By Ash Bishop
I’m just going to say it… this is all Generation X’s fault. We who grew up with a generational anthem refrain that went like this: “I feel stupid, and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us.”
Our Boomer parents left us virtually unattended. We might have been surrounded by kidnappers, reckless drivers, pedophiles, and tetanus — it was hard to say for sure — but the Boomers still let us ride our bikes unaccompanied to the cinema and dream of being a whip-cracking archeologist.
It probably mattered if we went to college, and what college we went to, but nobody told us that. And we were too busy trying to figure out how to socialize with each other and unlock the riddle of why everyone else was having sex, just not with us. There was also the challenge of surviving roller-rinks on gangly legs thanks to ill-timed and unanticipated growth-spurts.
We didn’t care one bit about politics. We elected Clinton simply because he played saxophone on Arsenio Hall. We didn’t know anything else about him. Why not? At least he seemed to have a little passion, something we were otherwise lacking.
We were a little worried when the Boomers explained to us that we needed to sign up for the draft. Stories of our fathers’ trips to Vietnam were terrifying. The way our high school football coach twitched violently when a helicopter flew overhead told us everything we needed to know to stay away from armed combat.
It turned out to be an empty fear. The closest we came to a war experience was watching night vision images on CNN.
Shielded from the need for maniac anxiety or fervent Nationalism, we grew up without a strong system of governing values. Sure, some of us got involved with the local church, others tried to cobble together an identity by following the lead of popular celebrities, but without an existent threat, we were mostly just floating adrift on a forgiving Capitalist machine.
It didn’t come without a price. The end of the 20th Century felt a little bit like it was also the end of the world. An underappreciated 1995 Kathryn Bigelow movie put it best. Like a celluloid prophet, the film Strange Days explores issues of disruptive technology, racism and police violence. Yet it was Tom Sizemore’s listless existentialism that rang the most true to Generation X:
“You know how I know it’s the end of the world? Everything’s already been done. Every kind of music’s been tried. Every kind of government’s been tried, every fucking hairstyle, bubble gum flavors, you know, breakfast cereal. What are we going to do? How are we going to make another thousand years? I’m telling you, man, it’s over. We used it all up.”
For better or worse, the world didn’t end on December 31st 1999. And along came the Millennials. They looked up at us, with their natural youthful passion, and we shrugged back at them.
In the shrug lies the problem.
Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant treatise Sapiens explains it better than I can:
“Contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, reevaluate and criticize. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.”
The Millennials were young, surging with hormones and fire and a desire to right all of mankind’s wrongs. They needed discord, something to rebel against, something to overthrow. If only we’d been able to summon the passion to tell them to stop playing their music so loud, or to say no to drugs, it might have given them something to sneak away and do. It’s extremely hard to overthrow a shrug.
… but it’s not impossible. How do you generate creativity and dynamism when your predecessors believed in nothing? The answer is simple: you believe in everything.
Cultural engines revving, Millennials went on the hunt for whatever could provide even a hint of contradiction, no matter how large or small. Patriarchy? Race? Sexuality? Politics? Millennials were ready to reimagine all those things. ‘You Boomers think you accomplished something fighting for gender equality? Step aside ’cause we’re getting rid of gender altogether!’
Cultural battlegrounds have appeared and disappeared overnight, and there have been many causalities.
Will it be over soon? Can we leave the bunker long enough to smell the roses? Maybe to see Indiana Jones V? It doesn’t seem like it. Language itself is the gatekeeper of all cultural values, and the greatest of wars will continue to be fought there.
Just don’t expect Generation X to get involved.