Sometimes There Are No Words

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The recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has stirred a cauldron of anger with which we have become entirely too familiar. We hear the same refrains after each shooting that meets the increasingly ambiguous criteria for news coverage. From one side comes a cry for increased gun control, with some even calling for bans on owning certain types of guns á la Australia in 1996. From the other comes a barrage of slogans of tradition and strong attachment to personal ownership of firearms. The two camps yell past each other, and some in the middle attempt to have a serious discussion about mental health issues without getting much traction.

Both sides have valid arguments but neither gives the other any credit. Instead, everyone acts as though the debate is a turf war, with any concessions being the beginning of a slippery slope that turns out to be an ultimate loss. Meanwhile, the substance of the issue is completely lost and we remain exactly where we were before. So, nothing changes and the victims become pawns in a conflict that no one intends to finish. After a few news cycles, the combatants pack up their bags, go home, and wait for the next one.

I don’t have any answers to the big issues. But odds are, neither do most people talking about them. The arguments have become so stale and repetitive over the years that they might as well be bumper stickers. I’m sure some of them actually are. Once the debate starts to consist of the same tired taglines, it becomes useless. We resort to this style of argumentation because we know that we don’t have much power to enact the change that we need to see. We do everything we can, which isn’t much on a national scale.

Instead, we can stop the talk. We can sign off of social media for a day or two and take time to engage with those who mean the most to us. Our loved ones can receive the attention that they’ve lost to our computers and smartphones for years now. There really are no words that can explain or help the tragedy that these families have endured over the last few days. Their pain will last for years to come, and all we can do is let them tell us how best we can help them. None of us can know how best to do that. Any of us who have suffered loss know that to be the case.

While most of us fortunately cannot fully comprehend the suffering that Parkland is feeling, we can certainly understand that another social media post is not going to help. We’ll go back to the life we were living before, blissfully ignorant of the fact that dozens of families have been changed forever. That’s okay. It’s part of the nature of being human. But for now, let’s realize that we can’t boil these events down to a few handy hashtags. Let’s take a minute, count our blessings, and think about what change we really want to see and how best we can use our talents to help them come to fruition.

 

Why Do So Many Millennials Feel Stuck?

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If you have a conversation with a dozen millennials, it’s likely that more than one of them will tell you that they don’t know what they want to do with their lives. Some of them work dead-end jobs in service industries. Others are barely above the poverty level while working toward fulfilling a dream. Still more are drifting through life, unsure of their desires or ultimate career goals.

In many ways, this is not much different than the struggles that earlier generations felt. Our woes are just more public. With the arrival of social media, we can all feel each other’s uncertainty and angst. It brings about a sense of solidarity and communion, and we can know that we are not ultimately lost.

But why do so many of us feel so purposeless? Why do we have so much trouble figuring out what we want to do and who we want to become? We have access to more options and opportunities than almost any generation before us. We have the added benefit of information on demand, and a world’s education situated conveniently in our pockets.

The difference is that the paths that our forefathers forged have turned into bridges that have been traversed to the point of collapse. The stable careers and promising pensions that were once considered safeguards for our parents and grandparents have become all but a distant pipe dream for millennials. Even if we are lucky enough to find a job that promises these benefits, we saw enough in the Great Recession to know that these gigs are all but permanent. They can end at any time, and take with them our visions of economic stability and white picket fences.

In short, we feel stuck precisely because we have to blaze our own trails. Our survival is up to us rather than the whims of a system we did not help to create. This is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. We don’t have the job security that our parents did. But we have the opportunity to make something much greater of our lives than our parents were told they ever could. For those of us who realize this and can step up to the challenges, the rewards are bountiful. Look at the billion-dollar companies that began as bootstrapped start-ups run by young people who had a dream.

But we have to recognize that history has dealt us a unique hand. We can no longer put our heads down and work for 30 years, then retire with a pension to take care of us for the rest of our lives. We have to consider things that are entirely new in the grand scheme of things. These include concepts such as “branding yourself”, “search engine optimization”, and “networking events”. These have quickly become part of our lexicon, but they sound entirely foreign to previous generations.

In short, it’s easy for us to feel lost when we are fumbling our way through the dark while having to adapt to these new circumstances. It’s easy to feel stuck.

Do You Even Want Real Equality?

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The United States has become more of a political hotbed now than at almost any other time during its history. It seems that everyone has a strong opinion and is willing to voice it at any available opportunity. Most of these opinions come in the form of an “us versus them” ultimatum. Men vs. Women. White vs. Black. Gay vs. Straight. We’ve seen it all couched into buzzwords and boxes that one must adopt or disavow in order to have a sense of belonging. This tribal scheme threatens to tear apart our way of living.

However, a great deal of this rhetoric is couched in terms of “equality”. We say that X should be equal to Y. We can’t go a day without hearing how income and wealth inequality are scourges that threaten society as we know it. But the discussion naturally raises the question of what our alternative is. If we denounce inequality, then ostensibly we want equality to solve all of our problems. But what would this kind of equality even look like?

