarily of inferior capacity, may suffer decay. Those who come out successfully may not be the best but simply the toughest, the least sensitive and vulnerable. Miss Addams writes: "A settlement constantly sees the deterioration of highly educated foreigners under the strain of maladjustment, in marked contrast to the often rapid rise of the families of illiterate immigrants."[1]

In the international migrations of our day, which in some years have brought more than a million strangers to the harbors of the United States, the guiding motives are mainly economic, and these also cause the immigrants to congregate in certain localities after they arrive. It is true that part of them come in families, and that people from the same provinces and neighborhoods often settle together; but the social displacement, along with the total change in environment and modes of work, is sufficient to cause wide-spread maladjustment and strain. It

( 183) has been said, with much appearance of truth, that it would be easier for the immigrants to fight Indians, like the first settlers, than to combat the perplexing social and economic conditions of the present time. There is, perhaps, no topic of the kind on which the evidence is more profuse and unanimous than this of the moral strain and partial degeneration of our foreign element. It would be easy to collect any number of passages like the following, from a settlement report:

The rude reversal of relationships, when parents depend more upon children as interpreters than children upon parents for guidance; the separation of husband from wife, father from children, for the first time, under the necessity to seek a seasonable job at some lumber-camp, railway section or shipping route; the transplanting of a peasant family from their out-of-door life and work in a southern climate to the indoor life in a crowded city tenement, and work in a sweat-shop or factory; the ignorance of and inability to conform to the difference in laws, customs, climate, clothing, diet, and housing-these and many other experiences combine to make a situation pitifully tragic.[2]

The Jews, because of their excellent family life and loyalty to their traditions, probably stand change as well as any people; but they acknowledge a considerable demoralization, and a writer in the Pittsburgh Survey gives, as examples, wife desertion, laxity of religious observance, gambling at the coffee-houses, occasional licentiousness, and contempt for the ideals, customs, and beauties of the traditional family and religious life. One of my Jewish students writes: " I can take at random twenty of my friends, and out of these twenty no more than five, I can say, are really interested in Judaism. Yet all of them are the sons of pious Jewish parents." The decay of respect and discipline on the part of children is universally complained of, and unites with other

( 184) demoralizing conditions to explain the prevalence of juvenile crime.

The movement from country to town is quite as trying, especially as most of those who go are young men and girls who separate entirely from their family and neighborhood connections, becoming subject to unusual stress and temptation without the usual safeguards of association and public opinion. Lonesomeness drives them into questionable companionship, and organized vice of several kinds exists by exploiting them. It is well known that urban prostitutes are recruited largely from girls who have left country homes to work in the city.[3]

The radical changes in the economic system upset life even for those who remain in the same place. It is rare nowadays that people earn their bread in the same way that their fathers did; they have to turn to new occupations, form new habits and think new thoughts. Even farming, the ancient type of stability, is rapidly being transformed, and the farmer with it. Moreover, it often happens that an occupation does not last a lifetime; and one who has achieved efficiency and high pay in it feels it drop from under him, leaving him to begin again as a common laborer. This may happen several times to the same man. To all this we must add the irregularity of employment due to the ups and downs of modern industry and to labor troubles, the result being a rather general condition of insecurity and strain. Men and families are thrown out of the system, others are disquieted by apprehension and nearly all feel that their houses are

( 185) builded on the sand, so that they cannot easily have that confidence in the stability of their livelihood upon which mental and moral stability largely depend. The principle that human character deteriorates under irregular and uncertain employment is an old one and, I believe, undisputed. There are innumerable eases like the following: "When he moved to Peoria he had regular work for some months, until a lull threw him out. Then be began to loaf on the corner, and has never since desired anything more. 'It's easy,' he said, 'and I get enough to live on. If I get sick there's the hospitals."' Where there is a class of workers subject to such conditions, like the lumberjacks and steamboat-hands of the Great Lakes, or the wheat-harvesters of the Northwest, it is almost invariably found that their lives are morally as well as industrially irregular; and though this may be partly due to the fact that such work attracts an unstable class of men, there is no reasonable doubt that the work itself causes instability.

