The recycling of the Golden Age fallacy. Analysis of a Facebook rant.
I found this rant posted on my Facebook wall today.
It is a classic example of a user seeking validation. There is no explicit or implied attempt at discussion or analysis, which is just as well, since most of this rant contains assertions that are flat-out unsupported by facts or evidence.
Rants of this type usually have a predictable structure:
Part 1 – List a number of fear-inducing, dystopian assertions with little or no supporting evidence (in this case, opening with an ominous and doom-laden statement like “RIP America” gets you bonus FUD points)
Part 2 – Make a claim that the assertions prove X, where X is something that they consider to be Very Troubling and Dangerous
Part 3 – Implore readers to pat them on the back via Amen or some affirmation that They Are Right, plus Please Pass It On.
Part 2 is the Compelling Statement. In this particular case, the author makes the claim that young people are disrespectful brats. Etc. Etc.
Now, I want to reminisce up to and including the present day.
When I was 16 and in school in the UK, I read and listened to people the same age as my grandparents complaining about how “the youth of today” had no respect for their elders, dressed terribly, behaved badly etc. etc. Some of the complainants (usually military veterans) were of the opinion that “a spell in the armed forces” would sort these reprobates out and magically convert them to that generation’s idea of “responsible adults”. They would write their complaints in letters to the BBC and newspapers, usually signed with bylines like “Yours, Disgusted, Godalming”.
(Nobody ever did get a good answer whenever they asked the “put them in the military” proponents whether it really was a good idea to take immature, borderline nasty jerks who already knew how to engage in vandalism and assault, and teach them to, you know, really be effective in using handguns, military weapons and other mechanisms of mass destruction.)
When I was in my 30s and making my way in the world in London and elsewhere, I read and listened to people the same age as my parents complaining about how “young people” had no respect for authority, behaved badly etc. etc. This time, instead of the “put them in the army” panacea, they apparently needed “a good dose of discipline” or “tough love” or the irresponsible parents needed the discipline. Once again, they would write to newspapers and the BBC and huff and puff about the imminent threat that this posed to The Future of Civilization.
This was the era of the infamous “short sharp shock” cure being touted by the Conservative Party, which was quickly abandoned as its proponents discovered that it made no difference to crime and recidivism rates. This law and order thingy is really a lot more complicated than most politicians think it is.
Now I am turned 60, I am reading and hearing people my age complaining about “young people”, “Millennials” etc. Apparently they are over-privileged little shits who have had way too much handed to them on a plate, and need a good dose of Reality or some such. See the rant above. Since we are now in the Age of The Internet, this generation rants on Facebook, and any other social media platform they can find, preferably where people will pat them on the back and say “yes, you’re right, we are indeed Doomed”.
Do we see a pattern here?
Every generation complains about successive (younger) generations, unfavorably comparing their behavior to their own (remembered) behavior.
This, folks, is a variant of what social scientists call the Golden Age fallacy, the idea that there was a time, that we can all remember, when Everything Was Better. It is usually that time when children were always well-behaved and respectful, the law was respected and obeyed without question by everybody, people worked hard etc. etc. (With the more, exclusionary or class-focussed, one usually finds more sinister phrases like “people knew their place” entering the conversation, often in whispers).
We are good as a species at forgetting all of the Bad Stuff that we did or which happened to us, and burnishing the Good Stuff in our mind. This is actually a good thing in many ways, since it makes us more able to put bad events in the rear view mirror and retain a necessary sense of optimism. However, it has a downside, the downside encapsulated in the old phrase “rose-tinted spectacles”.
If you want an illustration of how selective memory of the past works, try engaging a mother who is attempting to protect her daughter from under-age sex, and ask her when she lost her own virginity. I have done this. The results are instructive, hilarious and bizarre in equal measure. The responses prove that amnesia is not just for Iran-Contra suspects.
My conclusion: none of this complaining is new. I find it more amusing than anything else. It is also pretty much unserious. We live in an age where we have never been safer. There has not been a major war in over 70 years. Life for many people is a damn sight better than that of our grandparents. At least 2 of my grandmother’s siblings did not reach adulthood. And try asking the descendants of the World War II combat veterans who did not make it back about the Good Old Days.
So when I hear and read very old people talking about “The Good Old Days”, part of me nods sagely and smiles. No, the Good Old Days were, for many people, not at all good. There is a good reason why it is called the Golden Age Fallacy.
Rants like this one are not new, and are no more compelling to me, even as I get older.