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Children of the Devolution: Our Era of Neoliberal Narcissists and Tech-Savvy Troglodytes

The real affliction gripping people these days is not disease or poverty, but media-induced sociopathy.

I can’t say I was terribly surprised to read the lede, “A three-decade analysis of prior research reveals that American college students are not quite as empathetic as they used to be,” in this May 28, 2010 U.S. News and World Report article. The news hit me with all of the impact of a wet firecracker, to quote the Silkworm song. As someone who spent a decade teaching in universities, I could only react with the bemusement, experienced all too frequently in these modern times, that comes whenever a study is released which simply confirms what you’ve known all along. (“MIT researchers have published the results of a five-year study that has conclusively determined that rain is wet!”)

Still, the fact that I considered this announcement a foregone conclusion didn’t keep me from reading the whole story. I pressed on to see if I could glean any choice nuggets of insight. Statistic-laden details tend to give a certain weight to subjective impressions. Maybe the French philosopher Michel Foucault is right; creatures of an empiricism-dominated episteme find great solace in having their individual judgments bolstered by data.

The U.S. News and World Report article quotes study co-author Sara Konrath, who details the rate of decline in empathy among American students.

“We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000… College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”

Asked to speculate as to why empathy is in short supply among millennials, Konrath offers these musings:

“The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor…. Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-related information. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games. And a growing body of research … is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”

That old cultural bugbear, popular media, rears its fearsome visage once again! You’d expect an academic researcher to be a bit more tentative, more circumspect, when it comes to such generalizations, conjectural though they may be; but Konrath defies such an expectation by suggesting that her millennial subjects might actually live up to the popular stereotypes of their age cohort.

“Many people see the current group of college students — sometimes called ‘Generation Me’ — as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history.”

Generational profiling thus seems poised to gain legitimacy if studies like Konrath’s pass muster among peer reviewers.

That the United States is a veritable laboratory for creating sociopaths of every strain and stripe is something I don’t think any sensible person can deny. But what happens when the creatures escape the lab and begin to wreak havoc on other countries and cultures? This is a question popular American writer, wit and raconteur Bill Bryson recently considered at the Hay Literary Festival in merry ole England. Bryson’s favorable opinion of the British, which he duly recorded in his 1995 book Notes from a Small Island, has apparently suffered diminution of late. A May 30, 2010 story in Britain’s Daily Mail (a scrofulous rag, I know; but as Madonna so famously put it: “Beauty’s where you find it.”) quotes Bryson as saying, “One thing that is different, and has changed here, is the self-absorption, not just greed.” This in Bryson’s estimation has led to a fundamental transformation of the British character, and not for the better.

“Everybody is in a hurry now and there is a ‘the rules don’t apply to me’ sort of thing. When I first came to Britain it really was all about fair play and queuing.”

Mad dashing about, cheating, and butting in line may signal a crisis of the social order when it comes to Great Britain, but when it comes to the United States, such behaviors are de rigeur.

Mad dashing about, cheating, and butting in line may signal a crisis of the social order when it comes to Great Britain, but when it comes to the United States, such behaviors are de rigeur. Indeed, Bryson, himself a transplanted American, may be in a good position to offer such judgments; the way he describes latter-day Britons provokes for anyone marooned on this side of the Atlantic a certain horror of recognition. “America is about individual wealth and collective poverty and we [in Britain] have moved into that camp.”

The mirror of production: neoliberal statecraft as soulcraft.

Given present circumstance, however, “slum” might be a better word to use than “camp.” The former term is what Peak-Oiler paterfamilias and man of letters James Howard Kunstler uses to describe this burgeoning bivouac of greedy, grasping unworthies. In the latest post at his imitable weblog Clusterf*ck Nation, Kunstler, reflecting on his recent idyll bicycling around Berlin, writes,

America today is arguably a far less civilized land, and even more neurotic, than the Germany of the 1930s. We live in places so extreme in ugliness, squalor, and dysfunction that just going to the store leaves a sentient American reeling in angst and anomie. Our popular culture would embarrass a race of hebephrenics. We think that neck tattoos are cool. A lot of our pop music is overtly homicidal. Our richest citizens have managed to define a new banality of evil. Our middle classes are subject to humiliations so baroque that sadomasochism even fails to encompass the finer points. And we don’t even need help from other nations to run our own economic affairs into the ground — we’re digging our national grave with a kind of antic glee, complete with all the lurid stagecraft that Las Vegas, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue can muster.

Kunstler’s catalogue of grotesqueries American-style needs little added to it. I have to say that my own observations largely accord with his. Having observed teens and twentysomethings passing through my classrooms since 2000 (the same year, incidentally, that Konrath places the beginning of the decline in empathy among college students), I can only lament how thoroughly they are creatures of their debased culture. They had heads so full of Madison-Avenue platitudes that I despair for this country’s political future.

