catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 4 :: 2009.02.13 — 2009.02.27


In defense of my generation

Editor’s Note: Our regular columnist Meredith Katherine-Case Gipson Hoogendam, is taking a break for grad school work.  In the meantime, enjoy this reflection by our guest columnist Joseph Breems, a student at Calvin College.

Recently, a good friend relayed to me a discussion she had had with a friend of her parents over Christmas break. The conversation had started out as an amiable, light-hearted pseudo-interrogation of her views on religion and politics, life and love-you know, the easy stuff that we college students have the luxury of lounging about and casually pondering all day. By the end this family friend had come to the conclusion that our generation-that is, the generation of students currently attending Calvin and universities across the country and around the world-was one lost to weak morals and rampant relativism. It’s an ethos that my own father has deemed as “dogmatically gray.”

This conclusion was drawn because in conversation, my friend had expressed a good deal of uncertainty about the values of our parents’ generation, and even worse, had posited points-of-view that were completely counter to them. Such a lethal combination of ambiguity and opposition can only result in social downfall. I’m sure that numerous others of my generation have had similar accusations leveled at them and their sets of values (or lack thereof, as many of our predecessors claim), and have fallen unwittingly victim to the post-modern monster that bellows, “Truth is relative!” and screeches, “Live and let live!”

It is these two imagined mantras, I suspect, that disturb generations before us so. On the one hand, each member of my generation is perceived to be placing him or herself, or more importantly his or her personal experiences, at the center of his or her own moral universe. Ironically, it would seem, then, that the individualism pioneered and championed by our Western forebears has been hijacked by my generation and turned against its creators in the form of an aberrant existential egotism. The often aggressive prizing of “my truth” is understood as arrogance.

On the other hand, it would also appear that as our generation relates to itself-and by that I mean member to member-the attempt to develop a rich, shared ethic amounts to little more than a disinterested glance and a corresponding shrug. If we indeed think too highly of ourselves and our truths, we in turn think practically nothing at all of those around us. Not that we are viciously disparaging or anything equally exhausting to that-we are just apathetic, mostly because that takes far less energy. The goal has become, then, to simply be able to pass by each other without bumping ethical elbows.

By this point, I’m certain it is not difficult to detect that I feel this to be an unfair, frankly incorrect characterization. I would like to show that my generation indeed holds to a very real set of values, values which are certainly no weaker than those of generations past. I would even be so bold as to claim that the values of my generation are in many ways stronger than those which came before.  After all, is it not human nature to learn from the mistakes of the past? If this were not so then what do we make of progress and change? What do we do with hope? And yet rhetorical questions do nothing to address the specific charge of relativism.

As a post-modernist myself, I am the first to admit that relativism has indeed taken on a much larger role in our cultural conversation. My generation does not readily attest to know, let alone assert universally applicable truths, at least not in the same way the combatants of the Culture Wars did, for example, be they modernists or traditionalists. But it would be erroneous to dub this quality disinterest. Instead, it is in large part recognition of and thus reaction to the social destruction wrought by past moral conflicts. And since my generation shies away from phrasing our values in terms of unyielding absolutes, those who know no other paradigmatic parlance possess no means of hearing what we are saying. But we are saying something.

The relativism of my generation is also a reaction to the myopia that has plagued the perspectives of the past. For the first time in history, as a result of new technologies and subsequently greater interconnectedness, my generation holds worldviews that can and do often consider the whole world, including its multiplicity of realities and discernments thereof. As such, my generation is regularly confronted with the failures of application of the values of our parents’ generation- values which were, and still are, largely born out of the insulated experiences of the wealthy, the white, the Western, and the male.

Just look at our history. Some of the greatest catastrophes of the modern world have come about as a result of one group claiming the superiority of its value system over all others. Think about it: slavery, colonialism, segregation, unequal rights, the capitalist exploitation of the developing world, institutional racism, sexism, heterosexism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and even global jihad are all products of paradigms that paint in brusquely broad, harshly black-and-white, and intentionally obliterating strokes. Now that is arrogance. The assumption that the perspectives of disempowered groups are just plain wrong-perspectives that are more than just takes on reality but the very identities and aspirations of those groups-has led to war, hate, oppression and genocide.

