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  • It's hard to talk about character in a just and compassionate way, but that doesn't mean we should avoid doing it. Tweet This
  • When many struggle to believe in their own self-efficacy, to say character matters is to confront fatalism. Tweet This

When I first moved to a working-class suburb of Cincinnati five years ago, I was quick to notice all the vices of my neighbors. They smoked too much, guzzled ungodly amounts of soda pop (multiple people told me that they “didn’t like the taste of water”), and sometimes filled their babies’ bottles with Kool-Aid or chocolate milk or worse—Mountain Dew. Poor health seemed the result: they were often sick, their kids were often sick. They’d switch jobs often, for no apparent reason or because of conflict with the manager.

And it seemed to me that the patron saint of personal responsibility needed to come on a mission to this town. I’d think about how much money could be saved if they spent less on pop and cigarettes and took better care of their health. I’d think about how much more financial stability they could achieve if they’d just demonstrate a little more stick-to-itiveness in the workplace.

However, today I’m more likely to see these behaviors and echo some variation of Father Gregory Boyle’s words:

People in my community, Boyle Heights (where recently there were three gang-related homicides in a week), don’t call gang members bad guys. This is not because they turn a blind eye to criminality or cosign on bad behavior, but because they know too much. They know that a kid who’s acting out has endured unspeakable violence and is an enormously complex human being. They are reverent in the face of what he has suffered. They are able to stand in awe at what he’s carried, rather than in judgment at how he’s carried it. They know what language violence is speaking.

After a few years of getting to know my neighbors, I find myself “reverent in the face of what [they have] suffered.” I remember a moment several years ago when it hit me: if I had even half the stress some of my neighbors deal with, I too would be less reliable at work and rely more on nicotine and corn syrup and caffeine. As it is, I rely on overpriced Starbucks drinks and dark chocolate, which really isn’t so different. As one woman who had been through divorce and was struggling to raise a toddler by herself explained to me, “My whole financial situation, that’s actually what, [that’s a] big reason why I was a smoker. Because I don’t care what anybody tells you, nicotine helps a lot of people stay alive. I swear—I swear! If it weren’t for nicotine, there’d be a whole lot more murders! A whole lot!... It’s just one of those things, stress gets so bad nowadays.”

If I had even half the stress some of my neighbors deal with, I too would be less reliable at work.

I thought about these conversations when I was reading a collection of essays recently published by the Brookings Institution, Does Character Matter?: Essays on Opportunity and the American Dream. Last week I wrote about the book and what I see as five potential areas of emerging consensus on character and mobility. But the essay collection also includes words of caution that are worth considering, words that brought my experiences in Ohio to mind.

In his essay, psychologist Brent Roberts notes our “tendency to valorize our measures and predictors, especially when they are first introduced to the public” and warns that we should not abandon other approaches to solving crime and poverty, even as we begin to incorporate efforts to improve character. Roberts also worries about paternalism and the unintended consequences of character interventions. Some character traits, like conscientiousness, may have curvilinear effects—where both having too little and having too much of the trait can be harmful. Valuing conscientiousness too much, for example, may “engender stress, anxiety, and a distinct lack of creativity in children and cultures.”

American education scholar Mike Rose voices similar concerns. He knows the power of character—yet he has also spent years working with students who “possess grit by the truckload” but have faced significant obstacles to success. He concludes that “as a matter of public policy, it would be counterproductive, and ultimately cruel, to focus on individual characteristics without also considering the economic and social terrain on which those characteristics play out.” Our “near-exclusive focus on low-income children” when it comes to character education concerns him.

In Roberts’s and Rose’s essays I hear a more nuanced articulation of the reason character can be a conversation stopper: namely, the worry that talking about character sounds too much like blaming the poor for their poverty.

Despite my hope that discussing character can help us address the mobility crisis, I take these concerns seriously. I know how easy it is to notice “the speck in my brother’s eye” when I have a “log in my own”—as when I mentally criticized my neighbors’ soda pop consumption while relying on Starbucks myself—and I’ve seen how judgmental attitudes towards the poor lead to apathy about the moral imperative to help the poor.

