It will be a great disappointment to you, I’m sure, to know that I finally went to a conference without my friend, the philologist, whom I often accompany to philological congresses. I enjoy going with him to those meetings in no small part because every time I do something exciting happens. I would write about that now, but frankly you would probably not believe me if I did write about it, as the events that follow him around are, frankly unbelievable. There has been gun fire, mad pursuits in swiftly driven automobiles, occasional fisticuffs, vel sim. And, add to that, an acute awareness of what vel sim. actually means. One can guess based on etymology; and one does guess, of course, for rarely would one hazard looking up such an abbreviation in a dictionary, as 1) there’s a decent chance it won’t show up there; and 2) even if it did, there’s a better than decent chance it will be exactly what you thought it was: “or similar” or “or the like.” But having him around obviates the need for a dictionary or even guesswork, and obviates, too, the need to look up the word “obviates.”
But that is off the topic of my particular congress, one that I went to quite on my own, one for writers; thus, to return to that topic. I am writing to respond obliquely to one of the papers that address the YA (young adult) audience. I’m not even sure now why I wandered into that session, but I did; and when I got there I got an earful about Generation “Z”. That’s the latest generation, the one that was born in the year 1995 or later. And what I learned was that they are a generation that expects service, particularly individualized service, and a generation that has a deep sense of solidarity. The speaker saw this as a strength; could it not be argued that it is as indicative of a herd mentality? Populist movement? Probably the latter is, admittedly, going too far.
The speaker disapproved of, for example, the University of Chicago, where there has been, on the part of the administration, a deliberate move to coddle students no longer. His point had some validity: if students of Gen Z are expecting certain things—individualized treatment (what used to be called, disdainfully, “special treatment”), then it is a rather stark slap in the face not to give them what they are used to. And he might be right.
Conversely, might it not, someone could ask, be good for them? But this is not why I am writing about this topic. Rather, it is the fact that I think that what I’m concerned most about is the idea that, as they are used to being affirmed, we need to act around them and, more germane to me as an author, write YA Afiction that affirms them in whatever position they might wish to adopt. In short, we should encourage them to believe something, even if it is something we don’t agree with. Just “believe.” And act on that belief. That’s enough.
But it is, I’m afraid, not enough. If we write just to affirm having an opinion about something qua telos in and of itself, we are no different than the fifth-century sophists who said that what really counted was the ability to argue any side of an issue. Put simply, they affirmed style over substance. The issue itself meant nothing compared to the capacity to argue for it.
The great anti-sophist, Socrates, however, held quite the opposite point of view. He argued that what you say is more important than how you say it. He chose questioning via dialogue (the “Socratic method”) because he felt that driving an argument like a lawyer was, in the end, less convincing. You might gain a temporary victory—convince your listener for a season—but in the end, the issue that you “convinced” him does not become his own. It only does so when he or she dialogues about it and understands it from the inside out and, in the end, makes it his own.
Okay, where does that leave us with the things you hear at conferences, spAecifically about Gen Z? The same place as with the Millennials, Gen X and the Boomers, and, I suppose the Silent Generation and anyone else who will listen. Let’s dialogue about something real. Let’s challenge, not coddle, and love on but not simply cheer on each other of any generation. And, as different as the generations might be, let’s remember this. We’re all in this together.