Hurry up and die already!
As a university student, I’m used to hearing young people lament the amount of suffering and evil in this world, and declare that we should – nay, must – ameliorate people’s suffering by moral progress and political organising. And yet, one alarming trend that I have witnessed online and across campus is the enthusiasm with which young people await the ‘dying out’ of the older generation. With regard to issues like immigration, religion and sexuality, there’s a widespread prejudice among many young people that once the older generation are dead and gone, the world will finally be able to move on and set about its pursuit of moral progress unencumbered by the bigots of a bygone age.
To wait impatiently on a whole generation to croak so that one might be able to live one’s own life is itself an arrogant refusal to respect other people’s right to think and feel whatever they wish. According to this logic, the past is only ever conceived as a shackle from which we must free ourselves in order to progress. The hordes of twentysomethings resenting the existence of nonagenarians reflect this modern tendency to regard any marks of the past in today’s present as scars, to be sanitised and then covered over.
Today’s elderly generation is a generation for whom immigration was something new, shocking, and often frightening; for whom women’s equality was a matter not of contesting a women’s right to work as a topless model but about fighting for the right of women to work at all. It is a generation which, broadly, preceded political correctness. By and large, the older generation derived their sense of meaning from strongly felt ties to God, church and family. It was a generation whose maxims are now seen as threats to the modern order, with its insistence on cultural relativism, distrust of traditional pillars of wisdom and collective solidarity, and fetishisation of identity politics over patriotism. It is the rise of this new elite that has meant Britain’s aged have come to be seen as profoundly alien and deeply suspect.
In rejecting the older generation, young people today are ignorantly ruling out the possibility that we might have something to learn from the past. Instead, at best, we end up sloganising history, criminalising the past or wishing it away it entirely. The unacknowledged assumption is that we are on some quasi-righteous march towards a very particular conception of moral progress, and that voices that stand in our way on this quest are to be discarded as ‘bigoted’, and beyond the pale. While no one can argue with the admirable pursuit of what one takes to be justice, it is another matter entirely to presuppose that any dissenting, or even just old-fashioned, view should be shunned.
Even if the old fogeys aren’t as careful with their language as we might like, or as holier-than-thou regarding matters of criminal punishment or gay rights, hoping that they will die out and take their aberrant views with them is ugly and regressive. Whatever your moral vision, or lack thereof, putting the past on trial and discounting the views of the old will only make for a silly, stale and thoroughly reactionary way of doing politics.
Chris Lynch is a student at the University of Cambridge.