Revisiting Generation Gaps and the Moral Imperative of Totalitarian Niceness

Revisiting Generation Gaps and the Moral Imperative of Totalitarian Niceness January 8, 2016

Undermuchgraceby Cindy Kunsman cross posted from Under Much Grace

The following list describes the desired traits that non-Christian young people desire to see in Christians, particularly among their elders as compiled by the authors of “unChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity….And Why It Matters.” When I presented quotes from this book on my blog last year, I suggested that we as believers should extend the same considerations to those who follow patriarchy as well as to young unbelievers. I would like to use this list (from pp 194-5 of the book) as a point of departure for relating to young adults in general. Those interviewed suggested that these considerations would improve their receptivity to the Gospel message from Christians, both young and old.

1. Listen to me.
2. Don’t label me.
3. Don’t be so smart.
4. Put yourself in my place.
5. Be genuine.
6. Be my friend with no other motives.

The Problem of Truth in Postmodern Interpersonal Relationships

As a Christian who does not share this mindset, I have a few problems with this list, as I readily see great potential for contradictions within the list itself. I believe that truth is not fluid and believe that it is sinful to think outside of the Law of Non-Contradiction in terms of belief and truth. (If a ping pong ball is spherical, it can not be cuboidal at the same time. It is either a sphere or it is not anything like being a sphere, particularly if it is a cube. It cannot be both at the same time.) Postmodern thought largely rejects the Law of Non-Contradiction. (One person believes that the ping pong ball is spherical, and another person believes that the very same ping pong ball is a cube. Postmodernism declares both to be accurate and correct about the same ping pong ball at the same time.) Please join me in an exploration of possible rationales which might explain why some of these considerations might be problematic for those over 40 (those who esteem truth in a modernist fashion versus a postmodern one).

Of all of these ideals listed here, I am personally more adept at being genuine, a virtue that epitomizes non-contradiction in my understanding of truth. At times, I am genuine to a fault. Being genuine means being truthful, and sometimes being truthful means labeling, being smart or having motive. Sometimes being genuine means that I might not be able to listen to material that I find to be inappropriate. Being genuine bears more significant importance to me than all of these other directives on the list. But far and above the other desired considerations, “labeling” presents the most problematic competition. The moral priority of niceness above all other virtues for young adults presents difficult communication challenges with those who view objective truth and Christian principle as the foremost moral priorities in the Christian life.


Validating Truth

There’s a saying that if something or someone looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it’s a duck. Circumstances constantly call upon Christians to discern matters in this very fashion, exercising critical thinking, an analytical skill. Unfortunately, when postmodern thought shifted veracity away from objectivity and from the law of non-contradiction, truth became experience-based rather than fact-based. Something very interesting happened when this took place. Prior to this, truth always rested upon facts that were external to the self and was not a personal experience. When truth’s value became dependent upon how people esteemed truth, it became an internal and personal experience.

If I believe that the earth is round and follows an orbit around the sun and if anyone criticizes my belief in this truth, because it is based on a truth that is external to me, the criticism or rejection of the truth or my belief in it does not reflect poorly on me personally. Truth can certainly rise to the occasion to demonstrate its own truthfulness. I am certainly responsible to present reasons for credulity, but whether a person declines to embrace the truth is their own affair. Objective reality and faith in principles that embody truth present their own best evidence, and that evidence is external and independent from me. Likewise, in matters of Christian faith and belief, the Word of God requires that I be able to articulate reasons for the hope that lies within me in meekness and patience, but the Holy Spirit bears up that truth. God uses my faithful witness and good fruit as a testimony, but even the coordination of this process is governed and orchestrated by God. Heaven and earth will pass away, but the Word of Truth does not. God’s character and qualities in no way depend upon my performance and my lack of performance does not detract from them.

