Millennia old, one generation deep

While it's the self-appointed mission of older people to conserve the cultural and social values that give our lives meaning and comfort, the young carry a burden to improve upon—even to correct—the world as it stands.

February 12 th 2010

The most profound influence upon my understanding of the process of social change came, intriguingly enough, as the result of a conversation with a Quebec separatist during the brief time I spent as a political correspondent embedded in Canada's national press gallery in Ottawa.

The year was 1995 and Quebec was in the throes of a referendum on independence or, as it was termed at the time, the potential sovereignty-association of an independent Quebec within a united Canada. Yes, it was as confusing then as it sounds today, and in seeking to explain this to my alarmed and befuddled readers in western Canada, I interviewed large numbers of the concept's promoters. Much of it was, to no surprise, an exercise in political gobbledigook and misdirection, but this one phrase stood out.

"You have to understand," the paysan told me. "Independence is not a moment; it is a process."

The metaphorical light bulb that clicked on within my brain has never turned off. A dozen years later I was supervising a series of courses in political science for journalists. The lecture at hand was the evolution and eventual failure of what was known in Canada as social conservatism, which at the time was defined largely as a movement of people opposed to the lack of any legislation governing free access to abortion services and the issue of gay marriage. As the lecturer proceeded with his recollection of the significant process of 1980s and 1990s court decisions that had led to and empowered these changes, he was stopped by one of the young students. "Do you mean," she asked, "that abortion was once illegal in Canada?"

Now the issue here is not where one stands on these issues—and for the purpose of this discussion I declare myself agnostic. The issue was that both the lecturer and I, long-time colleagues in the journalism trade, suddenly realized how "old" we were and how complete the changes being discussed had become. Here, in this young woman's comments, was not only evidence of a changed worldview but a resounding articulation of how quickly positions that were once considered contentious and revolutionary had been transferred into the accepted verities of the day. Even the memory of the opposing and once dominant view had been erased from history as she understood it. This, indeed, was the literal affirmation of the contention that while civilization may be thousands of years old, it is never more than a single generation deep.

This was a moment when the thoroughness of the process of change rang as clearly as a village church bell on a quiet New England morning, even though the social transition that preceded it had never been officially recognized.

Change can be noisy, but its victory is often hushed.

So while it is typically the self-appointed mission of those of us now playing in the second half of life's game to conserve the cultural and social values that give our lives meaning and comfort, it is important for the young to recognize that they carry a different burden. It should be self-evident that theirs is a mission to seek ways to improve upon—even to correct—the world as it stands. Challenging the accepted verities of the day, it seems to me, is an obligation which—provided it is done in a constructive fashion—should be seen as an ever-greening of culture and the social architecture upon which it stands. Those cornerstones forged in truth should be able stand the test of time, although they do at times fail. False gods, on the other hand, need to be exposed and marched off to the false god junkyard, which I understand is in either Cleveland or Hamilton.

Unfortunately, just as truth is at times pushed to the background, these false gods have a certain cockroachedness to them that allows them to consistently slip back into fashion from time. Life is not always easy, and wisdom is required to justly discriminate between the two.

That process should therefore be one that involves creative tension between the cultural conservation instincts of the old and the ambitious optimism of the young. The defence of established culture and the challenges posed to it by a rebellious and questioning youth are both necessary elements required to balance the process of cultural renewal.

But the good news for the young is that, while the game of change may be longer than you would like or perhaps can even conceive of, there is no reason why it cannot be played by the current generation as effectively as it was played by mine and, hopefully, to better outcomes. Not that my generation didn't effect some wonderful changes. Go to YouTube and call up Martin Luther King's speeches and you will glimpse into a bad, bad world of bigotry that has been justly routed from the public square. Zip back to the 1960s and 70s and remember how chemical sludge used to pour freely into our rivers and streams. Check out the now generation-old clips of the Berlin Wall tumbling. These are things which are good. But we did do a lot of stupid things, too, chief among them the arrogant failure to ask ourselves this question along the way: "What are the things we are doing now that the next generation will look at and say, 'What the heck were they thinking?'"

So go ahead and fix them. Remember it is possible. But remember also that change is a process that hides its moment of accomplishment from the headlines. You may have to spike the ball in the end zone all by yourself.

Topics: Culture Vocation
 

Peter Menzies is vice chairman and president of telecommunications for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and past publisher and editor-in-chief of one of Canada's major daily newspapers.

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