Bryan Regan, a stand up comedian, joked recently: “Hey, I saw something interesting today on social media. Somebody posted a very strong political opinion. And somebody replied, ‘Good point. I changed my mind’.” Of course this got a lot of laughs, because this kind of reply on social media never happens. Social media platforms are used to bolster support for our own beliefs, not to challenge them. This especially seems to ring true in our post-COVID era.
There are marker events in history that create observable shifts in our culture. COVID is one of those events. It has brought social distancing to a whole new level, which has exacerbated the already politicized social landscape. The level I’m thinking about is the family level. Family relationships have always been fractured by harmful and unloving behavior, but now I am seeing seeing families lose relationships over Facebook posts. This is how it goes: Some parent shares an opinion or maybe they didn’t hit the “like” button in support of what their adult child posted, and the adult child gets offended and cuts their own parents out of their lives. This is really happening, and it’s happening even in “normally” functioning families in which there is no abuse or neglect.
We have to look back several years to see how this kind of craziness got started. An article in The Atlantic magazine called The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Kukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explains it well. The authors point out that historical events, such as the 1999 Columbine shooting in Colorado and 24/7 network news coverage of crime events, gave children born after 1980 the message that life is dangerous. Further, they were given the message that adults will do everything in their power to protect children from any harm. These children, now in their 20s and 30s, have come to expect that they should be safe from almost anything that could be disruptive or distressing.
At this same time college campuses, with pressure from neurotic helicopter parents, worked hard to make sure they provided “safe spaces” for these young adults. Measures are taken to label works of literature with “trigger warnings” that the content could be distressing. Professors receive training to give trigger warnings and to avoid “micro-aggressions” that might disturb or distress one of their students. Professors were probably the first people in this new landscape to be afraid of “vindictive protectiveness”, or reprisals that might come from being too insensitive. The primary purpose of school, learning, has been subjugated by the fear of being offensive or offended.
This movement, however well-intentioned it was, has obviously had negative consequences. The most profound effect has been an increasing intolerance and avoidance of anything that makes us feel uncomfortable. That sentence, my friends, is a perfect definition of anxiety. Paradoxically, the more society has moved towards “safe spaces” that insulate us from possible offensiveness, the more young people are reporting anxiety. In fact, the number of college students who report “overwhelming anxiety” has increased 50% in the last several years. Kukianoff and Haidt state “According to the most basic tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.” Rather than engage in dialogue or interaction with differences, this protectiveness mindset led to avoidance of dealing with diversity.
Following on the heels of this cultural shift is the invention and development of social media. Social media has made it very easy to find those with like-minded values and political ideals. As a result, many people insulate themselves from diversity and solidify their identities by affiliating only with mutually supportive and “safe” people. Now, we have set the stage to understand “cancel culture”. This term refers to the practice of cutting off individuals or groups that we find offensive. Cancel culture is the hybrid offspring of the aforementioned safety movement, social justice movement, and tribalism.
What I’ve been seeing since COVID is that “cancelling” is now happening on the family level. Socially, and in my work, I’ve talked with people who are heartbroken by their own adult children effectively cancelling them. What is happening is that adult children, in their 20s and 30s, are finding that their parents have different views from them on issues. Maybe the parents are pro-Trump and they aren’t, or there’s a difference of opinion on any number of politicized issues. This can’t be tolerated and in vindictive protectiveness they stop all communication with their parents as well as anyone else that bothers them.
It’s nothing new for an older generation to hold differing views than their children on any variety of issues. It’s nothing new for parents and their children (adult or teen) to argue or debate these different views. What is new is that these differences are viewed as intolerable by the younger generation. This indicates a shift in priorities and values. In the past, there was a value that kept relationships intact, and that is the value of basic acceptance and loyalty simply based on being family. Now, tribalism has become more important than family relationships. Tribalism is the term for strong loyalty to a group that has high agreement and mutual support on social and political issues. Tribalism has surpassed the importance of family ties for a growing number of young adults.
What is there to do about this problem? We’ve got to stop being so afraid of differentness and so intolerant. Keep your values clarified and prioritized. How important is that political stance compared to your family bonds? Work to respect people and honor their personhood even if you don’t respect their stances on some issue. Teach your kids how to do this. If you wanted to become really advanced, mix and mingle with people “on the other side” of whatever issues you feel strongly about. The more you do this, you might find yourself caring for the person even though you don’t agree with them.
One of the values that has made America successful from its birth as a nation has been its ability to allow healthy debate and the free exchange of ideas. Take Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson for example. Their lively debating of issues led to the establishment of sustainable governmental policies. They agreed that all men are created equal, but would disagree that they are all the same. Equality cannot be achieved by making everyone the same. We need diversity to be healthy. This is just as true in families as it is in society.