Monday, March 12, 2007

Failure of Generations

Warning: More rambling than usual political philosophizing follows.

My profession -- technical communication -- may be as loopy as lawyers, as picayune as pundits. The president of our professional society reminded me of that again on Wednesday at the Boston-area chapter meeting with her behavior. At our table of 10, she picked, picked, picked. Woe to anyone who pronounced a word differently than the only right way or used another word in a way that failed her ideal or misspoke in any way at all.

She has a reputation for being ill mannered, even for a New Englander. Yet, she was only acting out a common behavior among tech writers and editors. While she is relatively apolitical, she also brought to mind others, particularly right wingers, who live that way. That bodes ill for the liberal ideal of finding common ground and working for agreed aims across political divides.

Different Ways of Thinking

Achieving progressive goals together doesn't work when one side revels in what Emerson called a foolish consistency. The whole passage from Self-Reliance is instructive:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
I fear the conflicts in this divisive era may pivot on this trait. There seems little chance for agreement when one side relies on clever quibbling rather than dealing with the related ideas and what would be useful and humane behavior. By its nature, rote behavior excludes discovering and adopting the best and the fairest actions and policies.

This does not fall only to Emerson's narrow set. Lawyers, for example, are trained to use a sort of pattern recognition to identify small points they can exploit. Of course, my own profession tends to rely on precision for clarity in communication. Such groups end up with their bags of rules. Using these are so much easier than thinking.

Politically, this huge character flaw is not exclusively a right-wing trait. However, the public faces of self-identified conservatives often revel in this childish behavior. Think Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill Buckley, Robert Novak and dozens of similar folk.

From personal and unscientific observation, I have noticed that the little-minded are often only children or first born. Their parents told them how clever and quick thinking they are. They didn't get to be minutiae mongers without a catalyst.

By their teens though, they live an ISO 9000 sort of life. In a very personal version of those industrial consistency procedures and processes, they have largely learned to rely on one right way to do, say or think. A common observation among those of us who have been through ISO certifications is that consistency for its own sake has nothing to do with the best or the highest quality. You can do the same stupid things again and again in the same stupid ways and they meet the requirements.


This has come to mind here recently. Several trolls have visited. When they violate the blog commenting policy, it's a click of the Reject button. Even beyond profanity and personal assaults, we are not here to offer another stage for the hobgoblin-ridden.

Yet, I know that I am another of those squishy liberals, perhaps the worst type of all, a Unitarian Universalist one, when I sense the disconnects. We often spongy do-gooders can lament not being able to broker agreement. We can consider it a personal failure of both intellect and emotion.

That is a failure I am learning to accept and not internalize too much. I have become increasingly convinced that there is not sufficient middle ground and certainly not enough good will from the re-entrenched and disfavored right-wingers. If they insist on bypassing the underlying ideas and picking nits to reassure themselves of their positions, we must leave them in their corners doing those things. Eventually, even they will notice the world passing along.

Fizzling Out

On a main theme of this blog, marriage equality, we are seeing that the slow social evolution of America continues to creep in the positive direction. Not only has the Chicken Little squawking of the anti-gay/anti-SSM folk been far too wrong for far too long, the inexorable march of Korean War Era and Baby Boomer types to the grave is culling the herd for the better.

As a Boomer, I had a fantasy that my generation would keep the momentum of the Civil Rights and Vietnam War struggles. When we got into power, boy, would things be different.

Well, yes, but much less dramatically that I anticipated. The just-right-wing-enough-to-stultify-progressivism Congress is largely my generation. We see from polls and voting behavior that it is the Gen-X and younger sorts who are likely to manifest the equality the Boomers should have continued seeking.

For one example, the newest large polls of Californians show that the Boomers are not ready to legalize SSM, but their kids are. Moreover, it is more extreme comparing Koren War Era folk with those in their 20s. Acceptance of SSM was 25% for those born before 1940 and 58% for those born in the 1980s.

This is very consistent with numerous other polls over the past several years. Simply put, the Gen-X and Gen-Y people tend to answer the what-about-SSM question, with "What's the big deal?"

Likewise, Pew Research findings have consistently shown that young adults are apathetic to many of the political triggers of their parents and grandparents. In particular, interracial marriage, homosexuality and same-sex marriage are yawners to the 18 to 26 year olds.

All the water hasn't been treated though. The saturation of civil-liberties and marriage-equality minded is convincing by any standard of voters, but not 100% or even 85%. About 60% will be plenty to affect change as this group gets into power. In fact, as they become a big percentage of the voting population, their wishes will affect legislation. Politicians know how to stay in power.

