In his first column as Guardian US writer-at-large, Dave Schilling ignores the trigger warnings and wanders into the very unsafe space that is the schism between millennials and their predecessors
Today, I woke up to the startling realization that Im no longer a child. In the eyes of the law, I havent been a kid since I turned 18. In the eyes of the Lord, I grew up around the time I first saw the interrogation scene in Basic Instinct. This year it dawned on me that the truest, most accurate sign of maturity is actually righteous indignation.
I lost it over reports that students at Princeton are lobbying to have former US president Woodrow Wilsons name removed from their universitys School of Public and International Affairs. Woodrow Wilson led us through the first world war. He invented the League of Nations, a forward-thinking precursor to the UN. He had to live his entire life with the name Woodrow. Hasnt he suffered enough? I thought. Wilson, for the record, oversaw the resegregation of parts of the federal government during his tenure a blemish on his liberal record that he shares with basically every US president through the middle of the last century. While were at it, shall we replace the Washington monument with a Whole Foods?
When it comes to the generational divide in this country, I am officially part of the problem. While the young people annoyingly persist in believing we can always do better, I couldnt be bothered to get up and change the channel on my TV if an Isis execution video came on MSNBC because ugh, the remote is so far away and I just got up to refill my water 10 minutes ago. Our world is such a non-stop horror show of violence, greed, and NCIS spinoffs that the aforementioned hypothetical, grisly scenario isnt quite that far-fetched. All the while, sour-faced commentators and critics delight in ridiculing kids whove had enough. Perhaps college students are creating safe spaces on their campuses because the country theyre inheriting fundamentally isnt.
In 2015, it has seemed like every day, some new Gen X celebrity from the 80s or 90s popped up to bemoan the sensitive, guileless, weak-willed Generation Y, while the Baby Boomers guzzle their food through a straw and masturbate all over their guns. Author Bret Easton Ellis dubbed people around my age Generation Wuss. To Ellis, millennials are defined by their over-sensitivity, their insistence that they are right despite the overwhelming proof that suggests they are not, their lack of placing things within context, the overreacting, the passive-aggressive positivity, and, of course, all of this exacerbated by the meds theyve been fed since childhood by over-protective helicopter parents mapping their every move. Over-sensitivity seems like his way of describing anyone who finds his attitudes toward women distressing. Comedian/brand ambassador for nostalgia Jerry Seinfeld refuses to perform at colleges because they are too PC to laugh at his edgy jokes about sneakers, breakfast cereals, and airline food. These culture warriors often see over-sensitivity as a threat to Americas precious notion of freedom of speech one of the most abused, misunderstood ideals we have.
All year, weve been subjected to the borderline hate and unfettered lunacy of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and the rest of the Republican presidential field. Carson has gone on record saying Islam is not compatible with the US constitution, even though the constitution explicitly gives American citizens the right to practice Islam freely. Meanwhile, Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims from entering the US all together. Because people like Carson and Trump are old and wealthy and running for president, society values their speech more than the kid demanding trigger warnings before a lecture or one who wants to no-platform an intellectual. Really, there should be a trigger warning for the next GOP debate, because watching them makes me want to shoot myself. In the last two weeks, Trump has mocked a journalist with a disability and said that a Black Lives Matter protester maybe should have been roughed up after an assault took place at one of his rallies. In our blinkered view of free speech, Trump has earned the right to rubber-stamp violence and intolerance, presumably because hes a tough guy who speaks plain truths, or some such bullshit.
Trumps favorite weapon the rhetorical equivalent of the golden gun from the James Bond video game GoldenEye, because it has the power to vanquish an opponent immediately is calling someone stupid or a loser. Even if Trumps statements are abhorrent to both sides of the American political establishment, we have to listen to him, but he doesnt have to listen to us. In the ideal version of American first amendment free speech, everyone speaks eloquently, no one uses their rights to incite violence or hatred, and we patiently listen to everyone elses opinion because theyre all so damned reasonable. Of course, this notion is so fantastical and absurd, there should be a special section at Disneyland called First Amendment Land where instead of Mickey Mouse or Darth Vader posing for photos with your babies, its Alexis de Tocqueville.
The practical reality of American society is that most of us would rather not hear what the other side has to say and would quite frankly chew off our own genitals in exchange for the power to pretend like those people dont exist at all. Its why any hope for meaningful compromise on wedge issues has died since the early days of the Obama administration. The power of Trump is that he can magically quiet those he does not agree with through the power of insults. Thats the greatest gift a politician could hope for in a democracy that doesnt value differences of opinion.
How is Trumps dismissal of opposing views any different than the no-platforming of feminists who critique trans activists? In both cases, someone is dismissing speech they deem harmful, dangerous to society, or just plain incorrect. The only difference is that Trumps ideas are now terrifyingly considered acceptable enough that he can find himself on Saturday Night Live. The average leftwing youth activist hasnt had a national platform since Occupy Wall Street a movement cheerfully discredited by the media and shut down by the police. No-platforming and PC attitudes are themselves speech that has to be protected as long as the other side shows such contempt for ideals of equality and empathy.
True American free speech is less a thoughtful dialogue and more an epic slap fight between two combatants exhibiting the signs of chronic alcohol abuse. Our discourse is not civilized, its not reasonable, and its only gotten more debased in the 30 years Ive been on this planet. Young activists actually still give a damn about the future, which is why theyre using every tool at their disposal to try to improve their lot rather than giggling every time the man with the silly haircut makes a funny on the TV box.