I think it is important to break down exactly what equality means in this context. Usually, when people think of equality, they think of cases like Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. They think that the government should step in to ensure a constitutional prohibition against the sort of nefarious discrimination that we have seen in the past. We want to make it so that schools can’t segregate, lunch counters must seat everyone regardless of race, and employers can’t refuse to hire women. These are all laudable objectives, and we should certainly seek to ensure that this kind of discrimination is not allowed to thrive under the law.

However, there is a new narrative creeping in. Beyond these obviously necessary forms of equality, people have begun to spread the idea that actual equality among all people is not only desirable but necessary to solve our collective social ills. Usually, one hears this argument in the context of discussions concerning income and wealth inequality.

But we need to stop and think about what actual equality would look like, particularly with respect to income or wealth. In order for true equality to exist, millions of people would need to willingly surrender billions of dollars to others who are less fortunate. This proposition is about as farfetched as they come. However, if we assume that this could happen, how long would it take for the whole thing to fail and for inequality to dominate once more? I think it would be a matter of days. True equality exists, at best, like a newly-discovered element. It can theoretically be seen for a very short time before devolving into a more stable form.

Deals would take place and certain skills would prove to be more valuable than others. In short, markets would emerge again. If markets for goods and skills could not give us the hope of earning more and distinguishing ourselves in the world, we would have no motivation to strive for more. True equality with respect to income and wealth would therefore be one of the worst things that could happen to our world. Capitalism certainly has its flaws. But it has spawned innovation beyond our wildest dreams. Mandating equality would stall all of that progress. Hopefully people think of that before continuing to spread this narrative.

Cornel West is Wrong…Again

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If you’ve been perusing Twitter over the past few weeks, you may have noticed that a spat that broke out between noted intellectuals Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Vox has an explanation of what it believes to be the reason behind West’s attack on Coates’ values and overall philosophy. Ultimately, the quarrel led to Coates leaving Twitter rather than engaging in what was destined to be another fruitless Twitter sparring session. He should be lauded for this decision. Most people would not have had his courage.

But I have no intention of exploring why Cornel West would engage in such childish dialogue with someone who undoubtedly shares most of his vision for social justice and equality. Rather, I want to focus on one particular bit of West’s critique. The relevant text is reproduced below:

“The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.” (See Vox article above for more detail.)

Here, West commits a crucial error. He assumes that these so-called “systemic issues” are the true reason behind the suffering of blacks and other minorities. As a black man, I feel incredibly grateful to be able to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. I would have much less faith in our ability to overcome our problems if they were built into society in the grandiose ways that West describes.

See, big terms like “Wall Street power” and “dynamics of class” might garner the interest of grant-making bodies and university tenure committees. Undoubtedly this has served Cornel West well in the ivory tower to which he has consigned himself. But if one breaks these terms down on even an elementary level, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. Does “Wall Street power” really hold black people down? Is it a banker’s fault that a member of our community has personal problems. Most likely not.

This is not to say that all of our faults are our own. Such a view would be unfair and myopic. I prefer to use the inverse of this view. Rather than identifying which of our problems are our fault, it is far better to see which of our problems can be solved through our own volition. Does Cornel West really expect to solve the issue of Wall Street greed? Would fixing this problem bring an end to our suffering? Absolutely not.

West hardly seems to speak about solving problems through the power of our own will and grit. Large-scale societal problems will, almost by definition, not be solved in one lifetime. This certainly does not mean we should not make an effort, but betting all our chips on this work is a poor investment if we expect any return for our own lives. Instead, we can take our lives in our own hands and change our circumstances forever. Hard work, hustle, and creativity have minted billions of dollars for those who are willing to use them properly. Tweeting about Wall Street with little knowledge and less experience has not and will not do that. Perhaps Professor West will realize this and endeavor to help our community in more concrete ways. Until then, he’s not helping.

Vanquishing Victimhood

 

shutterstock_245482825.jpgThe rise of social media has given the world countless beautiful things. Family members can confirm their safety in emergencies. Countries can unite to overthrow dictators. Childhood friendships can continue to flourish into lifelong relationships. However, the ability to share one’s story instantly has become a double-edged sword. While we can now relate to people and learn perspectives in ways that we never before thought possible, we can also cultivate our images and engage in a constant one-upsmanship with our fellow humans.

This can manifest itself in one of two ways. First, we can set out to prove that we are somehow better than the person looking at us. There is certainly nothing new about this behavior. An inherent desire to “keep up with the Joneses” has been with us as long as, well, Joneses. But the ability to constantly compare ourselves to everyone around us has manifested in the opposite phenomenon. We’ve begun a race to the bottom and used it to make the world feel sorry for us.

Such baiting has naturally become most prevalent as it concerns issues that were already polarizing. These include race, gender, and sexual orientation, among many others. Important conversations need to take place concerning these topics. But it never turns into that. Rather, we all try to convince each other that we have it the worst. The concept of privilege plays into this phenomenon, and a vague set of arbitrary rules determines the winner in a given scenario. According to these standards, white people have it easier than people of color, men have it easier than women, and straight people have it easier than LGBT people. The list goes on and on. But these faceless maxims say nothing about the life beyond the boxes into which we force ourselves.

