Why are young people so often protesting against the conditions they have inherited from the older generation? GK Chesterton offered a hypothesis in an essay in his “Our Note Book” essay written for the Illustrated London News (June 3, 1922): “[T]he old man is always wrong , and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.”
Moreover, Chesterton argues, the young protesters often in practice turn out to be less focused on getting rid of the previous evil than they are on force-feeding their new theory to the older generation. Chesterton writes: “In other words, the young man is not half so eager to get the wicked old man to abolish his wicked old law, because it is wicked, as he is to convince him of the final and infallible truth of some entirely new law, of which the consequences might be equally wicked. The young man is much more interested in ramming his new theory down the old man’s throat than he is in tearing the other infernal infamy out of the old man’s heart.”
Thus, instead of the young protesters focusing on what should be common ground–the past evils that should be overturned–they present to the older generation the juicy target of brand-new theories ripe for debunking. Both older and younger generations can then dispute the new theories, while neither does a very good job of actually coming to grips with the reality of the past evils. Here’s Chesterton:
[I]t is always easy to talk about an old man as if he had always been old, or about young people as if they would always be young. They are no nearer to solving the recurrent riddle of humanity, the family quarrel in so far as it does really run through all history. If the rising generation had always been wise, we should have risen to a great deal more wisdom by this time. But the rising generation very often was wise; and the real interest is in how it could be so foolish when it had been so wise.
I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong , and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid. This has happened age after age: but to make it quite clear I will take an abstract and artificially simple case. Suppose there was a really barbarous and abominable law at some stage of history. Let us say that a peasant population must be restricted by every sixth child being killed or sold into slavery. I do not remember anything quite so bad as that in the past ; it seems to savour more of the scientific programmes of the future. Some of the eugenists or the experts in birth control might perhaps favour it. But there have been things nearly as bad, things at which our blood boils even in reading about them in a book. We wonder how any old men could be so vile as to defend them; we very rightly applaud the young men who called them indefensible. And we are amazed that anything so indefensible seemed so long to be indestructible. Now the real reason is rather odd.
The curious thing that happens is this. We naturally expect that the protest against that more than usually barbaric form of birth control will be a protest of indignant instinct and the common conscience of men. We expect the infanticide to be called by its own name, which is murder at its worst; not only the brand of Cain but the brand of Herod. We expect the protest to be full of the honour of men, of the memory of mothers, of the natural love of children. But when we look closer, and learn what the rising generation really said against the rotten custom, we find something very queer indeed. We do not find the young revolutionists chiefly concerned to say: “Down with King Herod who murders babies ! “What they are chiefly concerned to say, what they are passionately eager to say, is something like this: “What can be done with an old fool who has not accepted the Law of Melioristic Ultimogeniture ? He has not even read Pooch’s book I Nothing can be done till we have compulsory instruction in the New Biology, which shows that the higher type is not evolved until the sixth child, the previous five being only embryonic experiments.” In other words, the young man is not half so eager to get the wicked old man to abolish his wicked old law, because it is wicked, as he is to convince him of the final and infallible truth of some entirely new law, of which the consequences might be equally wicked. The young man is much more interested in ramming his new theory down the old man’s throat than he is in tearing the other infernal infamy out of the old man’s heart. He is more excited about the book than the baby. For him the bad law is a barbaric impediment that will soon disappear. It is Pooch’s great discovery, of the inevitable superiority of the sixth child, that is important and will remain. Now in fact Pooch’s discovery never does remain. It always disappears after doing one good work–inspiring the young reformer to get rid of the bad and barbarous law against babies. But it cuts both ways ; for it gives the old man, who has seen a good many Pooches pass away in his time, an excuse for calling the whole agitation stuff and nonsense. The old man is half ashamed of defending the old law, but he is not in the least ashamed of jeering at the new theory. And the young man always plays into his hands, by being more anxious to establish the theory than to abolish the law.
Now that has happened in history, century after century. … In short, the young man always insists that his new nostrum and panacea shall be swallowed first, before the old man gives up his bad habits and lives a healthy life. The old man knows the new medicine is a quack medicine, having seen many such quacks; and is only too delighted with an excuse for putting off the hour of repentance, and going his own drunken, dissipated old way. That cross-purpose is largely the story of mankind.
There’s an interesting potential lesson here. Perhaps it is more socially productive to focus pragmatically on addressing social evils and ills directly, rather than getting sidetracked into a desperate desire to ram our theories down the throats of others.