In contrast, if truth rests only upon my esteem of truth and is true only because I accept it as such, when that truth is criticized, that criticism or rejection of “my truth” becomes an extensively personal experience. James Sire says that this existential way of esteeming truth makes truth “inextricably bound to the knower” as a consequence. I become personally and psychologically connected to that truth because I assigned value to it when I esteemed it as true. Attack what I hold to be true and you attack my person, whether or not I am directly involved with your process of evaluating the truth or not. If I am a postmodernist, and I say that the earth orbits around the sun, the facts about astrophysics and astronomy mean nothing because my belief alone establishes the veracity of my claims. If a critic challenges this belief and my facts, this amounts to a personal threat. The only valid proof and evidence that I can possibly offer derives from my faith in the idea that the earth orbits the sun. Proving my belief to others then becomes a matter of convincing others of “my truth.” My own personal integrity of self is then hinged upon the veracity of my belief.

Psychological Development

Truth’s own veracity only adds to the dilemmas of the psychological crises that young people experience. Erik Erickson identified eight such crises that are common to certain age groups across the human life span. Teens primarily learn fidelity during their years of development, and Erickson identified their challenge and task as “Identity versus Role Confusion.” They are concerned with the question of “Who am I?” The individual teen relates to society primarily through ideology during this stage, learning how ideology affects them. For young adults between the ages of 20 and 40, provided they have successfully traversed the psychological crisis of adolescence and discerned “who they are” in relation to the world, they proceed into a new psychological task of “Intimacy versus Isolation.” They are concerned with the question of “Am I loved and wanted?” as they add the ability and skill of loving to the fidelity they learned in the earlier stage of their personal development. The individual young adult relates to society through patterns of cooperation and their psychological crises primarily concern interpersonal issues.

For those who are of the approximate ages 18 -30, they are busy about sorting out who they are, how they fit into the world, what they believe, to whom and where they belong, and how they properly relate to society. Individuals carve out their development and their identities through a balance between internal information (self-esteem) and external information (interpersonal relationships). Because truth’s value in postmodernism depends only upon internal factors and personal esteem, the world becomes a very adversarial place. Balance between internal and external information becomes skewed and distorted. The inherent psychological tasks of young adulthood become all the more intense and far more difficult, placing far more psychological pressure upon the individual, because everything rests solely on the individual’s personal abilities and personal psychological integrity.

When the modernist-minded older adult relates to the postmodernist in young adulthood, the demand to be genuine makes discernment a difficult business. Interpersonal relationships that are of intense concern to the young adult because of their age-related developmental challenges become terribly complicated. Those over 40 perceive truth as primarily objective, and discernment necessitates what young people perceive and disdain as “labeling.” My husband always readily points out that this young adult aversion to being labeled is not always an aversion, but it concerns only negative labels. And I believe that the reciprocal is also true. Young people seem to demand positive affirmation and positive labels, another aspect of relating to young people that often challenges my own personal sense of truthfulness and genuineness. My husband describes this strange, postmodern twist on the golden rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) as a nearly impossible task: “Do unto others as those others would have you do unto them.” Since truth rests in the perception of the individual, social etiquette seems to demand that I have foreknowledge and omniscience to really properly relate to others. Is this even possible?

In a recent Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers noted in an interview that author Tim Clydesdale describes what Myers called the foremost moral priority of “totalitarian niceness” among American teens in his book called “First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School.” Most all other learning has been “distilled down into” a message that conveys that we should “be nice to other people,” whether it is a moral issue or not. Teachers couch all information in terms of a “niceness” message. Clydesdale observes that young people become anxious about, distracted by, and overly preoccupied with how others perceive them, owing both to the spirit of the age as well as factors like immediate communication technology. He also notes that young people view all authority with great suspicion, and the young person’s moral priorities maintain that they are the arbiter of what is right and permissible. He described that young people prefer a God that is more like a “golden retriever,” a warm, cuddly companion that offers comfort as opposed to a God who serves as a standard of truth. I wonder if this “totalitarian niceness” and the “golden retriever” concept of God emerges as a coping mechanism to protect against the tender ego that is so fragile because postmodernism makes truth so intensely personal?

