Dividing Difference from Diffidence
‘It Takes One to Know One: When Generational Differences Just Don’t Add Up’
Last week it became clear, with a little help from a script delivered by Sidney Poitier, that entitlement was alive and well a half century ago. Rebellious flower power and peaceful hippiedom combined palpable rage against elders with a smug sense of superiority: ground zero for entitlement. And this same sense of being misunderstood was present in all the decades in between then and now. This begs the question: is there something incommensurable between generations, a bridge that cannot be built? Are elders and youth just too other for a rehabilitation of their relationship to occur? Putting aside the nearly universal adoption of a device that Asimov might have termed a means of mind control and homogenization, the cell phone, one might wonder if generational fissures will remain until such time as the young become the old and have their own youth to poke and spar at with terms like entitlement and snowflake and buttercup.
Underneath differences it’s common to assume that meaning itself exists. Like an emperor unmasked and denuded but nevertheless assuming a throne, a certain act of translation is presumed, particularly between generations that diverge in historical time and social space. Surely we all have more in common than superficial aesthetics like clothing and cute new slang terminologies?
Jacques Derrida weighs in by noting that the concept of meaning, with its possible universal truths, is itself a “transcendental signified” that we believe in such that it becomes naturalized as part of our metaphysical programming (Derrida, 49). But meaning, like truth with a capital T, only exists when we believe in it. What we think is underpinned by what we think is true; when ruptures exist between generations the lack of clothes the emperor of meaning wears becomes painfully clear. Truth and meaning are contested terrains and no maps or borderlands are final.
“In a certain way, ‘thought’ means nothing…in the last analysis it no longer derives from ‘meaning’…I have attempted to systematize a deconstructive critique precisely against the authority of meaning, as the transcendental signified or as telos, in other words history determined in the last analysis as the history of meaning.” (Derrida, 49)
As history unfolds, generations are born, flourish and pass away. Their actions, words and gestures (not to mention core beliefs and definitions) evolve and change and create islands of meaning that appear to rest on a mantle of shared understanding that yet remains ambiguous. Only by ignoring a larger perspective do people become entitled in that they forget where they came from and, crucially, where they are going if they are lucky enough to live that long.
Misunderstandings, then, can be classified as involving either differences in essence or differences in existence. Which came first?
Consider any culture and its stories, be they spoken or written. Tales of how life came to be and how we ought to live are presented as either true for every human (universal) or true for only one section of humanity (contingent). Truths always have a scope and every scope has limits; morality for all humans stops short of morality for, say, sloths and lemurs. Yet, beneath this fact lies the belief that truth itself (for instance, that all kids like hot dogs) claims an autonomous power to be applied in each instance. The theory is that every question has a most-true answer. When large sections of youth rebel against prevalent truths this radical rupture sends a stake through the heart of the hidden beliefs that underlie daily life. It’s not just specific normalities, like hair length or clothing style, that are under attack: it’s the notion that some stuff is just common sense. Order appears to be displaced by disorder and, like weeds in a field, the reality of non-human nature rushes in. Anyone who wishes to seed their lawn with dandelions, burdock, and pigweed may gleefully note the social consequences.
The Torturous Truth about Truth, Power and Control
Presumably we all become older and wiser. And aren’t some truths really true, like the truths of geometry? Send me an angle, baby. Two plus two equals 4, or does it equal 5? Four, of course…pour v’rai!
Consider the horror of being tortured in an Orwellian setting until you make a statement that, according to the laws of math, is categorically untrue. Let’s don our inner Trekkie hats, if we have or can imagine them. Failing that, let’s don some George Orwell fandom apparel and, given the Orwellian nature of our century, let’s proceed as insightful academics.
Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (in Orwell’s book 1984 the character in this exact same situation was named Winston Smith) is held captive and tortured. His captor demands that the detainee claim to see five lights when in fact there are only four.
“How many lights are there?”
“There are 4 lights.”
“I don’t understand how you can be so mistaken.”
Punshiment ensues. (Dansereau, A., online).
Now, if we take this text literally, we immediately see that what’s going on is not about what’s in plain sight. It’s not about lights and certainly no, as the English say, the maths. The disagreement is about power and control. Picard’s captor doesn’t understand why Picard wouldn’t just admit to seeing what he’s supposed to see. It’s just like how Sidney Poitier’s Dad wants his son to pay homage to the many sacrifices, including his own mother doing without a nice winter coat, that his parents had made to further their boy’s education. They’d aided and abetted his young hiney so that he could achieve such successes and, indeed, this had enabled him to come to see the world differently than they did. (Rose, online) They planted him and he blossomed; only hitch was that he forgot who his gardeners were.
Poitier’s entitlement granted him the privilege of access to higher learning but he failed to simply acknowledge this fact and proceed accordingly. Or, more truthfully, his character didn’t feel obliged to do so because he felt fundamentally misunderstood. That’s entitlement for you, be it in 1967 or in 2019 or on a planet far away in the 24th Century. When we feel more righteous than the facts of our situation allows, then we are feeling the onrush of entitlement.
Practical Applications of Our AU Status
Now, in fairness to Picard, his defence of justice and loyalty to his superiors is what led him to resists unjust prosecution. Likewise, we AU students may be promptly required to justify our existence in any social moment (the doctor’s office, the local watering hole), and ought to do so with resolute pride. If someone asks “what are you gonna do with that degree” we can forge common ground, a greater sense of sanity and gratitude, by putting ourselves in our interlocutor’s mental state before answering. Imagine what they’re thinking and respond in that context.
Know Thy Source, Know Thy Source Code?
So, considering instances where the authority figure and the subaltern character are of different generations, we might wonder why the former won’t just follow the rules. This recalcitrance makes it seem as though different generations have different source codes creating divergent ideological countenances.
To further my enquiry on the matter of our cultural programming and its creation of generational chasms, I interviewed my brother. Ben. He’s worked in gaming design and programming for the past decade and a half so knows his way around a literal source code. He defined source codes as: “simply a series of rigidly defined instruction that the computer can execute to perform functions…Knights have ‘a code’. But source code is more akin to fabric than rules. It is the material of the thing more than something the thing abides by” (Sullivan, personal comm.)
So, if the need to be hip rather than square, or lit rather than MAGA, is built into an epoch’s cultural fabric then there’s no changing it once its coded. But there are possibilities for becoming aware of it. Realizing the existence of difference, even of an incomprehensible other, goes a long way toward accepting this same other. We were all once younger than we are today, and we will all be older than we are now. No sheet, Sherlock! So, lets use our educational process at AU to nurture tolerance—if not the discovery of common ground with others. Critical thinking, arguably the most important learning outcome of all, depends upon the ability to see things outside of the boxes, nests, and cages (especially the gilded cages) we inhabit. Perhaps, then, if the makeup of different people is incommensurable, not reducible to a common denominator, then we must simply agree to disagree. And, to maintain academic integrity, and self-respect, we must disagree respectfully.