I’m an old-cohort millennial or, if you like, part of the Oregon Trail generation. I graduated college in 2010. At that time, I was definitely aware of transgenderism, for example, because I was an English major and I worked at the campus paper. None of the great awokening era stuff has been new to me because of that. That said, on campus more generally and in media culture more generally, that was still a time with a relatively narrow Overton Window. Back then, Barack Obama still hadn’t “evolved” on gay marriage—meaning he hadn’t stopped lying about his support for it because lying about his support for gay marriage was actually politically advantageous. That’s just one example, but it’s a striking one, I think, that suggests how things have shifted in the past decade plus.
What we seem to have now is a broadening of the Overton Window in both directions amongst American young people. Or perhaps you have the shattering of the old window and its replacement with separate windows, one of which is pushed hard to the left and the other hard to the right. On the one hand, trans ideology is more entrenched amongst young progressives and views like the stated views of Obama during his first presidential term will get you insta-canceled. On the other, young Republicans are a reliable institutional vehicle for the craziest stuff you’ll hear from the American right. So: What’s behind all this?
Here’s one theory: Ross Douthat has argued that the central characteristic of our moment is decadence. Decadence is a kind of prolonged existence that lacks energy, vision, or drive; it’s existence lacking a reason for existence. It’s what you get when the status quo is so deeply entrenched that the power of inertia can keep you going on the same path, even when most people have come to the conclusion—not without reason—that the path is a dead end. Even if it’s a dead end, staying on is easier than getting off.
But here’s the thing: If you’re my age or older, you remember when things didn’t feel the way they do now. My childhood was quite idyllic—lots of play time with friends, stable home life, friends with stable homes, we never went hungry, I never worried about our family’s finances. And this wasn’t because we were uniquely rich or privileged by American standards; neither of my parents went to college and my mom stayed home to raise me. We lived in a hundred year old two bedroom house that’s probably not much more than 1100 square feet. So life wasn’t opulent or characterized by conspicuous consumption. But it was stable, there was a feeling of belonging that ran through my childhood and our family, and there was very little anxiety or resentment in our home or in the homes of most of my friends. (We were fundamentalists, and so you certainly could find anxiety and resentment very easily in our church. But my parents were always healthier than our church was and they were good at both finding friends in the church that were like that and at shielding me from some of the craziness in our church.)
My parents, of course, have similar memories as young cohort baby boomers. But for folks much younger than me, those kind of stories are less common from what I can tell. Home life was often anxious and stressed due to work and financial fears. They moved a lot and so were relatively disconnected from family and had to find new friends every few years. And their life tended to be over-programmed to the point that they had very little experience of unplanned time for free play. Yet the deal they were given, repeatedly, was something like this: Do the extracurriculars and get good grades so you get into a good college. Work hard in college. And when you graduate, you’ll make good money and have a comfortable life defined by good feelings and good experiences. I remember a supervisor in college telling me—in 2007—that if I could learn Flash while I was in college I could pull down $60k a year starting the day after I graduated. That turned out to be… false. But it’s indicative of what some folks my age and far more in the next age group after grew up hearing, which caused them to enter adulthood with massively inflated expectations of what their life would be like.
So what happens? Well, you take on tons of debt to go to college because everyone told you go to college. Then you graduated after the 08 crash like I did or during the COVID years, as many young people recently did, and your entire future feels extremely uncertain. You don’t know what you’ll do, other than work super long hours in jobs that will be minimally satisfying. You don’t know who you’ll do it with. You don’t know who your friends will be. And you fear that you’ll struggle with anxiety, depression, or some more fearsome mental illness because two or three of your friends already have crippling struggles with mental health.
If that’s your world, what do you do? Well, what you don’t do is believe in the status quo. Call it the Anton Chigurh Corollary: If the rule you follow brought you here, of what use was the rule?
So you radicalize. Some people will radicalize to the left, doubling down on the ideology of self-creation, pushing further and further into what amounts to a kind of post-human theory of sexuality in which our bodies are infinitely malleable and responsive to our internal sense of self. This will, inevitably, come with a hard progressive push more generally, as the state is reimagined as the facilitator of self-creation and, therefore, as the party responsible to secure everyone equal access to the means of self-creation.
Others will radicalize to the right, taking a radically anti-authority turn in which all forms of external authority, be it government, public health officials, corporations and their HR divisions, or even spiritual authority are all regarded as corrupted and suspect. (If you follow Sayers’s sin chart heuristic, I’m essentially arguing that the young left radicals exemplify his “therapeutic” world while the young right radicals exemplify his “nihilistic” world.)
So what happens under these conditions? In terms of media content, the established mainstream outlets are dismissed as untrustworthy and corrupt, flunkies of a failed regime. The media projects that have a voice with people will be the ones that give free rein to a fuller expression of ideas about the world rather than being beholden to the old neo-liberal consensus. So figures like Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson and Tucker Carlson will dominate the right’s media diet while a cacophony of extreme progressive social media influencers will dominate the left’s mental space. Rogan in particular is worth considering because his entire pitch is “I’m not censorious and I’m not afraid of new ideas. I’m interested in everything and I’ll have anyone on to talk about whatever they want.” His entire appeal, in other words, is his absolute disdain for neo-liberal era Overton Window norms. This is what pastors are having to deal with all the time.
And what of pastors? What of spiritual authorities? Here’s one place where it gets especially nasty: If you’re my age or older, you remember when the neo-liberal order worked. And so the various radical ideas increasingly common on right and left hit you not just as bizarre or odd, but as scary. So you respond to the anxiety largely responsible for these ideas with your own anxiety. You’re triggered. And once you’re triggered, you’ve lost because in being triggered you’ve just told your audience that you’re part of the failed decadent order.
Because here’s the thing: If you’re an American young person embittered by the failed promises made to you by parents, coaches, guidance counselors, teachers, and so on, you’ve got a fantastic bullshit detector—or at least a very sensitive bullshit detector. So if you’re a campus minister, pastor, or other sort of authority and you respond to them as if their question, idea, or belief is triggering to you, then you’ve already lost because you tripped their bullshit detector and now they think you’re no different than the teacher, guidance counselor, or whoever it was they’re reacting against.
What’s to be done, then? Two things immediately spring to mind: First, dedicate yourself to becoming a non-anxious presence. Avail yourself of the resources given to you by Christ and the church to help become a stable, grounded, steady person. Those resources, if you’re wondering, are things like prayer, the Eucharist, Bible reading, listening to sermons, and fasting. If you are anxious, then you’re already done for. So trust God, avail yourself of the things he gives you, and be an actual adult.
Second, be intellectually serious. Read widely and read well. Allow yourself to be corrected by what you read. Change your mind about something. Have friends who will argue with you. Acquiring that intellectual grounding will be fun, in itself, but it will also equip you to be a trusted, valued leader in your community. Because here’s the thing: A lot of the stuff being taken seriously these days is manifestly crazy. Zeihan recently made the comment that not all crypto is fraud, “some of it is just a pyramid scheme.” The gender craziness of the left won’t last. The conspiracy theorizing common amongst some on the right can’t either. We’re awash in bad ideas and practices that can’t possibly last. But if your primary way of responding to them is “be triggered and hope my emotional response scares people off,” well, that isn’t gonna cut it. Instead, take the time to read, think, ask questions, and understand. And then respond to the age not from a place of fear and anxiety, but from a posture of quiet confidence.