The Younger Generation

It’s a cliché that the older generation has complained about the younger generation since God wore short pants, as they say. But I have been maintaining for some time now that something new has appeared on the horizon; the “millennials” — those born in the middle to late 80s of the last century — are a new breed posing new problems.

Accordingly it was most interesting to come across an interview with Simon Sinek, a “Leadership Expert” (?), on You-Tube who is making quite a splash with his analysis of “what is wrong with the present generation.”  According to Sinek there are four major areas of concern that must be explored to understand what is going on. He stresses that he is not making judgments about the younger generation and he refuses to blame them. Rather, he blames (1) bad parenting, (2) technology, (3) impatience, and (4) the environment.

I have touched on most, if not all, of these points in many of my blogs — most especially the “self-esteem” movement that has caught fire in the schools and in parenting (thereby contributing to what Sinek calls “bad parenting”). This movement rests upon the totally false psychological premise that by praising kids endlessly we will raise their self-esteem, whereas clinical studies have shown that false praise and the awarding of such things as “participation trophies” actually decreases self-esteem. It sends false messages and instills in the young an expectation to be praised for everything they do, thereby reducing their motivation to actually put out an effort to achieve something difficult. It leads invariably to a sense of “entitlement” on the part of growing young people. True achievement, of course, would in fact raise their self-esteem and would give them a sense of satisfaction they now expect to receive for no effort whatever.

Sinek stresses how damaging this is to the young who know, deep down, that they have done nothing to deserve the praise. But worse yet, they later become depressed because they do not receive the same praise for every effort when out in the workplace — the “environment” of which Sinek speaks. In the real world of real work, folks have to make an effort and many times their efforts are unrewarded. That’s just how it is. But Sinek has himself interviewed a great many bright and able young people who, after a few months on the job, find themselves deeply depressed and disillusioned, even suicidal. Others drift with no goal or sense of purpose. They simply are not getting the stroking they have become used to.

Of considerable interest to me is Sinek’s second point, the factor of technology in the world of the young. In a word, the electronic toys. I have written endlessly (some would say) about this problem as these toys have always seemed to me to drive the users deeper within themselves and to construct barriers between themselves and the world outside themselves. They promote what I have called the “inversion of consciousness,” preoccupation with the self and its reactions. Worse yet, Sinek says there is considerable evidence that these electronic toys are addictive. Like such things as gambling and alcohol, social media and the “likes” on the toys increases levels of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that is increased in addictive behaviors. Thus our intuitive sense that these toys are addictive is well-founded. We (and this includes the schools that hand out electronic toys as a sign of their advanced educational views) are handing these young kids an invitation to become involved in a make-believe world where they are all-powerful at the center and which they find increasingly difficult to escape from — much like the alcoholic who tries to go on the wagon.

The third item on his list, it seems to me, is the result of a combination of #1 and #2 above: the refusal of parents to deny their kids anything coupled with the ready availability of toys that provide users with immediate gratification in so many ways. They are impatient because they have never learned to put off gratification for a later and fuller sense of satisfaction. So many parents tell us that they don’t want their kids to have to “do without” as they did — while it may very well be that putting off gratification, learning self-discipline, is the key to true satisfaction and happiness.

Sinek is not long on solutions, suggesting only that we encourage the young to put aside their iPhones and iPads for a few hours each day and try to build bridges with other people in the real world. This is an excellent suggestion, but one that is easier said than done.  It takes “tough love” on the part of parents who truly care about their children and who are determined to take more time to be with their kids and interact with them on a personal level. And the schools need to get back to good teaching and stop turning the kids into addicts .

The only other element I would add to Sinek’s list above is the entertainment industry which compounds the problems Sinek points out. The ultimate cause of the problems he discusses is the removal of these young people from the real world, the weakening of what Freud calls “the reality principle” that allows them to function fully in the world of people and things, interact with others, build meaningful relationships, and find true joy in living and working in the world. This, in my view, is the central problem and it is one that we all need to think about and deal with in our interactions with a  generation that is in danger of becoming lost in a world of make-believe where their sense of power and importance is imaginary and can never live up to the real thing. This must ultimately lead to depression — and worse. And the cost to society at large is beyond reckoning.

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Ethics Schmethics!

