What liberal boomers don’t get

Writer Lionel Shriver recently penned an opinion piece in the New York Times lamenting that the millennial penchant for political correctness is stifling free speech and imposing cultural conformity the way the conservatives did in the 60’s and 70’s. The opinion piece was her response to the uproar over her speech at the 2016 Brisbane Writer’s Festival instigated by a young woman named Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who walked out in the middle and then wrote a commentary about why she did so in the Guardian. You can read Shriver’s piece here, Abdel-Magied’s here, and a blog post about the talk here. The question of cultural appropriation, identity politics, and political correctness is a major theme in the current US presidential election. While there has always been conservative resentment towards political correctness there has been a recent strong liberal backlash.

The liberal resentment has been spurred mainly by two recent incidents at two elite US colleges. The first was when Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Council recommended that students not wear Hallowe’en costumes that might offend other students. Lecturer and associate master of one of Yale’s residential colleges, Erica Christakis, wrote an email questioning the need to regulate student’s clothing choices and that students should be allowed to be a little offensive. This triggered a massive reaction from the student body strongly criticizing Christakis. The second incident occurred at Bowdoin College in which there was a “tequila” themed party at a College Residence, where students wore sombreros and acted out Mexican sterotypes. Two members of the student government attended the party and this led to a movement by students to have the two impeached. Both of these incidents led to pretty uniform condemnation of the students by the main stream media. For example, see this article in the Atlantic.

The liberal backlash is based on the premise that the millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 2000) have been so coddled (by their baby boomer parents, born between 1945 and 1965, I should add) that they refuse to be exposed to any offensive speech or image. (Personal disclosure: I am technically a boomer, born in 1962, although by the time I came of age the culture wars of the 60’s had past. I’m a year younger than Douglas Coupland, who wrote the book Generation X, which was partially an anthem for neglected tail-end boomers who missed out on all the fun and excitement of the cohort a decade older. The cruel irony is that the term Generation X was later appropriated to mostly mean those born in the 70’s making us once again, an afterthought.)

My initial reaction to those incidents was to agree with the backlash but the contrast between Ms. Abdel-Magied’s thoughtful heartfelt comment and Ms. Shriver’s exasperated impatient one made me realize that I have underestimated the millennials and that they do have a point. Many liberal boomers believe that while full racial equality may not yet exist, much of the heavy lifting towards that end was done by the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s, which they supported. What these boomers miss is that the main reason that full racial equality has not been reached is because of cultural biases and attitudes that many of them may even possess. The millennial approach may be a little heavy handed but they at least recognize the true problem and are trying to do something about it.

The plain truth is that just being black does carry an extra risk of being killed in an encounter with law enforcement. Whites and blacks still live in segregated neighborhoods. Even in the so-called liberal enclave of academia, minorities are underrepresented in high level administrative positions. There are just a handful of East Asian women full professors in Ophthalmology in all US medical schools. Hollywood executives do believe that movies cannot be successful with Asian lead actors and thus they still cast white actors for Asian roles. Asians are disadvantaged in the admissions process at elite American schools. Racial stereotypes do exist and pervade even the most self-professed liberal minds and this is a problem. This is not just a battle over free speech as liberal boomers have cast it. This is about what we need to do to make society more just and fair. Shriver thought it was ridiculous that people would be upset over wearing sombreros but it does indicate that there are those that automatically associate a Mexican drink with a Mexican stereotype. Some of these students will be future leaders and I don’t think it is too much to ask that they be aware of the inherent racial biases they may harbour.

3 thoughts on “What liberal boomers don’t get

  1. I previously skimmed a discussion of the incident at the book festival. (my take on it if i understood the issues, was that 1) in general ‘artists’ or others who want ‘free speech’ or ‘expression’ ideally should be allowed to do so—for better or worse, the bible, marquis de sade, many movies, gangsta rap and punk rock etc are offensive and possibly even hazardous since some people re-create them in life but 2) possibly there should be restrictions on who gets exposed to them (eg like pg-13 film ratings, etc.) , and maybe for some even a ‘required study group’ (eg in germany i think Mein Kampf by hitler is banned, but my approach might be to unban it but require anyone who reads it study the issues involved (mass communication and propoganda, antisemitism, various ethnocentric / national/ religious doctrines ) and (maybe most importantly) anyone who produces this stuff cannot profit excessively from it.

    (one reason antisemitism came to my mind is one FB philosophy/sociology now has alot of holocaust deniers posting on it; also my philsophy discussion group is discussing today ‘can machines think?’ (my view is youd have to ask them) and i used to glance at an academic journal called ‘minds and machines’ (AI stuff) whose editor (james fetzer) is now a prominent conspiracy theorist—i think it pays better than being an academic philosopher. (he seems to be like a ‘polymath’—no holocaust, no aids virus, 911 didnt happen or if it did it was an inside job (they even use the israeli Noble economist’s Aumann’s discussion of game theory applied to israeli conflict to support the idea israel’s mossad police did 911—-aumann is also famous for doing a statistical/math analyses of the bible or torah—the ‘bible code’—to see if there were any regularities in it—perhaps a la SETI a message from outer space hidden in it).