Unique Challenges

Young Christian adults, those under the age of thirty (born after 1978) face many unique challenges that generations who came before them did not face. Postmodernism affects how truth is validated and esteemed, the consequences of which are quite profound. Those who teach Christian truth must consider the problems inherent in the postmodern worldview and must recognize that pietistic separatism does not solve the dilemmas that the postmodern worldview presents. The worldview and culture predisposes believers to a weak and Existential Theism wherein the believer assigns value to God, unlike the Biblical Theist who derives meaning about objective truth from God’s Word apart from and not contingent their own experience. The young believer must overcome this tendency, recognizing God’s Word as authoritative without intimidation. And unfortunately, the perspective of those raised in a postmodern culture makes communication with the generations that preceded them especially problematic because of the differences between each generation concerning the value of truth. This “generation gap” also poses unique challenges for older adults and older Christians who ascribe to the objective truth of the Word of God, conceiving of it in an entirely different way than do their younger counterparts. May God give us grace and wisdom to master the task so we can find unity in love as opposed to uniformity through “totalitarian niceness.”

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Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.

Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.

Read everything by Cindy Kunsman!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • FiveAcres

    So this is basically My Truth (TM) trumps your desire to be treated with courtesy.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Young people reject objectivism and critical thought? Really? News to me. Where are these people who think the earth is round based on faith? And how can one even compare empirically verifiable facts to something entirely subjective and unverifiable, your personal experience of your (imagined) god? Stating that your god exists regardless does not make it so. Objective truth requires evidence, proof.

    I’m not usually this blunt because it is rude and not effective communication but if you insist on not being nice, I’ll be blunt. Yes, young people reject negative labels. Those labels very often happen to be inaccurate. I’ve been called a moral relativist, a seeker, lost, my life has been called pointless and hedonistic. In fact, I know who I am, I have a strong ethical foundation and a very purposeful and meaningful life. I value reason and empathy, objective truth and kindness (being nice as some derisively label it). My purpose is to find personal satisfaction and help others. I do that through my work, my relationships with others, caring for others and being cared for by others.

    I don’t value belief in the supernatural and I don’t found my life on it. I know others do find meaning and purpose in supernatural beliefs. I usually don’t bother them about it. They are free to be mistaken and if it brings them happiness without harm to others I can even be happy for them. Please note that is nothing like thinking everyone has some equally valid personal truth.

    I do value subjective personal experience, I do believe others when they tell me what it is like to be them, to live their life. For example, I don’t claim to personally know what it is like to be black or gay or religious because I am not. I defer to the knowledge of those who are. That is completely compatible with empiricism and objective truth. Some things are objective, the earth goes round the sun, systemic racism harms people, other things are subjective experience, do I feel awe or indifference toward astronomy, do I feel anger and sympathy about injustice or do I get PTSD from it? It can be true that the earth goes round the sun, that someone is awed, someone else doesn’t care. Objective facts are not incompatible with subjective experience and both matter. If I want to teach astronomy, I need to know facts and how to engage the interest of various different students.

    Believe what you wish, label yourself objective even though you are not when it comes to god, but I must insist on kindness to others. Please kindly quit labeling me postmodernist, truth relativist, unobjective. Please don’t mix up verifiable objective fact and personal subjective experience. Please don’t talk about me as if you understand and know me when you really don’t. Please understand that if you don’t have a personal relationship with me, any proselytizing will be seen as really obnoxious. If you do know and care about me, then I’ll see the proselytizing as well intentioned, and intent does matter, but I have heard it before and have rejected religion because it fails on both reason and compassion.

    My Christian friends and I respect each others intelligence and kindness. We think good smart people can be mistaken, that’s okay if they don’t harm others, and we don’t try to convert each other. Someone who kept going on and on about their god after I politely declined would not be my friend. Someone who claimed to know objective truth without proof or claimed to know my subjective experience without knowing me would get nowhere with me.

