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Free-Speech Wars: You Are What You Say, Not What You Do



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I appreciate Michael’s post about the latest Huffpo-reported controversies involving Steve Martin, Joan Rivers, Jennifer Lawrence, and many, many others. Peruse the pages of lefty news outlets like the Huffington Post and you’ll routinely run across headlines like, ”[Insert Celebrity Name] said WHAT?!?” or “[Insert previously unknown individual] fired for insensitive remarks.” Even the conservative press can sometimes feel like an engine of perpetual outrage over hateful or insensitive comments.

These “two minutes hates” are deeply corrosive to our free-speech culture, but they’re also the inevitable outgrowth of succeeding generations that increasingly define virtue not through actions but through attitudes. In other words, watch what I say. What I do is irrelevant. You’re a bad person if you say the wrong things, no matter what you might do for your family or your fellow man. A lifetime of good works can be rendered irrelevant by a single thoughtless tweet.

But what else can we expect when we live lives of increasing narcissism and when youth (the audience most fired up by social media) retreat from engagement with the real world? For years now, we’ve heard that Millennials were special – “Generation We” — the generation that was most concerned with social justice and helping others. Others said no, describing experience with a generation that was constantly managing its own image on social media, immersed in tweets and “likes” and selfies — all while expecting great returns for little work. But what do the data say? Is it Generation We or Generation Me?  Here’s Jean Twenge writing in The Atlantic:

In my 2006 book Generation Me, I presented data showing generational increases in self-esteem, assertiveness, self-importance, narcissism, and high expectations, based on surveys of 1.2 million young people, some dating back to the 1920s. These analyses indicated a clear cultural shift toward individualism and focusing on the self. But perhaps both views were correct — maybe Millennials’ greater self-importance found expression in helping others and caring about larger social causes.

My co-authors and I decided to find out. . . . 

So we dug into the data. The results for civic engagement were clear: Millennials were less likely than Boomers and even GenXers to say they thought about social problems, to be interested in politics and government, to contact public officials, or to work for a political campaign. They were less likely to say they trusted the government to do what’s right, and less likely to say they were interested in government and current events. It was a far cry from Howe and Strauss’ prediction of Millennials as “The Next Great Generation” in civic involvement. . . .

Millennials were slightly less likely to say they wanted a job that was helpful to others or was worthwhile to society. This is directly counter to the Generation We view predicting that Millennials would be much more concerned for others. Volunteering rates did increase, the only item out of 30 measuring concern for others that did. However, this rise occurred at the same time that high schools increasingly required volunteer service to graduate.

Twenge was measuring more liberal elements of social action, but what about more stereotypically conservative engagement – like, say, military service. The news is bad on that front as well:

But even though they are the 9/11 Generation—dramatically and indelibly shaped by this attack on our country and its people—Millennials military participation is dramatically lower than any other previous generation of Americans, the first to decrease overall military participation by more than a third, as this graph shows.

We’re developing a culture of easy virtue — where concern for the poor can substitute for helping the poor, where the right words can cover the wrong actions, and where thumbing out 140 outraged characters constitutes “social action,” so long as you choose the right target for your hate. 

But lest anyone think I’ve slipped into cantankerous “you kids get off my lawn” old man-ism, let’s not forget where our kids learned their values. After all, they’re just living the way we taught them to live. In other words, we’ve gone from Generation Do to Generation Say, and only Silicon Valley is truly better off.



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