What The Woke Don’t Get About the Old
Yes, your parents' generation is annoying. But listen for a second: Old-school liberal ideals are worth saving.
Persuasion associate editor Sahil Handa—a young man who always gravitated to the older generation—was tired of seeing his peers and his elders misconstrue each other. So he wrote correctives to each group. In Part One, he explained the young woke to the old liberal. Now, he explains the old liberal to the young woke. —The Editors
Part Two: What the Woke Don’t Get About the Old
By Sahil Handa
If you’re young like me, you have heard that putdown for our elders, “OK, boomer.” But perhaps also like me, you’ve been a little confused by what it meant. According to an explanation on Vox, “the older generation misunderstands millennial and Gen Z culture and politics so fundamentally that years of condescension and misrepresentation have led to this pointedly terse rebuttal.” Urban Dictionary is more direct, describing “OK, boomer” as “a simple way to tell old people to fuck off.”
What both sources miss is that “OK, boomer” says more about our generation than theirs.
I tend to dislike analysis of generations, partly because I do not feel any particular tie to my own. I was always the kid who liked to spend time with adults. Most of my cousins are twice my age, and I spent my first 16 years trying to be considered their equal. I hated when the parents would sit in a separate room, and leave the kids to play videogames: I was desperate to be taken seriously.
But aged 22 now, I see that the current generational stereotyping isn’t just the old frowning at the young, but my generation frowning at the old. According to the idea prevalent among young progressives, old liberals are self-indulgent and morally compromised. Their use of words like “civility” and “patience” is nothing but a way to preserve the status quo. They are transphobic, complacent about the climate, and make a habit of glossing over Western atrocities. And they do it all with a smug smile (while stockpiling cash from the youngsters who need it).
I have seen examples of all these traits, and often called them out. I’ve also seen flaws in this stereotype that I think, as a fellow young person, you should consider.
Zoomers see ourselves as the inclusive generation. We argue that it isn’t enough to grant every person equal rights before the law because the law is itself colored and gendered. The civil rights movement was necessary, we say—but it was also misogynistic, and left out trans people. Although legal barriers to equality may have been removed, we argue, cultural barriers remain in every aspect of daily life.
For this reason, we often take boomers’ insistence on ideals such as “freedom of speech” to block the path to true equality. In our eyes, those principles always defended people who held discriminatory views, and the internet has finally made it possible to expose them. That means throwing out every symbol of privilege, eradicating the prejudices that yesterday’s America was designed to protect.
This is a set of partial truths. Institutions in the Sixties were racially and sexually homogenous, and today’s institutions are not. The liberalism of our parents’ day did ignore marginalized groups. But it is equally true that old liberals prided themselves on a value that remains crucial for any minority: diversity of opinion. That liberal ideal—considered by some people our age as harmful to the vulnerable—was fundamental to all the social-justice advances that we cherish.
Radicals often believe in silencing speech that offends them. But that only works as long as they are in charge. The test of a standard is whether you trust it enough to let your enemies implement it. Old-school liberalism is designed precisely to protect minorities by ensuring the freedom to think, experiment and speculate.
Diversity of opinion also reinforces another important lesson: No single worldview is ever perfectly good, including liberalism itself. Accepting the existence of another side—with its wishes, including those preferences that you detest—lies at the core of any civil society, and is ingrained into the fabric of democracy.
Indeed, it is democracy—liberalism’s capricious spouse—whose fragility is so often overlooked by our generation. Many of our generation call out the unfairness in society, and want the system overhauled. They note everything that the establishment has mishandled for too long—not just racial harmony but the environment too. They’re right. Capitalist liberal democracies have much to answer for. But that is not because liberal democracy is useless. It’s because liberal democracy is imperfect.
What does your alternative look like? And if you have one, what level of violence would be required to achieve it? Societies either make rules by consent, or by command, or by chaos. Democracy is about consent. Without it, you’re left with mere power—and who’s to say that your side will be in charge?
America’s greatest political achievements have come from a dedication to liberal principles, including a willingness to work with ideological foes. The reformist left that ushered in the New Deal included communists, socialists and moderate Democrats. They shared a commitment to pragmatic reform; there were no purity tests, no demands for revolution, no self-righteous orthodoxies.
Or consider the coalition that led free-speech protests at Berkeley in 1964. This included civil rights campaigners, socialists—and all three Republican Clubs. All of these groups were morally flawed. But they advanced the cause of justice, helped create lasting policies, and had a dramatic positive effect on people’s lives.
The case against illiberalism goes beyond America’s borders. In the 20th century, the illiberal idea of social Darwinism—long used to justify barbarities against native populations in Asia and Africa—led to the Nazis’ pseudo-scientific hierarchy of purity and the Holocaust in Europe. Illiberal ideals leave body counts. And where liberal countries have carried out atrocities themselves—during the Vietnam War, for example—those actions often arose from intellectual hubris and a frightening disregard of liberal institutions.
Those born outside the comfortable West often have the keenest awareness of these facts—all those immigrants who arrived in liberal countries precisely because they had suffered in illiberal ones. That might be a distant thought for most young progressives in the West, but it remains a reality for hundreds of millions today.
Most generations since the dawn of modernity have disregarded those who came before them. They take their parents’ privileges while consigning their elders to the role of devils, erecting new gods, and making themselves high priests in the new religion.
But every generation lives in its predecessors’ world. Take the boomers, who didn’t create the permissive culture of the Sixties but consumed it. In 1968, the oldest baby boomers in America had just turned 23—those who protested were pursuing aspirations laid out by their elders. They patched together a culture of leftovers from new-age spiritualism, therapeutic self-help and meritocratic individualism.
As much as we might deny it, zoomers are also living our parent’s priorities. We’re trekking to colleges, striving for the best grades, seeking the upper-middle-class future. It’s right that we point out flaws in our elders’ worldview, but naive to think we should ignore their experience. If we are to create a better culture of our own, we must take the best of what they learned.
Like it or not, we are tied to our fellow citizens, and there’s no point just sneering at those whom we disagree with. If we accept this, we won’t always get our way. But we will make a way forward—and might even detect the pitfalls in our own worldview.
If you’re young and progressive, think hard about the beliefs of those insufferable boomers. We won’t have them around forever, but will need the liberals ideals that they themselves inherited if we are to translate our noble aspirations into a society of our own.
Sahil Handa, associate editor at Persuasion, is working on a book about the campus conformity crisis.