    Edit: And no, I do not get bent nor feel personal rejection if my religious friends think secular humanism is mistaken. I am a humanist but I don’t care if you disagree. If you treat me with respect and see the good in me, I don’t give a fart whether you think the goodness comes from human potential and good upbringing or is a gift from your god.

    Edit 2: added paragraph breaks and two sentences for clarity, fixed some grammar typos

  • FiveAcres

    This was wonderful, though I could have used more paragraph breaks.

    Especially:

    If I want to teach astronomy, I need to know facts and how to engage
    the interest of various different students. So please kindly quit
    labeling me postmodernist, truth relativist, unobjective. Please don’t
    mix up verifiable objective fact and personal subjective experience.
    Please don’t talk about me as if you understand and know me when you
    really don’t. Please understand that if you don’t have a personal
    relationship with me, any proselytizing will be seen as really
    obnoxious.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Thank you very much. It does need paragraph breaks, doesn’t it. I’ll go add some. 😉 It really could use some rewriting for better coherency too, but I mostly just wanted to get it off my chest. I just get so irked hearing the same condescension from Christians over and over again. I read their writings. Do they not read secular writing? Do they not get it? I needed to get it off my chest so thoughtful editing got sacrificed. 😉

  • Kitty

    I think the writer is confounding evident truth (e.g. a ping pong ball is a sphere) and mere belief that something is true (e.g. Jesus Christ died for our sins). One of these things is not like the other, and pretending they are alike is indeed obnoxious.

  • Karen the rock whisperer

    I was all set to write a response to this confused bit of drivel… but previous commenters have tackled the subject ably. All I can do I second the notion that the author needs to get her objective truth sorted out from her subjective “truth”. Religious “truths” are by their very nature subjective. Astronomy is a science that deals with objective truths. Don’t conflate the two.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Bravo from another misguided young whippersnapper. 😛

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Yep, this was pretty much the upshot, dressed up with a bunch of philosophy 101 and psych 101 babble. As someone with a BA in philosophy, working on a master’s in social work, who knows the jargon of both, I am not particularly impressed. 😛

  • FiveAcres

    I had a minor in philosophy and worked for years as a systems analyst. I kept thinking: is this word salad dressed up in academic-speak or is my aging brain (pushing 60 here) failing to parse a valid argument. Guess which I picked.

  • persephone

    There are already such great responses here, that I only want to add some quick notes:
    1. A ping pong ball is not always a sphere. When it makes contact with the paddle or the table, it flattens out, then regains its shape, an excellent illustration of adjusting to various situations.
    2. Confusing perception with reality is a failure of all generations, and well illustrated by the author’s contentions that her perception is reality.

  • Astrin Ymris

    That was my perception! The author was disingenuously conflating objective reality and subjective experience.

  • Astrin Ymris

    Yes, I’ve encountered that many a time on the Amazon Religion forum. It’s infuriating.

  • jennabobenna

    Fellow BA in Philosophy here. I couldn’t make it past the first couple paragraphs because it sounded too pretentious and arrogant to have any solid philosophical, logical basis. NLQ: the only site where I am more likely to read the comments than the actual articles >.<

    ETA: I'm also going back to school for a second bachelor's in psych starting tomorrow after thinking about getting an MSW. You are a woman after my own heart 😀

  • jennabobenna

    Huge pet peeve of mine. I find that people who base their entire ethical system on conservative Christianity (just the group I have most experience debating and by no means the only group with this tendency) have a REALLY hard time accepting that words mean different things in different contexts and my attempts to explain legal/philosophical/scientific terms and request we stick to a certain definition for the purposes of debate are met with the Internet version of “LALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!!!!”

    Incidentally, this is why I no longer debate anti-choicers. Explaining the philosophical and legal concepts of personhood apparently makes me a racist, genocidal maniac…But I digress.

  • Astrin Ymris

    It’s like Lewis Carroll: “Words mean precisely what I want them to mean at any given time– and the definition is subject to change without notice.”