Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Sword or the Microscope?

Here, in America, we seem to have great respect for "whistle-blowers." That can be good, of course. If someone steps up to point out corruption or unfair practices, it can be quite the heroic act. Whistle-blowers sometimes put themselves at risk of losing their jobs or even more, in some cases.

But I'm afraid of one thing: that some young people seem to be equating the finding of fault with being intellectual, courageous and perceptive. In other words, intellectuality (which, in recent years, has continued to dress itself from the wardrobe of cynicism) is now seen by many young folks as a sword instead of as a microscope -- as a weapon to hone for attack instead of an instrument for seeking truth.

This past week, I had the privilege of participating in an annual "UN Day" that our school organizes for teens from various schools in my area. The students listen to a guest speaker from the UN via Distance Video Conferencing (two-way visual/audio communication with the speaker -- like Skype, but way better) and then they get the opportunity to ask the speaker questions. After this session, the kids break into groups and write resolutions which get sent to the United Nations.

This year's topic was "discrimination." In particular, we addressed racial discrimination; discrimination against women; discrimination against those with disabilities and discrimination against those with AIDS.

In general, the kids asked some pretty good questions to the speaker (who was excellent). But then, he came up. That kid. There is one of them every year. The wielder of the sword of intellect, ready to expose scandal and evil. His question ran something like this:

"I took the liberty of reading some documents on the UN website and I couldn't help but notice that there were headings for the different types of discrimination. It listed women, those with disabilities, racial minorities and those with AIDS. (And here came his coup de grace:) Don't you think that, in itself, is a form of discrimination -- to single those groups out in this document?"
No, the speaker didn't come back with "Kid -- are you a full-time ass, or do you just have fits of assness when someone puts a microphone in front of you?" No, she was quite kind. She didn't even smirk and she gave a wonderfully (go figure) diplomatic answer.

This kid's question (and I have to mention here, for the sake of pride, that he wasn't one of my school's students, nor did our students ask any questions like that) is a symptom of this trend I'm seeing.

I have spoken fondly, on many occasions, about teens on this blog. I have said that I love working with them and that they are generally good eggs. I still do, and they still are -- even this misdirected and blustering lad. Most of them throw their hearts into this UN day and they always make me proud. But more and more questions like this seem to crop up. I'd hate to see this sort of a thing spread to the exclusion of all other intellectual purpose in young, developing minds.

After all, what happens when we completely lose the ability to trust? There's nothing sadder, to me, than a kid who believes in nothing and no one.


  1. " intellectuality (which, in recent years, has continued to dress itself from the wardrobe of cynicism)", thats a quote im tempted to 'facebook'. Somehow, my senior year, i got involved in the UN day and i can vividly remember slouching in my chair and emptying my lungs when 'that kid' got up. 'That kid' always got up more than once and i would imagine and pray that someone would simply stand up and shout to him, "No! Sit! Bad! Go lay down! Think about what you've done...crazy."

  2. I think there's always been a bit of that among 'the smart kids' though I can't say for sure that it's not becoming more prominent (or maybe I just notice it more now than I did 10 or 20 years ago?) I will say that I most often see it from those who haven't yet come to terms with the idea of their own privilege -- that is to say, the ones who were born on third base but have not yet figured out that they didn't hit a triple to get there.

    The good news, of course, is there's always hope. I went to a school run by a particularly progressive order of sisters, during the window between Vatican II and the murder of liberation theology, and while I remember hating the poverty budget exercises and social justice classes while I had to take them, the older I get the more I see their value.

    The problem with intellectual maturity is that sometimes it takes more than a few years to develop it.

  3. Pete -- Facebook away, I say! Haha. Yes -- it is difficult to stay quiet when those kids speak. Maybe, in the end, it would do them some good if someone pointed out their foolishness.

    'nora -- "The problem with intellectual maturity is that sometimes it takes more than a few years to develop it." Indeed. The thing I worry about is that (with the framework of cynicism we grown-ups have created)we might well be encouraging those kids to continue on a path that will, in the end, impede intellectual progress. Sadly, only time will tell, I suppose.

  4. Chris, that's why we who have actually earned the right to be cynical have to keep restraining ourselves, I guess. It's a challenge. I have a meeting scheduled this afternoon with one of those Bright Young Things who hasn't earned his cynicism but likes to trot it out regularly. I take a perverse pleasure in yanking that rug out from under his oh-so-certain feet now and again. Bless his heart, he hasn't caught on yet to the fact that I was once a Bright Young Thing, too, and know the game.

  5. Haha. Maybe there is hope -- maybe what I see as an increase is just the cycle that always was . . . at least, I hope so. Now go set that whippersnapper straight!

  6. Hey Mr. Matt, ever hear of the Paradox of Tolerance? Basically, it's a theory that states people who criticize intolerance will inevitably be labeled as hypocritical, just for the act of criticizing, in order to invalidate their argument.

    Your anecdote sort of reminds me of this. What are your feelings as to why this kind of thinking is talking hold? What can we do to combat it?

  7. Hi, Nick. I'm not sure what we can do. There's a horrible lack of sincerity and belief in things in our world. It feels to me like a current thing. Maybe we need to wait for the current to shift? Until then, some of us need to be salmon.

    That paradox is the same kind of thinking our young friend was doing, I suppose. It reminds me of the question of altruism: that there is no such thing as altruism, because, if we feel good because of an altruistic gesture, we have gained something. The danger of this sort of thinking is that it can lead to a flat reaction to good deeds. At some point, we need to stop our logical reductions, I thiink.