An efficient maxim
On aging, censorial behavior, and the need for the "adults in the room" to find the room
Seva Gunitsky, a professor of political science, shares the pithy and cutting observation that "Every generation, upon reaching middle age, begins to see the world around them in decline as a way to habituate themselves to their own decay." It's hard to find fault with Gunitky's hypothesis; history is cluttered with variations on a theme of "Kids these days are terrible", yet most of the meaningful measures of human welfare have trended toward the good for centuries -- and the pace of improvement on many measures is accelerating.
■ Something has to explain the gap between perception and reality, and the dread of one's own decline may well be it. Notable are the exceptions to the pattern, who have recorded their faith that perhaps the kids will indeed be all right. Benjamin Franklin was one of those; he offered the reassurance that "[D]iscretion did not always accompany years, nor was youth always without it."
■ The pessimist, for instance, looks at censorial behavior on college campuses and concludes that the young are bound to turn themselves stupid and servile. These critics may be right to recognize that a learning environment, by design, cannot be made free of uncomfortable exchanges, and that a robust dialogue about meaningful questions (of the kind we easily associate with the idea of "going to school") will invariably push some people out of "safe spaces".
■ The optimist, though, looks at the environment and concludes that the behavior that gets people labeled as "snowflakes" could be attributed much more charitably. Youthful eagerness to behave more inclusively and with greater sensitivity to the identities of others probably deserves to be regarded as a sign that society at large is becoming wiser and more open. But the perpetual hazard of eagerness is that of overreach.
■ In so many cases, the youth-driven movements that are prone to taking things too far are crying out for the guiding hand of those who have seen pendulum swings in the past. That takes a balance between openness to the new and a leavening sense of caution about how to put the new into practice.
■ The human world is only rarely in decay, but it can be disorienting when new ideas are adopted with inexperienced "drivers" at the wheel. It may not always be obvious (even to them), but young people with big ideas are often, if not usually, in search of guidance about how to enact the changes they desire. To the extent that their ideas contain even the germ of a good thing, it's important to avoid reacting as though all change is suspect, and to instead ask "How much of this would really be a good thing, and how can we help shape how (and how much of) it comes into being?"