Are we just a bunch of nihilists?

Are we just a bunch of nihilists? September 23, 2014

Two weeks ago, WNYCs Radiolab released a show about Nihilism. The podcast, titled “In the dust of this planet,” featured Eugene Thacker–professor at the New School in NYC, and self-proclaimed nihilist/pessimist.

The podcast explored the question of whether the current generation of young people are more nihilistic than the generations that came before them. To illustrate his point, Radiolab host Jad Abumrad discussed how the cover of Thacker’s book, after which the episode is named, went on to lead its own life after publication. (Spoiler alert: This part involves Jay-Z and True Detective.)

Abumrad and his guests make a compelling case for why nihilism may seem particularly appealing to the current generation of young people. Unlike previous generations, we have access to HD footage of all the world’s suffering at our fingertips: Terrorism, disease, sexual violence, and environmental disasters. And while the generations before us were unified by a common fear of nuclear annihilation, the threats we face feel far less defined. In many cases, it’s not even clear to us that we’re the good guys.

Indeed, In today’s threat landscape, we are often our own worst enemies. We know carbon emissions will fundamentally change our planet for worse, yet still we are doing precious little to stop them. The question being discussed now is how we will deal with this certain fate.

What I take to be the main point of the episode is that nihilism is popular because the world we live in is terrifying and meaningless, and we’re not sure about our role in it. The surge of nihilism is really a wave of posturing: People put on a brave face to hide the fact that they don’t know what else to do.

While I agree that one can see how nihilism would thrive in an environment like this, I don’t buy that millennials are particularly nihilistic. To the contrary, I think we are as idealistic as the generations that have come before us.

However, our efforts do suffer from lack of a common struggle. Rather than being a generation mobilized against nuclear weapons or segregation, our generation is mobilized against everything. The list of issues that demand our attention is endless, from the continuing discrimination against women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community; to climate change, income inequality, animal welfare, and the rise of global terrorism. All of these issues demand our complete attention, and as a result, we can’t possibly give it to them.

To their credit, millennials haven’t given up. For any issue you can name, there’s a movement of young people working tirelessly to address it.

It’s easy to mistake scattered issue-activism for aimlessness or indifference. But the two are not the same. So hold your horses before you paint us all as nihilists.

Or don’t. Whatever.

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