The unemployment due to hard times, a great strike, or to other widely acting causes, seems invariably to lead to an increase of vagrancy, dissipation and crime in the class thus displaced. The panic of 1907 was followed in 1909 by an increase of over thirty-four per cent in the commitments to Elmira Reformatory, most of whose inmates come from New York and other industrial cities.[4] An access of prosperity may be equally demoralizing. Those who have made money rapidly, whether they are actually rich or only relatively so compared with former straits, furnish a large amount of moral degeneracy. Lacking ideals and traditions that would teach them the better uses of their means, they are apt to spend them in

( 186) display and sensual dissipation, and the most prosperous towns and families are often the least edifying in their behavior. A very thriving city in this neighborhood, one that has grown rich by the sudden growth of a line of manufacture , is credibly described as in a far worse state of morals and culture than before the boom, "Things move so fast that people become confused, There are few standards, each gets what he can."

Our deeper beliefs have for their function a mental adjustment to the ruling conditions of life. Where the conditions are stable we gradually attain modes of thought and action suitable to them, and are enabled to live with some assurance. But if the conditions change rapidly these modes of thought and action are discredited, because they no longer "work," and, since more suitable modes cannot be achieved in a day, we fall into distraction, infidelity, pessimism, and lax conduct. "Where there is no vision the people perish."

No one doubts that this is a time of discredited beliefs and standards. We have an industrial system which calls for new conceptions of right and wrong and new methods of impressing these upon men. Otherwise we do not see what right and wrong are, and either plunge into dangerous experiments or fall back upon a crude selfishness. A few years ago the officials of one of the great trade-unions, an intelligent body of men, embarked upon a campaign of blowing up with dynamite the buildings of those who opposed their commands. They had, apparently no clear sense that this was wrong, but had accepted the plausible view that they were engaged in a "war," and that violent means were justifiable. A thoughtful and dispassionate mind easily sees the fallacy

( 187) of this, but men in difficult moral situations are seldom thoughtful and dispassionate; they need to have the right defined for them in habits and symbols; and our economic life is filled with men going wrong for lack of such definition. Where there is anarchy in thought there will be anarchy in conduct.

The same is true of the religious and moral institutions, whose special function it is to give us a sound and stable basis of conduct. Churches, creeds, standards, mores, every form of established righteousness, have been shaken and discredited by their apparent unsuitability, so that a large part of mankind, tacitly if not openly, treat all such institutions as obsolete, and tend to the view that you may do anything you like unless you encounter something strong enough to prevent it. However one may trust in the power of human nature as a whole to weather such a storm, it would be a foolish optimism to doubt that large numbers will be lost in it. In fact we see on every hand individuals, associations, schools of literature, art, and philosophy, even mighty nations, struggling with one another, and with their own thoughts in the endeavor to work a moral whole out of this confusion.

The principle of moral disintegration through abrupt change is the same that acts so destructively in the contact of savage and civilized life. Irrespective of any intentional aggression, and in spite, sometimes, of a sincere aim to do good, the mere contact of civilization with the social system of more primitive peoples is, generally -speaking, destructive of the latter, and of the character of the individuals involved in it. The white man, whether he be soldier, settler, or missionary, brings with him overwhelming evidences of superiority, in power, knowledge,

( 188) and resources. He may mean well, but he always wants his own way, and that way is inevitably that of the traditions, ideals, and organization of the white race. As the savage comes to feel this superiority his own institutions are degraded in his eyes, and himself, also, as inseparable from these institutions. Confused, displaced, helpless, thrown back upon mere impulses without the dignity and discipline of a corporate life, he falls into degeneration. " It is really the great tragedy of civilization," says Professor Sumner, "that the contact of lower and higher is disastrous to the former, no matter what may be the point of contact, or how little the civilized may desire to do harm."[5] Unbiassed observers are for the most part, I think, of this opinion. Thus Spencer and Gillen, speaking of the tribes of Central Australia, say that the white man "introduces a disturbing element into the environment of the native, and from that moment degeneration sets in."[6] Old morals are lost and no new ones gained. Dudley Kidd says of the Negroes of South Africa: "We have undermined the clan system right and left, and have riddled its defenses through and through with the explosive shells of civilization; we have removed nearly all the old restraints which curbed the people, and have disintegrated their religion, and so rendered it, comparatively speaking, useless. . . . With the clan system have gone, or are going, some of the best traits in Kafir character.[7] . . . If we would but leave them alone they could easily set up a civilization that would give them unbounded satisfaction. But our industrial requirements, no less than our moral impulses, make that solution of the difficulty impossible.[8] . . . We expose savages to the highly com-

