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What David Brooks Misses About Millennial Fragility

Over at the New York Times David Brooks takes a crack at exploring the origins of millennial weakness — exploring why the present generation seems so “emotionally fragile.” It’s a thought-provoking piece, but I’m not sure it’s entirely right. In essence, he claims that millennials are fragile in part because they are not “ardent.” In other words — in contrast with previous generations — they lack ideals:

John R. Lewis may not have been intrinsically tough, but he was tough in the name of civil rights. Mother Teresa may not have been intrinsically steadfast, but she was steadfast in the name of God. The people around us may not be remorselessly gritty, but they can be that when it comes to protecting their loved ones, when it comes to some dream for their future self.

People are much stronger than they think they are when in pursuit of their telos, their purpose for living. As Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

While I agree as a general matter that a person who lives a “purpose-driven life” can often be more resilient than the purely selfish, I’m not sure that a lack of purpose underlies the world of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and general intolerance for dissent. Brooks writes:

If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope.

But aren’t the very people who drive the hardest for the pampering of America also its most ardent alleged idealists? It’s not the cynics and nihilists who are crushing dissent on campus or filling classrooms with cartoons and teddy bears to help traumatized students recover from exposure to conservatism. Millennial idealism is often on overdrive — careening away from respectful and thoughtful discourse into an overpowering self-righteousness that simply can’t conceive of good faith disagreement. They seek help because when they experience dissent they often feel as if they’re in the presence of a malevolent evil. 

Some of this fragility is fake, however. It’s a contrivance designed to facilitate the will to power. True snowflakes don’t launch movements, occupy administration buildings, and stampede to the nearest available television camera. Yes, there are people who emotionally collapse in the face of dissent. Then there are those who loudly exploit or even fabricate that collapse to get what they want. 

Still, Brooks is on to something. Self-righteousness is a form of self-love, and idealistic millennials’ intense personalizing of political disputes has echoes in the ways that many can’t withstand the slightest rebukes in their professional lives. Millions of millennials are cause-driven, they feel great tenderness towards their allies, and they are filled with larger hope for social justice. But they also feel just great about their own virtue. They still don’t — ultimately — love anyone more than they love themselves, and they love themselves in part because they are just so darn good. 

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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