No, we didn’t do it better “back then”

Originally published as a Facebook note on April 7, 2015. Possibly more relevant now. 

Between family, acquaintances, coworkers and – of course – the internet, I seem to be bombarded with an onslaught of “What’s the world coming to??” comments lately. These comments – both unadulterated in statement form and pseudo-sly, in pithy meme format  – enrage me like nothing else.

They started out just irritating me, but the more exposure I got the more psychotically angry I got until I very nearly had an epic facebook explosion in just exactly the wrong place and time. Luckily, extensive experience in regretting previous facebook explosions prevailed and I left the keyboard to cool off. But it did bring to a head the need to unpack my issues over this common viewpoint and the seemingly blind agreement it fosters.

First, let’s look at the types of comments I’m talking about:

“What kind of kids are we raising these days?” said by a coworker in reference to younger people who don’t subscribe to her version of respect.

Any number of “back in the old days we did things differently and we should’ve stuck with it!” memes, posted all over facebook by people I otherwise like.

“People (and/or kids) today just want to be famous,” applied universally to anyone receiving the lion’s share of attention for anything.

I’m sure you’ve seen your share of these types of comments, and perhaps have contributed a few of your own in what you thought was a tongue-in-cheek, yet still adroit, commentary on modern society. (I have some bad news for you, by the way: it was neither of those things.) So now that we know what I’m talking about, let’s get to unpacking.

1. These comments are supremely unoriginal.

In a quote wildly misattributed to Socrates, but still written by a student of classical Greek culture: “The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise. …Children began to be the tyrants, not the slaves, of their households. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table, and committed various offences against Hellenic tastes, such as crossing their legs. They tyrannised over the paidagogoi and schoolmasters.” (Kenneth John Freeman, 1907)

Plato may not have quoted that directly from Socrates, but the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of both men having said something similar. In fact, I’ll lay odds that anyone reading this has made the joke that they “sound like their parent(s)” while chiding, reproaching, blaming or otherwise bemoaning the state of today’s youth. THAT SHOULD BE YOUR FIRST CLUE. Every generation thinks their elders’ reproving scolds are out-dated and old fashioned and have no practical place in modern society. This “tradition” has been going on for centuries – like head lice and other undesirable symptoms of large groups of people congregating together.

2. The implied insult.

“Repost if you agree the way we did things was the RIGHT way!” Which would make everything opposed to that agreement… what? The “wrong” way? We no longer put children in the back of open pickup trucks. That’s “wrong”? Tell you what – why don’t you argue your position from the open bed of a ¾ ton Chevy barreling down the highway at 75 miles an hour. No? Are you sure? Could it be that your position, when stripped of the bubble-wrapped safety of nostalgia, looks a lot like reckless endangerment?

But let’s leave aside obvious and logic-defying issues of mechanical safety. How about those childrearing techniques of ages past? Never mind what my personal opinion is on corporal punishment, let’s address how each of the statements made with regard to “we raised kids better in those days” implies that kids today having nothing of value to offer. And don’t give me that bullshit about “exceptions”. If you post that nonsense where I can see it, I am under no obligation to assume that you think my kid is an “exception”. I think my kid is extraordinary, but not exceptional.

As Elizabeth Gilbert pointed out in a remarkably satisfying rebuttal to the “kids these days” argument (it’s on her public fb, and I encourage you to seek it out):

Today’s American teenagers are the most sensitive, least violent, least bullying, least racist, least homophobic, most globally-minded, most compassionate, most environmentally-conscious, least dogmatic, and overall kindest group of young people this country has ever known.

They were raised to be nice to each other. They have always been encouraged to be tolerant with each other. They weren’t allowed to hit each other in the sandbox while adults looked the other way and let them “work it out on their own”. They don’t smoke as much as my generation did, they don’t drink (or drink and drive) as much as my generation did, they don’t beat each other up as much as my generation did, and they aren’t as mean to each other as my generation was. They don’t even have as much sex as my generation did.