(189) -plex stimuli of individualism, labor demands, economic pressure, violent legal changes, trade, clothing, industries, a lofty spiritual religion; and to all these we add a wholly unsuitable system of book-learning. . . ."[9] There is a discipline under the native system that is quite effective in its way. "Obedience to parents hardly needs to be taught, for the children notice how every one in the kraal is instinctively obedient to the old men: the children catch this spirit without knowing it."[10] This, of course, disappears with the irruption of disorganizing ideas. Miss Kingsley, speaking of the Negro tribes of the northwest coast, says: "Nothing strikes one so much in studying the degeneration of these native tribes as the direct effect that civilization and reformation has in hastening it."[11] I And so Nansen tells of the degeneration of the Eskimo, in his account of The First Crossing of Greenland. Their food-supply has been reduced, their skill in seal-catching lost, sickness increased by poverty and wearing clothes indoors, a demoralizing taste for luxury aroused, and their self-respect and social unity undermined. All this notwithstanding that they have been extremely well treated by the Danes.

Even Christian missions have served as the involuntary channel of disintegrating forces. Not to speak of such crudities as compelling the native to wear clothes under climatic and domestic conditions which make them breeders of disease, the mere fact of discrediting rooted beliefs and habits in order to substitute something unfamiliar is almost inevitably destructive. Many individuals may be really Christianized, wholly transplanted, as it were, from one social system into another, while at

(190) the same time the overthrow of the native institutions is causing another class, possibly much larger, to become irresponsible and dissolute. The fact that white civilization was introduced into the Hawaiian Islands under the auspices of American missionaries of the highest character, whose descendants are now the ruling class, has not prevented the moral and physical decay of the native race.

I should add, however, first, that missionaries have latterly come to work in a more sociological spirit, and to recognize the duty of treating native institutions with respect, and, second, that contact with civilization is inevitable, and the missionaries are commonly the class who are working most sincerely to make this contact as beneficial to the native, or as little injurious, as possible. Without doubt the situation would be far worse if they should withdraw their efforts.

The great oriental nations which are now assimilating the civilization of the West are protected from moral dissolution by the strength of their institutions and the loyalty with which they cherish them. In this way their system of life, and the individuals who embody it, preserve their continuity and self-respect; but even in China and Japan the process is trying and, by all accounts, involves a good deal of demoralization. It is the same story of the discrediting of old ethics before the new has developed, and of the spread of a somewhat licentious individualism. In India also degeneracy is rife among the numerous class who have broken away from the caste organization, which, with whatever defects, is still a system of moral control.

Displacement by change is no more harmful than the opposite extreme of stagnation. One whose higher facul-

( 191) -ties are not aroused by fresh situations and problems is thrown back upon the lower. While American life is, on the whole, remarkably active, its activity is not regularly distributed, and is, moreover, mostly of a somewhat narrow sort, lacking in richness and higher appeal, so that it often fails to engage the real interest of the actor. The result is that in the midst of our strenuous civilization there is a large proportion of stagnant minds.

Degenerate villages, such as I have mentioned in another connection, are to be found, apparently, all over the country, and I have notes of seven or eight, in Michigan and neighboring States, that have been described in students' papers. One, for example, is a town of about one thousand people, in a former lumbering district. When the lumbering declined the more energetic families moved out, leaving a class of people lacking in leadership and isolated from higher influences. There is no inspiration or outlook for the young people, no clubs, libraries, athletics, or Christian Associations. The schools are very poor, and the saloon with its attendant vices has everything its own way. In such a place things often go from bad to worse; families already degenerate move in, because they can get a footing easier than elsewhere , and inbreeding, both social and biological, tends to a continued deterioration.