My former student are not stupid, however, nor are they dull. Rather, they possess a sort of animal cunning. They’re cagey and single-minded, (albeit also parochial and unenlightened) and they attest to saccharine dreams of affluence and seamless self-actualization. They’re the ones the Culture Industry so breathlessly panders to, the ones who inform media content. If you look past their platitudes, however, you discover what they say about themselves in the lifestyle choices they make: They’re the MySpacers, the FaceBookers, the lappers-up of bloody delicacies proffered by the latest cinematic torture-porn, the freak-dancers, the body-obsessed, the compulsive exercisers, the blasé wearers of overpriced slave-sewn garments, and, most abhorrently, the tunnel-visioned enablers of the status quo.

They are the people for whom life is one elaborate reality-TV show.

My Generation-Y former students represent the undiminished legacy of the neoliberal 1980s and ’90s, the decades of their inception. They are all ripples and surfaces illumined by sparks of excessive self-regard. They are the people for whom life is one elaborate reality-TV show. More troublingly, they’re a generation for which the contortions of public relations have become a veritable habitus: Good is what nourishes the ego; evil is what you didn’t get away with. They’ll certainly profess to hold the interests of others as they’re own, when it’s convenient to do so, but the clichés with which they express these interests, and the utterly diffuse and noncommittal means they suggest to secure them (“I owe other people a friendly smile.” “The best thing I offer other people is the ability to listen.”) leaves you suspecting that they’re real desires are to drink and fornicate and speed in their cars and photograph themselves in bathroom mirrors.

Unlike people their age of decades past, my former students are not romantics; they opt instead for the treacly cynicism that is PC permissiveness. They’re infantile, and, if crossed, will rage and will seek revenge remorselessly. They are, in short, preening monsters of inconsequence.

So whether you choose to characterize the United States as a camp of cupidity, hypocrisy and greed, or as a slum of decay, vanity and dirty deeds, one fact remains: Slums, like camps are known for their lack of order, safety and sanitation.

Anton would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at generationbubble [at] gmail [dot] com.

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6 Responses to “Children of the Devolution: Our Era of Neoliberal Narcissists and Tech-Savvy Troglodytes”

  1. I can’t help but think your analysis rests too easy on the tired ‘piety of mind over body’ cliche. Your use of ‘body-obsessed’ and ‘freak-dancing’ especially caught my eye. Do you suggest young 20-somethings dust off their 90’s indie records (i.e. Silkworm) and gently sway to the music? I suggest you look over Mark Fisher’s discussion of ‘reflexive impotence,’ which deals with his own experiences teaching millenials in the university system.

    Posted by reckoner | June 2, 2010, 9:23 pm
    • @reckoner — Duly noted. I’ll check out the Fisher piece.

      I see your criticism of my position, but I wonder what you think about the first article I referenced: the one about the empathy study. It’s not cause for concern in your estimation?

      Posted by Anton Steinpilz | June 3, 2010, 6:50 am
  2. I suppose it’s a cause of concern. Certainly one cannot underplay the role neoliberalism’s relentless focus on the self has had on Generation Y.

    I just find the study to be so vague. And the definition of ‘empathy’ to be a fairly vague and slippery one. I mean, were the generation xers known for their caring and generosity? I feel like this study underlies a prejudice against new media more generally as necessarily detaching oneself from the ‘real’ of…I don’t know, tv? Radio? Whatever else preceded the internet?

    Maybe the ways in which the internet, social networks etc. have effected subjectivity necessitate a new way of gauging socially responsible/ethical behavior? Rather than a priori dismissing them as counterproductive to combating neoliberalism’s ills? That’s obviously not meant to valorize the act of checking your facebook status, but just maybe the politically utility of the net has yet to reveal itself.

    Posted by reckoner | June 3, 2010, 6:07 pm
  3. From the article, referring to “Generation Me”:
    “self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic”

    Why are any of these traits a) negative or b) incompatible with empathy? It must be nice to be a “researcher” receiving money to paint an entire demographic with the same brush.

    Posted by Hoops McCann | June 9, 2010, 10:37 pm
  4. I don’t find this strange at all. I’m part of this new generation, middle-class college student. Here kids have been their parents ‘project’ and in return have been receiving financial support. Then all of a sudden they are cut off, feel betrayed, they have lost the most natural support system, the family, which is still a relic from our hunter gatherer days, a very natural social structure, and now they have to survive without this support system. The result is a ‘law of the jungle mentality’. You have no idea how many engineers children and lawyers children after being cut off end up selling drugs, especially in this economy where jobs are scarce and pay shit. You got a speeding ticket? That is a weeks pay down the drain.

    2k10-2k20 will see a growth in the black market, decline in living standards in the U.S and increasing political polarization.

    Everything falls subservient to the modern economy. It is indestructible, uncontrollable. I find it very fitting “In God we trust” is on our money, because the financial system we have created is out of our hands now.

    Posted by masterofnothing | July 4, 2010, 11:46 am
  5. Wow. This analysis is a little melodramatic, don’t you think?

    Posted by Peter | July 20, 2010, 11:38 am

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Anton Steinpilz

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Ylajali Hansen