The “snowflakes” problem is not really a snowflakes problem: It is the result of an absence not so much of adulthood as of grown-ups. There is no reason why young people reared between the 1990s and the present should be dramatically different from previous generations of young people. Nor should there be any dramatic difference between the sensibilities and sensitivities of young people who end up in college and those who leave education early to earn an honest living. Yet something like this is what we are enjoined to believe by the idea that, for no diagnosed reason, the present generation of young people is more umbrageous and high-strung than any that went before.
No. When young people demand to be protected from the content of prescribed texts, protest the invitation of voluble “right-wingers,” or demand the demolition of campus monuments to national heroes, they are merely doing what young people have always done: testing the resolve of their elders and seeking the limits of their tolerance. The problem is not with the students, but with those who are supposed to be in authority over them, who cannot bear to see themselves as elders.
Once upon a time, something like a university was run by men and women in grey suits who set out rules and boundaries for those in their charge. From their offices on the second floor, they looked out on the quadrangle and rapped terrifyingly on the window when observing misbehavior or incivility. Now, it seems, they work with the curtains drawn while their students run amok. This is the snowflakes problem.
The reason for the change is rather simple: Virtually all of those currently running universities in the Western world are products of the 1960s culture of peace, love, dope, and anti-authoritarianism. They are, in the main, the worst kind of people to be running anything requiring even a modicum of authority, having themselves grown up thinking that youth values ought to trump experience, wisdom, and tradition, and that anyone in a suit is a fascist. Their refusal to set limits is at the root of much of the madness currently gripping not only academia but Western culture generally, from gender pronouns to micro-aggression obsession.
Today’s university students seek to apply the most natural and tried method of young people since the time of Cain and Abel, by pushing their elders until someone lets a roar of “Enough!” But the “Enough!” never comes, nor the rapping on the second-floor window, and so the young must choose between effecting a coup d’etat or plunging further into petulance, puerility, and waywardness.
We are now approaching the full-blown stage of a condition first predicted in the early 1960s by the German psychiatrist Alexander Mitscherlich, who in his book Society Without the Father coined the phrase “sibling society.” The symptoms of the sibling society were graphically elaborated by Robert Bly in his 1996 book bearing that title. Bly painted a devastating portrait of cultures obsessed by youth, suspicious of forms of authority that might seek to deprive youth of its “freedoms,” intent upon destroying what Mitscherlich called “vertical” culture. The replacement “horizontal” culture of pop music, movies, television, student-style politics, and—latterly—social media is now cleaved to not just by the young, but by all the generations born since World War II.
The sibling society stands in contrast to what preceded it: the father-organized society in which authority was unafraid to speak or to be despised by the young for so doing. A working definition of authority might be: the capacity to endure unpopularity in the interests of the good. A defining quality of fatherhood through the ages has been a preparedness to be resented. The father was the guarantor and custodian of civilization, and even malcontented youth looked to him for guidance, free to remonstrate in the knowledge that affection would not be withdrawn. The Sixties tore up that Oedipal contract, and now the young look only sideways, and warily: The father is absent or suspect, the state has become a multi-breasted mother, and the hole in the human psyche where the father once manifested is invaded by demons.
In these conditions, it has become unsafe, not to say unfashionable, to argue that there is an essence of good authority, the loss of which promises incalculable damage for the society we plan to bequeath to our children. Collective advancement requires individual renunciation, in turn requiring a strong, safe, generous agent to act as buffer and punchbag. Think of the contrast between the sobriety of the founding fathers and the affable acrobats who occupy the swivel chairs of office in the present. The so-called patriarchal society was tough, straight, straight-talking, and demanding of its citizens, did not waste energy in communication, but made clear, in a minimalist way, what its expectations were. Now the state is “tolerant,” “inclusive,” indulgent, talkative, given to explaining itself in detail, as though mostly longing to be liked.
The role of stoical, authoritarian receptor for society's anger and outrage represented an imperative that has not been replaced, and so the rage of the young flies off in every direction, unfocused and unfathomable—hate biting its own tail. Since there is no longer a father to stand rock solid while his children pummel his greatcoat, the rage threatens to pull everything down. Hence the growing contempt for tradition, wisdom, truth, renunciation, learning, and the resultant hollowing-out of education systems, which no longer challenge or satisfy. Only Jordan Peterson, it seems, remains to calm the malcontents with a pat on the head and a stern admonition to go away and be better.
Since we are now a half-century on from 1968, it may be argued that the cadre of that time is no longer sitting at second-floor desks but is more likely at home reading Richard Dawkins in an attempt to maintain the atheistic certitudes of its youth. And this is almost certainly true of the originators of the revolution. But, as a member of the generation after ’68, I am here to tell you that many in my cohort were even more suspicious of authority than their predecessors, because they carried, in addition to the naturalistic resentments of youth, an additional grievance arising from the fact that they had not been around when the fuse was lit. My own generation, born in the middle 1950s, ought now to be shouting from second-floor windows things like “This is a university, goddammit!” and “Go clean your room!” But my generation, the one that came of age in the 1970s, split into two, becoming either counter-revolutionary due to rumbling the lies of ’68—cleaving to the music but jettisoning the rest—or even more dumbly compliant with the terms of the revolution it had inherited.
Now in the final years of their half-century of cultural domination, these second-string beatniks are doubly dilapidated: They continue to resent the very idea of authority, and themselves lack the authority of ownership of the ideas that define them. They are sad, angry, directionless Peter Pan rebels, who extol the virtues of youth but hide away from the actually existing young, who they hope will complete their revolution before the dreaded number 64 confronts them on a birthday cake. Hence the deafening silence from the second floor.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.
Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Creative Commons. Image cropped.