In other cases the towns are prosperous, in the economic sense, but sordid, narrow-minded, and lacking in all animating idealism. The leading people are, perhaps, orthodox church-members, but they provide no culture opportunities or wholesome recreation for the young, and seem to have no ambition for them beyond pecuniary success. Sexual vice, with or without drunkenness, seems to be the most salient form of corruption under these circum-

( 192) -stances, and careful observers, who have been teachers in such communities, have furnished me convincing evidence that a majority of the grown-up girls and young men are sometimes involved in it.

A great city often induces degeneracy in neighboring small towns, because, the towns becoming suburban in character, the real life of the energetic people is drawn to the city, leaving the small place without leadership, ideals, or community spirit. There is also the fact that every large city produces a class of vicious pleasure-seekers who carry on their revels in the outlying districts.

Again, there are rural populations of considerable extent, sometimes immigrant, more often native, which, in one way or another, have fallen into a degenerate condition, and are living quite apart from higher civilization. A community of this sort is described as dwelling on exhausted timber-lands in western Pennsylvania, its members shiftless, uneducated, half wild in appearance, with no ownership in the land, and believed to be generally licentious.

It is not at all necessary, however, to hunt out exceptional conditions to find examples of moral stagnation. We may discover it among business men, hand-workers, college students-wherever we may choose to look. Our civilization, whatever its promise, is far from having solved the problem of maintaining an upward striving in all its members.

The organization of society may not only fail to give human nature the moral support it needs, but may be, of such a kind as actively to promote degeneration. On its worse side the whole system of commercialism, characteristic of our time, is of this sort. That is, its spirit

( 193) is largely mechanical, unhuman, seeking to use mankind as an agent of material production, with very little regard, in the ease of the weak classes, for breadth of life, self-expression, outlook, hope, or any kind of higher life. Men, women, children, find themselves required to work at tasks, usually uninteresting and often exhausting, amidst dreary surroundings, and under such relations to the work as a whole that their imagination and loyalty are little, if at all, aroused. Such a life either atrophies the larger impulses of human nature or represses them to such a degree that they break out, from time to time, in gross and degrading forms of expression. I have in mind an investigation by a woman student of the amusements of factory girls in a neighboring city. It showed that the poorer class of them were overworked during the week, were too tired to go out at night, and had unattractive homes. On Saturday night many of them found their only emotional outlet in commercial dance-halls, where the men were strangers and where the surroundings were more or less vicious. The girls were of no worse disposition than other girls, but many of them were deteriorating morally under these conditions. This, of course, is what has been found true in a hundred other cities.

The deliberate promotion of vice under the impulse of gain comes naturally in to exploit the weak places in human nature. It has been shown in the case of sexual licentiousness that the natural sensuality and weakness of men and women but partly explain its prevalence; we have to add the coaxing and stimulation of an organized propaganda. Miss Addams, in her work A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil, describes the corruption of children, intentional and unintentional, on a large scale.

( 194) Their minds are tainted by shows, dance-halls, overcrowding, contact with the licentious class, and finally by deliberate training in vice. Much the same may be said of drink, gambling, and theft, not to speak of the more intangible forms of corruption rife in business and politics.

Organization of this sort arises spontaneously, as it were, out of the universal appetite for gain and the obvious weaknesses of human nature; it therefore almost always enters the field ahead of the organization aiming to counteract it-the legal restrictions, educational and rescue work, social centres, and the like — and is likely to flourish almost unchecked in a raw civilization. It owes its strength no more to gross passions than to the absence of alternatives that enables it to pervert to base uses the finer impulses, those calling for companionship, recreation, cheerful and unconstraining surroundings.


  1. The Survey, vol. 29, p. 419.
  2. The Chicago Commons Year-Book, 1911.
  3. Any one who cares for a moving yet trustworthy account of the way city conditions affect the young may find it in Jane Addams's books, especially The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, and A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil.
  4. See the Annual Report for 1909.
  5. See his Folkways, see. 115.
  6. The Native Tribes of Central Australia, 7.
  7. Kafir socialism, 41. 42.
  8. Ibid.. 146.
  9. Ibid., 192, 193.
  10. Savage Childhood, 108.
  11. Travels in West Africa, 403.

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