The self-serving ethics of the activist Baby Boomers in the 1960s and ’70s were baldly expressed in numerous catchphrases and aphorisms that they somehow imposed on an older generation as a worthy “liberation”, and that in essence amounted to an insistence on the unrestrained pursuit of one’s own way, regardless of others.
Boomers shuffling off.
“Everyone gets a prize”, “self-esteem”, “let it all hang out”, “guilt is false consciousness”, “property is theft”, so stealing is OK, “unselfishness is no different from selfishness because it rewards you by feeling good”.
William Blake’s lines, “Better to strangle an infant in its cradle than to nurse ungratified desires”, were popularly interpreted as meaning that not to enact an impulse is a heinous crime – like strangling a baby – whereas the extended metaphor actually declares that one should repress desires that can’t (shouldn’t) be fulfilled, rather than nurture (that is, nurse = feed) them.
What these saws meant in practice (since prizes are in short supply) was that the assertive, the self-centred and the selfish could, guilt-free, have things all their own way and the “meek” were overridden with no means or argument for redress. As a character in a film of the time said to her sister, “You can’t expect me not to take something just because it’s yours” (in this case, her sister’s husband).
This was the rhetoric while the Baby Boomers were still young, in revolt against the control of the family and the education system. Issues of the private sphere – personal and sexual relations – were most pressing. They were freeing themselves from the repressive constraints of “middle-class morality”.
But by the 1980s, as this cohort moved into middle adulthood and felt the constraints of the public sphere – law and political and economic power – their claims for unrestricted action (and prizes) needed further justification. They found means to this in the post-World War II doctrines of human rights and equality, which were initially spelt out in a charter of general principles, but whose application in practice and detail was determined in courts of law.
With their gift for giving their interests a virtuous cover (in the first instance “peace” and “love”), they turned now to “social justice” and “rights”. Invoking these principles they were successful (again with media collusion) in shaming and silencing opposition to economic and social policies that served their interests, particularly from the classes which (as the self-styled party of the left), they claimed to represent, and whom they mocked as “red necks”.
By a natural progression, the “me” ethic turned into identity politics. As the 1980s and ’90s progressed, in place of the initial fight for freedom and political equality (civil rights) the appeal to rights was increasingly used to impose a divisive social agenda in virtuous tones. Anyone who disagreed was racist or fascist.
In cases of mere expression of opinion and everyday dispute the courts took the line of giving damages to the initial complainant of insult or discrimination, ignoring the reality of the insult and aggression of court action taken against the party sued. Success and award of damages was almost certain.
I give two recent examples in the English-speaking world of the triviality to which the legal handling of rights has descended, making it the laughing stock of common sense.
In a recent case in Northern Ireland, a male gay couple successfully sued a bakery whose Christian owners refused to provide a wedding cake for their marriage topped by two male cartoon figures. This was pure vicious bullying as they could easily have had it made elsewhere (or put the figures on themselves). No rights, apparently, for Christian identity and the insult implicit in same-sex co-option of the Christian marriage sacrament.
In Britain, a man in a wheelchair celebrated victory in the courts for disabled rights. He had been unable to board a bus because the space allotted for wheelchairs (and prams) was already occupied by a woman with a baby in a pram who declined to get off the bus and give him her place. He was a robust middle-aged man and could well have waited for the next bus, as is normal when a bus is full.
After three decades of political consensus of left and right on a globalisation (in all its ramifications, from multiculturalism to environmentalism to free trade), that privileges their status and abilities, the Me Generation and its younger acolytes are unable quite to believe that they will not, somehow, continue to get their own way.
We can perhaps hope, as the Baby Boomers approach their end of days, for some relief from their relentless self-adulation. Perhaps we are seeing its beginning. In the wake of Brexit and Trump, and with unrest in many European Union countries, the domineering insouciance of the “liberal elite” (or middle-class left) is being widely identified as being at last overthrown.
Symeon J. Thompson (News Weekly, January 28, 2017) observed of the new Disney film Moana, that, whereas for some time their films have encouraged “being true to oneself” in despite of one’s community traditions and values, Moana celebrates a heroine “fundamentally motivated by the greater good”.
Perhaps regeneration has already begun at the cultural as well as the political level.