Young Morality and Old Morality
Wisdom means listening to the angry youth.
All of us who live through our teens and 20s and into our 30s and 40s and beyond get to experience the evolution of our own political thought. Life is a rich pageant and I’m sure that this process varies for everyone, but typically, youth is characterized by passion, energy, and stridency, which over time softens into nuance and “shades of grey” as our life experience accumulates. From the perspective of the young, this process can be seen as one of disappointing acquiescence to the world’s injustices; from the perspective of the old, it can be seen as one of gaining invaluable wisdom. For the purpose of our discussion, it is enough to just recognize that people change with time.
It is, of course, impossible to have a great deal of wisdom produced by life experience when you’re young. You are young. By definition, your life experience is limited. But this lack of lived experience is balanced out by something that young people tend to have more of than their elders: moral clarity. The rage and impatience of youthful political energy is a natural result of gaining insight into how the world works for the first time, and being disgusted by its many outrages. History? Economics? Foreign policy? To learn for the first time about any of these things is to be introduced to an unbroken string of murder, oppression, and theft stretching back thousands of years. Education, performed correctly, gives kids the knowledge that the world around them did not just spontaneously come into being; it is the result of the work of many, many generations of stronger groups wiping out weaker groups and taking all of their stuff. And sustains itself today not through a friendly spirit of universal cooperation, but through power arrangements that culminate, almost everywhere, with the barrel of a gun. To see the world through a child’s eyes, and then to have the actual, blood-soaked machinery of history and politics unveiled is a shock. It prompts an urgent desire to do something in anyone with a conscience. Young people are able to see the evils of our systems with eyes that are unclouded by the harsh compromises that life imposes on all of us.
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Older people who have lived through more things and read more books often mock this moral clarity as the product of childish, unsophisticated minds. Yet that judgment is itself a product of fear, of weakness, of the very human need to justify ourselves to ourselves. In fact, the moral clarity of youth is priceless treasure. It is the fuel that propels action towards justice. It is untainted idealism, which is a necessary ingredient for any movement that aspires to change the world for the better. The very things that older people find repellent about young people’s political attitudes—the certainty, the self-righteousness, the impatience with any delays—are the same things that we should welcome. They are the things that older people, with all of their knowledge, often lose.
Are young people annoying? Yes of course. They don’t know jack shit and they act like they know everything and they mock our outfits, which we are certain are cool. More to the point, what chafes older people so much is, I think, the fact that younger people seem eager to pass judgment on the world without ever having had to navigate its many challenges themselves. We see their certainty as unearned, their arrogance as off-putting, and their smooth, glowing skin as an insult to our own mortality.
What I want to say at this very fraught political moment, however, is this: The wisdom that older people claim grants them the legitimacy to control the world also demands the grace and humility to be able to admit that young people bring important qualities to the political mix that we lack. To high-handedly dismiss the demands of the young that knotty moral outrages be fixed, just because those demands feel simplistic or tinged with self-righteousness, is to reveal that we are not as wise as we claim to be after all.
Awful things are happening in Israel. This week’s attack by Hamas and the subsequent brutal retaliation against Gaza by the Israeli government has thrust in front of everyone the horrific human cost of oppression, rage, and war. This is a time when public discourse takes on a real importance—what is being written in the media and said on television can have life and death consequences, as the unspooling public narrative gives shape to the boundaries of conventional wisdom about what is considered acceptable. Imagine for a moment that you are employed as a professional commentator right now. What is truly important? Well: Human life. Human death. The political choices and historic background that produced this situation. And, most urgent at this moment, the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Gaza, prompted by the Israeli government’s plans to lay waste to the entire region, with little regard for the civilians trapped therein. No matter what your position is on these issues, it is fair to say that those whose job it is to focus public attention on important things must, right now, be engaged with the momentous matters of life and death that are playing out before our eyes with every passing hour.
But here is what many professional commentators have chosen to spend their time and energy drawing our attention to instead: The annoying things that young people are saying and doing. Many people who hold prestigious and well-paid media jobs, and who control an influential megaphone at a time when that is of incredible importance, squander their time and ours with wheedling complaints about bullshit. Bret Stephens spends his column grinding familiar axes about campus protests and local DSA rallies; Pamela Paul complains about how stuff is being debated on campus at Stanford; Ross Douthat takes this opportunity to unleash some zingers against “woke-speak” among student groups about decolonization; even Michelle Goldberg, who is supposed to represent the left, focuses her column on… campus protests and local DSA rallies and how the angry kids on the left are not protesting in the proper way. These are the voices that dominate the opinion section of the most influential news organization in the English-speaking world. You will never find a more pathetic failure to rise to the occasion than this collection of navel-gazing cranks, the journalistic equivalent of suburbanites complaining about the annoying smell of smoke ruining their weekend dinner party as the city burns down around them.
Who is being childish here? Is it the young college students, appalled at genocide looming in front of their eyes, possessed with the overwhelming urge to do something, who—despite not possessing a PhD in global affairs—flood into the streets and rage against the atrocity? Or is it the well educated and highly placed and influential adults, granted positions of great importance, who, as a crisis unfolds, as civilians are murdered, as neighborhoods are bombed, as oppression and religion collide in war, use their time griping about the hotheadedness of the young people protesting in the streets? Which of these groups has more accurately identified what should be our current topic of attention—the young people whose focus is on the governments that possess militaries and missiles and are poised to cause thousands of deaths, or the adults whose focus is on how some college kid said something annoying at a DSA rally? Wake the fuck up. The adults in the room are everywhere proving the kids’ critique to be true.
Young people have a voice, but no power. Old people have a bigger voice, and all of the power. Guess which group has a greater responsibility not to waste the current moment moaning about petty bullshit? An inability to ignore the small annoyances of youth in order to welcome the indispensable purity of morality that young people give to us is not a mark of wisdom. It is evidence that one has maintained immaturity even as they have gotten older. It is proof that you have allowed age to shrink your moral universe, rather than expand and deepen it. It is, above all, a reason to think that you should stop talking for a minute and listen to what the angry young people are saying.
Yesterday, I was in Times Square for a rally in support of the endangered citizens of Palestine. Most of the people there were young. But there were also quite a few elderly people, some hobbling on canes, who had painfully dragged themselves out to stand and be a part off the supportive crowd. Because they knew it was important. Because they understood what is at stake. They were not there to compete with the young, to mutter snide takedowns of the speakers, to talk about why the rally should have been framed differently in order to attract the support of more moderate figures in Washington. They were there because people are dying. They had perspective. They had wisdom. I hope that we can all get there, one day.
Related: Get Over College Kids.
Earlier this week, I wrote a piece saying that news organizations should stop using the frame of “terror” and “terrorism” to describe world events. Quite a few readers seemed to find this suggestion to be outrageous. I learned this week that the BBC as a policy does not refer to groups as “terrorists,” for essentially the reasons I raised. If you want to donate to help the civilians in Gaza, here is one good charity.
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