As a college freshman I was lucky to have had a wonderful professor for my Introduction to Philosophy class. Her name was Dr. Virginia Ringer. She was irreverently funny, conscientious, modest, brilliant, and an extremely tough grader, which, instead of making us resent her and want to drop her class, made us all try that much harder. There is no doubt in my mind that it was because of Dr. Ringer that I became a philosophy major.
Anyway, Dr. Ringer was an ardent proponent of that well-traveled theory which holds that significant social changes aren’t the result of new data, or media coverage, or scientific research, or peer pressure, or anything like that. Rather, significant social changes are almost entirely generational in nature. Specifically, only when old people begin dying off, and the younger generation takes over, do we see progressive change.
Yes, it’s an inelegant and disturbing theory, but it makes sense. Think about it. Progressive attitudes toward sex, race, feminism, drugs, education, mental illness, nationalism, etc., don’t arise as a result of senior citizens being re-educated or exposed to fresh information or new angles, and then suddenly seeing the light and changing their minds about such topics. That ain’t going to happen.
Barring exceptions, significant social changes don’t occur as a result of epiphanies. They occur because of arithmetic. They occur because the old people die off and a new generation, one with new ideas and new approaches, springs up and replaces them. Yes, revolutions have occurred—actual, honest-to-goodness, historical revolutions—but even those revolutions were fomented and conducted by the young, not the rocking-chair crowd.
Needless to say, Dr. Ringer’s version of this theory was far more subtle and compelling than I made it sound, and, of course, it wasn’t nearly as morbid. Indeed, her explanation was not morbid at all; it was exceedingly, almost fatalistically, optimistic. The theory of generational change asserts that there is nothing but hope awaiting us, and the evidence of that hope is visible all around us.
Consider racism and the civil rights movement. Racial hatred didn’t automatically vanish with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; nor did it vanish because Ku Klux Klansmen in Biloxi, Mississippi, woke up one morning and realized that they had been utterly wrong to hate black people and to fear such things as miscegenation and the “mongrelization” of the races.
New federal laws didn’t precipitate any permanent changes. Laws or no laws, those old bigots weren’t going to change their minds one iota about anything having to do with the “Negro race.” Things improved only because those ignorant sons of bitches were kind enough to begin dying off. And when a sufficient number of them died, things got better. Simple as that.
So here’s the good news. People who stand in the way of progressive change are eventually going to go away. They’re going to die, every last one of them. The Koch brothers can’t live forever. And when they leave, things will get incrementally better. The same goes for people like that spooky Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia.
Does anyone honestly believe that anything except his demise could possibly improve Scalia? Not only is he ideologically implacable, he’s getting worse as he ages. The man has become a shrill caricature of himself. Alas, his perverse arrogance and condescending impertinence can only be cured by one thing. And that one thing will eventually happen. Which is reason for optimism.
Out with the old, in with the new. Because the future of the world lies with the young, things can only get better. It’s the Generational Theory of Social Evolution. What’s not to like?
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), is a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com.