Many Baby Boomers frequently claim that Millennials are the most easily offended generation in history. I was inspired to deconstruct this argument from our in-class discussions about political correctness and the opposing anti-political correctness movement as a reactionary force.
The conclusion that millennials are more sensitive to perceived offense is based on the following premises:
Premise 1: Millennials, the most recent generation of young adults, are easily offended.
Premise 2: That prior generations were not offended easily.
Conclusion: Millennials are the most easily offended generation in history.
If you assume that both Premise 1 and Premise 2 are true, logic dictates that the conclusion is in fact, valid. One can easily see how if it’s true that millennials are easily offended, and other generations were not, that that makes them uniquely sensitive.
However, to evaluate for truth:
Premise 1: I do see some truth in this statement. Speaking as a millennial, I would take some offense to certain statements and phrases that those of a previous generation may not feel the same way with regards to. For example, certain racial terms that don’t constitute slurs, but indicate a level of lacking in awareness on the current state of racial affairs. Examples would be using the term oriental to refer to east Asians, using the term Indian to refer to Indigenous people, or using the term “Blacks” rather than “Black People”. However, there is not a lack of justification to the feelings of offense. These terms have been frequently used in a derogatory, dehumanizing, or in the case of calling Natives “Indians”, blatantly ignorant manner. I believe that if there is logical justification to the feelings of offense, then it can hardly be labelled as “easily” made. Additionally, this is a massive generalization about an entire generation of individuals with their own opinions.
I believe that one major reason that Baby Boomers and the like categorize us as easily offended is the value many of us place in political correctness. An example is that many (40% of Millennials) believe that speech offensive to minority groups should be subject to government restrictions. This is in comparison to 27% of Gen X, 24% of Baby Boomers, and 12% of the silent generation. Criticism is based on the idea that this is censorship. Which is, uh, true, but censorship is always present to a degree. I’m assuming the intent of such criticism is to invoke 1984 style, big brother-esque imagery. Yet, if we don’t restrict offensive speech to a certain degree, we are allowing the incitement of hatred and violence. Look to the Orlando Nightclub shootings. That, that is the result of lifetime of being surrounded by hateful, violent, homophobic speech. Language, opinions, they have a ripple effect and you cannot argue that words cannot act as violence when people kill themselves over the words said to them, when people are murdered for being gay because the shooter was raised by the words of his religious leader, his mother, his father, to believe that being gay is disgusting and wrong and worthy of punishment. That, I believe, is where many Millennials come from when they argue for some limitations on offensive speech.
Premise 2: I believe that this is where the argument falls apart. It seems to me, that in fact, prior generations were much more easily offended than ours.
Now, let me explain. I believe, and many sociologists believe this as well, that popular media is a reflection of our culture & our values. Think of some of the most popular media on TV in the recent past: Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, the Walking Dead, the Wire, Greys Anatomy. You know what they have that would never get them aired in prior generations? Sex, lots of sex, even gay sex, nudity, drugs and the graphic portrayal of drug use, sympathetic portrayals of drug users, LGBT characters, vulgar humor, blood, gore, violence. Any single one of these things would be enough to get a show boycotted, the network boycotted, mass public outcry in any generation prior to this one. If you want to see easily offended, look to the Motion Picture Production Code in place from 1930-1968. For those unaware, the MPPC was a mandatory set of moral guidelines for the movie industry. Here are some highlights for what was not allowed on the big screen: Profanity, any form of or even silhouette of nudity, drugs, a complete blanket ban on homosexuality, white slavery (but black slavery was fine!), interracial relationships, or ridicule of the clergy. The code was specifically written to promote a specific, conservative, ideology, regardless of the artistic beliefs and freedoms of the director. Even after the code was no longer in use, you could best believe that there are still those offended by such things such as LGBT people existing and wish to censor them, and that these people are (mostly) not composed of millenials.
Now, let’s take a modern day example of a show some people in our generation may take offense to: South Park. I’m going to speak as someone of this generation who finds the show crude, irritating, unfunny, and yes, offensive to many marginalized groups. However, despite the fact that many people may take offense to the show, there’s no one really clamoring to get it off air, holding boycotts of the studio and loud public protests. I wouldn’t say I’d shed a tear for it’s cancellation, but I wouldn’t take any time out of my day to bother anyone else about it. Also, consider that many Millennials do enjoy the show, regardless of how offensive it is.
