Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Generation Gap, Part 3: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Quick!  Summon Bruce Willis!
Maybe around the age of twelve, I started to notice that adults really like to talk about the apocalypse a lot.  That was when I first started watching a lot of adult TV (though my relationship with 90s Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network would continue for some time), and whether it was science documentaries, the news, or network dramas, everyone seemed to agree: the jig was up, the party was over, and the world as we knew it was clearly and unequivocally about to end.  Well, in a way, we're getting our wish.  But why is that?  Were we really right, and our predictions came true?  Or did this fear itself somehow cause it?  I'm going to explain why I believe the latter case is true, and how.

Mind you, the end of the world is not a concept I am necessarily hostile to.  As I struggled with my illness and inner demons over the years, it became in a way a comforting belief to keep around.  If I've learned one thing about human suffering during that time, it's that suffering is relativistic, and so while mine is probably a more dramatic example, I can't help but think that the principle is the same for a lot of people.  Explaining why is not simple, and will require a a few more pieces of evidence before I can show exactly how.  So bear with me, and I'll take you through it.  Hopefully you've read my two earlier related posts, on Classism and what I call Taking Reality For Granted.  If not, here's a brief recap: segregated as we are by class and race and cloistered away in communities populated nearly exclusively by like-minded individuals (real or online), Americans, particularly my parents' generation the Baby Boomers, suffer from errors in perception and judgment that effect how they perceive others.  In particular, material wealth is seen as the primary scale of value to society.  This principle extends outwards to errors in perception and communication that lead to social hypocrisy and an ironic lack of self-awareness in which one's beliefs effectively become the opposite of one's actions and history and the world are rewritten to fit the beliefs.  For more details feel free to peruse the individual posts, but this is what matters to my point.

Americans have been convinced they were in decline and the end is just around the corner for a long time now.  Anxiety about status and financial insecurity is largely what drives it.  Just a little while studying basic economic data can show you how income has been declining relative to the cost of living and how wealth disparity has affected it for several decades (this is a nice summary of American economic issues over the past several decades, for reference).  This combined with skyrocketing personal debt and the costs of medical care has given many people a legitimate grievance that things are not as good as they once were.  Combine this with the culture shocks of the 60s and 70s if you happen to be conservatively-minded, and you have a recipe for discontent with the way things are.  Call it deep unhappiness, even.  You can even fairly call it hopelessness.  The rationally-minded who read this are probably right about now saying "Now how can that be?  People go about their days and they seem perfectly fine."  To make that assumption is to again assume that man has no inherent nature, one of the fundamental misconceptions I've mentioned again and again as behind Baby Boomers' dysfunction.  Whether cultural, familial, or vocational, people have a lot of obligations and responsibilities in life.  We're conditioned to put these above our own happiness.  The result is that we have a lot of really unhappy, irrational people who hide their unhappiness from their conscious minds day-to-day in order to get through it.  You don't have to be an ardent Christian or an office drone to feel that way: nearly everyone does it to some degree.

But of course, that will warp your thinking and your perceptions of the world.  Now the idea of the apocalypse, whether the Evangelical Dispensationalist vision of the Rapture or the peak oil/climate change collapse conspiracy theory so popular with liberals, it's all the same.  If the world ends, or at least so permanently alters itself to be unrecognizable, BAM!--you're released from your responsibility.  Either you're up in heaven kicking it with Jesus, you're one of the smart ones living in a Utopian, if humble post-oil community, or best of all you're really and actually dead.  Thus the death wish plays itself out right under our own noses.

Oil...need sweet, delicious oil...
The media, being interested in profits above all (including public service), reflects that sentiment, as that's what the market demands.  Pundits, authors, and producers alike give us what we want, which is a narrative of a world on the brink, about to slide off into oblivion.  This process feeds back on itself, and so what you get is a feedback loop of ever-escalating anxiety and pessimism.  Liberals like to blame Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh for causing problems in life, just as they in turn blame liberals.  The truth is that Hannity and Rush are effects, not causes.  Nobody wakes up one day and says "hey, I don't like [insert group or label here]!  Let's get rid of them!"  It unfolds organically as a reaction to experience.  Beliefs shape experiences and experiences shape beliefs.  Neither exists in a vacuum.  Baby Boomers' widespread ignorance of this is in part what drives their irrational beliefs about Millennials and the world, and greatly contributes to the social and political dysfunction in this country.

These ideas also become self-reinforcing.  If you believe the end of the world is going to happen in the near future, you're going to be looking for signs of it in order to prepare yourself.  Whether or not the world is actually going to end or not is largely irrelevant.  The logic itself is perfectly rational, it's the belief that's misguided.  You're also going to be acting as if the world is going to soon end, and that will change your behavior, which will in turn affect your experience.  So the whole thing feeds back on itself.

Now we're getting somewhere.  The Baby Boomer doomsday prophecy has become largely self-fulfilling.  If you're convinced everything is going to come crashing down around you, chances are you're going to find a way to make it happen.  Now take that principle and apply it en masse.  We've created a self-fulfilling doomsday prophecy society, one in which the future isn't valued, the past is rewritten to fit the ideal of a lost golden age, and the truth--whatever that may be--is completely obscured by the belief.

This is the world our parents have handed my generation.  They have blamed everyone but themselves for it, including us.  And why would they blame themselves?  They believe they're the victims in all this. I don't know what the future holds for them, or for us.  I like to think it'll be better than the way things are now, but I'm an optimist and that's my nature.  One thing is for certain, though.  This generation gap, this irrational delusion, and this self-fulfilling prophecy did not come about by any malicious intent.  It arose as a natural response to the environment and situation in which it was created, and continued reacting to the world as it evolved.  To call Baby Boomers evil is not just wrong, it completely misses the point.  Selfish?  Maybe.  Probably.  But you have to put that selfishness in some sort of context.  It's ironic for sure, given how this played out between them and their parents back in the 60s and 70s.  But it's also unfair to blame them entirely.  This mess we're in is everybody's fault, not just theirs, and was started a long time before they contributed their little piece of it.  Likewise, it will take everyone working cooperatively to solve it.  When and how that happens, I don't know.  But in order to start, we ought to at least recognize the problem.  It's my hope that these past three posts have contributed in some way to that.

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