It’s probably too soon to break out the champagne, but statistically, the world has become a safer and less violent place. And yet, those of us who are old enough to remember the twentieth century know that violence is never really out of date.
Between wars, massacres, genocide, famine and pestilence, well over 200 million people were killed during the twentieth century. Communism alone is responsible for over 100 million deaths. It’s nice to be optimistic and it’s nice to trot out statistics about automobile accidents and muggings, but still, in the not too distant past, the world was a bloodbath.
It would not take very much for the same or worse to reoccur.
If you limit your perspective to last year’s traffic fatalities, and even homicides, you can find cause for optimism. You can even find out that the world has never been safer. And yet, if you look back into the past century you might believe that it’s just the calm before the storm. If you think that the civilizational clash between Islam and the West is not going to get a lot worse before it gets any better you have been smoking the wrong kind of cigarettes.
For the record those who are promoting the meliorist view are arguing that the advances of modern science and the decline of religion are causing peace and prosperity to bust out all over. Since many of these thinkers are atheists, and since many of the horrors in the twentieth century were produced by atheist cultures, they do well to ignore the past and paint pictures of a rosy future.
As for today’s America, Ross Douthat finds that youth are less prone to pathological behaviors but that adults are less prone to adult behaviors. It is puzzling.
It turns out that American youth culture has become less inclined toward criminal excesses while American young adults have become more infantile. America’s young people are less promiscuous, less drug-addled, less alcoholic and less criminal than their predecessors. At the same time, America’s young adults are more likely to be living with Mom and Dad, to have jobs that do not look like careers and to be delaying the moment when they will have to settle down and have families.
One finds such statistics compelling. Yet, one suspects that they distort the reality. One’s suspicions increase when we read, from Douthat, that we can try to explain it all by showing how much time America’s children and young adults spend online. When push comes to shove, we can blame it on the internet. At least the internet is not going to take offense and accuse you of a microaggression.
It sounds like a good explanation, except that it tends to absolve all human beings of responsibility for their behavior. If we were serious about blaming it all on Facebook and internet porn, we would want to know about whether the same internet produces the same results for young people around the world. If the internet has turned Johnny in Portland into a slug, has it done the same for his peers in Singapore, Mumbai, Tokyo, Rome and Sao Paulo?
For all I know we are using the wrong standard to evaluate adolescent and young adult well-being. The absence of deviant and pathological behaviors does not necessarily translate into well-being. We would do better to take these statistics and balance them against achievement. Watching internet porn might very well cause there to be less sex crimes, but are these young people establishing more durable relationships with other human beings.
It may be the case that sex crimes have diminished, but in our national conversation we are talking about nothing but sex crimes. As for achievement, America’s young are not doing very well in their academic achievement tests when compared to their peers around the world… peers who, again, have the same access to the internet and to social media.
I believe we should ask about whether or not these children and young adults have good or bad character. Are they trustworthy and reliable? Do they have a strong work ethic? Do they show up on time? Do they take initiatives? Do they feel loyal to their school or their company? Are they patriots?
There is so much more to well-being than not committing heinous crimes, that one barely knows where to start.
For the record, I report on Douthat’s observations:
First, youth culture has become less violent, less promiscuous and more responsible. American childhood is safer than ever before. Teenagersdrink and smoke less than previous generations. The millennial generation has fewer sexual partners than its parents, and the teen birthrate has traced a two-decade decline. Violent crime — a young person’s temptation — fell for 25 years before the recent post-Ferguson homicide spike. Young people are half as likely to have been in a fight than a generation ago. Teen suicides, binge drinking, hard drug use — all are down.
Of course, responsible people do not commit violent crimes.Sleepwalkers don't either. Yet, the fact that you forgo criminal and degenerate behaviors does not mean that I can count on you to do a good job or to show up on time for the meeting. For all anyone knows American adolescents have become a bunch of solitary wankers who have fallen into a hypnotic trance by overindulging in internet porn.
While we are mentioning hypnotic trances, I would add that in order to judge these statistics we should want to know how many of these children are taking psychiatric medication, whether anti-depressants, anti-anxiolytics or amphetamines. If young people are zoned out, perhaps it’s not the culture or the internet, but pills that are making them that way.
And how many of these children are taking pills because their parents either hover too much or are never around. One accepts that there are too many helicopter parents, but there are also probably too many latch-key children. If children come home from school to an empty house because both of their parents are away working during most of the day, they might very well have used the internet as a babysitter. In that case the fault will not lie with the internet but with delinquent parents.
Obviously, it’s much easier to blame the internet. The internet will not take offense. Parents will.
And also, for what it’s worth, this young generation has suffered the soporific effects of the self-esteem movement, the one that teaches them not to compete because everyone is just as good as everyone else. And they have also been brainwashed into believing that they should spend their waking hours fighting for social justice and demonstrating against microaggressions. If they have suffered a good upbringing they now believe that they should be whining about their privileges and trying to debilitate themselves in order not to enjoy any competitive advantage.
In any event, the absence of bad habits does not necessarily translate into good habits. It does not make for responsible adults. Douthat continues:
But over the same period, adulthood has become less responsible, less obviously adult. For the first time in over a century, more 20-somethingslive with their parents than in any other arrangement. The marriage rate is way down, and despite a high out-of-wedlock birthrate American fertility just hit an all-time low. More and more prime-age workers are dropping out of the work force — men especially, and younger men more so than older men, though female work force participation has dipped as well.
Regardless of which of my several explanations you prefer, the facts suggest that the absence of bad behavior in young people does not mean that they have developed the good behaviors or the good character that they need to conduct themselves as responsible adults.
Not doing irresponsible things does not mean that you are consistently behaving responsibly. The absence of the bad does not necessarily entail the presence of the good.