Young Americans are fearful of ideas, dissent, and especially a loss of social standing. This fear is not just a sickness of modern politics, it is ultimately an impoverishment of the soul.
My students are currently reading Herman Hesse’s book Siddhartha in their AP Literature class. I’m not their English teacher, of course, but I wonder if their approach to literature is different from their approach to politics.
They are cautious to a fault.
They almost never want to express an opinion. When I ask them if they talk about politics with their parents or other family members, the answer is almost always “no.” Their approach to political discourse is timidity in the extreme, almost to the point of aggressive indifference. Most of them will freely admit they either don’t know much about political issues, and even if they do, they would never risk their social standing for fear of being labeled, ostracized, or called out on a social media platform.
Yes, part of the problem is simple ignorance. But the other part of the problem is they simply don’t have the familial connective tissue students have had in the past:
- A world where children ate meals with family members and engaged in robust conversation
- A world where grandparents could relate their experiences fighting in a war or enduring economic hardship
- A world where pluralistic disagreement was the very hallmark of the democratic process
We need to truly comprehend and consider the long-term consequences of a generation growing up without a confident belief in robust free speech — one that runs from it, fears it, and considers it to be a liability to their reputation and standing.
Free speech is not just a clause in the First Amendment. It’s not just the freedom to create content, per se. No, free speech undergirds a particular way of existing in the world. It is an ex cathdra permission structure to read, say, think, and engage fellow friends and citizens.
It creates the boundaries and benchmarks of civil society. It conditions what we expect of others and what we consider to be proper and prudent in the company of our fellow citizens.
On the final pages of Siddhartha, Siddhartha makes the observation, “Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately when they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish.”
And yet, words and ideas are how we make sense of the world. Learning how to engage with words and ideas is not just central to the democratic experiment, but central to defining the possibilities of any sort of intellectual journey.
Young people often come under the influence of a Rand or Marx or Nietzsche or Lewis. In our youth, we are supposed to be trying on ideas like we try on clothes in the Old Navy dressing room — this seems to fit, this isn’t quite right, this is a definite “no!”
Ideas are prisms through which we attempt to make sense of ourselves, our world, and one another.
But even the metaphor of ideas as cerebral clothing doesn’t fit because ideas are supposed to be touched, and jostled, and molded. They are supposed to be bandied about and inspected, refined, or even abandoned.
Tastes and preferences change as one ages — the teenager who loved Thomas Paine might exchange him for Burke in middle age. The college revolutionary who wore a Che T-shirt might find a quirky love for Von Mises as he begins to live in the real world. The spry atheist who quoted Richard Dawkins at twenty-one might re-read Siddhartha at forty-one and decide that reality is deeper than the human mind could possibly comprehend, and thus the proper response to the abyss is not arrogant materialism, but a humble agnosticism.
But what will happen when young people are terrified of ideas and have no notion of taking them seriously? This is the real danger of cancel culture or campus echo chambers or speech codes no one is talking about.
When students are told “silence is violence” or that “politics is personal,” it sends a warning that everyone must be on the same page, that the naysayer, the crank, or the obstinate contrarian are threats who must be confronted. Never mind minority opinion is often vindicated in the pages of history. The chilling effect has already taken hold. And the kids are well aware of it.
But here’s the rub: just because students have no interest in engaging in political ideas, it doesn’t mean they don’t have them. Thus, a form of intellectual stasis as opposed to dynamism begins to develop in the classroom and the broader culture. What makes this development especially dangerous is the modern fusion of politics and morality, a situation where having the “wrong” political beliefs makes you into a “bad” person.
This is a toxic cocktail — having strong beliefs while simultaneously being unwilling to engage or ever change them explains why many young people are so quick to cut off friendships and family members and apply broad indictments of entire segments of society.
Go read the comments of teenagers in this New York Times article where they explain how important it is for family and friends to have the same political beliefs as they do. Time and time again, the respondents start off saying people can think differently and that’s fine and great and dandy, but . . . “It’s best to be patient with those that you disagree with, but it would just be best to surround yourself with people who have the same political beliefs as you to avoid those irritating arguments.”
Of course, we adults have to remedy the situation. We must teach them changing one’s minds is not a sign of weakness. That love transcends disagreement. That we can have confidence in our ideas, even if they are unpopular.
We must model all of this for our young people, otherwise their fear will become their unhappiness.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation, recently released in paperback. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.