Reader Request Week 2019 #2: The War Between the Generations

Cristoph asks:

What’s your take on the generational conflicts of our time, currently manifesting in the “Ok Boomer” saying?

I think it’s par for the course, actually. Generational conflict makes for a good story and for good copy, and for the last 100 years or so in the US, at least, there’s been a low-grade panic about the disrespectful kids flouting the rules of society with their loose morals and bad music. Flappers and jazz! Greasers and beatniks and their R&B! Hippies and their psychedelic bands! Punkers and their, uh, punk music! Then heavy metal! And rap! And grunge! And so on and so forth up to today, with Gen Z and, I’m sure, whatever they are listening to (I honestly have no idea at the moment, which is not a reflection of the quality of their pop music, I’m just a bit clueless. Is it K-pop? I think it’s K-pop. Let’s say K-pop).

The special sauce of this particular moment of generational conflict is that it involves the Baby Boomers for the first time being the antagonists of the generational story, rather than either the protagonists or the somewhat neutral mainstream. The Boomers are now the older generation and are having a moment being seen as the ossified and inflexible group whose opinion is not worth considering, and they don’t appear to like it at all. There is the (some would say delicious) irony of the generation that famously professed it would never trust anyone over 30 having become the generation that those under 30 allegedly doesn’t trust. I’m pretty sure the Boomers don’t appreciate that irony at all.

This is the point were someone will say #NotAllBoomers, or whatever, and I’m perfectly happy to concede this point. Indeed, #NotAllBoomers, and #NotAllGenX and #NotAllMillenials and so on. It’s utterly impossible for any cohort of millions of people — whatever that cohort might be — to be in lockstep on everything. Likewise generational groupings are not the distinct things we like to pretend they are; there’s a squidgy period where whether you’re a Boomer or GenXer is really a matter of personal choice, likewise between GenXer and Millennial and so on. People go positively talmudic on this sort of thing, pulling out their favorite book of generational demographics to inform you that if you’re born in [insert year here] you’re definitely [insert generational name here] and that’s all there is to it. And, meh? Personally I’m not so wedded to the idea of discrete generational cohorts that I feel a need to argue about it at that length.

What is largely accurate is that the choices older generations make in aggregate, affect the world the younger generations in aggregate have to live in, and very often those choices are the focus of conflict. Both positively but also negatively, and the negative ones tend to get more press. For the Boomers, the choices of earlier generations meant they had to deal with (and some fight in) the Vietnam War, and both the Boomers and GenX lived in the shadow of the Cold War. For Millenials and now Gen Z, their world is shaped by earlier generations’ choices after 9/11 and regarding climate change. For Gen Z in particular, they had no say in the election of the current president, whose policies and practices should (and apparently do) fill them with horror.

Again, not everyone in an older generation is to blame (or praise) for these choices — our current president lost the popular vote by millions, after all — but these choices were still made, these events still happened, and each younger generation has to live with the consequences of older generations’ actions (or lack thereof).

I don’t think there’s much to be done about this sort of generational conflict. People are always being born and having to deal with the world made in aggregate by people older than they are. They will not always just accept the world they have been given and will seek to change it. The older generations will die off, the younger generations will have children of their own. Lather, rinse and repeat.

It’s also worth noting that the conflict between generations is often a sideshow to other demographic conflicts. The “generational conflict” in the United States, at least, is often a stalking horse for conflicts between conservatives and liberals, white people and everyone who isn’t white, and the rich and everyone who isn’t rich. “OK Boomer,” as I’ve seen it used (when it is not being used ironically) is less specifically relating to everyone born in that generational cohort as it is relating to the sort of white, conservative, wealth-justifies-everything mindset that typifies the most egregious sort of political actors among older generations, the ones who aren’t listening to anyone else anyway, so sure are they that they both should and deserve to get their way.

An assertion that all Millennials and Gen Z folks despise all Boomers with their one-day-dying breath is belied by the persistence of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the top ranks of the presidential contenders due to their support among the young(er) folks. The issues here are generational but not merely or precisely generational — they are about whose voice matters in the political and social process, and in shaping the world now and in the immediate future.

As a dyed-in-the-wool GenXer, I’m not particularly threatened by the idea that at some point a younger generation might come for an accounting of what my generation did or did not do, because ultimately the older generations should have to answer for their choices, and individuals for their own actions. I think as a political and social actor my generation gets a mixed report card; it pains me that the most prominent politicians of my generation to date have been Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan, for example. But we’ve done some good as well; I think it’s our generation that moved the ball most considerably for the rights of gays and lesbians here in the US. We haven’t been perfect, but a cohort of millions isn’t likely to be.

I accept that there will be a judgment from history, “history” being a very distancing term for “the people who come after you.” Which is to say: the younger generations. Bring it on, kids.

(There’s still time to ask questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to see how to get your own request in.)

