The 21st Century and 16th Century are more alike than one might think: both are times of unprecedented change. Change is a good thing, but too much of a good thing can be problematic. It can have a whirlwind of unintended consequences that do more harm than good. And that harm isn’t always attributable to the change that brought it about. Looking back on change, especially from a conservationists perspective, can lead one to the sometimes dangerous habit of monocausal thinking, wherein one tries to identify that sole thing that led to the downfall of the current society. Thus, one can easily find detractors of change and progress pointing to the smartphone or the television or the mechanical loom as the “monocause” of all that is wrong with the world today. At the same time, we can also find proponents of change and progress pointing to medicine and telephones, emancipation and suffrage, universal education and democracy as the evidence that the change was good and worthwhile no matter the unintended consequences, for they are a small price to pay for all that is so good today.
In our own century, we have gone from horse-drawn carriages and dirigibles to gas-powered and now electric-powered vehicles, airplanes, and spaceships. We have advanced from the abacus to the room-sized computer to the personal desktop computer to the pocket-sized smartphone. Poverty, malnutrition, and life expectancy are better than they have ever been, or seem to be, at least. Science can tell us, almost with exactitude, how the solar system and the universe work. Freedom of religion is almost universally acknowledged as a good and almost universally allowed—almost. People have more choices than they ever have with respect to governments, education, clothing, food, entertainment, neighborhoods, and employment. We can choose from everything in every category of life; we can be anything; we can do anything.
In the 16th Century, in the world of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, change was also the norm. Epistemology—how one knows something—was upended, overturned, called into question. Europe went from a world with one church that could speak with authority on matters of faith and spirituality to a post-Reformation world with many churches each vying for legitimacy and authority. It went from a world with inhabitants who could trust their senses, seeing that the world was at the center of the solar system, to a world that needed specialists to tell them how the solar system operates, a world where the senses could not be trusted, and only those people with the proper training and equipment could know how it all worked.
Spain, moreover, underwent even more change. It suffered from hyperinflation due to all of the silver imported from the New World. It suffered from losing its place as a world superpower when it lost the Spanish Armada off the coast of Britain. It suffered the loss of its middle class when it expelled the Jews and the Moors from its borders, leaving only the poor and the wealthy in Spain.
William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes reckon with this exacerbated rate of change in their own writings. Shakespeare gives us the tortured Hamlet, who has no sense of epistemology, no sense of “how to know” what to do in his world. Nothing is trustworthy: the church, the senses, the government— nothing. He has to figure out how he can now know and then determine to act. Most critics of Hamlet, the character, not the play, are critical of his very inability to act. Cervantes gives us the tortured Alonso Quixano, who also has no sense of knowing how to live in this new world, so he hearkens back to what he does know: the chivalric romances. He becomes the knight errant, Don Quixote, to restore the new world to its better, former self. But, this is not really possible. In the end, he must abandon his efforts and die.
The changes of the 16th Century differ from the changes of the 21st Century, but they have a similar effect. Change, for good or ill, can only happen so fast before it degrades our understanding of ourselves, our natures, our places in this world. Edmund Burke says it well, though he appears to be referring specifically to governmental changes:
“By this unprincipled fallacy of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole change and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of the summer.”
Yet, reconsider the quote by thinking of the state as including all of our cultural institutions and practices, not just our form of government or the makeup of its leaders. Reducing human beings by severing them from any continuity or link to the past makes them like the flies of summer, which leave no impact on the world they once inhabited. It is more than just the loss of impact, though, even if when one senses this loss of impact, it can lead to an unhealthy desire to change the world—causing more change without regard for its unintended consequences. To be a fly of summer is to have no recognizable identity or place in this world. To be a fly of summer is to appear, flit about for a while, and disappear with the coming of fall. There is no purpose for the fly of summer, brought about by recognizing one’s place in providing the continuity between the past and the future. The fly of summer isn’t concerned with recognizing its nature, living life in a way that fulfills that, or receiving what the past has offered to it and being responsible for it until it can be passed on to the next generation—all of which is done most obviously and clearly by mothers and fathers and teachers and pastors but really by anyone who is attempting to fulfill human nature. The fly does not do these things; the fly does not think to do these things.
At this very moment, there is a cultural clash between generations, especially those we refer to as the Boomers (the so-called Baby Boomers) and the Millennials. Though the clash is actually between the Boomers-Generation Xers and the Millennials-Generation Zers, the old and the young. It could be that the younger generations are not willing to receive the inheritance that was received and is now being passed on by the older generations. It could be, even worse though, that the heightened rate of change has collapsed the cultural institutions that connected these generations, and now, passing on that inheritance has become impossible. The changing of our governments, our schools, our churches, our entertainment, our music, our stories, even the etiquette by which we know how to interact with and relate to one another, the words we are allowed to use to describe one another or address one another, the jokes we are allowed to tell, all of these changes have severed continuity of our society and made it impossible to link one generation to the next. We have become the flies of summer.