Yeah. Kids these days are also kind of glued to their electronic screens, which can be annoying when they run into you headlong on the sidewalk (speaking from experience), but do you know what they’re looking at? No, you don’t, so quit being so judgey, McJudgeFace.

3. Direct insult.

I am morally and intellectually opposed to many of the attitudes embraced in these romanticized notions of the past. The past wasn’t a very nice place to live, especially if you belonged (or were forced into) a marginalized group.

Fun fact: women were only granted the privilege of carrying consumer credit in their own name in… 1975! That’s right. While you’re waxing nostalgic about how great baby blue eye shadow was, your mom was buying that with cash because she WASN’T ALLOWED TO HAVE A CREDIT CARD in her own name. You know who got her the right to have her own credit? Loudmouth and militant feminists who definitely DID NOT sit down and be quiet in the presence of their elders.

Because I’m on a roll with quotes, let’s revisit this one from George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” If you honestly believe that the world was a better place when one class of humans exercised the power to keep another class silent, please just practice that silence yourself. You are an anachronistic albatross around the neck of human dignity.

4. Appeal to antiquity/tradition. 

Just don’t even go here. I can’t say this better than Wikipedia, so here ya go:

Appeal to tradition (also known as argumentum ad antiquitatem, appeal to antiquity, or appeal to common practice) is a common fallacy in which a thesis is deemed correct on the basis that it is correlated with some past or present tradition.

The appeal takes the form of ‘this is right because we’ve always done it this way.’

An appeal to tradition essentially makes two assumptions that are not necessarily true:The old way of thinking was proven correct when introduced, i.e. since the old way of thinking was prevalent, it was necessarily correct. In actuality this may be false—the tradition might be entirely based on incorrect grounds.

The past justifications for the tradition are still valid at present. In actuality, the circumstances may have changed; this assumption may also therefore be untrue.”

Note that the opposite of this is to appeal to novelty (“it’s better because it’s new!”), and that is NOT what I’m doing here. Just because something is new doesn’t make it better. Making it better means identifying the inherent problems in the old system and weeding them out. Homeopathy is not better because it’s “new”, but that doesn’t make the medieval practice of bleeding someone less wrong.

5. When we know better, we do better.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I first heard this statement from Oprah, but I still embrace it whole heartedly. As referenced above, sometimes past justifications were valid for the time and place. It’s okay to kiss a child’s boo-boo, it makes them feel better. But, if I may be so bold, grow the fuck up.

We now know that many human behaviors and identities exist on a spectrum; it’s not okay to label people based on ignorance. “Back in the day” we may have been somewhat justified in raising our kids in a culture of fear, but I’m going to take a leap here and say that era died out with the saber-toothed tiger.

If you, personally, still equate respect with fear, then you have my sincerest sympathy. I don’t know what happened to you to make you think that (though I suspect it was the generation before you going “IT WAS GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME AT THAT AGE!”), but I implore you to get to a library and look up virtually anything written after 1991 on the subject of early childhood education. Please. Just go. You’ll come out with a profoundly more empathetic value system, and not just a little resentment for your parents’ and grandparents’ generations. It’s a feature, not a bug.

In case I haven’t made myself clear, I think that clinging to unexamined notions of the inherent “rightness” of past habits and traditions is not just immoral, it’s dangerous. Not only am I happy to live in a time and place where knowledge, discourse, and scientific discovery are made available to the vast majority of people, I am actively looking forward to more of the same in the future. And yeah, I’m personally offended when you express regressive attitudes.

I know you think you’re cherishing your past, but there has GOT to be a better way of doing that than by parroting the exact same complaints your parents, grandparents, and other ancestors voiced going back at least to classical times (see #1).

I was going to close this out by apologizing for offending anyone, buuuut, let’s be honest: I’m not sorry, really. It wasn’t my intent to offend, but if that’s the outcome, I can only hope you’ll take a closer look at why you hold those ideas in such high regard. Why does it make you feel better to hold yourself up as an example of a good and moral upbringing while tearing down everyone who doesn’t agree? If you don’t mean “everyone”, then maybe examine who the hell you think is listening to you when you say such things. Either way, you should know that I am listening.