The Right Side of History

Madeline Wong ‘17, Opinions Editor

Within 24 hours after Donald Trump secured the majority of Electoral votes, a blue graphic of the United States began to circulate social media and news websites. Compiled prior to the election from 30,000 country-wide interviews [1], this Survey Monkey graphic displayed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton securing almost 500 Electoral votes, according to the vote of those solely aged 18 to 34 years [2]. As liberal news sites and individuals shared the photo online, they touted the overwhelmingly Democratic majority as indicative of a brighter (or at least, bluer) future. Young and old Clinton supporters alike saw this as a tantalizing consolation, joking, some more seriously than others, that only the youngest age bracket should be able to vote.

To most people, the disparity between the youngest and oldest voter brackets seems granted. After all, we’ve learned to associate certain characteristics with age. For older generations, it’s attachment to the past and stubbornness. As Collin Montag ‘17 observes, as one grows older, “one’s opinions… become more resistant to change.”

For younger generations, it’s obsession with momentary fads and social justice. Teenagers embrace the latest technology and apps, and college students keep adding new letters to LGBT, striving always for inclusion and affirmation. Rosario Dawson even generalized last March in a Bernie Sanders rally that “the youth have been on the right side of history on every issue” [3]. Yet, these age stereotypes walk a fine line between verified trends and flippant exaggeration, and crossing the line may mean losing sight of reason and discernment.

Inevitably, we view the world differently from our parents and grandparents. As children, we learned how to use computers around the same time we learned how to ride a bike, integrating keyboard shortcuts and Internet browsing seamlessly into our quotidian knowledge. We accepted, whether with joy, indifference, or anger, that women and minorities could enter the workplace. We took for granted that planes could fly and men could walk on the moon.

Nonetheless, despite the seeming modernity of our world today, the present is the creation of the past. We may navigate the Internet with more facility than our grandparents, but the inventors of the Internet have great-great-grandchildren by now. J.C.R. Licklider, the first person on record to imagine an Internet-esque network of connected computers (at 47 years old, no fewer) was born 101 years ago [4]. Most people, both young and old, would put him on the right side of history. We may avoid the old man next door who uses racial slurs casually and says he’s too old to change, but our parents were still babies while thousands—college students, parents, and grandparents alike—were campaigning in the Civil Rights Movement. Most certainly, these Americans belong on the right side of history.

In other controversial movements, the youth have misguidedly rallied together, confident in radical ideology that in retrospect was cruel and shortsighted. In the 1960s, Mao Zedong infamously called upon the Chinese youth to overturn a centuries-old hierarchy of age and intelligence. Students formed the paramilitary Red Guard, turning against family and friends in an effort to terrorize the elderly and intellectual population. By the end of the Cultural Revolution, approximately 1.5 million people had been killed, and Chinese society had been decimated by terror and paranoia [5].

Perhaps the youth of America are not betraying their parents to a radical government, but Americans still lack intergenerational relationships, particularly outside of family. Skeptical adults write hundreds articles about the selfie-obsessed “me” generation, while teenagers scorn adults as uptight and narrow-minded, each generation generalized with names, trends, and expert data. High schoolers spend most of the day talking to their classmates, working adults spend 40 hours per week interacting with their coworkers, and over 1.3 million elderly Americans live in certified nursing facilities, exposed primarily to other nursing facility inhabitants and their caregivers [6].

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, people used Survey Monkey’s data to point fingers at the older American population, criticizing its support for Trump as remnants of past bigotry. Wait it out, liberals claimed, and eventually we’ll have the America we want—an easy assertion to make, given the stereotypes associated with age and the lack of interaction between generations.

“Any name or label divides people,” observes Hannah Petersen ’18. “[Generational labels are] just another way for blame to be placed and division to happen.” If anything, we perpetuate these generational divisions, building insular connections between similarly-aged peers, few making the effort to reach out to older or younger people.

By placing the blame on an entire generation, we discount the people who are exceptions to the rule, and ignore that our parents and grandparents built the foundation for our future. Worse, we overlook any seeds of discord within our own generation—such as the fact that the blue prediction map glossed over the 37 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 who supported Trump in the election [7], evidence that unsavory values do not belong solely to older generations.

Defecting to the wrong side of history isn’t something that happens as soon as you turn 40, or 50, or even 80 years old, and being on the right side of history isn’t something automatically granted to anyone under 35 years old. Rather, the history you make—and the future for which you advocate—is the product of an entire lifetime of choices.