The More Things Change,
The More They Actually DO Change!
White supremacist Richard Spencer is speaking at the University of Florida today and the police, state police, and Florida National Guard are out in full force, anticipating possible violent protests against Spencer’s hateful provocations. After Charlottesville, of course, this seems a prudent precaution. The deeper issue here is free speech and the problem Millennials, in particular, seem to have with it. The Sunday New York Times “Review” ran a piece by Clay Routledge, a professor at North Dakota State University, entitled Millennials Are Wary of Freedom. In it, Routledge cites some disturbing statistics.
A 2015 poll from the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of millennials (ages 18 to 34) believe the government should be able to regulate certain types of offensive speech. Only 27 percent of Gen-Xers (ages 35 to 50), 20 percent of baby boomers (ages 51- 69) and 12 percent of the silent generation (ages 70 to 87) share that opinion.
40% believe that the government should regulate certain types of offensive speech! Moreover, Routledge cites a World Values survey that says “only about 30 percent of Americans born after 1980 believe it is essential to live in a democratic country, compared with 72 percent of Americans born before World War II. In 1995, 16 percent of Americans in their late teens and early adulthood thought democracy was a bad idea; in 2011, the number increased to 24 percent.” What’s happened? Why has the younger generation in America seemingly lost its belief in democracy as well as a commitment to free speech?
This is not a simple liberal/conservative or Republican/Democratic divide either. Routledge further notes: "A 2016 Gallup survey found that a majority of both Democratic and Republican students believe colleges should be allowed to restrict speech that is purposely offensive to certain groups." As bad, an October 11th survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education “found that 66 percent of Democratic and 47 percent of Republican students believe there are times a college should withdraw a campus speaker’s invitation after it has been announced.” We know, of course, that universities have “withdrawn” invitations to various speakers because of student protests and we seriously need to question what is happening on our campuses --- as well as what peoples’ understanding of the First Amendment is!
Routledge points at two causes for this phenomena: fear and a culture of “safety” for children. As he notes, “somewhere along the way, protecting children from needless harm became conflated with shielding them from stressors and uncertainties (such as having to solve everyday problems, like getting lost, on one’s own) that are critical for developing personal independence.” Indeed, “helicopter parenting” has become a norm for much of our society and what that breeds is a culture of fear among the young. Again, as Routledge further notes, “fears of failure, ridicule, discomfort, ostracism, uncertainty . . . haunt all of us.” But the Millennials have been raised to “avoid taking physical, emotional and intellectual risks” and, as a result, “privilege psychological security over liberty.” And there’s the core of the problem!
In earlier Blast’s I’ve noted my friend Craig Lambert’s excellent book, Shadow Work, particularly regarding what he describes as “snowplow parents” (upping the ante from “helicopter parents”) and the culture of “adult supervision” that children now grow up in. Reflecting on his own youth, Lambert says:
As a boy, I played every single day after school and on weekends, with neighborhood friends. The idea of our parents setting up a play date would have been as alien as a Martian showing up in our New Jersey town. Why would anyone’s parents stick their noses into our playtime? Frankly, one of the great things about free time with friends was the chance to get away from Mom and Dad for a few hours and play by our own rules. (pp.82-83)
In much the same way, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, in his recent NetFlix special Jerry Before Seinfeld, says, “'My parents didn't even know our names. They were ignorant; they were negligent; we grew up like wild dogs in the ‘60s. No helmets, no seat belts, no restraints,’ he recalls of his suburban life.” (amNewYork, August 29, 2017). As Craig Lambert notes, “Making our own rules helped us feel free and capable.” (p. 83) The notion of being “free” and growing up with “no restraints” might risk injuries or other pains along the way, but it also creates a great sense of self. Lambert points out how “sandlot” games of baseball, football, or basketball, regulated by the players/kids taught us sportsmanship, conflict resolution (he mourns the loss of the concept of the “do-over”), and fairness. It taught us a great deal but also made us less fearful, if not totally fearless.
Routledge asks the question: “What can be done?” and answers thusly:
It isn’t enough to criticize young people for being overly sensitive and insufficiently independent. They didn’t engineer our security-focused culture. We must liberate them, let them be free to navigate the social world, make mistakes, fail, experience emotional pain and learn to self-regulate fear and distress. If we want future generations to have faith in freedom, we need to restore our faith in them.
Indeed, it seems we have to figure out a way to teach what used to come naturally and organically to youngsters in this country.
We may want to remember Samuel Becket’s quote: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." Accepting failure as part of a learning process without labeling someone a “a loser” might be a step in the right direction. In the same way, everyone “winning” a trophy does not teach people about the kind of sportsmanship and fair play Craig Lambert discusses when talking about the joy of sandlot ball --- where none of us ever got a trophy. At the very least we must try to right this ship and if we fail, then we must try again and "fail better." Losing democracy and the First Amendment would be a far greater loss, indeed.