Millennials Acknowledge the Elephant in the Modern American Living Room

Photo by Mikaala Shackelford on Unsplash

Young people today — especially left-leaning liberal and progressive types — are often accused of being ultra-sensitive “snowflakes.” Generations that preceded them commonly criticize millennials for lacking “thick skin” when it comes to disagreements in politics and public discourse.

But is the perceived outrage from young people truly an inability to handle conflict and unsavory ideas? Or is it rather a reflection of an unwillingness to hide important differences behind a thin veil of quiet acquiescence and politeness?

In decades prior, the rule in most of American public life — between acquaintances, friends, and even family — is that you should not discuss “taboo” subjects like sex, politics, and religion. The risk of disagreement and conflict is high. And conflict is untenable.

But if one thing is clear about millennials, it’s that they aren’t afraid to blaze their own paths and reject tradition. So it’s worth considering whether what is often seen as oversensitivity is really just a refusal to abandon one’s convictions in the interest of politeness and decorum.

It goes without saying that we all have a line, beyond which we would choose our moral principles over the pressure to “play nice.” But each person’s line most assuredly lies in different place.

Consider an example of a neighbor in your community. We all have neighbors — some we love, some we hate, and perhaps some we’re totally indifferent about.

Suppose you’re a Democrat and you live next door to a neighbor who is a Republican. Would this be enough to compel you to be aloof or even confrontational toward your neighbor? On its own, most people would probably say no. It would depend on the specifics of your neighbor’s beliefs, but a difference of political party allegiance doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t still be kind to each other, right?

But what if you also learned that your neighbor is a racist? Perhaps you discovered that he openly shares bigoted memes and other material on social media and the internet. Would this be enough to change your disposition toward him? Perhaps. You might forsake him altogether. Even for those who continue niceties in interactions, he’s probably not going to be on your Christmas Card list anymore.

But what if you also learned that your neighbor is actively involved in events and propaganda for racist organizations? Suppose you discovered he’s a member of the Klu Klux Klan who attends weekly meetings? Is that enough to cease pleasantries? For many it probably would be — but perhaps not all. Some people carry an undying reluctance to judge others, notwithstanding the propriety of the circumstances.

But finally, what if you learned that your neighbor goes out every Friday night terrorizing non-white families in your community by burning crosses and displaying nooses and engaging in other arguable threats of violence? Would this be enough to dispense with decorum? I would certainly hope so.

The point of these escalating examples is to demonstrate that, although the lines of intolerability might be in different places for each of us, we all nonetheless have a line, somewhere on the continuum.

Older generations generally grew up in a culture where being polite was largely prioritized over speaking one’s mind. Don’t start a political argument with Uncle Jimmy. Don’t talk about religion with Grandma. Don’t discuss your sex life with anyone but your wife or husband. Again, the risk of conflict that could damage social relationships and reputations made these prospects total non-sequiturs.

There were dissidents among these generational groups who acted outside the norm of course, but this was the general ethos. “To each their own and keep your mouth shut.”

But today’s generation thinks differently. They aren’t afraid to speak their minds, social consequences be damned. Instead of acquiescing the mildly racist neighbor, they might be more inclined to confront him and choose their own virtues over the harmony of the neighborhood.

Now, is it always better to speak one’s mind and throw caution to the wind with social interactions? Of course not. As with all things, time and place is important. And even when speaking up is justified and appropriate, doing so respectfully and tactfully is obviously also important.

But in today’s divisive political environment, there are indeed situations where differences in opinion between individuals are meaningful, unavoidable, and intolerable — not necessarily so much that they cannot co-exist on the same planet or in the same community, but definitely enough that hollow politeness and acquiescence is simply at odds with the reality of the situation.

And it’s ironic that millennials seem to be more keen to acknowledge this reality than do older generations, especially in light of the fact that millennials are so often accused of being too easily “triggered” or offended by modern political rhetoric.

To the contrary, I think it’s worth recognizing that it takes courage to choose one’s principles over maintaining a quiet status quo. And perhaps the outspoken nature of millennials is really just the convictions of a more firmly principled generation manifesting themselves in public discourse.

Rustling feathers is never easy. It takes guts to tell your neighbor that you think his racist ideas are wrong. It takes bravery to confront a point of difference rather than sweep it under the rug.

To be fair, some of these gaps might be closable after all. Some differences — though certainly not all — might be irreconcilable in the end. But if they are capable of being resolved, then it’s possible only through confronting reality and talking it out together. Ignoring these chasms serves no one’s interests. Sweeping issues “under the rug” has never been a wise approach to solving any problem.

So perhaps the next time we are tempted to label millennials as ultra-sensitive “snowflakes,” we might stop and reflect on the fact that this new generation seems more courageous than any which has preceded it when it comes to the tough and uncomfortable task of acknowledging the “elephant in the room.”

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a consultant, an attorney, an author, and a professor for four different universities.

Dr. Gary Deel is a consultant, an attorney, an executive leader, an author, a podcast host, and a professor for four different universities.