More dangerously, we allow these worthless points to determine our self worth and our perception of ourselves in the world. Since the ancestors of most black people in America were once enslaved, the narrative becomes that black people are victims of a system that has sought to keep them down since the founding of this great nation. Insert a historical oppression, and you will find the same result among people who descended from the people who actually suffered that oppression. What follows is a spiral of fighting and hurt feelings that take up hours of time that could have been used for more productive things.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Sadly, this has become the reality that many of us live each and every day. But there is an antidote to this way of thinking that will become the lynchpin of every argument in this short book. It comes in two magical words: Personal responsibility. It is that all-too-rare idea that we are the masters of our own destiny. It shows that blaming “the system” for our problems is a waste of time that could be used to better our own circumstances. It stands for the notion that we are our own social mobility, and that we can overcome anything. It says that no matter what has happened to us in the past, we determine our own future. So stand up, believe in yourself, and remember that only you can change your course in this life.

Thank Goodness For College Football

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Everything seems to be much louder today than at any other time in the past. The overwhelming cacophony of news and opinion is powered by the ubiquity of smartphones, the bias of every form of media, and the seeming inability of most people to closely consider an opinion before spewing it forth into the world. We are all guilty. Each of us wonders when our day of internet shaming and accusation will come. We have watched people lose job and livelihood based on an ill-conceived tweet or Facebook post. Our outrage culture is, hopefully, at its apex. It is itself, oddly enough, a reason for outrage.

When everything from the president to a joke made in a six-minute spot at a local comedy club can spark worldwide outrage, the natural instinct is to look for a safe haven. This is different from a so-called “safe space”, where unpleasant thoughts are not allowed to enter. Rather, a safe haven is a place where we know that we can enjoy ourselves with reckless abandon. For some people, a safe haven comes in a music festival or a night out at a bar. But for millions of others, this safe haven comes with the first kickoff of college football season.

There just seems to be something special about college football. Obviously, it’s not objectively better than any other form of entertainment. All show is subjective. But college football satisfies a need that so many of us have, but for some reason cannot explain. College football doesn’t judge you as a person. It judges you based on your allegiance. But thousands of people are there to swarm around you and affirm that allegiance. Does your team suck this year? That’s fine. You can pack into a stadium with thousands of other rabid fans. You can lie to each other and say that you’re definitely going to the playoffs this year. It’s great.

You’ll hear people yelling obscenities around you, and you won’t stop to critically analyze each one. People won’t be waiting for a particular slur or slip-up to set off an internal alarm. No one knows who you are when you’re rooting for your alma mater. You are just that: Your alma mater. You become one unit praying for one outcome. It’s a quasi-religious experience. I cannot explain why college football is different than NFL football. It likely has something to do with our recollection of our college years. Those years were a beautiful time for many of us, and college football allows us to live our nostalgia in a very real way.

In any event, it is a true escape. Politics can’t get us when we’re holding our breath on 4th and short. So sit back, root for your team this season, and take some time off from the grind that has become everyday life in 2017.

When Our Parents Criticize Us, They Insult Themselves

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More pejoratives have been cast against millennials than almost any other generation. We have been called everything from entitled to snobby, lazy, flighty, and coddled. There are certainly individuals who are worthy of all these insults, but they are hardly appropriate for an entire generation of people. We deal with it for a few reasons. First, most of us are just out there doing our thing and we don’t pay attention to those who are just trying to bring us down. Second, we understand that every generation maligns the one that comes after it. Third, and perhaps most importantly, you raised us not to let things like this hurt us.

That’s the point here. When our parents’ generation criticizes our perceived lack of drive, ambition, or will to succeed, what are they really saying? Who gave us the cliché “participation trophies”? We didn’t ask for those. You, as our parents, uncles, and aunts, handed them to us. You thought they would be good for us, and that they would become part of a healthy and well-balanced childhood. In many cases, you wanted to be different and more involved parents than your parents were. None of these were bad ideas, really. But they were your ideas, and if you make fun of us for having a participation trophy, aren’t you really just making fun of yourself for giving it to us in the first place?

The qualities you ascribe to us did not magically appear out of thin air. Those of us who lack ambition may very well never have been made to work for anything as a young person. Perhaps their parents never told them to get a summer job. Maybe their parents sent them to summer camps all the way through high school, rather than giving them a taste of the real world before casting them into its cold clutches. My parents certainly didn’t do that, and I consider myself to be a relatively well-adjusted adult as a result. Then again, my parents never lambasted millennials for being lazy or entitled. Their kids weren’t snobby or pretentious. They knew they were good parents, and thus they had nothing to make fun of.

Baby boomer/Gen X parents, take a hard look at yourselves and ask why you view us as such failures. Do you honestly believe that your parenting was an unmitigated success and we developed these negative qualities starting the minute we turned eighteen? That’s just not how developmental psychology works. Of course, I admit that this line of reasoning is not perfect. Some people are just beyond the reach of good role models. But most of us are not. The truth is that many of our parents could use a same dose of the personal responsibility that they implore us to cultivate. It may just be the case that some of our qualities are your fault. After all, nobody’s perfect.