Once upon a time, “empowerment” meant – well, empowering oneself. It was the process of obtaining some sort of significance or value that one did not previously have through hard work and concentrated efforts to become a better individual. It required commitment and dedication and sacrifice and, occasionally, the mental and physical toughness to meet, and then overcome, adversity.
“Empowerment” required someone to fundamentally change who and what they were as a prerequisite to success. And, naturally, this was something that could only take place on the individual level – the only person who could take you to the next level, of course, was yourself.
Today, however, “empowerment” means something entirely different. No longer an individual accomplishment, the concept is now regarded as a “group goal,” a sort of collective aspiration in which the success of the single member hinges on the comprehensive success of whatever exclusionary demographic he or she pledges allegiance to.
Generation Y is arguably the most balkanized society in U.S. history. Outside of a few cultural commonalities – boy, how we love our iPhones and Uber and AirBnB and The Walking Dead – we share few unifying traits or ideals. We’ve no shared national identity, nor a shared religious background. We most certainly do not share the same ethnic histories, and we definitely do not share a common language. Outside of similar consumer tastes, we’re nothing more than a gaggle of overlapping subcultures, occupying the same 3.8 million square mile salad bowl.
In that, perhaps it is understandable that a large share of Gen Y America would prefer to splinter off into special interests groups, whether it is the Black Lives Matter movement, the LGBT lobby or even emerging identity-politics subsets like the “men’s rights” or “neurodiversity” enclaves. What separates these groups from the pro-empowerment groups of the past – the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the women’s lib movement of the 1970s, the gay rights movement of the 1980s, etc. – however, is that these newer identity politics factions don’t seem all that interested in achieving actual empowerment.
Rather, some – but most certainly not all – of these Gen-Y special interests groups seem focused on bringing about social parity by knocking the perceived opposition down a few pegs instead of individually or collectively rising to a higher cultural standing.
When it comes to contemporary Millennial movements, there are few tangible objectives – i.e., ascertainable goals, like the right to vote, or participate in politics, or get married – but there is a strong desire for cultural recognition and affirmation. Very few youth-centric interest groups find themselves lobbying for specific privileges or legislative changes, but virtually all of them find themselves locked in a battle for social representation. And to obtain this conjectural universal acknowledgement, it means the group’s “oppressor” must be – to a certain extent – penalized.
Yes, there are indeed some groups seeking direct social structure changes – drug law reforms, new policing procedures, overhauls to public education and the like. But as to how these youth enclaves are to achieve social equality – and yes, they all claim to be culturally oppressed, in some form or another – the resounding reply is to tilt the playing field against the privileged other.
The term “privileged” itself is a rather insincere – if not wholly discriminatory – wording to use, as it brands an entire subgroup with mass generalizations and ascribes certain characteristics to individuals who oftentimes do not actually foster any of those traits. Alas, as a propaganda tool, it’s a rather handy term to toss around, as it intrinsically posits one side as dominating and another as being dominated. Binaries, even glaringly false ones, are important when it comes to promoting any group cause – after all, the moment adherents realize there are more than two ways to look at the world, the entire notion of a shared ideology becomes, at best, arbitrary, and at worst, utterly meaningless.
At the height of World War II, the term “V for Victory” became a rallying cry for the U.K. as Hitler’s troops slowly inched their way towards the British Isles. Today, the rallying cry of any Gen Y interest group – yes, even the reactionary “white student unions” and anti-feminist MRA sects – is “V for Victimhood.” In order to justify the mere existence of the subgroup political identity, one has to perpetually reinforce the need for balkanization, and what better way to encourage demographic insulation than promoting the idea that another subset with more “social power” is always oppressing you?
In today’s America, I can’t think of a single identity-politics-driven faction that is being directly marginalized by federal law based solely on any one ethnoracial, gendered, religious or sexuality-based qualifier. Nor can I think of any example of categorical privilege that cannot be explained by elementary arithmetic (yes, there are more people of a certain persuasion in positions of power in certain locales, because said people represent the majority of the local populace.) Furthermore, there are few instances of alleged privilege that aren’t tied into non-subgroup, individual factors, such as degrees earned and breadth of work experiences. If you put a chart of per-capita income in the U.S. side-by-side with a chart of per-capita educational attainment in the U.S., by golly, for some magical reason they seem to be perfect matches. Even the long-held notion of “white privilege” is a bit of a misnomer when you consider actual United States earnings data – as it turns out, Indians, Iranians, Filipinos, Croatians, Syrians, the Chinese, the Japanese, Israelis, Afghanis and Sri Lankans all make more money than the average Caucasian American household.
Victimhood – let’s define it as “the state in which your select ideological group is always being persecuted and/or actively belittled” – is absolutely essential to all Gen Y political subsets. In fact, one could argue that some groups, rather than trying to overcome this perceived oppression, are actually out looking to acquire more of it. Instead of empowerment – the individual ability to become responsible for one’s own outcomes – some groups want nothing more than sympathy, a sort of mass Munchausen Syndrome that effectively exonerates them from being liable for their own doings.
Indeed, the very idea of any collective identity – from pop cultural fandom to extremist hate groups – is little more than an attempt to subsume one’s own individuality into some sort of depersonalizing blob. It’s much, much easier to live life as a part of something bigger than oneself than it is to simply live life as one’s own person. Evident by today’s youth interest groups is that Millennials are absolutely horrified by the idea of being individuals – that is, independent-thinking beings – and are inherently drawn to these group identities because it provides them a narrative, if not an entire dogma, to interpret the world around them without once drumming up an original observation of their own.
None of this is to suggest that prejudice and intolerance do not exist in U.S. culture – or really, any other culture, for that matter. That said, in today’s America, the notion that a collective over-culture even exists – let alone is some sort of orchestrated attempt to suppress and subjugate specific groups – is pretty fantastical, if not an outright paranoid delusion.
To be sure, there are real systematic inequalities out there, from prison sentencing discrepancies to fluctuating college testing standards based solely on one categorical trait. Racists, sexists, homophobes and anti-everything-else-you-can-think-of people are out there, and basic math would reason that at least a few of them have achieved some pretty high positions of power in the world. But to suggest that the entire U.S. political, judicial, economic and academic super-structures are intentionally oppressing any one group, for whatever abstruse purpose, is utterly ludicrous.
Much of this new wave victimization-culture stems from the false belief that collective power is not only a real thing, but something finite that can be passed around like a hot potato. Far too many young people, across the identity-politics spectrum, have bought into the Alinsky illusion that there will always be a cultural have and cultural have-not, and that sapping the perceived “haves” of their wealth or leadership positions and transferring it to the “have-nots” automatically results in social equitability.
Unfortunately, the real world isn’t that simple. Individual “empowerment” never has been, and never will be, culled from group entitlements, and no amount of shared affirmation ensures that everyone who falls under a particular demographical umbrella will succeed. That’s because success – be it academically, economically or politically – hinges first and foremost on individual effort. Yes, any number of things in one’s past may make it more difficult to achieve said success, but at the end of the day, cultural structures aren’t responsible for your end outcome in life, your personal actions and inactions are.
And, as Gen Y’s perpetually offended and aggrieved nature demonstrates, it’s a whole lot easier to fault everybody else than it is to put the blame on your own shoulders.