A self-hating generation comes of age
“An ancient axiom of politics teaches that a spoiled people invite despotic control. Their failure to maintain internal discipline is followed by some rationalized organization in the service of a single powerful will. In this particular, at least, history, with all her volumes vast, has but one page.”
—Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences
In a recent piece for UnHerd, Lionel Shriver wraps her arms around the “self-hating generation” and traces the origins of its psychic distress back to the popular fixation with being over becoming. Unlike other cultural critics who confront the woke phenomenon, Shriver is more sympathetic this era’s youthful malcontents, charging the indulgent adults in the room with child abuse.
From the outset, Shriver declares the traditional notion of “building character” to be thoroughly rejected. Instead, youth today are encouraged to pledge themselves to a collective identity and adopt a ready-made self, thereby avoiding the painful and exhilarating process of becoming.
Of course, this odd mixture of negligence and indulgence has been devastating for everyone involved, with many unwitting young people traveling a path that will only end in heartache, confusion, and fear.
This notion of the pre-made self is asocial, if not anti-social. It separates personhood from lineage, heritage, culture, history, and even family. You are already everything you were ever meant to be, never mind where, what and whom you come from. But seeing selfhood as floating in a vacuum is a recipe for loneliness, vagueness, insecurity and anxiety.
After taking her readers on a brief and treacherous tour of youth nihilism, replete with a discussion of mass shootings, Shriver then addresses transgenderism and offers this crucial insight.
Transgenderism may have grown so alluring to contemporary minors not only because it promises a new “identity”, but because it promises a process. Transforming from caterpillar to butterfly entails a complex sequence of social interventions and medical procedures that must be terribly engrossing. Transitioning is a project. Everyone needs a project. Embracing the trans label gifts the self with direction, with a task to accomplish. Ironically, the contagion expresses an inchoate yearning for the cast-off paradigm whereby character is built.
Critiques of the transgender phenomenon tend to focus on its function as a political movement or social contagion, with most objections centered around its appeal to the more devious or deranged elements of society. By identifying transgenderism as a fraudulent process of becoming—for a society that has embraced the inert quality of being, no less—Shriver presents an interesting problem; one that demands further introspection from us all.
Armed with cutting-edge technology, social and material benefits, and the spiritual promise of transcendence, the transgender movement provides initiates with a rare process of personal transformation. In a cultural and spiritual wasteland like ours, where character formation is conspicuously absent, what possibly could be more enticing than such a project? And not just any project, but the project; the project to escape our soul-destroying circumstances and achieve rebirth.
Regardless of our own religious belief, we all desire redemption. And there are plenty of counterfeits besides transhumanism to seduce us. But material remedies will always fail to solve what is, at the root, a spiritual problem. This is why the transgender project will inevitably disappoint and disillusion the rising generation. As young disciples embark on a journey of physical becoming—their bodies, tastes, and habits transformed by even the most macabre interventions—their inner selves remain painfully, and often tragically, withered. And once the vicissitudes of modern life have their say, they find themselves powerless and alone, with only “self-hatred, disillusionment, bewilderment, frustration, and fury” to attend them. As Shriver sadly notes, these young people—some of whom are merely children—are being sent on “a psychic archaeological dig, only to be left with a pit.”
To foist such a project on the young is callous, if not cruel. And yet this fraught process of transformation remains available to thousands of children and young adults across the country.
We are left to ask, where are the adults?
As much as Shriver seems to be speaking to the youth in the piece, her message is clearly intended for an older generation—a generation that tricked itself into believing that negligence is benevolence.
Minors don’t know anything, which is not their fault. We didn’t know anything at their age, either (and may not still), though we thought we did — and being disabused of callow, hastily conceived views and coming to appreciate the extent of our ignorance is a prerequisite for proper education. Yet we now encourage young people to look inward for their answers and to trust that their marvellous natures will extemporaneously reveal themselves. With no experience to speak of and no guidance from adults, all that many kids will find when gawking at their navels is pyjama fluff. Where is this mysterious entity to whose nature I alone am privy?
In telling people who’ve been on the planet for about ten minutes that they already know who they are, and that they’re already wonderful, we’re inciting that malign, sometimes homicidal nihilism. Because they don’t feel wonderful. They’re not undertaking any project but, according to the adults, inertly embody a completed project, which means the status quo is as good as it gets — and the status quo isn’t, subjectively, very good.
This is why I believe, reluctantly, that after the transgender movement wrecks itself on the jagged rocks of reality, something else will take its place—likely something far worse.
Far too many of us adults have nothing better to offer the rising generation. Most of us are content with the paralyzed state of being that awaits our children because we ourselves are paralyzed. We offer no process of becoming because not even we believe in the promise of redemption. Somewhere along the way we lost our nerve. And so we cling to the conceit that discipline and hard work can be outsourced and that our empty affirmations can make up for blood, sweat, and tears. No wonder we pretend to be powerless when our children forfeit their culture, family, history, and will in a vain attempt to attain being. Many of us already blazed that trail long ago.
In the end, Shriver seems to want a return to the process of character formation that used to govern the lives of prior generations. And while her appeal certainly resonates with me, I fear that such a project would be like trying to resurrect a dead language. Deep down most of us know what is required to become a healthy, competent, and resilient person, but I fear that far too few of us are willing to do what it takes for our children, especially when we won’t even do it for ourselves.
Until we are willing to pay that price, we will fail the rising generation; our destinies are inextricably linked.
Before we seek to save others, perhaps we need to seek redemption ourselves.