It is important to note that the goodness or badness of these changes (or of the results of these changes) is not in question, nor is it a factor in whether or not the continuity is severed. The enormity of and the rapidity of the changes severs the continuity and unlinks the generations whether the results of those changes were good or not. Change cannot be judged by the quality of its results. Change should only be judged by the unintended consequences, the effects it has on the community, on its cultural institutions, on its continuity.
In a world that has yet to unlink its generations, one’s identity is clearer. The foundation upon which one works out that identity is stronger. I need to be careful here not to say clear and strong, as that might change from one place to the next, one person to the next, one generation to the next. So much else are the clarity and strength of one’s life and identity dependent on. The person, still living in cultural continuity, with a clearer understanding of his identity and a stronger foundation from which to operate, can endure some degree of change without the structure of his identity collapsing. Not only can he endure some degree of change, but he can even endure some attacks on that identity or that foundation. The person with a strong sense of identity (and, specifically, an identity formed by this continuity of community and cultural institutions) can be told he is stupid or fat, a dirty Irishman or a bad Catholic, a “frozen chosen” Presbyterian or a fundamentalist. He can have a fallout with a friend or a family member. He can question his theology or upbringing. He can give up his registration as a republican or democrat. These things do not lead to his life crumbling, emotional fragility, or a loss of identity. Unless they all happen at the same time or in quick succession of one another. It isn’t the single change that destroys the edifice; it’s the rapid succession of changes that causes it to crumble.
In a world that has unlinked its generations, one’s identity is unclear, and the foundation is sand. In this case, changes or attacks on the person are far more damaging. The structure that was built on that sand cannot withstand as much as the former foundation. Without the continuity of cultural institutions and community to help, this identity has to be self-constructed. The individual, with no possibility of receiving the old inheritance, has to decide for himself who he is and what he will be to others. He turns to social media and curates who will see him and how he will be seen and heard and understood. He is validated by the digital “community”—which now seems a word with altogether too much weight to give to a social media grouping of people. Likes and comments and shares give him validation and dignity, or so he hopes. Unfortunately, this never turns out to be the case. Even amongst those who are the most popular on social media, the likes and the comments and the shares still leave them with the same feeling of emptiness as the lack of likes. Social media cannot bear the weight a detached generation is placing on it. So it fails; it has to. And the person lives on, with an identity built on sand, hoping it can withstand whatever might come next.
The next social change comes along, and the edifice teeters. An attack comes, and the edifice collapses. The person living in this detached generation collapses under the pressure of the change or the attack. The emotional weight, the spiritual weight, the pressure of it all is crushing. They are lost, with nothing to do but give up on this world or pretend, child-like, that nothing really happened, or to attack back. This is the millennial (and Generation Z member). And what is the Boomer’s (and Generation X’s) response? “They’re just a bunch of snowflakes. They can’t handle the truth, the crybabies.”
The problem is, they can’t.
And it’s our fault.
Who drove all this change? Who funded and supported and bought and consumed and thrived off all this change? The Boomers and the Generation Xers. We made all this happen, and we made it all happen too fast. Then, we got frustrated when we took the scraps of the inheritance we received, tried to pass them on to the next generation, and they turned their noses up at it. They said, “We don’t want to read those books you like. We don’t want to read books with the N-word in them, or books that lionize slavery, or books that subjugate women, or books that abuse children, or books that fat-shame, or books that sneer at queers. If we’re going to read, we’re going to read books that remind us not to be racists or misogynists or any other hateful kind of person.”
And we got mad, again, and we introduced and funded and bought more change, and we attacked them further and called them snowflakes. And we said, “But you have to do it this way; this is the way it’s always been done.” And they said, “Okay, Boomer.” And we got mad, again.
We severed the ties between generations; we destroyed the continuity of our community and our cultural institutions and practices when we introduced too much change too fast. Not because we meant to, nor because we wanted to, nor because we made the wrong kind of changes. It happened because that’s what change does, no matter the good or the ill of it. And we created the so-called snowflakes that now exasperate the “Boomers.”
Thus, the creation of snowflakes is of our very own making. We gave rise to the generation that appears, from our perspective, to be incapable of handling change and attacks on their identity. So, how do we fix it? Is there a way out of this morass? Can we help strengthen the next generation and make snow castles out of snowflakes?