Saturday, March 13, 2010

More evidence for a pet theory of "Kids Today"

Language Log has a nice bit on the "kids today"/"decline of civilization" trope that consistently gets my goat. (Similar J posts can be found here and, less directly parallel, here.

J-fave & friend D has been on this trope recently, to my mild peevitude.

I'm not sure why this trope annoys me so much, other than perhaps because it seems like a so relativism-laden "my perspective is the objectively correct one" type of attitude. While it can be a source of commiseration, it's also sometimes sallied forth like a prophetic warning. And it is not, of course, that things can't get worse or perhaps haven't gotten worse, but I think it's intellectually incomplete to simply say "Things/Kids/Civilization Is Going To Hell"; Jon Stewart said one of the wisest things I've heard in popular discourse years ago, pointing out to (either Bernard Goldberg or Rick Santorum) that for all the "negative" directions in culture -- violence on TV, swearing, etc. etc. -- it is simply *not OK* to be a racist. You cannot be openly, blatantly racist and a major mainstream public figure--there are certain things that are not OK to say, that were 20, 40, 60 years ago (to say nothing of the sainted times of our blessed and perfect in every way Mary Poppins-like Founding Fathers); there is no de jure, legal segregation, Jim Crow, while still with us in legacy, is not with us in poll taxes or the nearly 5,000 lynchings and racially-motivated murders between 1865 and 1965. As I said on D's page,
"The fact that they used *different* words to curse at people 100 years ago doesn't mean they were more *polite* words. And certainly no one has been caned on the floor of the Senate in a while. Nor has their been a fucking duel between congressmen. Nor are racial epithets, many of which used to be fine in every day speech, acceptable any longer, a huge step FORWARD in my mind. We are, if anything, more civil -- no one has called me "boy" because I was black in my life. I'd say that's plus 1,000,000 points; I'll deduct 100 for inappropriate [placement of the word] "shit" [in an ad that D saw].

The theory I posed years ago, and feel like is increasingly vindicated, is that when people complain of the conditions of youth, civilization, etc. today, they aren't comparing civilization today vs. civilization before, they're comparing their adult perception of civilization vs. their childhood perception of civilization. Of COURSE things were simpler when you were a kid -- to you! Because -- YOU. WERE. A. KID. Don't confuse this with the world actually being materially simpler or different. For example, I believe (though am not going to look for the stats to show) that the "Roaring 20s" had the highest murder rate in US history; there has certainly always been sex out of wedlock, VDs, war, incivility, swearing, porn, violence, etc. This is not to say the rates of all these things have been constant--they clearly haven't--but nor have they been linearly increasing. Some things, like swearing, one has to look at the language used and what was considered indecent when, but you can see people being chided for salty language in Shakespeare's plays and no doubt before that; we didn't invent naughty words nor their overuse, just because *different* words are naughty now. Kids have always, always been seen as not respectful enough to their parents it seems, so to establish this as a fact and not a cranky complaint takes far more effort than any person who's ever said "Kids these days" in my earshot. And like I mentioned, open racism has simply become verboten--surely a nearly unalloyed improvement, if one that is vastly insufficient compared to actually coming to an end of racism (especially its institutional manifestation). Long story short, some things may be worse, others better, but 99.9999 times out of 100, I'll bet you it's because the world SEEMED simpler when you were a kid because you were a freaking kid; you hadn't been exposed to (if you were lucky) the worst that humankind can muster, or the full wages of every day disdain, incivility, and a lack of an regular, caring space (i.e. parents/family). Whether you were poor and lived simply or had a life of quiet elegance in Greenwich, you hadn't seen very much of the world, had you? So let's be careful about comparing how the world seemed to you then and how it seems now; making any grand pronouncements thereof in reality should be a grand research undertaking (UNLESS, you just want to be cranky -- which is completely fine, I like to be sometimes myself, but don't confuse it with having an accurate bead on the world).

Anyway, the Language Log entry as well as the customarily excellent LL comment area is well worth reading on the topic of Kids Today.

1 comment:

Daktari said...

I agree with your basic premise. However, in many cases, life WAS simpler in the past. Family life DOES change with time. In some ways it's good (dishwashers, washing machines, microwave ovens, indoor plumbing), in other ways not so much. But the point is, that it is the crankiness itself that is a product of age.

In the same way young people think (and rightly so), that the older generations are out of touch with their culture, old people think (and rightly so) that young people are vastly irritating. See further response on my page.