My generation’s primary countercultural impulse is the desire to remain free of our society’s sins while still partaking in its fruits.

imagesEver since WWII, the prescribed path to happiness for a child born into the upper income quartile in America has been:

  • Go to college
  • Find a skilled profession that is both fulfilling and pays enough to support a family
  • Fall in love
  • Marry
  • Buy a house on the outskirts of a city
  • Have children
  • Socialize primarily with one’s own spouse, children, and near relatives.
  • Achieve moderate distinction in civic society
  • Advocate in a genteel fashion for desired social change

This isn’t the only paradigm, though. It’s not even the only one that’s been successful in America; it actually replaced a previous dominant paradigm–the whole “gain practical skills and establish yourself as an autonomous farmer or artisan” path. But, at least for the past seventy years, the paradigm has gone largely unchanged, aside from its extension to larger and larger numbers of people (with concomitant fallout like the expansion of suburbs, professionalization of more occupational categories, and an increase in the number of colleges).

But each generation, there are a minority of upper-middle and upper-class youth who find the paradigm unsatisfying and seek to challenge it. Amongst the Greatest Generation, socialists and labor activists tried to put more political power into the hands of non-professional workers. Amongst the boomers, hippies tried to alter the nature of social and romantic ties. And amongst Gen-X, the slackers rejected the notion that a chief portion of one’s life satisfaction should come through work.

Anyway, as I was driving across Nebraska, I started to wonder what my generation’s major revision to the paradigm was. Across the next hundred miles, I tried to brainstorm many possibilities.

And what I finally came up with was that I think my generation (people who are currently ages 33ish to 13ish) has an uncommon obsession with personal purity.

Even amongst activists, most of the aspects of the dominant paradigm are accepted. Most millennials want to get married, own property, find fulfilling work, achieve distinction, and have more or less (albeit grudgingly) bought into the usual modes of advocating for political change.

But there’s a parallel sense of fastidiousness that surrounds us: it sometimes seems like half of our efforts in life are devoted to avoiding pollution by the society in which we live.

I think this is most evident with food. I mean, you’ve got your fair trade and organic food. Then you also want stuff that’s local and not genetically modified. And you can be vegetarian or vegan. Although those are kind of on the way out; now the hot new thing is to be gluten-intolerant. And, of course, you can’t eat food that’s preprocessed and has artificial ingredients.  Entire Fortune 500 corporations have grown fat off trying to cater to this ever-expanding list of food restrictions and requirements.

And then there’s the lifestyle stuff. Good Millennials don’t own cars; they take pride in not being on Facebook; they don’t watch the mainstream news; they exercise; they do yoga; they bike; they camp. Oh, and when they do yoga, they do the real authentic yoga, not the watered-down Western yoga. And when they camp, they hit the less-trodden, less-manicured trails. There are, literally, limitless levels of purity within each recreation.

It’s a part of the arts scene, too. A person does his best to consume art that’s independent and un-produced. And if he does like some item of mass culture, then he needs to critique it problematic elements first (for a classic example of this, see my recent post on Orange Is The New Black). It’s only okay to like something if you can first prove that you can identify and distance yourself from its politically objectionable elements.

The quest for personal purity is, I think, particularly evident in my generation’s political discourse. The privilege talk is our dominant way of talking about politics. I don’t know the technical term for it, but you know what I am talking about (situating every political opinion within the framework of “this is my white privilege, my cis privilege, my male privilege”, etc). The whole focus here is on self-analysis, on finding your own unexamined privileges and rooting them out and publicly disclaiming them. Your privilege is, quite literally, the way in which this society has made you complicit in its prejudice. And the sense is that if you can just find and, somehow, fight against that privilege, then you, at least, are no longer part of the problem.

I think the main objection to the quest for personal purity is that it doesn’t really make the world a better place. To me, it seems obvious that societal change is not the aggregate of personal changes; rather, societal change requires some action to change the institutions that perpetuate the status quo.

But I think that this criticism misunderstands the point of the whole thing.

I don’t think anyone believes that the growing market for organic food has substantially hampered the more negative parts of the agricultural industry. And I don’t think anyone really thinks that finding and owning up to your own privilege actually does much to harm the societal structure that give you that privilege. We all know that the only way to change the world is through radical, collective action.

And, largely, we’re either unwilling to engage in such action or we believe that such action is doomed to failure.

Thus, the problem becomes, “How can I find some way to be at peace with a society that contains so many disagreeable features.”

And the answer is to simply do your best to keep yourself pure.