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Last week, former President Barack Obama condemned the leftward shift of the Democratic party at an event in D.C. Pointing the finger primarily at young “activists,” he argued that such a shift would alienate crucial moderate voters prior to the 2020 election. Considering the insistent emphasis on electability this election cycle, Obama’s call for a more palatable and centrist Democratic party appears reasonable. But in doing so, Obama is reproducing an ideology that actively excludes dissenting voices, especially those of young people, in the name of civility.
For years, pundits have invoked respectability politics as an all-purpose deterrent against new ideas as well as to silence dissent. This legacy threads its way through American history, from the logic used to justify slavery, to the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, to the shocked responses to ACT UP and other AIDS activism. Such emphasis on “civility” or “respectability” to the detriment of both dialogue and progress is also clearly alive and well today in national politics as well as here on campus.
One recent column argued for activists—especially women—to remember “mannered-ness,” even if doing so makes them appear “lackluster or conformist or meek.” Whether intentional or not, this again enforces the implicit association between civil behavior and adherence to the status quo—an option for some perhaps, but often not for those who are actively harmed by white supremacist or patriarchal structures (to name just a few).
Outside the pages of the Opinion Section, evidence of condescending respectability politics abounds. During President Price’s address to alumni last year, Dean Sue Wasiolek handed fliers to student protesters, reminding them that they would only have their “message[s] heard” as long as they did so without “disruptive… demonstration.” Actions such as these belittle those with valid concerns and weaken their voices by intentionally directing them towards outlets in which they are unlikely to receive any substantial attention.
This obsession with process and manners is also central to the “boomer mindset,” which, beyond being fabulously memeable, centrally consists of a dismissal of ideas and people outside the norm. We see this most obviously in the treatment of young people as lacking wisdom. While older people inherently have more experiences, we should reject the notion that age is the only acceptable measure of wisdom.
On the issue of gun violence, for instance, Millennials and members of Generation Z have live in an era of seemingly endless school shootings that older members of society simply did not experience. In terms of climate change, young people have the most at stake, yet are placed entirely at the mercy of blasé politicians that frequently take actions detrimental to their future livelihoods. When a Duke first-year asked Joe Biden about the donations he receives from the fossil fuel industry at an event last month, he dismissed her question calling her “child.” this is in-keeping with his track-record of belittling anyone, especially young women, that dares to challenge his ideas. Similarly, last month, President Trump sarcastically “praised” climate change activist Greta Thunberg on Twitter as a “happy young girl.”
In this context, where young people with direct experience of some of the most pressing national issues of our time are ignored and attacked by older generations, one can understand the emergence of Generation Z’s new favorite blanket response: “Ok, Boomer.” Rather than just a reductive swipe at any and everyone born in the post-war era, the phrase contests the values and ideologies of that time that today feel antiquated and oppressive.
Importantly, the ideals inherent in the “boomer mindset” are not exclusively related to age. Even at Duke, in a world of teenagers and twenty-somethings, we preserve and reproduce them.
Many of us have internalized traditional ideas of success born out of a post-war imagining of the “American Dream.” We value our self-worth in terms of money and prestige and subscribe to an unhealthy version of personal responsibility where every problem is solved by merely tugging on our bootstraps. And of course, there is again the persistent call for civility and respectability. Those of us that accept these ideas not only reinforce an antiquated mentality, but are complicit in the maintenance of a status quo that threatens our ability to address the climate crisis, prevent thousands of needless deaths or invest in decent housing for our neighbors.
Over the past few months, “Ok, Boomer,” has shattered the traditional paradigm of our national conversation; older adults are no longer the only ones setting the terms and rules of political debate. To young people, the phrase is an empowering inversion of something that we have been told all of our lives: that we are “just kids,” that our opinions are invalid because of our inexperience. On its own, tying age to wisdom is problematic—young people understand this. However, by appropriating this tactic for our own advantage, we’ve finally claimed a space in the national discourse—a space that, like the Boomers that came before us, we surely plan to hold onto.
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