Posted October 21, 2015 by Cooper Point Journal in Letters & Opinion

The Compassionate Generation

By Asa Kowals-Rose

September saw me pass a major milestone in my life, as I packed my things, and departed for The Evergreen State College. Moving away from my parents was a major change in my life, as it surely was for  many other new Evergreen arrivals. For me, however, the biggest adjustment has not been leaving my family. It has been joining my peers.

In 2012, just weeks into my freshman year of high school, I dropped out. My education after that occurred at community college, surrounded by students sometimes twice my age. My arrival at Evergreen means that, for the first time in years, I am surrounded by a high concentration of my immediate age group. Many consider this group—those born in 1996 and 1997—to be the first of a post-Millennial generation—Generation Z.

This generation hasn’t yet been subjected to the same criticism as the one before it, and understandably so. We are only now coming of age. We’ve yet to elect a president, or enter the workforce. When the commentary does start, however, I don’t expect the social critics to be any kinder. Everything for which Millennials are derided—apathy, materialism, overreliance on technology—is truer for us than for them. Where they’ve lost faith in political institutions, we never had it to begin with. While they had cell phones in their teens, ours became a distraction in elementary school. Many say they couldn’t live in a world without Internet; we can’t even imagine one. Some will use these traits to define Generation Z, but I don’t think they should—not because they aren’t accurate—but because they ignore a more significant trait. We, more than any before us, deserve to be known as the compassionate generation.

Even for this, however, we are derided. Not as too compassionate—none declare with disdain, “our youth care too much about one and other”—but as too politically correct. This trait has been disparaged by politicians and comedians, columnists and talk show hosts alike. At this year’s first Republican debate, Donald Trump declared, “We don’t have time for political correctness.” Jerry Seinfeld has said that he stopped performing at colleges because young people are too easily offended. Despite this, young people have overwhelmingly embraced politically correct speech; we believe that using the right words to describe individuals or groups is an important part of communicating in a diverse environment.

This way of speaking was evident within hours of my arrival to Evergreen; students frequently introduce themselves with pronouns, and ask others how they identify. Whereas Seinfeld and Trump view these sorts of actions as annoying and restrictive, young people see them as important parts of our social contract. The same goes for trigger warnings.

This appreciation of political correctness stems from a belief that making others feel more welcome is worth potential confusion over linguistic nuances, and doesn’t necessarily limit one’s ability to speak freely.  Making an effort to use someone’s correct pronouns doesn’t prevent the open exchange of ideas, but it does help better include that person in the exchange. It’s not so much that Generation Z is easily offended, but rather that we understand the importance of language in changing attitudes and pursuing social justice, and therefore try to avoid using potentially offensive language. This is thanks to two forces: our demographics, and our political specialization.

In the United States, Generation Z is the most diverse yet—racially, and in terms of gender and sexuality. There are currently more infants of color than white ones in the U.S., and by the time Generation Z reaches middle age, white people will cease to be a majority. Just as young people are less white, they are less straight—a recent YouGov poll found that half of people in the U.K. between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are not exclusively heterosexual. Many young people have also rejected traditional western notions of gender, with more identifying as neither male nor female.

If we are not members of these minority groups, we increasingly know people who are. Our increased awareness of these non-white, non-straight, and non-binary demographics has made us more sensitive to issues that have been previously ignored by society’s hegemonic groups. As a result, we thrive to create an atmosphere in which these issues are discussed with respect. This is one reason we use politically correct speech: it communicates respect.

The political climate of the last ten years is another reason we hold these values. Generation Z is frustrated with our current political institutions, and our perceived inability to change them. We no longer see traditional political action as a means of affecting change, so we try to change culture rather than policy. One need only look at the fight for marriage equality to see why. It was not public policy that drove people to increasingly accept same-sex marriage, but rather the efforts of campaigns to dispel prejudice against gays and lesbians. Politically correct language played a key role in this; curbing the use of anti-gay slurs helped elevate public discourse surrounding the issue of marriage equality, and helped create a more welcoming environment for gays and lesbians. Young people increasingly feel that issues like these are won, not just by voting and campaigning, but also by bringing new ideas into the cultural mainstream.

Obviously, these are generalizations, perhaps made incorrectly from my place of privilege. Perhaps my exposure to the conscientious students of Evergreen has given me an overly optimistic view of Generation Z. I also don’t mean to suggest that the ideas I’ve discussed are entirely new to my generation, only that they are more widely embraced among Generation Z than even Millennials. In writing this piece, I mainly seek to defend against the charge that young people are too sensitive, and to repudiate the notion that political correctness is some sinister Orwellian plot to limit free speech. Political correctness is a social good. It brings new voices into the mainstream, and fosters more productive dialogue among diverse groups. It shows respect to marginalized individuals whose humanity it too often ignored by the public. Many will mock Generation Z for our pronouns and trigger warnings, but we must not let ourselves be mocked. Political correctness is not our generation’s folly; it should be our greatest source of pride.