As students and heirs of this history, my generation would be dangerously foolish to approach the world with the same sort of self-righteous certainty and brash conviction. But is the answer then to hold no conviction at all? What are the values of my generation? Relativism carries with it too many negative connotations to stand on its own. So what, then, are the deeper values by which we abide? Why are we perceived to be relativists?

The first value, I would argue, is the promotion of peace above purity. Confronted with the wider world as we are, my generation holds that it is ultimately preferable that all members of our society live harmoniously together, and that each is affirmed in his or her equal worth. We reject the mindset that is so rabidly fixated on being right that it pushes aside and consequently oppresses those who just don’t quite fit in. We seek less to forcibly convert, than to graciously coexist. Often this necessitates a willingness to accept that our opinions and lifestyles might differ from those of our neighbors, and that’s okay. Such difference is not cause for suspicion or fear; rather it is an opportunity for growth.

The second value is that we prioritize understanding before taking a stand. For many who have come before, my generation’s seeming reticence to embark on crusades of conviction has been taken as proof of collective apathy. To be sure, there are a great many who are apathetic; no one would deny that. However, according to a recent article in The Washington Post, 70% of incoming college freshmen in 2007 said it is “essential or very important” to help others in difficulty. This is the highest that figure has been in nearly 40 years. What’s more, approximately two thirds of those in their low- to mid-twenties express a preference for finding a job that allows them to contribute to non-profit work.

If these statistics are indeed true, what differentiates the push for progress being made by my generation from that of the Baby Boomers? Well, as I mentioned earlier on, the primary benefit of knowing one’s history is the ability to learn from it. Whereas the dissatisfaction of the youth of the late 60s and early 70s led them to seek change through revolution-that is, by attacking the system from the outside-my generation by and large is seeking change through reform, meaning from within. We play the game so that we might redefine it. While this lacks the high drama of, say, Paris 1968, it is an approach that promises to be more sustainable and long-lasting-information, then reformation.

The third and final value that I will discuss here is that my generation, oddly enough in all its post-modernity, embraces a more honest realism than the worldviews that have preceded us. This is most apparent in the refusal of my generation to accept the myth of the monolith.  This point is central to what I’ve been arguing: despite the characterization of my generation as being naught but naive, starry-eyed idealists, in truth we accurately recognize that no group, no generation, no paradigm speaks with a singular voice.

Throughout this article I have rather liberally been using the term “my generation,” and yet I gladly acknowledge that all members of my generation are not post-modern in their outlooks. Many who are reading this have probably disagreed with every single one of my claims. Indeed, post-modernism itself-or perhaps more accurately those who call themselves post-modern-subscribes to tenets of a variety of paradigms, including modernism and traditionalism. This inclusiveness and the tensions inherent therein are at the heart of the values of my generation.

This world is a complicated and difficult place, replete not only with ambiguity, but evil as well. I would not want what I have written to be construed as suggesting that in all instances of disagreement we should throw our hands up and back slowly away from the judgment. Injustices and the suffering they cause, like the sexual exploitation of women and the trafficking of children, are wrong and should be confronted as such. I also do not want to be misunderstood as suggesting that my generation has it all figured out and those old, conservative fogies can just stuff it.

What I am suggesting is that as we step into an uncertain future, it is high time we start approaching each others’ ideas and ways of living with, at least initially, the same respect and consideration we give our own, fully taking into account our common humanity and all of the shared flaws that entails. We must see each other first and foremost as equals. It is only then, when we humble ourselves enough to be, as Christian author George Barna phrased it, “comfortable with contradiction,” that we begin to lay the foundations for a more peaceable, a more understanding, and a more loving coexistence.

*The article is entitled “For This Generation, Vocations of Service” by Ian Shapira and was printed in the October 14, 2008 edition of The Washington Post.

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