Reader Request Week 2019 #1: Strange Experiences

It’s Monday and it’s time for this year’s Reader Request Week! Let’s start this one off on a slightly spooky note, with this question from Mar:

I’d be curious to know, if you’re comfortable talking about it, whether you’ve ever had a “strange”, or for lack of a better term, what we might call “paranormal” experience. Anonymous data collecting seems to show that most people have, but are afraid to talk about it. I have had one experience that was very strange, and so have most of the people that I know. JF Martel on the podcast “Weird Studies” said that if everyone spoke freely about these events, we would be forced as a culture to include such phenomena in any attempt to form a coherent worldview. And probably also learn something about the nature of reality that we don’t understand now.

I’ve had a number of strange experiences in my life — “strange” meaning in this case events so entirely outside the normal range of my daily existence that some part of my brain felt compelled to remark “okay, this is some weird shit going on here” — but none of those things would be things I’d consider to be “paranormal” in the way the word normally gets used, i.e., in reference to things like ghosts and magic and aliens and extradimensional whatever. Every strange experience I can think of that’s happened to me is well-bounded in the physics and natural phenomena that we understand and can describe. At most, these events required extreme coincidence to have happened — but extreme coincidence does happen, so I don’t know that it’s all that surprising that it happens occasionally to me.

Now, I do think that this answer of mine speaks directly to my own view of the world, which is highly rationally based. As a practical matter, I don’t believe in things like ghosts or alien visitations or psychic powers, and I have a distinct bias toward rational answers to events. I’m not someone who believes in “fate” or the “hand of god” or even “we’re all here for a purpose.” So when strange things happen to me, my brain doesn’t see them as evidence of some paranormal activity of one sort or another; it goes “huh, that’s some weird shit,” and assumes it has some rational, physical basis. If you’re like that going in, then the number of paranormal experiences you’re going to have is already low. I am aware that many paranormal films feature someone who is all “everything has a rational basis!” who then gets eaten by, like, angry ghosts or demons or whatever in a gory and highly satisfying way. But that’s the movies for you. Real life is more boring, and more rational.

With that said, I do know a number of people who have reported strange experiences that would be considered to be “paranormal” in one way or another, and these people are folks who I like and love and consider solid people not given to flights of either fancy or delusion. How do I explain their experiences?

I don’t! I wasn’t there when they experienced what they experienced, and I’m not them. If someone tells me they experienced something outside of the range of what is generally considered natural phenomenon, then a) I’m perfectly willing to believe that something happened to them that was well outside their own usual range of experience, b) unless they are specifically asking me to postulate a rational explanation for their experience, I’m not the sort of person who has to be all “well, actually,” about this sort of thing. Something happened to them; this is how they decided to process it, and unless that is actively harming them or others, eh, fine.

This doesn’t mean I think they’ve likely had a paranormal experience, however. I’m aware of a number of things:

1. The remit of physical laws and phenomena is actually quite large, so more things can be explained rationally than many if not most people realize (and generally our culture has done a really crappy job explaining this fact);

2. Our culture enjoys paranormal storytelling to such an extent that when something strange happens, our brains use those familiar storytelling elements to explain what’s happening to us, i.e., if you’ve heard all your life about ghosts and something happens to you that fits the criteria for a visitation by a ghost, you’ll shove it into that slot, even if it has nothing to do with ghosts whatsoever;

3. Human brains are dodgy lumps of sentient fat that are both pattern-seeking and prone to misinterpreting and misapprehending new and strange things that are happening to them, which makes them especially vulnerable to magical thinking.

I also know this:

4. I don’t know everything about everything, and there are many things I cannot prove, so while I am 99.999999999+% percent sure that everything that happens to people has a perfectly rational basis in our universe, I do have to admit that my not knowing everything means I could be wrong about paranormal explanations for strange events. There could be ghosts and vampires and gray big-headed aliens and Nessie and angels so on. I think their existence is so massively unlikely that I don’t bother considering it in any serious way. But intellectual honesty compels me to admit I don’t definitively know one way or another.

So: I suspect most people’s paranormal experiences are probably not paranormal in any sense. It’s just their attempt to explain something that happened to them in a way that’s consistent to their understanding and knowledge of their world, the cultural clues that have been given to them and the manner in which their brain processed the event (and in which they subsequently remember it, memory being another dodgy and unreliable brain process). There’s maybe a >.000000001% chance it was actually paranormal! But probably not, and also, if thinking that it was paranormal allows them to process it and get on with their life without hurting themselves or anyone else, sure, okay, why not. I’m not going to go out of my way to be a jerk to them about it.

(I do think people who use the paranormal, and humans’ tendencies toward believing in that sort of thing, in malicious or detrimental ways are terrible people who I don’t have any problem stomping on. But I don’t think the original question is about con artists or malicious actors, it’s about normal people having experiences they’re having a hard time explaining otherwise.)

More to the point, I don’t think there’s any point in belittling or discounting people who believe in paranormal experiences, simply on that basis. I think there’s a lot to learn about how and why people think these events happen to them, and what more we can learn about the brain and the nature of consciousness from that. Human experience is bounded by how our brains process what’s going on around us.

If you’ve had a paranormal experience, you’ve had an actual experience, and your brain is working on how to explain that experience to you. It’s telling you a story about it — just like it does with every other event you’ve ever experienced. That’s some interesting shit right there.

(There’s still time to ask questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to see how to get your own request in.)