Not long after the Republicans in the dark of night, prior to the opening of the new session, eliminated the independent Office of Congressional Ethics they knuckled under to immense pressure to rescind the move. It would have placed the responsibility for determining ethical and non-ethical practices in the hands of the Congress itself. But despite the reversal this attempt sends a clear message to the world: ethics simply don’t matter; they just get in the way of what we want to do. It isn’t so much that the independent group was doing its “due diligence” and watching the hen-house like a fox (who eats only naughty hens) and that now the fox will be dismissed. It’s the principle of the thing, and “taking it back,” or “having your fingers crossed” does not alter the fact that this is what the group wants to do! The horse is out of the barn and we now know exactly what it look like!

As a nervous electorate waits to see what sorts of mayhem the new president will bring with him and worries that his choices for Cabinet members begin to look more and more like a F.B.I. “Most Wanted” list, now we hear that the Republican Congress would prefer to not have anyone hold its feet to the fire and make sure that they play by the rules. None of us is quite certain what those rules are, of course, but it is reassuring that there are some (somewhere) and that someone every now and again will still be ready to raise a red flag when a Congressman or a Congresswoman commit an egregious act of some sort.

We live in an age of ethical relativism. The standard question when ethical questions are raised is “who’s to say?” This applies not only to the Congress, but to the country at large. The notion that there are things that are simply right or simply wrong has pretty much disappeared behind the smokescreen of doubt and self-assertion. Thus, it makes no sense to wonder what sorts of principles are applied to those who sit in Congress and waste the taxpayers’ money. But the notion that there are still some restraints on their otherwise unbridled graft and greed, vague though the restraints may be, is somehow reassuring.

I have always argued that there are ethical principles that cut across cultures and apply to all individuals as well. Most people agree without realizing what this implies. When an atrocious act is committed — like date rape or domestic violence — we don’t simply say “that’s not the way we do things here in Sacramento.” We say, “Dammit! That’s wrong and someone should be punished.” Despite our rejection of abstract ethical principles, most feel that somewhere a line must be drawn. I fully agree, though I think there’s more to it than that.

The ethical principles of which I speak have to do with such things as respect for persons — all persons — and fairness. These are principles that form the warp and woof of every religion in the world and they form the background for the ethics of such thinkers as Immanuel Kant as well. They may not be openly accepted by everyone, but they provide a base on which to construct a dialogue with other people here in this country and elsewhere in the world. We can always ask “Why? and wonder if a particular act in faraway India (such as Sati), or in the darkest parts of Africa (such as clitoridectomies) are wrong —  even if those who practice such things are convinced that they are not. Dialogue is possible at the very least.

But we now have the governing body in this country saying, loud and clear, ethics be damned — though they would have us believe they had their fingers crossed. They don’t want anyone, fox or otherwise, watching the henhouse. They would prefer to keep an eye on it themselves. On the contrary, I would argue that effective or not, there must be a body assigned to the specific duty of watching what the hell the hens are up to. Keeping an eye on it themselves pretty much guarantees that they will be up to no good and no one will hear about it until it is too late. It’s good to know that enough people were so outraged by this vote that it was rescinded almost immediately. Let’s hope those same folks aren’t too busy texting their friends or checking Facebook to cry out when the next outrage issues forth from Washington.

Funny Thing

A funny thing happened in writing these blogs. Not funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar. I wrote a blog about a couple who elected to rely on prayer to bring two of their children back to health only to watch them die, and the subsequent attempt by the state of Pennsylvania to take the remaining seven children away from the family and prosecute the parents as criminals. I argued for religious freedom and against paternalism and received one very thoughtful response and several expressions of disappointment: how could I ignore those poor children and take such an indefensible position? It seemed to several readers that I was out of character. (Heaven forbid that I become predictable!) So I wrote a follow-up attempting to spell out my position more carefully and, except for one good comment, the silence was deafening. The issue no longer seemed to interest many people. This raised a couple of thoughts in my mind.

To begin with, it does appear as though most people who read blogs really want to be diverted or entertained, not made to think. I suppose that’s to be expected. Perhaps they are too caught up in what Tom Lehrer once called their “drab, wretched lives” to want to put on the thinking cap. But, come on, the issue of the growing extent of state power and the subsequent loss of individual, liberty is a rather important issue, though even a couple of the folks who almost always comment on my blogs seemed not to be terribly interested in the issue. I found that worth pondering.

