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Emerging from the sea of apathy

Bill Rinner | Sunday, February 29, 2004

One of the greatest legacies bequeathed by the Baby Boomer Generation is the wave of apathy and cynicism embodied by Generations X and Y. Baby Boomers are our parents, our professors and our politicians. While they exposed the true nature beneath the postwar American utopia, their deconstructive legacy has left a philosophical void in our generation’s souls. Only recently have we begun to turn the tide.Political correctness became the shining light of the disenfranchised; moral relativism, the cornerstone of academia; and divorce, the natural consequence of marriage. American leaders, once revered for their strength, turned into one-liners for talk show hosts. Now the largest religion in America can hardly be discussed openly, much less expressed outwardly.Their minds were opened, now ours are closed – not to the plurality of moral codes and personal philosophies, but to the adoption of a single one that can serve to define the self. Why such reluctance? Perhaps the parallel trend of diminishing personal responsibility offers clues.The “it’s not my fault” mantra is now celebrated by everyone from trial lawyers to psychiatrists to opportunistic civil rights leaders with quick-fix solutions for problems that in part could be solved through a bit of personal contemplation and self-motivation. In such an atmosphere, the most difficult thing one can do is develop a personal philosophy that might be blamed for personal shortcomings at some point in the future. Defining oneself on purely situational grounds to maximize short-term gains seems to be the only rational path to follow.Scourged for their purportedly narrow-minded or intolerant world views, traditional liberals and conservatives gave way to the self-proclaimed moderates. The term “moderate” by itself offers little information about one’s true philosophical grounds, if they exist at all. Still, a young generation instructed by its elders that the greatest sin one can commit is to insult another’s views converged towards this ambiguous center, where comfort generated apathy.Educators at every level only fed this apathy by instructing their students to deconstruct their hollow viewpoints and embrace a shallow hymn of multicultural understanding that discouraged ideological pluralism in favor of ethnic and cultural diversity. The latter is an essential component of modern society, but the prospect of celebrating philosophical diversity causes many to recoil in fear of offending those with conflicting views shaped by something as fundamental as ethnicity.Today our generation faces the task of redefining itself through individual rather than collective means. Focusing on how cultural identity helps shape the self is a small step in the right direction, but overcoming the fear of expressing a firm ideological or political view is the most crucial component. We cannot rely on an overriding cultural wave of epic proportions; instead, we must look inward and confront the voice in our head that says the easiest path is that of least resistance.After regaining confidence in our values, the next step is outward expression in a more public forum. Remember that kid in your first-year classes who asked all of the stupid questions, knowing his professor would mercilessly shoot him down every time? Despite his ignorance and stubbornness, he was still the bravest one in the classroom. Taking a lesson from his example might prove more enlightening and worthwhile than previously assumed.While a few professors relish the ability to sweep their students’ values away as a misguided strategy for opening their minds, you must not fear expressing your opinions, particularly if they diverge from the professor’s. Instead of interpreting a professor’s challenge to your opinion as merely an opportunity to discard it, take the challenge as an opportunity to question and possibly reaffirm your own values. If you do decide that your previous biases and opinions were flawed, then find a revised view to fit in its place rather than falling into the sea of apathy.The tragic events of September 11 will define our generation as we decide whether or not to overcome our indifference and engage ourselves in the surrounding world. Being forced to use an incident of such tremendous magnitude as an opportunity to explore one’s personal identity is regrettable but completely necessary. This year’s election will afford us an opportunity to decide the future path of the nation, domestically and internationally. Disregarding individual perceptions of President George W. Bush, he threw down the gauntlet to the international community by considering terrorist attacks against the nation an act of continuing war. His subsequent foreign policy decisions attempted to address the root of the problem both directly and indirectly, and the country now must either fully commit to his vision or replace the playbook entirely.Do you support the path of the nation, or should we make a drastic revision? Make up your mind, raise your hand, voice your opinion and defend it vigorously. Otherwise, the sea of apathy is wide enough to fit anyone who’s up for a swim.

Bill Rinner is a junior economics major studying abroad at the London School of Economics. He wishes to thank a dear friend who provided invaluable input for this column. His column normally appears every other Friday, and he can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.