My main argument against premise #2 can be summed up as: Unlike our predecessors, we do not have mass public outrage over a breast on the screen or the existence of a gay character, nor do we have strict moral guidelines for what can and cannot be depicted that explicitly promote an ideology. Some of us may feel offense to a racist joke on TV, but there is not a sizable amount of us attempting to ban all racial jokes from TV or film. Therefore, I have found that premise #2 cannot be declared true. This makes the overall argument valid, but not true; therefore, not sound.
However, where did these perceptions come from in the first place? I would say that there are a variety of reasons why many may come to this conclusion about Millennials. One of the reasons I believe is simply because it seems to be human nature to continually criticize those younger than us for whatever perceived misgivings they have; older people always seem to have something negative to say about younger people. They likely haven’t taken into account that they don’t have the same amount of life experience, that they were likely the same way when they were younger. We seem to have forgotten the culture clash between the traditionalist parents of the 50s and their hippie, anti-war, liberal children. But, that doesn’t seem to fully account for the massive amounts of articles constantly criticizing Millennials.
As stated previously, one major criticism of the generation is their “political correctness”. In class, Mr.Jackson and I discussed the anti-political correctness movement as a reactionary movement; it seems to contain many hallmarks of such. The change in the status quo, in this case, attempts to equal the playing field for marginalized groups in society, is met with instinctive backlash as it involves challenging our ingrained values. It doesn’t help that the term “politically correct” has had changing definitions over time, and many can’t define exactly what it entails and examples of such. It also doesn’t help that many proclaimed examples of political correctness gone too far have been misinterpreted.
One such example, popularly used by my favorite Law teacher, is “Baa Baa Rainbow/White/Blank Sheep”. Upon researching into it, variations of the story have been reported by the British media since 1986 to the point where it’s almost attained the status of urban legend. The original 1986 story reported a ban on the nursery rhyme at the privately run Beevers Nursery. The then Daily-Star journalist, Bill Akass, heard of a ban issued on the nursery rhyme, and telephoned the Hackney-Council for their reaction to the story. This, despite the fact that the nursery was run by parents and not the council. The council automatically stated they supported the nursery’s decision. Three days later, when the Hackney Gazette had taken up the story, it came out that there had been no ban in the first place and it was the council’s statement of support that had created the story in the first place and caused a snowball effect. The British tabloid, The Sun proceeded to carry the story and directly attribute it to “Loony left-wing councilors”. The Sun’s version of events was thus carried by other newspapers, despite having no evidence for the assertions made in the story. The 1986 Daily Mail, another British tabloid, carried the story further and asserted that the council had made a mandatory racialism awareness course where the original rhyme was declared racist, to be replaced with “baa baa green sheep”, and the story being ascribed to an “anonymous playgroup leader”. In fact, an optional race awareness course was there, but no ban was made and it wasn’t even discussed. Yet still, other tabloids and newspapers picked it up despite the complete lack of evidence. The Council attempted to set the record straight, but had to drop legal action against the Daily Mail due to lack of funds. Later on, the Daily Mail attempted to compare the council to Nazi Germany. Ironic, seeing as the Daily Mail supported Hitler right up until the start of World War II. Still, only British-Black Newspapers printed the Council’s rebuttals to the claims made against them. The completely false original story has been referenced as fact as late as 2003, despite having no foundation behind it, the corrections, the court actions, and remains apart of popular culture. One of the most popular examples of political correctness gone too far was originally a complete fabrication by conservative tabloids.
In short, I believe the idea that millennials are easily offended is disputable, and I vehemently disagree with the premise that previous generations (Gen X, Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation) were not/aren’t easily offended, but that they simply take offense to different concepts. As is natural, as social values chane and evolve. Furthermore, I understand where the fear of censorship from the related concept of political correctness comes from, but I believe some restriction of hateful speech is necessary for the protection of
marginalized groups from
discrimination and violence. Thus, I don’t believe that the millenial investment in political correctness is evidence of thin skin, as there is an argument to be made behind it.