But I also found the expressions of disappointment interesting. A couple of my former students who commented on Facebook, where the blog appears, wondered how I could take such a strange position, seeming not to care about the sick kids whose parents choose prayer over hospitals. I do care about those kids, as I do about the kids who are summarily taken from their parents and sent to a foster homes — even though the evidence suggests that they were much-loved by their parents (who just happen to be fundamentalist Christians). But I saw the issue of paternalism as the larger issue, given our increasing tendency to simply sit by and watch the political state take away our liberties one by one. In any event, the blog was not about me, and whether or not I was “in character,” it was about a couple of issues I thought worth some serious thought. But aside from those few comments, what I read was a simple, “I don’t agree.” The important question is WHY don’t you agree? In fact, the important question is always “Why”?

After I retired from teaching I wrote a book that was essentially a collection of blogs before I ever thought about blogging. Like my blogs, it was not a big seller! But I did receive a very thoughtful and careful review on Amazon from a former student who read the book and at the end of his review he noted that he

. . .enjoyed this book. I was an advisee of Dr. Curtler during 1982-86 . . ., and his encouragement, advice, and philosophical principles influence me to this day. As a professor, Dr. Curtler was always trying to guide our thinking, asking us questions: ‘you can say anything you want, but I will always ask you WHY?’ As a result, what he himself thought was often withheld. I was quite interested, then, when I saw this book, to read his open views.

If I ever begin to wonder why I took the vow of poverty and chose to teach, comments like that remind me. From where I stood, the notion that my students had no idea what philosophical position I held on complex issues was the highest possible compliment. You can’t top honest praise from a former student who seems to have seen exactly what you were up to. And even though my blogs reveal my own thoughts again and again, it is important that I return to that neutral role from time to time, take up opposing points of view and defend them as best I can, and play the gadfly in an attempt to stir up some thought in the few readers who follow these blogs. It may not make for popularity, but it is why I started writing them in the first place.

A Moral Quandary

I was checking out my Facebook the other day and happened to glance at a couple of the ads on the right-hand side of the posts. I saw a brief note about a test that would tell me which candidates for President I was most in agreement with. I thought it would be amusing to find out how close I was to the man I planned to vote for in the election so I clicked on the link and took the test. It consisted of a number of questions in various categories from economics to the environment. A few seconds after completing the test I was told that I was in almost total agreement with….Jill Stein.

Who the Hell is Jill Stein, I wondered? I knew there were other candidates for President besides the Big Two, but I hadn’t really paid much attention. Like so many others in this country my attention has been directed toward the two men who have paid out a nauseating $1 billion apiece to buy the highest office in the land — much of it coming from the hated corporations who are now running this country. I checked Jill Stein’s web page (such as it is) and discovered that she has raised a paltry $300 thousand in her efforts to win the Presidency. Hardly enough to win her a place in the state legislature. But I also learned that she is a remarkable woman. As her web page notes:

Dr. Jill Stein is a mother, physician, longtime teacher of internal medicine, and pioneering environmental-health advocate.

She is the co-author of two widely-praised reports,  In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development, published in 2000, and Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging, published in 2009.  The first of these  has been translated into four languages and is used worldwide. The reports promote green local economies, sustainable agriculture, clean power, and freedom from toxic threats.

It was Dr. Stein’s fierce stand on the environment that placed us close together in our thinking about politics I realized. I have noted, as have others whose blogs I read, that there has been precious little said about the environment by the Big Two during recent months and this has disturbed me a great deal. I regard it as THE most important issue in this election. And yet the two principal players seem to have ignored the issue completely. This places me in a moral quandary.

I was critical of some of my friends back when George W. Bush was running for President because they had determined to vote for Ralph Nader. I felt strongly (as I still do) that this was throwing a precious vote away that would end up landing “W” in the office of President of the United States. I was convinced that this would be a very bad thing, and I was right. So I hesitate to throw my vote away on a Green Party candidate who hasn’t a snowball’s chance of winning the Presidency.  Hence the quandary: it’s a question of throwing away my vote or violating my principles. But then I recall that Dante tells us Hell is a frozen wasteland with relentless winds. A snowball would survive in such an environment, and the environment is the key issue here. So I wonder. What do I do? What would you do? I am eager to get your comments on this difficult issue.