Marginal Millennials

By Stuart WhatleyJune 6, 2015

Marginal Millennials
THE CAMPUS SPEECH WARS have reached full saturation this year. When the Columbia Spectator recently published an op-ed by four students decrying the teaching of Ovid’s Metamorphosis because of its “vivid,” “triggering” language, many commenters thought it was satire. It wasn’t; the students’ concerns about “material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom” were sincere.

An open society should absolutely strive to be inclusive. But it too often seems as though young people are marginalizing themselves. While some efforts to attenuate speech are well intentioned, we should be asking more broadly what kind of civic agents American democracy has waiting in the wings.

To be fair, we’ve recently seen a spate of public gestures that seem to tax even the staunchest liberal’s allegiance to free expression. Some would consider Pamela Geller’s recent Muhammad drawing contest a salient example. Another came in April, and into May, at Duke University, where justified outrage followed a noose dangling from a tree.

That latter display usually constitutes vandalism, a violation of university codes of conduct, or, in some cases, a “true threat,” which courts have found to be unprotected under the First Amendment. An investigation into the matter, however, found that the perpetrator was a student from abroad punning poorly, and he told campus authorities, “My purpose in hanging the noose was merely to take some pictures with my friends together with the noose, and then texting it to some others inviting them to come and ‘hang out’ with us — because it was such a nice day outside.”

These scenarios are not always as obvious as they seem. Regardless, uttering hate, when that is the case, is a constitutionally protected act. We must ask whether this crop of young people (the youngest in the millennial generation, of which I am a part) is willing, or even equipped, to sort out the many distinctions delineated above. Which is to say, in a larger sense: are young people capable of serving as citizens in an open society, where free and open discourse is the operational sine qua non?

Consider an example from March, when the University of Chicago French Club hosted a Q&A with Charlie Hebdo’s Zineb El Rhazoui in which she argued, at times insultingly, with a Muslim student about Islam and free speech (first recounted by Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times). The student, who seems to have attended the event voluntarily, followed up by accusing El Rhazoui of “endangering an already vulnerable population” and going so far as to suggest that she only values free speech insofar as she agrees with a speaker’s motives, writing, “when opinions are voiced for no other reason than to hurt, to harm and to degrade, then I can no longer celebrate this freedom of expression.”

This student’s subjective conditionality for what is supposed to be a fundamental civil liberty is of most concern (to paraphrase the old ACLU line, if all speech isn’t protected, then none is). Many young people misapprehend the inherent dilemma of speech as it is practiced in an open society and within manifold contexts. Many, it seems, haven’t been taught to grapple with speech as an act irrespective of its substance, to say nothing of this country’s dark history of flirtations with censorship.

This pattern should concern us, as it comes at a time when civic literacy has been deemphasized in school systems nationwide. Many studies and surveys have limned this trend, not least the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for Civics, which saw decreasing scores from 2006 to 2010 for 12th graders, with a full third reporting that they had not studied the US Constitution; according to the new 2010–2014 NAEP for Civics that was just released, outcomes have remained stagnant over those four years, with only 23 percent of eighth-graders scoring at or above “proficient.” For its part, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute previously found that this problem continues into higher education: “The average college senior knows astoundingly little about America’s history, government, international relations and market economy, earning an ‘F’ on the American civic literacy exam […].” Additionally, a national UCLA survey finds that, for at least the past decade, the percentage of incoming college freshmen who consider it “essential” or “very important” to “keep up to date with political affairs” rests around 35 percent, down from 60 percent in 1966 (those who think the same about “[being] very well off financially” rests around 82 percent).

There are certainly many factors contributing to these findings, but an obvious one in primary education involves high-stakes testing under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which have narrowed schools’ focus at the expense of subjects like art and social studies. A generation of citizen-dilettantes with an impoverished understanding of free speech, who tend to downgrade it from a fundamental civil liberty accorded to all into an arbitrary privilege, is anathema to a healthy democracy.

Young people’s refusal to tolerate free speech bodes little promise for the future of democratic citizenship more generally. At least since Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation (2008), millennials have drawn hoary ire from self-appointed custodians of the American civic spirit for their lack of engagement in political life. But that characterization isn’t entirely fair. Many recent surveys show that members of this generation of young people are more likely to volunteer than past generations. And millennials can be very outspoken on particular issues (they have almost certainly helped to move the meter on same-sex marriage).

Still, despite the occasional flurry of civic activity, the form toward which millennial civic and political engagement tends is problematic. Volunteering for charitable community initiatives, while unobjectionable, does little to change political realities or alter the distribution of power within a political economy. Doing that necessarily requires not conviviality, but it’s opposite: political combativeness. Perhaps reflecting their allergy to uncomfortable topics and ideas in speech, even when young people do enter politics, they are “becoming single-issue citizens,” according to Pacific Standard’s Jared Keller, parsing a recent Harvard University Institute of Politics poll.

It is widely held that young people’s opting out of politics is born of disillusionment. According to Roosevelt Institute Campus Network national director Joelle Gamble, “the status quo has to change to reach us [millennials].” But this will not do; no institution is inclined to simply change itself without prompting.

So marginalization really is a problem, but not in the way the four Columbia students above think. The rest of political society will keep jabbering on elsewhere, with or without its younger constituents, leaving an unobstructed path for special interests. This is exactly what those special interests would prefer, and it comes at a time when they are already grossly distorting American democracy’s representativeness. A landmark Princeton study in 2014 by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found that “when the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

This is what we’re left with. Where young people may be full of social media sound and fury on a single issue, the savvy political professionals know, like Macbeth, that “to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” Single-issue citizens are essentially the median voter version of special interests in that they’ve willingly put all their political eggs in one basket. But theirs is largely a performative exhibition bereft of tangible gains. This isn’t the citizen ideal the Founding Fathers, or anyone else for that matter, envisioned. Theirs was one of intellectual breadth, worldly wisdom, and a basic understanding of the fundamental institutions underpinning republican democracy. Proper civic education creates such a citizen. We need it more now than ever.


Stuart Whatley writes from New York.

LARB Contributor

Stuart Whatley is a senior editor at Project Syndicate. He has written for CNN, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Baffler, The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The American Prospect, Free Inquiry, and other outlets.


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