Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Generation Gap, Part 2: Taking Reality For Granted.

Our oldest and most dangerous assumption.  Now
in coffee mug form.
My last post in this series caused something of a stir on Facebook, and hopefully this one will too.  I was debating whether to work on it today or tomorrow, but then I read this article, which contained a lovely quote from a legislator in my home state openly stating that young people weren't worth minimum wage, and it seemed to me that the timing was good.

America, particularly you older Americans, you have a problem.  You think you're a lot smarter and wiser than you actually are.  I'm going to lay out exactly why and how this is.

I first became aware that my generation and our parents weren't speaking the same language through my fiancee's family.  Kari has been involved in a number of conflicts with her parents in the past few years, each stemming from a basic breakdown in communication.  It's a matter of perspective.  Neither of her parents, but her mother in particular, are very self-aware, and both have difficulty seeing past their own lives and experiences and putting themselves in someone else's shoes.  This is a difficulty I've had with my own parents, as have countless others close to my own age with their own parents.  If our grandparents were naive, our parents are something worse: overconfident.  It comes back to the spirit of the 60s and the Vietnam War, really.  Think about that dynamic.  Postwar America was a place of strong fear, which was mitigated and countered with very strong beliefs.  Think Eisenhower in the 50s.  Those beliefs were countered with other beliefs, each of them promoted as exclusive to the other and in many ways a reaction to the other.  The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War, and Watergate produced one of two belief responses, each deep and all-encompassing.  Either things had to radically change, or they had to radically change back.  This has helped to form the basis of our partisan divide over the last 40 years (in my previous post I talked about how conspicuous consumption formed another part).

The important thing here isn't the content of the ideology itself but rather how it works.  I have never known a more uncompromising group of people than the Baby Boomers.  Particularly the movement conservatives, but also the liberals, though it manifests itself in a different way.  The spirit of zero compromise is rooted in self-righteousness, which if you're even remotely familiar with the 60s and 70s and the debate over the Vietnam War, should be self-explanatory.  As with conspicuous consumption, there is nothing unnatural or illegitimate about this: it was the most effective weapon at the time.  However, like with many things over time, what was once the previous solution has now become the problem.  Let's break this down.

A good scientist and a good Buddhist know that assumptions are a dangerous thing.  Our beliefs are constructs of our mind, and do not necessarily reflect the outside reality.  That doesn't mean they're never right, only that there is the possibility that they're wrong.  I can't tell you how many times I've gotten into debates or arguments with people over politics and religion that spiraled out of control because one or both of us couldn't see past our own beliefs.  The trouble comes in assuming that you're right.  Of course, if you believe something, it could very well be right.  Or it could be wrong.  But that is only revealed through actions and experience, not words.  I call this principle Taking Reality For Granted (or TRFG, for short).  Kari's mother, for example, doesn't understand that the relative cost of living to income ratio has changed significantly for the worse since the time when she was our age.  She takes that part of reality for granted.  The New Hampshire legislator quoted in the link at the beginning took for granted that low-income workers have the option of seeking better employment should they not be offered a living wage.  They took upward mobility for granted.  There is not necessarily anything malicious about this, it's simply an error in judgment.  I've met very few truly bad people in my life.  Most in fact, had very good intentions.  They were simply either misguided or misinformed.  Yet when you Take Reality For Granted, anyone who disagrees with you instantly becomes a malicious enemy who must either be educated and failing that punished, because how could they be so wrong when the truth is so obvious?

I blame a lot of our current societal and political dysfunction on this lack of self-awareness, both individually and collectively.  When you make those kinds of assumptions and Take Reality For Granted, hypocrisy naturally follows.  Let's explore one way in which this plays out between generations, which is especially pertinent to the case at hand.
Also known as "Alcohol."

Baby Boomers love to criticize the children of others.  Every few weeks, I come across an article in some newspaper or magazine or another written by a Baby Boomer about the Millennial generation, ranting about how lazy and unprofessional they are, about how special they all think they are, how much praise they require, and what terrible workers they are.  It's the fault of their upbringing every time.  They've had an all-out assault waged on their low self-esteem, and it's permanently damaged their ability to work.  Conservatives take this a step further: devaluing us to the point of a commodity.  Liberals are more subtle, but nonetheless make it clear that we're worthless to them.  My response to this is always, well then who the hell do you think is responsible for raising them and coddling them every step in the way?  The retort is always "Not my child."  (I'm paraphrasing here), "My child is perfect in every way.  It's everyone else's child."  Which, after hearing that line from adult after adult makes me wonder, well if all your children to be perfect, then who are these mysterious "other" children I keep hearing about?  The answer, of course, is that to find the culprit they need only take a look in the mirror.  The response, and the retort, betrays the very flawed thinking that produced the prejudice in the first place.  Now, lest we make the wrong counterargument, this is a perfectly logical deduction.  It's the belief the logic is based upon that's flawed.  And not a one of them has any idea about it.  This is what I mean by a lack of self-awareness and an inability to see past one's own worldview.  Once that happens, hypocrisy naturally follows.  The trouble is, of course, when everyone suffers from that same flaw, has it reinforced through a constant  bombardment of propaganda, and only ever associates with people that completely agree, you get exactly the breakdown in discourse that we're witnessing right now in politics and society.

Can anything be done about this?  To be completely honest, I don't know.  There are several lines of evidence that would suggest a potential course of action.  For one thing, I don't know very many young people who are so uncompromising that they demonize those who disagree with them as somehow less than them.  Sure, I know uncompromising people my own age, but I haven't met one with whom I couldn't come to some sort of agreement with in a political debate, even when we're far apart on an issue.  That gives me tremendous hope.  We also seem a lot more social than our parents ever were, and we're far better at making connections than they are as well.  In fact, connecting with people seems to be the paramount priority of my generation, far more than ideological victory, which seems more and more like the highest priority of our parents.  Which is not to say that we are any less hypocrites than they are either; just about different things, and in my opinion, less destructive ways as well.  Seeking experience, with the confidence to not be frightened by it, may in fact be our greatest gift.  It is certainly ironic, as it is that very same quality our parents love to deride in us.

Along another avenue, I think there are Boomers out there (most of them, in fact) who can be nudged into more accepting and compromising positions through personal experience.  Even conservatives who know at least one openly gay person are significantly less homophobic than those who do not.  But getting that lesson to be applied to anyone outside the inner circle of a family may be more difficult.  However, I think trying is well-worth it, as the reward of a healthier and more cooperative society far outstrips the risks and the effort involved.

The danger, it seems to me, is that we become more isolated, not less.  But that pushes against the tides of long-term demographic trends, so if we do, I doubt it'll last.  It's our silence and our inaction that speak louder than whatever militant zeitgeist happens to be blaring out of Fox News or MSNBC these days.  The most dangerous belief of all is that we are powerless and have no hope.  Resignation is not the same thing as acceptance.  Nor is it true that our beliefs are self-evident.  We have to go looking for the reason why, and accept that sometimes we're wrong.  So long as we fail to account for this, our troubles will continue.  At the very least we can be a little bit more flexible about it.

I won't end this post on a note of fear, because I am neither afraid nor do I believe in using fear to make a point.  I choose instead to issue a reminder that none of us is above our humanity, and thus none of us is above our own flaws.  Nor our families, loved-ones, friends, heroes, politicians, and religious leaders.  The expectation that anyone is perfect and anything is infallible is the very worst way to Take Reality for Granted.  Use this information wisely.

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