Freddie deBoer recently read an oral history of the film Dazed and Confused. He found himself wondering about the sense, among the cast and crew of the movie, that the kind of teenage cruelty depicted would never fly today. In At the Heart of It All, the writer, who never seems shy about openly discussing the more difficult aspects of life, argues that this type of cruelty among teenagers is not only still here, but will indeed never fully go away.
But of course the world has not changed, not from the way things were in the 90s nor from the 70s, in most important ways. And one way that the world has not changed is that young people still treat each other with casual brutality that stems from the intense self-loathing that powers bullying, the awkwardness of our bodies and selves at that age, and the relentless jockeying for social rank endemic to high school. The vocabulary has changed, and there may be certain new kinds of plausible deniability built in to what were once more nakedly brutal practices. (More naked and thus more honest.) But I promise you that every single day high school students are absolutely savage to each other. What’s more, human nature being what it is, I’m sure that they now do so explicitly utilizing the politicized and therapeutic language that proponents of social justice norms foolishly assume is an antidote to that bad behavior. Because interpersonal cruelty is a universal aspect of the human condition and any philosophy can be bent to its use. This condition can perhaps at times be ameliorated but it can never be eliminated and learning this reality is an important part of growing up. Cruelty is here to stay.
What today’s social justice politics ask for is a world that’s nice, a world that’s safe for everyone all the time. And of course this is impossible. The nice world is never coming. Yes, we need to work to make the world a more equitable and humane place. There are certain areas in that domain where progress is possible. But to say, as many now do, that we need to eliminate bullying, or even eliminate microaggressions, is no less fantastical than saying we need to build spaceships to take us away from this fallen earth.
I don't know where deBoer stands on religion. His take on human nature, though, seems to borrow from the Christian tradition. His specific use of the word "fallen," that references (whether intentionally or not), the first story of the book of Genesis, commonly referred to as "the Fall." In Christian writing, we are frequently grappling with how to live our faith in a fallen world. To be more specific, though, deBoer almost sounds Calvinist.1 He relays a strong skepticism that we can ever enact enough positive conditioning or even societal shaming mechanisms to eliminate the base tendencies of humanity. In Christianity, this is where unmerited grace comes in.
Interestingly, deBoer's stance on human tendencies and the modern desire to rewire them matches the take on modernity that comes from Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman.
Again, that reception is not purely passive. We use what we receive. We invent, we improve. We enjoy. However, doing those things with a heart that gratefully receives what has been given, and that seeks to know and understand the nature of that gift, is vastly different than the various arrogant modernisms of “making the world a better place,” and “re-inventing human beings.”
Along with Freeman's sense of gratitude comes a pessimism about how much humanity can be changed through systematic means. “People are people,” as the Depeche Mode song goes. Or “boys will be boys” as one bully’s father said when his son was picking on my brother. In some ways, we recognize that human nature stays the same across the generations.
We shouldn't resign ourselves to tolerance of cruelty, though. From a Christian perspective, we are called to help bring about God’s kingdom “on earth, as it is in heaven.”2 We may not always be perfect in our attempts. We may fall short. We may even find ourselves disheartened that we can never be fully successful. Jesus, after all, reminded us that "the poor you will always have with you."3 He also expected that we tend to the poor and try and alleviate conditions of inequity, though. I understand where the deBoer and Freeman are coming from, because many many contemporary attempts to fix the problems of social interaction tend to go too far past the mark. Even so, I want us to recognize that acknowledgment and acceptance are two different things.