Boston prides itself on being a haven of high-minded thinking—something that’s also made us insufferable.
Both of these studies fall within the larger field of moral psychology, which argues that a cultural preference becomes a value only after it is moralized. So what does that mean? Think of smoking. As bans on smoking have become the cultural norm, a new moral value has gradually emerged. Initially, as the behavior became recognized as unhealthy, more and more people began to consider it morally repugnant. But with the behavior now moralized, it’s smokers themselves whom increasing numbers of people consider repugnant.
What’s fascinating about moral psychology is that it’s up to a community to define its own values. Which explains why gay marriage is okay in Massachusetts but not Mississippi. But as these values harden, those who don’t live up to them suffer the consequence: moral approbation. Eskine, the Loyola professor, has experienced it himself. He has nothing against the organic ideal or the better angels of anyone’s progressive nature. For a long time, he says, he was even a vegan himself. But he also remembers a time he was shopping at a fair-trade co-op in Brooklyn and placed a bag of flour into his cart—not organic flour, just plain old flour—and a nearby shopper caught him in the act. He might as well have been butchering a calf right there in the aisle. “The look I got from this woman,” he says. “Sanctimonious. That’s a perfect term for it.”
This sort of thing happens everywhere, of course. But it’s wildly prevalent in the Boston area, it seems. Life Alive asks you to “notice how you feel after eating.” Newbury Comics uses plastic bags that say, “I’m Saving the Planet—What Are You Doing?” And activists in Jamaica Plain recently took things to another level. Desperate to preserve a feeling of diversity there after Whole Foods revealed plans to move in—a move that threatened the survival of a Latin grocery, and thus the activists’ feeling that they were living in an authentic neighborhood—they launched a long campaign to prevent all chain markets from moving in.
But the fact is, it’s always been this way. Generation after generation, Bostonians have felt sanctimony is their natural right.