Still, there is a character component to social mobility and opportunity. One of the most discussed character traits is self-discipline. The famous marshmallow experiment demonstrated the strong link between the related character trait of delayed gratification and later success, and self-discipline is a prerequisite for changing the unhealthy behaviors I mentioned above. My friend Cassie, with her boyfriend’s support and pressure, managed to quit smoking after an intense struggle. She had to possess self-discipline in spades to do that while also raising a daughter on her own, going back to college to finish her degree in healthcare administration, landing a job in a hospital, and working night shift and overtime until she had enough money to afford her own place. I can’t say that any experience of my life has demanded so much character.

Equal levels of character seem to produce different life outcomes, depending on your class of origin.

It seems that, as Mike Rose describes, there is an uneven playing field in which equal levels of character produce different life outcomes, depending on your class of origin. This is why a compassionate approach to character education, rather than a judgmental one, is important—and why it’s worth recognizing that we could all use more help in developing character. Poverty in itself is not an indicator of a character deficiency.

In the past five years I’ve experienced another change of view that makes me sympathetic to Rose’s and Roberts’ words of caution. After living in a working-class town, I have come to see blue-collar culture differently. As I wrote here and here, “many of our class differences are not problems to be solved but complementary traits to be appreciated.”

More specifically, as Roberts discusses, there are tradeoffs to emphasizing some values and deemphasizing others. Any program targeting the working class or working poor should take into consideration how it might affect values held sacred in the neighborhood. For example, a program to teach the “success sequence”—putting education, jobs, marriage, and having children in that order—would need to respect the strongly pro-life views of many lower-income individual, and the priority placed on close family relationships.

As a senior in high school, Cassie opted not to go to California on a full-ride scholarship, because she couldn’t bear the thought of being so far from her extended family, and because her mother and grandmother couldn’t bear the thought of Cassie being so far from them. This is not the way of us striving middle class transplants, who are on the move with the blessing of our kin who prize our career success over our proximity. And there’s not a clear right or wrong here: it’s a complex situation of competing goods and resulting tradeoffs. If anything, I’d argue that blue-collar culture takes the moral high road—personal sacrifice for the love of others, prioritizing people over possessions. But my point is that any program of character education should respect the people and place, the culture, in which it is implemented.

Given these complexities and cautionary notes, why even bother with talking about character? I propose that there are at least two reasons:

1.) Because we know that character is important for human flourishing on many levels, individual and communal.

2.) Because the message that character matters can be a profoundly empowering one.

For more on the first point, read the book.

On the second point, I’ll say this. I know a young man who sat in a therapist’s office and was told that he had the personality of a serial killer. He left the appointment thinking that his environment and his mental illness defined him, and today he is afraid that he will do something he regrets—afraid of himself, almost. His therapist helped him to understand one side of the equation—how the abuse he suffered as a child shaped the man he is today. But what he did not receive is an education on how to take that suffering and emerge from it an even stronger man. The missing half of the equation is character development.

A different friend of mine who has been abused is intensely interested in this topic, particularly in the idea of “post-traumatic growth” that psychologist Martin Seligman writes about in his book, Flourish. She had heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, but no one had ever told her that she could have a different response to trauma: one of growth. She recognized it intuitively, saying that when people comment on her strengths she tells them that these strengths came “at a great cost.” It was the trauma that tested her and forged her into the woman she is today.

The message that character matters can be a profoundly empowering one.

This insight—that overcoming difficulty with perseverance can produce character strengths—is a theme in the memes my neighbors and acquaintances share on Facebook. “A strong woman loves, forgives, walks away, lets go, tries again, perseveres… no matter what life throws at her.” “Sometimes the people with the worst pasts end up creating the best futures.” “Until you’re broken you don’t know what you’re made of. It gives you the ability to build yourself all over again, but stronger than ever.” As Lawrence Mead writes in his essay in Does Character Matter?, “the poor do not talk like trade unionists.” They do not focus on environmental factors, but instead use moral language and see themselves as people with choices to make to overcome obstacles. “I grew up in adversity. I find challenges riveting,” one nineteen-year-old woman told me.

When we talk about character and its relationship to mobility, it is good to be concerned that we do not blame the poor—but often overlooked is the idea that character development can bring hope. In a world in which many struggle to believe in their own self-efficacy, as Isabel Sawhill points out in her essay, to say that character matters is to confront fatalism. It means there is something a person can do despite difficult circumstances. Far from condescending, that message is empowering.