Culture At Large

'I am not a millennial! I am a human being!'

Karen Swallow Prior

Remember David Lynch’s 1980 film, The Elephant Man? The movie is based on the life of Joseph Merrick, a severely deformed man born in 1862 in Victorian England. After discovering Merrick in a “freak show,” a doctor takes him to a London hospital where Merrick is again treated as an object of curiosity, only now in the name of science rather than entertainment. The iconic scene occurs when Merrick, cornered by a curious mob, cries out in anguish, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!”

These lines came to mind after I posted on Facebook yet another article about millennials and called my students’ attention to it. It was – surely - a good, challenging and instructive essay. Several students agreed. But others bristled. Their problem, they explained, was not with the article per se, but with being confronted with one more specimen from an endless ocean of opining about millennials. “I’m just tired of it,” one student sighed.  

Yet, it’s not like the millennials are the first generation to be dissected, described and dismissed by the pundits. All the way back in 1965, a similar protest was sung by The Who:

People try to put us down

(Talkin’ ‘bout my generation)

Just because we get around

(Talkin’ ‘bout my generation).

My student insisted it’s not the same. He said the term “millennial” no longer seems to refer simply to the generation born between 1980 and 2000, but is brandished as a code word for “reluctant adolescents who have yet to join the ranks of ‘real adults.’” He argued that while analysis of other generations “tends to focus on statistical evidence,” commentaries on millennials “make overly broad generalizations, criticizing their perceived faults and offering sweeping and insulting critiques of character.”

No generation on earth has been under more constant observation and more types of observation than millennials.

“The problems with such analyses,” another student told me, “are that, first, they are inevitably gross overgeneralizations and, second, the traits that people attribute to any generation are usually negative. It would be more helpful to encourage everyone toward positive characteristics, rather than complaining about the actions and attitudes of certain generations.”

My students’ resistance to this dehumanization via classification suggests that the link between their lament and that of Merrick, the Elephant Man, may be more than rhetorical.

Merrick was born when modern human sciences were giving rise to modern institutions such as clinics, mental institutions, hospitals and industrial prisons. Demography became a distinct science, bringing with it the urge to quantify and categorize. These developments led to an emphasis on “normalcy” and increased attention on those who deviated from newly constructed norms. Thus, even under the doctor’s benevolent care, Merrick became an object of medical curiosity, as subject to the anxiety-inducing power of the gaze as when he was an object of entertainment.

No generation on earth has been under more constant observation and more types of observation than millennials. They are the first generation birthed in the age of the blogosphere. They more than any previous generation have been fondled and finessed into shape by the demographic analyses that translate human qualities into quantifiable data. No other generation has spent as much time laid out on the table of the cultural vivisectionists.

The power of modern systems derives not from physical force but from the self-consciousness and self-regulation imposed by those under observation on themselves, as the 20th-century postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault has shown. This is the power at work in the tragic outcome of Joseph Merrick’s story, and one wielded subtly (and not-so-subtly) over millennials.

The line between seeking to understand another and creating an object of curiosity is easily blurred. We who teach, influence and even study young people would do well to heed the admonition of Colossians 3:21 and seek not to provoke them by excessive, if benevolent, scrutiny, lest they be discouraged. Before they are millennials, they are children of God whom He knows not by generation, but by name.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Philosophy, News & Politics, Social Trends