Younger Reinforcements

I still wish the Boomers had kept their passions and morals on the larger good for longer. Yet, this is one of the strongest patterns in my lifetime.
  • The WWII folk fought the Axis powers to keep the world safe for democracy -- but had no problem afterward keeping women, Blacks and others down so they could prosper.
  • The Korean War Era American also fought on the battlefields and stood up to communism -- and then the Entitlement Generation, as they are known to sociologists, turned on the rest of us to make sure they got and get their benefits no matter what it costs the nation and world.
  • The early Boomers led in extracating us from Vietnam, in integrating a still divided nation, and in establishing women's rights -- only to forget what was right and necessary when they got into power in their 40s and 50s.
We can skip the later Boomers, seemingly oblivious to history, rights and the struggles. Then the Gen-X and Gen-Y types have a shot at picking up the placards and shields of the causes their parents, the Boomers, left on the battlefields of progress.

We Boomers bought wholesale the images and expectations of equality the WWII parents and teachers offered us (hour after hour). Some of that was propaganda, but it was all effective. There were good guys versus bad ones, hero versus villain, liberty versus oppression, right versus wrong...

Our parents didn't really mean equal rights for all, if that included the dark skinned or women or homosexuals. We didn't learn that until we started demanding it, but by then it was too late. We had bought into it all.

Many Boomers deservedly can be called on their hypocrisy and their abandonment of the good fight. Amusingly, their children, now in the 20s, also bought into this. In addition, they have the advances made in the last 40 years of the 20th Century as a base. It's no surprise that they have a broader, fairer sense of equality than previous generations.

Each of the past several generations has run ahead, only to tire, stagger and lose its way. I eagerly wait to see how far the 20-somethings can get.

As a group, we Boomers got tired. It is likely to be as they bury us that many of the rights and causes we let slip from our minds become reality. Thus it seems to be yet again and forever.

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Ryan said...

Why the baby boomers never truly got on board with gay rights, I don't know. (It's not too late, though.) Maybe it was the influence of religion; maybe it was just too foriegn a subject.

Maybe we can't blame the boomer generation for not doing enough because what it means to be gay is different now. I hear a lot of people talk about how being gay was, in some ways, more accepted back then because most people who were gay were completely in the closet. No one cared about it until gay people wanted to assert their own rights, which didn't happen for a long time after.

Maybe you should do a lot of digging and write a book on this subject, because it's fascinating and goodness knows there's enough material. LOL.

massmarrier said...

Well, from what this Boomer saw, the closet was a huge factor. That is a tremendous advantage for people in their teens through their thirties now. They surely know homosexual men and women, boys and girls.

I knew of gay men growing up and in Virginia as a child I was aware of numerous Boston Marriages of lesbians, but all were closeted. However, the first openly gay people I met -- those who would say they were homosexuals and publicly be with their partners -- were in Manhattan, mostly Greenwich Village. It was four decades ago, but back then, most of the men who outed themselves also affected the mincing movements and exaggerated speech, a la La Cage aux Folles or The Boys in the Band.

Unquestionably, it has been great for society -- gay, straight, asexual, whatever -- for homosexuals to come out. That not only builds on itself, but it makes it plain to everyone that there are homosexual men and women in all places and professions. People your age can grow up accepting that and starting from that point, even if unaware how difficult it was in the middle of the last century and before.

The struggles are at a higher level for many oppressed groups. It is a reason for considerable hope.

Uncle said...

Comments: Gay and Boomer can mean the closet has as much comfort as discomfort, rather like chicken pot pies: bad for you and good for you all at once. And being closeted can mean doing no more than you must even for such a cause, lest you stand out too much. It's a reflex.

Not every Boomer has sat on their hands. I draw some of my slim commitment from two of my closest college friends. In the week of Stonewall they not only came out, but came out as a couple. (Ryan, I wonder if you can imagine the courage that took in NH nearly 40 years ago.) AIDS took them both long ago, but I cannot forget them. They were Tom Joslin and Mark Massi, and the film they made of their dying is still circulating.

MM, it's not the first time I've raised a friendly caution about generalisation. As you know, my daughter is an only child. I could wish I had had her breadth of mind at her age, and I wish I'd been doing something half as useful. I'm vain enough to think I did a decent job of parenting not because we brought her up with an overdose of amour propre, but because we successfully brought her up to be a decent and considerate human being. (Yes, how rare these days.)

It is not the fact of being only or first born, but how the parents treat that fact, that matters. Incite your child to believe the world is her/his oyster and they grow up with arrogance. Or, let them see that the world is a very big place, that they have only a right to try and fail in it, to make mistakes, own them and move on. Encourage them not to hold their own talents above those of others, but to use what they have to make a better world.

There are a good many other things I could mention that make a good human being out of a first or only child. Most of them must come from the intent of the parents. I imagine that purpose was lacking in the cases you mention.

Finally, I fear I would make a nuisance of myself if I were sitting at table with the individual you mentioned. The opportunities for sly humour would be too tempting to resist.

massmarrier said...

Both are commendable -- that you are loyal to your only and that your egalitarianism and social responsibility transfer well. Alas, there are reasons for many generalizations and clich├ęs, and why so many psychologists and sociologists study and report on birth order-related traits.

Would that more parents had your attitude.