The center-right commentators of this world are few, but they have made a big fuss about hating this country’s youth. The young people, they say, see “privilege” wherever there is individual merit. They possess a “reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage.” Last week, Bret Stephens of The New York Times stood up and bravely declared, once and for all, that he really does bear the youth ill will. In an op-ed provocatively titled, “Dear Millennials: The Feeling Is Mutual,” Stephens delivered a generational jeremiad, with millennials in one corner and everyone else in the other.
The obligation to defend one’s entire generation should not come around all that often. But we must live in extraordinary times, for that onus keeps showing up on the doorstep of America’s youth, like so many spammy flyers melting in the drizzle.
Stephens’s peg is an old Joe Biden clip, recently resurfaced online, in which Uncle Joe disdains “the younger generation” who want to tell him “how tough things are.” Approving of this geronto-centric sentiment, Stephens, who is a full 30 years and a couple of generations younger than Biden, claimed that “no faction on the Democratic side more richly deserves rebuking than the one Biden singled out.”
Which “faction” is that, exactly—every person born after 1982? No: He means those millennials who engage “in histrionic self-pity and moral self-righteousness, usually communicated via social media with maximum snark.” Lest that demographic sound made up, Stephens clarified. “Gawker spawn and HuffPo twerps: This especially means you.”
Who? Perhaps Bret Stephens is talking about the editor of the Times Style section, formerly Gawker’s editor-in-chief. Perhaps he means his Times colleagues Caity Weaver and Kevin Draper, both spawn of Gawker properties. As for HuffPost, I can only imagine what former Times editor and current HuffPost boss Lydia Polgreen did to Stephens in order to earn the epithet “twerp.”
He goes on to present a series of strange claims embedded in sufficient hand-wringing to distract from the inconsistencies. He harangues the youth for claiming victimhood, while also claiming victimhood for older generations. He calls the kids “junior totalitarians,” while speaking down from the world’s most famous newspaper.
The most generous explanation I can think of is that Bret Stephens has no editor. But let’s imagine, for a moment, that there does exist a coherent bloc of Americans that fits Stephens’s description: millions of callow undergraduates tweeting their indulgent outrage from shadowy campus corners, demanding trigger warnings in between canceling honorable public figures. This is my best guess, along with young and young-ish media workers, for what Stephens means by “those who recklessly participate in the search-and-destroy missions of the call-out culture.”
Aside from Stephens’s aggrieved soul, this stereotype appears to be the heart of the matter. So in the name of intergenerational communication—for this is not only about one bad Bret Stephens column, but a whole genre of columns proliferating in magazine columns and websites—here are a few millennial myths, rebutted:
Young people on the left use a tool called “cancel culture” to depose their enemies.
“Canceling” occurs when somebody is condemned widely online and then faces professional repercussions as a result. The Stephenses of this world hate the idea of someone being fired in response to public outrage. But as far as I know, public outrage is not new, nor is job-losing. Yes, social media has given new agency to new voices. Yes, the “mob” has a modicum of new power. But tweets do not fire people. Bosses fire people.
If real change has taken place, it must have happened in the hearts and minds of senior personnel in a variety of industries. The bigwigs see trouble in their target markets, and so they placate the markets by removing the offenders. That’s how cancelation actually works. So is cancel culture composed of a specific “faction” of college students? Or Gawker spawn? Or teens? This is precisely the problem: Stephens has no enemy but the culture itself.
Young people want to shut down debate and “no-platform” or censor those who disagree with them.
The broader context here is ideological: Center-right pundits like Stephens think leftists want to “shut down” conversation whenever they do not accept the terms of conversations set by conservatives. For example, if a woman is asked to explain why her life is more valuable than her six-week-old fetus, that woman can fairly refuse to answer the question on the basis that the whole conversation is insulting. This can be called “shutting down debate”—or it can be called an insistence on sanity. The line between sanity and madness is constantly contested between groups of differing political opinions.
What of no-platforming, the conservative asks—isn’t that censorship? No. No-platforming is a venerable strategy for stemming the spread of hate speech. This position is enshrined by law in the U.K., for example, where “incitement to racial hatred” is a crime, not an imperiled pastime, because it is not controversial for people in a liberal democracy to condemn Nazism. Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights specifies that freedom of expression is everybody’s right, but that exercising free speech “carries with it duties and responsibilities” to protect, among other things, “health or morals” and “the reputation or the rights of others.”