    i think one of the issues at the book talk was the person doing the talk asserted something like ‘i, as a european writer with good skills and publishing connections, can go anywhere in the world and write about anything i want to (eg ethnic/religious wars in syria, sex trafficking, holocausts and slavery, and get wealthy off of my work, and i dont owe anyone anything (even if i’m making money off of other people’s pain—appropriating it, like land, for my personal use and profit)’. So ‘art’ and expression could be viewed as another commodity—sometimes regulated like ‘conflict diamonds’. (Similarily, maybe maybe making, selling and owning guns should be ok (oir weapons) but you cant become a millionaire from it—even if you plan to fund the Noble prize with the profits (which came from gunpowder).

    the person who walked out used the word ‘appropriation’. (I have read under Stalin various mathematicians were apprpriating other people’s work to get good positions, and sending the owners to gulag prison camps. Museums are often loaded with appropriated things (sometimes from artists who basically never got a dime for their work. Sometimes some pop bestsellers in social change, science, environment look they basically are a rearrangement of a wikipedia article. (personal disclaimer—i wrote wikipedia to my knowledge). )

    I heard from a friend last night that Don King (black boxing promoter) was endorsing Trump last nite and repeatedly used the ‘n-word’ . in general thats viewed as a ‘trigger word—and whites can’t use it (though i’m an exception at leat with my black associates—this is the way (black) people of very low economic status talk around here. (I sort of dabble with ‘ghetto life’ and also ‘natural life’ —still catch toads, snakes and fish by hand just to see if i still can–i’m a boomer too, and occassionaly at night around here we hear ‘boom boom’ and always hope its a backfire, which it usually is –not). (when i am in ‘good company’ i have to switch vocabularies and dialect—for me its not as easy as it is for a lizard to change from green to brown (i think these colors represent lizard’s political affiliations—its always good to be able to change your opinion. (eg Fritz Haber, nitrogen, nerve gas, zyklon b). )

    U chicago also recently banned political correctness from campus. (both my parents went there –they may have had a few things come out of there —mortimer adler, ‘information and emotion in meaning in music ‘ (leanard meyer), kadanoff and wilson, j cowan (originally cohen), maybe william dembski , milton fried man ). ‘if you see something, say something ‘—eg a sombrero.

    stephen hsu has alot on how its possible asians are underrepresented even in places like MIT (where my niece goes—she just came back from an internship at imperial college london or a similar place. into something like ‘computational environmental science’. she said because all dorms on campus were full, they had to put her on outskirts of london in a fleabag hotel, tho it was free—only a 5 star hotel, with free computers in the lobby if your guest had to wait. she said she had a shorter trip to campus than people in dorms–they had to walk half an hour, she could take the train and be there in 20 mins.)
    hsu has quite alot on things like b/w achievement—iq scores, SATS, homicides. some of this stuff can also feed into implicit bias (assuming the bias is just that—not really based on any data beyond heresay or religion). (one thing i know from my own world is basically every bias has some justification—violence, drugs, laziness, irresponsibility, theft, etc. are easy to find. one difference is that its harder to find at say ‘well fargo bank’ (recently got fined 185$million possibly to help students aquire college debt, maybe so professors can afford the basic BMW) . (i have a 25$ open container violation for a 1$ purchase i made—if i dont go downtown i’ll have an arrest warrant.)

    i go to (muh less so now) alot of ‘pc’ /leftish meetings. last one i went to at one place ‘race’ came up, and i also used the term ‘ghetto’ (to describe parts of my neighborhood). i was told (in these cases basically by white middle class females that ‘ghetto’ is a derogatory term , and race has no meaning(i suggested they look at wikipedia—cline is a better term).

    public enemy , EU, roots, etc are playing at african american museum opening today and tomorrow. i hope people leave any triggers at home


  2. Well-said. I would add that those who are the most vocal at criticizing millennials for how coddled we are are also the ones that are the quickest to take offense to any sort of criticism of their views. This is the “war on christmas” generation somehow taking offense to us when we point out institutionalized racism that is embedded into our very language. Yes, it is difficult and really annoying to keep track of what is considered PC or not these days. However, issues of ethics and morality have always been difficult and annoying for those who are honest and don’t simply mindlessly parrot the view of say religion or dominant culture.


  3. Good writing Carson, thank u. What do I think?

    I think white people exist in America and that has to be ok. Slavery involved a different time and trade in humans captured by Africans and sold to Europeans. History is done. Black people can have as much power and influence as the want in America, now they need to believe it and live it – as Obama did. Yes there are negative stereotypes etc. of black people – but based on current reality and behavior. A white teen is way more likely to catch a beat down in a black area than a black teen hanging in a white area, to be simple.

    If you are a white kid in a large US city now, what are you learning about life? You grew up with a black president and a double standard for how people should behave. You learn that blacks often get a pass on acting nice and civilized in public, from language to politeness, consideration. You go to movies, ride subways and you learn… And as an adult, what attitudes do you develop – and why?
    We all learn from each other and adapt to what we learn. Black people today are teaching little kids, black and white, about what it means to “be black”. Americans of tomorrow will be shaped by Americans of today, not the history of slavery that no one really bothers to dissect anyway.


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