Opinions, Column, Featured Column

Passing The Problem From Generation To Generation

We do a disservice to ourselves and to the next generation when we claim that everyone lives under identical rules and restrictions.

I got asked a lot of questions over winter break.

Some were fun, like “Are you really still sleeping?” and “Do you want to go see a 3-hour play about Lyndon B. Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964?” (I was, and I did). Most were variations on the expected—nay, dreaded—“So, what are your plans after graduation?” (Cue hysterical laughter.) The most intriguing question, though, was posed by a friend of my mother’s who came over one night for lasagna. “What’s the one thing my generation has screwed up the most for you guys?” she asked.

Oh man.

Real life looms large these days, and it would be wonderfully liberating—and so easy—to scapegoat adults for a whole host of national issues (if the LBJ bit didn’t clue you in to my political leanings, let me wipe away the last traces of doubt): the restriction of safe access to abortion services, the War on Drugs, egregious and increasing wealth disparities, militarized police, low standards and low funding for public education, FOX News. And that’s without even touching foreign policy.

As hard as it is to pick one social ill more terrible than all the others, it’s even harder to neatly divvy up the decades and place blame squarely on one generation. How many problems are so new that they’re utterly detached from the attitudes and actions of 20, 50, 100 years ago? Any at all? I doubt it.

So I stand by the answer I gave that night: We young’uns face the same disservice done by every generation to those who follow, which is simply the expectation that the world works the same way now as it did then.

I was thinking narrowly at the time, about livelihood and success and my own future. (Should I add that the aforementioned hysterical laughter is just the soundtrack to a miasma of helplessness and near-panic?) Millennials are generally supposed to mimic our parents’ paths, but the costs and benefits of what used to make a meaningful life—college, career, family, car, picket fence—have changed. We’re supposed to save money, read the news, think, vote, but we have lost confidence in banks, newspapers, intellectuals, our government. The world is different, and you guys just don’t get it. (Please feel free to read that last sentence with as whiny a tone as you like.)

That’s what I meant then. But the past few weeks, if not months, have driven home the fact that holding static expectations and moving through life as if there’s only one reality isn’t just a generational problem. The Charlie Hebdo attacks were rooted in several individuals’ inability to tolerate a world where their faith could be openly mocked. Germany’s new right wing, anti-immigration, anti-Islam group, PEGIDA, is pushing back against a changing definition of “German.” That laundry list of issues from a few paragraphs back? Each can be traced back to a failure or unwillingness to understand how someone else’s reality diverges from one’s own.

These days, it takes concerted, ridiculous effort to interact only with the likeminded, but people everywhere still have trouble coexisting and cooperating. And when we disagree, do we then seek to destroy? To assimilate? Do we ignore that which seems alien and distasteful? Or do we strive to understand?

It’s worth pondering these questions now, soon after the day designated to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. He worked to call attention to difference—but he wanted equality, not homogeneity, and this country still struggles between those two attitudes toward diversity. The marches and protests that began with Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland as their focal points are born out of anger at injustice, but they also address the fact that, in many ways, the world does not work the same way for everyone. Black America does not have the same rules as white America. Educated America is not the same as uneducated America. Poor, rich; straight, gay; the dichotomies go on. We do a disservice to ourselves and to the next generation when we claim that everyone lives under identical rules and restrictions; but we err just as egregiously by saying that the only way to be fair is for everyone to be the same.

Even though I’m hard-pressed to think of any other time when the world was friendlier toward diversity, we still have a long way to go. So perhaps the older generation’s failure is not what they “screwed up,” but what they were unable to accomplish: a recognition of difference, and the ability to live with it on equal terms.

What’s the solution? I only wish I knew. But having these conversations can only help; and the lasagna doesn’t hurt, either. (I’ll keep my peace—for now—on the instructive value of LBJ.)

Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Graphic

January 21, 2015