Young people on the left over-react to perceived offenses, particularly around gender and race, hastening to frame their elders as bigots and themselves as victims.
This one is strange, the idea that young people like to paint themselves as victims while tyrannically tweeting people into cancelation. It seems to come from the assumption that people who challenge authority do it for fun. But accusing people of sexism or racism can be dangerous and upsetting, and it forces the “offended” party into conversations that I promise they do not want to have.
Young people have taken #MeToo too far.
I wonder if older people think this because their kids don’t listen to them anymore, or if they just assume that some centralized internet agency is dispensing opinions designed to annoy them. But think of it this way, old people: If you found out that your parents’ generation had been abusing young women and other vulnerable groups in the workplace and covering it up for decades—if you had perhaps been abused yourself, but had no recourse against the older party—would you listen to what that very same generation told you to do about prosecuting sexual assault? I doubt it.
#MeToo has not gone too far. It’s maddeningly unfinished business, kept unfinished by stigma and shame. Stephens can take some comfort there, I hope.
Furthermore, it is worth pointing out, since everybody has forgotten, that there has never been a golden age where people were not shamed for their sexual transgressions. It’s just that what we define as a transgression has changed. Recall how Hugh Grant was “canceled” in 1995. It was not for assaulting anybody, but for paying a black sex worker. For a while, his career tanked. Sex scandal has always damaged careers, rendering the suggestion that #MeToo invented pillorying absurd and anachronistic.
The standards of ethical behavior for powerful people, people with responsibilities, has changed, forever, and that is simply not a change that you can blame on millennials. Has it ever occurred to Stephens that we are simply living in the world that his generation created? I don’t know.
University students demand trigger warnings because they cannot tolerate moral complexity or tell the difference between fiction and real life. Relatedly, young people on the left think that writers and filmmakers should only make art about people who look like them, not about people of other races.
This may be the saddest, least warranted, and most deluded of all the illusions harbored about the youth by older pundits. At a recent talk in New York, a famous author told the audience that she did not understand why she is no longer allowed to write from the perspective of, say, a young Latina mother on the American border. The young people would be angry, the author said, because she is “appropriating” other people’s experience and stepping outside her lane as a white woman.
But young people, for the most part, have no desire to pry art from white hands; only bad art, in which we have spent our entire lives utterly swamped. Take the director Claire Denis. She is white, grew up in Cameroon, and has dedicated much of her film work to black experience, creating excellent roles for black actors and remaining totally unapologetic about her right to do so. Few critics question Denis’s right to do this, because she does it well.
The objection is not with cross-cultural writing, but with the vast reams of awful work generated over centuries by white people who simply didn’t know or care enough to write better. No: Representing the world is a serious business, and white authors must do it properly, just like everyone else. They can’t let themselves off the hook by pretending they’re banned from writing minority characters, when really their audience just wants them to do justice to minorities or not at all.
The idea that the millennials are fundamentally different from their forebears is, I think, flawed. As the writer Vivian Gornick once told me, “What we said 40 years ago, when we framed sexual harassment as an issue, was exactly what’s being said now.” The chief difference, in her view, is that such protests were revolutionary then, but have by now entered the mainstream: “As with any revolutionary suggestion, it takes at least a generation for the thing to really take hold in people’s consciousness.”
As millennials, we are part of a long process of reinventing the moral wheel. Pundits like Stephens invite petty and obvious arguments, but it also sometimes feels as if we are back in the eighteenth century, when philosophers took up questions about the real meaning of the authentic self. Who are we, now, and how can we best live together? Young people are waiting for history to continue, and ready to make sacrifices. They survived financial collapse, and now they’re watching a new moral order unfold. They want to know if anything their parents told them was true; they are waiting to see if justice exists. And while they wait, they talk, and listen, and talk, and listen, and their conversations are mistaken by their elders for conspiracy.
They’ll be gone soon. But until that day comes, try listening; we’re less sure of ourselves than you think.