As a nation, we are so cynical that weve allowed a cartoon testicle with a mouth and absolutely zero experience in government to have a sniff of getting into the White House. Gen X thinkers are bemused by the people they so derisively named millennials (or should that be founders?) because they are compelled to try to be a bit more enlightened than those that came before them. One of the millennials favorite tools for enacting social change is Twitter, but there are those who see Twitter as yet another hotbed of censorship. In New York magazines piece on PC culture from January 2015, writer Jonathan Chait claims that the emphasis on tone policing and other attempts to tackle the biases inherent in certain forms of rhetoric is harming our right to free speech. Social media, where swarms of jeering critics can materialize in an instant, paradoxically creates this feeling of isolation, he wrote.
The jeering critic hes talking about is the rabble-rouser on Twitter blowing up the mentions of someone they deem problematic. In this particular fantasy, the Thought Police mobilize to silence anyone who dares defy what they believe is acceptable. The nameless horde of youngsters who take to social media in order to explain the plight of the trans community to those misgendering Caitlyn Jenner or demand empathy be shown to minorities are apparently terrifying certain people into silence who, you know, have a point too, goshdarnit. Contrary to Chaits assertion, Twitter mentions can be ignored, no one is required to have a social media presence, and the concept of isolation on the internet means your schedule is now free to get that gym membership, visit a foreign country, finish that screenplay about a hyper-intelligent species of space elves, or make actual friends.
The internet is a choose-your-own-adventure of hateful, aggressive speech on all sides of the political spectrum, but no matter who you are from a nobody calling out an athlete to an intellectual debating the merits of second-wave feminism to an audience of 30 white-wine-drunk adjunct faculty theres always the off switch in the corner of your computer or smartphone.
When this alleged censorship migrates into the physical realm, it becomes a bit trickier. It manifests itself in the real world through the manufactured structure of the American higher education system. Students at the University of Missouri recently began expressing their desire for safe spaces on campus in the wake of controversies over racism at the school. Student protesters turned a patch of lawn into a sanctuary free of dissenting opinions and journalists. Sometimes, they enforced this safe space through physical means. The protesters were caught on video pushing a photographer for ESPN out of their area, which naturally sent vomitous outrage machines like the New York Post into fits of hysterics. Conservative critics of young people are even more vitriolic in their hatred of PC culture than their liberal counterparts.
I honestly think they believe that this is a harbinger of the end times, far more disastrous for the planet than global warming, the rise of militant groups in the Middle East, or the next Coldplay album. An online post by the president of the evangelical college Oklahoma Wesleyan, Dr Everett Piper, made the rounds of concerned media aggregators across the country this month. Piper says, An altar call is supposed to make you feel bad. It is supposed to make you feel guilty, in response to a student who was troubled by a church sermon. He also helpfully reminds the reader that his school is not a day care. Hes right about that. The average daycare doesnt cost almost $32,000 a year to attend, whereas Oklahoma Wesleyan does, in fact, cost that much. Granted, OWU offers room, board, and eternal salvation, while in daycare all you get is a juice box, a blanket, and a DVD screening of the middle 35 minutes of Finding Nemo before your step-dad comes to pick you up.
Piper goes on to say: If you want to be enabled rather than confronted, there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isnt one of them. In other words, if you want to spend $32,000 a year to develop an inferiority complex, then you know where to matriculate: Bartlesville, Oklahomas finest (and presumably only) private Christian university. Pipers post equates not wanting to be made to feel bad with selfishness. Campus safe spaces are narcissistic playgrounds of the weak-willed and the cowardly. This worldview seems to value stoic cynicism and self-hatred over not wanting to hit yourself over the head with a hammer until God, your mom, and Ronald Reagans moldy ghost love you more. I am just old enough to see how that could be appealing. Speaking up takes effort and always being satisfied with myself would get old after awhile. Without extreme disgust, would life be as sweet? If I didnt struggle with doubt every once in a while Id be Donald Trump, who, by the way, is the product of Americas reigning generational champions: the Baby Boomers.
While Gen X and Y fight over which deep-alphabet letter is more extreme, Baby Boomers like Trump and Dr Everett Piper are steering the USS Uncle Sammy Blue Jeans into the cultural equivalent of the asteroid field from The Empire Strikes Back. I hadnt even had the opportunity to blissfully forget the Planned Parenthood mass shooting when the San Bernardino mass shooting happened. Our Boomer overlords, with their tough love, quiet strength, and verbal abuse, have handed us a world where I dont even trust the guy in front of me in line at Panera Bread to not be planning to unload a clip into my chest. While Donald Trump is gaslighting his critics and encouraging his supporters rough up dissenters, real change on important issues like gun control elude us.
Movie theaters, clinics, universities, high schools, and countless other spaces too numerous to mention have been targets of indiscriminate violence. College is the last time where one is free to be idealistic, to think that they can actually make a difference before men of God, politicians, and the mega-rich inform them that actually, theyre better off playing along. I might question the necessity of changing the name of a school or think that people need to stop assuming an off-color joke is the end of the world, but my time is up. Im too busy ignoring bill collectors, getting winded going up a staircase and freaking out over a suspicious mole to worry that much. The next generation still thinks they can change the world for the better, and maybe they can, if wed just let them. The only thing I know for sure is that they cant do much worse than our parents.