The Generational Moral Divide
Most of this recent obsession with identifying and the labeling of generations seems overblown, but I admit to have noticed a few differences between Generation X (my generation) and Millennials.
For example, Millennials draw very rigid lines in the sand about what is acceptable and what is not. Most Xers have a much more fluid line. As Xers, we grew up in a time when sex, profanity, and graphic violence was newly acceptable on cable TV and movies. The violence was particularly depraved. I cut my teeth on slasher movies like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. I saw a priest get decapitated in The Omen when I was seven, which is the age I also saw my first Holocaust documentary on PBS. By 13, I was watching Eddie Murphy’s Raw, interspersed with Madonna and her cone-shaped breasts on MTV. We weren’t sheltered from much, and almost everything, by modern standards, was deeply offensive. But we just took it in, eating our microwave popcorn and ordering Domino's pizza.
We were also part of the era when the phrase “Life’s a Bitch and Then You Die” was popular; it rose from the nihilistic psyche of the 1980s. It was the heavy metal era, which was the music of the angry white suburban male, who was both materially well off and also emotionally neglected. We were old enough to witness the early days of Bill Maher, and watched him lose his show, Politically Incorrect, after the 2001 terrorist attacks when he said he didn’t think terrorists were cowards.
Around this time, the culture was beginning to morph; it was becoming harsher and softer all at once.
As the LGBTQ community became bolder and more vocal, “acceptance" became the watchword of the nation. What was once mockable was no longer mocked, and a moral line was drawn protecting previously marginalized groups from harassment or ostracism. This was not a Millennial-only project, as celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, who fell from grace after coming out as a lesbian in the 1990s, rose again powerfully in the 2000s. Her open and unapologetic lesbianism has made her a hero for many who came after her.
But Millennials and the generations after them have become fierce guardians of this new world of inclusion and acceptance that we could scarcely have imagined in my time. They are the ones who boycott the people and businesses that don’t align with their values, and who call out hypocrisy when they see it on social media and, lately, in the streets. They celebrate differences, and we ridiculed it.
It’s a beautiful thing, and I’m a big fan.
But then, there’s Bill Maher and Dave Chapelle, one Baby Boomer and Xer respectively, both of whom continue, even from a liberal perspective, to represent ideas that don’t align with the times. It surprised me when I discovered Millennials can’t stand Bill Maher until I took just a half second to tally his offenses. I knew what they were, it’s just that it had never occurred to me to hate him for them.
As an Xer, I find myself extremely comfortable with a mixture of bad and good. For example, I don’t agree with Bill Maher’s religious views, his anti-Islam sentiments, or comments on the #metoo movement. But it’s not a problem for me not to agree and still watch his show for the parts I like. And I am both wholly supportive of the transgender community and of Dave Chappelle’s comedic jabs on his Netflix special. I guess, this is partly because I witnessed the transition from a time where “transgender” wasn’t a known word to a time when everyone knows it. Therefore, I can sympathize with the shift. We are figuring out what we can laugh at and what we can’t, after a long era in which almost anything was up for grabs.
Sarah Silverman, also an Xer, bases her comedy on jamming a stick into whatever taboo subject she can think of. There is a purpose in it, which is to de-stigmatize what makes us uncomfortable and force us to think about it while making us laugh. She has even hauled her act into the 21st Century by carving out certain words, like the casual use of “gay.” It took some personal work to get there. Not because Silverman is a terrible person, as Dave Chappelle isn’t, but because it’s only recently that we have begun to take the words we use seriously, and to understand that they matter and why.
For a long time, unfettered profanity meant freedom. It was a pushback against a society that had forbidden people to talk about so many real and important topics for so long. Consider the trajectory of George Carlin’s career: he went from a suit-wearing, non-controversial comedian in the 1960s to a long-haired, cussing iconoclast in the 1970s. He is famous for reeling off the seven words you can never say on television — shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits — and that list represented a new, joyous geyser of freedom.
For several decades, it felt good just to finally be allowed to be one’s own, true awful self, and people of the ‘70s and ‘80s really leaned into that. This is why Xers can still watch Bill Maher and Dave Chappelle. We’re accustomed to absorbing the terrible with the good, and we can fully appreciate the glorious freedom of expressing the terrible. We can also still disagree with a person and not demonize them, which is becoming an uncommon trait.
But Millennials’ role in capping this is important. They are, in my view, guardians of the newly-restored sacred, which is something my generation had no real sense of. For Xers, nothing was sacred, except maybe the freedom to express the profane.
We need them, but they also need us. It’s our job to remind the world that we all need the freedom to be awful and imperfect once in a while, or to be considered so. Sometimes, that’s where the growth is.
Cover photo via The Resourcing Hub