Boomers, who largely believe in liberal values like free speech, have raised kids who would trample those same values in their zealous pursuit of social justice. Where did we go wrong?
It’s playing out in the pages and the news room of the New York Times. In the last few years, Baby Boomer editors and reporters have been confronted by their younger staff writers over the fundamentals of journalism. As a rule, the Boomers believe in striving for objectivity while the younger generation wants to shed any pretense of fair play and to be unapologetic advocates, mostly for social and racial justice causes.
To its credit, the Times itself has reported on its own internal angst. It doesn’t help that the younger generation also has a business model behind them. The Times revenue stream has shifted from advertising to subscriptions. “A thriving digital subscription business makes the company more beholden to the views of left-leaning subscribers,” writes the Times own media columnist Ben Smith. And the reliance on readers, “may yet push it into a narrower and more left-wing political lane,” Smith writes.
And so, liberal customers demand liberal writing and the echo chamber grows deeper.
(While the Times melodrama has gotten the most attention, this kind of thing is going on in many parts of the publishing world. Publishers have been forced by their own staffs to back down on projects by Sen. Josh Hawley and by Woody Allen. There was even an insurrection by the staff of the Wall Street Journal.)
The kids are winning in a route. Editors and veteran reporters have been fired for their insufficiency of wokeness. To read the Times these days feels like taking an Oberlin College graduate course in race, ethnic and gender studies. The overwhelming Times narrative is about brave victims fighting evil oppressors. It’s a very simple morality play. No nuance or deviation from the script is allowed. The Times has even decided that its place is to rewrite the origin story of America. No chutzpah there.
Of course, simply because something is roiling the Times news room doesn’t mean it applies to the rest of America. That’s pretty rarefied air in Manhattan. But it’s happening in other places, most notably on college campuses pretty much everywhere and in American intellectual life in general.
Last summer, a group of celebrated writers, scientists, artists and academics, noting the trend, issued an open letter in Harper’s Magazine standing up for free speech. It seemed to me like they were fearlessly coming out in favor of motherhood (okay, make that parenthood) and apple pie (organic apples, of course).
Not so. Another group of, mostly younger, intellectuals shot back . As is usually the case with the left, crispness of expression is not their strength. The rebuttal was about ten times longer than the original letter. And their main argument pretty much proved the point of the Harper’s signatories. It was all about identity. The Harper’s writers were wrong mostly because they were older, whiter and richer. (Richer is probably true, but the letter had a fair representation of women, younger people and people of color. In fact, the organizer behind the letter was a young, Black man.)
For an explanation of all this you might try “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Their basic argument (it’s worth reading the entire book) is that Boomers raised their kids to equate contrary views, especially on questions of race and gender, with actual physical harm. So, for example, for a campus speaker to even suggest that racial disparities might be caused by anything but systemic racism is equivalent to punching students in the mouth. Students must be kept “safe” from these “harmful” ideas at all costs, including censorship.
Moreover, Lukianoff and Haidt go on, kids have been taught to place their feelings above reason. So, all a student has to do is to claim that some person, act or thing makes them feel “unsafe” and their claim is, de facto, valid. No questioning of the offended young person is allowed. No mitigating factors may be introduced. Here in Madison this kind of thing will result in an offensive rock being removed to a place where it can cause less harm.
We can hope they’ll just grow out of it. Most of us (including me) were clear-eyed, morally certain and uncompromising in our youth. In fact, Boomers themselves said some pretty outrageous things back in the day. If you can’t trust anybody over 30, well then, most of us have been untrustworthy for over half of our lives now.
As life goes on, compromise becomes necessary for survival. We discover that nobody is pure, nobody is 100% consistent about anything, much less everything. Life is filled with nuances and gray areas. Good people do some bad things; bad people will surprise you now and then. Where you end up in life is a complicated mixture of systems you can’t control but also of genetics, connections, fate and your own work and smarts. And it’s impossible for anybody to tease out just how much of each went into your success or failure.
I’m reasonably confident that the kids will figure this out as they move into management themselves and quickly find that now they are “the man” and a new generation of the zealous and the clear-eyed starts picking over their every Tweet.
They may even discover that liberal values have universal benefit, no matter who you are and what you believe, because these values protect the right to think and to say it out loud.