Each generation goes to battle against the ones that came before. The most recent skirmish on this front has involved a millennial and Gen-Z coalition fighting against Gen-X and boomers. The territory is cancel culture and the right to protest. The result, if the newcomers win, will be the death of dialectic. Few young generations have made their stand while so obviously occupying the low ground.
One of the millennial spokespeople is Ernest Owens, a journalist who has published a piece in the New York Times that explains away Obama’s criticism of cancel culture as “boomer logic.” Owens classifies the opponents of cancel culture as “Boomers, Gen-Xers and a small number of millennials with more regressive views,” and frames the debate as the out of touch against the up and coming. Given those options, why would you ever choose the former?
As Owens rightly points out, today’s protests are not new. The actions of those who cancelled a campus event at the University of Pennsylvania are comparable to those of student activists in the 1980s, who used blow horns to protest apartheid in South Africa. However, Owen fails to acknowledge that student activists of past decades grew out of blow horns and placards.
Christopher Hitchens was one of the foremost defenders of free speech. Despite being Jewish himself and married to a Jewish wife, with Jewish children—he defended the right of holocaust denier David Irving to believe in his alternative version of history and thought his jail sentence for thought crime appalling. Even Hitchens, however, during his college years, organized the dangling of a noose in front of Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart, in protest at the Indochina war. Even he was seduced by the allure of being judge and executioner in the court of permissible speech. If this demonstrates anything, it’s that the taste for protest develops at an early age, while the palate for dialectic matures rather late.
For some millennials, particularly those working in journalism, this maturation appears not to take place at all. Young journalists have little problem blurring the lines between news and editorial, activism and journalism. John Tierny writes in City Journal that the young generation of journalists are “breaking long-standing taboos as they bring ‘cancel culture’ into professional newsrooms.”
Young adults wanting to enter the commentariat used to have to learn the rules of civil disagreement. Those content with picket line protests could continue dangling nooses outside government offices and chanting their songs. If they caused enough of a commotion, journalists would turn up and get some quotations from protesters, but rarely were the protesters themselves given serious consideration. They were presumed to be putting their case in a way designed to draw attention. It was up to the journalists to distil their point into something to be argued for or against, by writing articles, publishing the relevant stories and waiting to see if public debate ensued.
That was the system functioning as it should: in a steady procession of events from protest, to reportage, to public debate, to government action. Then, in the late-2000s, being a cog in the editorial machine no longer guaranteed employment. Entire departments of writers and editors found themselves laid off, and, when they turned to the job boards, they found few in need of their services. The journalistic part of the chain was under threat.
If you didn’t stand out among your fellow journalists, you were liable to be cut. However, if you could cultivate a readership that would follow you from paper to paper, column inches would always be set aside for your pieces. This caused a rise in the necessity for personal branding. Fortunately for these people, social media—the best personal advertising platform yet created—asserted itself in the public sphere. Unfortunately, social media is anathema to proper reporting. Writing long essays arguing for incremental change won’t get you many followers. Calling for your opponent’s head will.
Social media is not, as Owens argues, a mere extension of old forms of protest. It is an amplifier. The white hot anger so easily summoned online does not cool with equal rapidity. People cheer for their side, and the ad hominem is favoured over the pensive reply because it’s not about searching for synthesis through dialectic. As Douglas Murray says, it’s “the speaker, not the speech” that matters.
The result of journalists using a platform that encourages activist behaviour is that we are being served activism with a thin layer of journalism spread on top. Erroneously calling a fellow journalist a Nazi has inexplicably become encouraged behaviour. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find space for sincere, reasoned debate. Were he a student today, Hitchens may have found that his noose-dangling stunt would’ve not only earned him a round of applause from comrades and professors, but might have brought column inches and television appearances, too.
Some commentators point to polarization as a problem of our times, but this undervalues its utility. Indeed, within political parties and ideological movements, the problem is one of consensus. Too many people are too sure that they know the whole story and need to hear no more. They use false consensus to shut out the opposition view and condemn those who express doubt.
Owens and other journalists like him aim to establish a false consensus.
Every time they protest the speech of a speaker with whom they disagree, or get a writer like Kevin Williamson fired from a place like the Atlantic, they gain ground. And the constant endorsement and encouragement these young journalist-activists receive from people who have sat on editorial boards for decades, and can comprehend the damage being done to both their profession and democracy, is contemptible.
Owens argues that millennials and Gen-Z are fighting against the same issues that have been debated for decades, such as LGBT rights, women’s rights and racial justice. In his view, progress has been too slow and moving the metre “is work that has been left up to us.” It’s an astonishing implication. Past decades have witnessed the emancipation of women, their ability to enter the workforce unobstructed, to pursue higher education and to regain control over their reproductive organs. LGBT people have risen from being unmentionable in polite society to achieving equal rights in the eyes of the law. Black people have suffered through redlining and racist government policies and are now living in a time in which, as Coleman Hughes points out, there is reason for black optimism. How dare the previous generations have been so lethargic in their pursuit of justice?
Failure to restore the mechanism that transforms protest into policy will have far worse results than the fever-dream of a Twitter addicted journalist. Nuanced debate is a core tenet of liberalism. It grants people the ability to contain multitudes, to hold multiple beliefs that contradict each other, to slowly learn that some of their ideas are wrong. Incremental progress is the way forward. It is not as sexy a slogan as you have nothing to lose but your chains, but it is fundamentally what democracy thrives on.
If young journalists such as Owens have their way, the system that caused the progress they now take for granted will be under threat. The fact that people have forgotten how to disagree, and the value it produces, is a problem. The fact that journalists and the media have forgotten is a problem that cannot be overstated.
Authoritarianism thrives when dialectic breaks down. When that happens, the most vulnerable members of society will be the ones at greatest risk. History has provided enough examples of this. That those typically dedicated to the protection of dialectic are currently among its fiercest opponents shows how much work there is to do. This is a generational divide that must be mended.