Why have campus dialogues at places like Wesleyan gotten so much attention this past year? The easy answer would be that we are the future, a classic commencement speech adage coupled with a fresh statistic about how millennials now outnumber baby-boomers and even gen-Xers in the workforce. The harder answer is the real reason why our elders are so interested and sometimes concerned with our campus dialogues, which some argue aren’t dialogues at all: The elite of the millennial generation—whether at places like Wesleyan, Yale, or even those who made it big on a startup without graduating from college—are changing politics and the way we perceive the world.
I use the word “elite” because the campuses garnering the most attention for their activism and subsequent controversies are by and large places with very low acceptance rates and high reputations, such as Princeton for its use of Woodrow Wilson’s name across campus despite his racist beliefs, Yale for its reportedly racially exclusive fraternity and its Halloween freedom of expression controversy, Harvard for changing the names of their “house masters” to “faculty deans,” and of course Wesleyan and this very newspaper for the accusations of its lack of racial inclusivity and decision to publish an op-ed that questioned and critiqued the Black Lives Matter movement. While places like the University of Missouri rightfully garnered attention for threats made to students of color on the anonymous app YikYak and for other issues of campus climate, major publications have by and large focused on elite schools when it comes to campus politics.
These publications capture their time and serve as a great source of history, just as this newspaper serves as a source of institutional history. What can be lost in print, however, are the deeper reasons of why certain writers and publications care so much about certain issues. For many publications that inform the world’s elite, including individuals and corporations with significant capital, the profitability of millennials is a major reason why our campus dialogues garner so much attention from publications like The Atlantic and The Washington Post.
Millennials are the most profitable generation on the planet right now, not only because we currently happen to be in the 18-49 demographic coveted by advertisers due to consumption habits, but also because we grew up using the technology that is now reshaping the world. Our share of the workforce is only growing, and the attention a small portion of millennials have garnered for their campus activism is only a preview of how we are changing politics. Because of this, we also find ourselves under increased scrutiny from our elders on everything from our political tactics to our vocabulary.
Perhaps the biggest change millennials—or at least millennials who The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications spill ink on—bring to the table is an increased awareness of the power of words and their consequences. A former teacher of mine made the argument that millennials are actually the most literate generation of all time because of our constant interaction with writing from a young age, whether it was AIM, blogs, or the scores of text we pour through each day on popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Another teacher of mine thought that we were the most illiterate generation of all time because of our short attention spans and reliance on spellcheck, as a product of technology that no other generation grew up on. As the most literate-illiterate generation, however, we have ushered in the revival and even departure from what is popularly known as political-correctness.
What baffles Trumpian observers who rail against political correctness is the utterly foreign vocabulary that young people on the political left—especially those in hyper-articulate circles like ours—deploy in political conversations. “But have you considered the performativity of gender and the oppression of non-cis-white-male bodies in post-modern neo-colonialism?” This vocabulary takes getting used to. Just ask the first year student closest to you who didn’t go to a progressive private school in New York or the Bay Area. This vocabulary is a form of progress, however, despite the broad generalizations thrown at it such as the ones I have just rhetorically made. The English language is magnificent because of its malleability and precision. Many of us couldn’t imagine living in a country like France where language is so centralized that there is a specific government body that admits new words into the dictionary.
Yet my concern here is not the vocabulary of supposed political correctness, but rather the implications of it and how it feeds into the political polarization that is coming to define the early part of the 21st century in America. For every bright college student throwing out various isms on social media, there is a conservative Trump-supporting uncle or even millennial cousin who thinks that political correctness is the latest incarnation of fascism, rather than rounding up undocumented immigrants and Muslims into camps and registries. This can now be seen most clearly in the populist rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, whose supporters both want an authentic candidate who tells it like it is and brings about significant change, just on drastically different terms. I have myriad problems with the Trump-Sanders comparison, but along the horseshoe theory of political science—where the radical sides of the left and right bend towards each other rather than continuing away from each other—these two camps are the political poles that we’ll be dealing with in American politics long after Trump and Sanders wither away.
These are large scale, big picture, macro-level problems that political candidates in their late sixties or early seventies do not have answers to, let alone college students. However, we are in a unique place to start doing something to assuage this intense polarization at the University. Although it would be grandiose to say that we are in a modern-day Athens in Middletown, Connecticut, we are in a small polis surrounded by some of the brightest and most accomplished people of our generation across disciplines. Every student admitted to Wesleyan was a prodigy or phenom of some sort in high school, from athletics to the arts, from the sciences to the humanities. Although it may sometimes feel overwhelming to that person who was published in high school or who worked for a really prestigious institution one summer, remember that you too did something, or more often several remarkable things to end up here in the first place, and that you will one day be shaping the politics and culture of the world in the 21st century in one way or another. So let’s talk to each other, in person, and start figuring out what we have in common first before we disagree over our differences later. Conversation by conversation, the Millennial Generation will go from having a negative connotation of lazy over-sharers on social media to the people who took on climate change, financial crises, genocide, and political polarization and ended up better for it. Let’s talk with each other, not past each other.