When I was in high school, I remember social banter consisting of a lot of subtle put-downs and one-upsmanship. The popular kids were generally not very nice, certainly not to us unpopular kids but not even to each other. I remember a few popular kids being nice to me on the sly, but in group settings even those nice ones would join in the dominating behavior, or, at best, surreptitiously divert attention away from the victims. If they were overtly kind, they risked being grouped in with the losers. Social status came from winning, from dominating. Kindness was a recessive gene in the social DNA.
Until recently, I thought this is just how teenagehood is in our culture. Not that kids are inherently cruel, but that deeply entrenched social conditions cast the majority into a state of insecurity from which bullying behavior inevitably arises. But over the last few years I am seeing more and more evidence of a profound sea-change in youth culture.
My first glimpse of it came from witnessing my teenage sons’ interactions with their friends. Almost never did I hear the kind of aggressive, belittling talk that was so common when I was that age. Granted, they may have been censoring themselves because “dad” was present, but if so the censorship was irrationally selective – I also overheard a lot of conversations that no teen in his right mind would let his friend’s father overhear. Moreover, it wasn’t just an absence of overt put-downs that I noticed. They rarely said anything unkind about people who were not present in the room. I almost never heard them label so-and-so as a dweeb, geek, bitch, loser, wimp, or anything like that. The exceptions were very few; in general, a normative ethic of gentleness prevailed.
These young people were not the math geeks and band nerds either. My eldest son Jimi in particular is socially confident and popular, as were many of his friends.
At the same time, I am aware of horror stories of social media bullying that drives some teens to suicide. It looks like things are getting simultaneously better and worse. In order to find out what’s going on, I’ve been asking Jimi and some other young people.
Jimi confirmed what I’d semi-consciously become aware of. There is a kind of split, he said, among his peers. Some are still clinging to the “old story” and all that goes along with it, but more and more are leaving that behind. “It is the opposite of how you describe your high school, dad,” he said. “For us, social status comes from being kind, and even authentic. If someone is mean, or boastful about a sexual conquest, we call him on it.”
I found his reference to sexual discourse particularly significant, since misogyny is perhaps the most primal expression of what Riane Eisler calls dominator culture. In my youth, women were a kind of social currency. If you “had” a pretty girlfriend, you were a winner, you were worthy, you were desirable. We men sought sex to prove our worth and demonstrate it to other men. Sexual intercourse was a “score,” a “touchdown,” a “home run.” I never saw any sign of that among my sons’ peers. I spent most of my adult life under the lingering shadow of an objectifying culture, seeing sex as proof of my worth. Maybe I’m still not completely free of it. Fortunately, from what I am seeing, what my generation struggled so hard to achieve imperfectly is becoming the new normal.
Misogyny, racism, intolerance, bullying, homophobia, disrespect, unkindness... these are becoming the recessive gene now, at least among a significant subculture of young people. Nothing gives me more optimism for the future than this.
Jimi also described (what was to me) an astonishing absence of bullying from the high school he attended before transferring to an art school. It wasn’t an elite school: sixty percent minority, it ranked well below average in terms of academic performance. Occasionally there were fights, he said, but not a lot of the strong picking on the weak. Racial comity and acceptance of LGBT students was the norm. Nor was there widespread labeling of various cliques as there had been at my school. The hicks, the jocks, the brains, the weirdos... none of that.
When we watched Breakfast Club together, a film that my peers and I revered as a consummate encapsulation of the high school experience, Jimi and his brother Matthew didn’t identify with its social milieu at all. I want my generation, the 30-somethings and 40-somethings, to know this. The world is changing. The nightmare that we took to be reality itself is coming to an end.
Perhaps the trend I’m describing here is not yet dominant; part of me feels naïve for even thinking it is real. But more and more, I hear teenagers and 20-somethings express thoughts that basically didn’t exist in my universe when I was that age. “I’ve noticed that my inner conflicts are reflected back to me through my relationships.” Holy crap, did I just hear a 21-year-old say that? These people are born into a place that took us decades of struggle to inhabit even part-time.
Maybe you are one of those young people, or maybe you are poised between two worlds. Either way, I’m sure you can feel the call to join the new cool of kindness, generosity, nonviolence, authenticity, emotional courage; to stop tolerating anything else; to join together in forging a new normal. If it isn’t quite here yet, it is very close at hand.
What will the world be like, when Jimi and his cohort move fully into adulthood? What social institutions, what politics, will come from people for whom kindness is the norm and not the exception? When unkindness is intolerable in social life, how will it be tolerable in ecological life, economic life, or political life?
As we celebrate the young, let us also offer thanks to those of the older generations who carried the flame of kindness through the dark times. Some names come to me of those popular, kind kids: Eric Heiser, Doug Edmunds, Jenny Gibson... and that angelic boy who died in a car crash. I’m sure you can think of some as well. Light them a candle in your heart. They sustained the field into which the new generation is born.