Millennials Are Alright (But Not Really!)

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It’s easy to look at the generations that come after you and judge them in negative ways. In fact, it’s so easy that every single generation does it. In the 5th century BCE, the playwright Aristophanes complained that the youth of his day learned all the wrong lessons in life: “You will be persuaded also to regard as splendid everything that is shameful and as shameful everything that is honourable; in a word, you will wallow in degeneracy.” His own generation had proper manners: “they would not have dared, before those older than themselves, to have taken a radish, an aniseed or a leaf of parsley, and much less eat fish or thrushes or cross their legs.”

These corrupt young whippersnappers and their excessive radish eating!

The context for these comments helps paint a picture. When Aristophanes was young, the city-state of Athens had helped drive off the Persians and developed an empire. They were the dominant force of their world. But all that went away after the rival city-state of Sparta defeated Athens. Why had this happened, people like Aristophanes wondered? The answer was simple—the youth of today were not as good as his own generation had been.

One thing worth noting is that among the youth that Aristophanes was calling out as useless was a young man that people called Plato (which could be a nickname, since it refers to a misshapen nose). Plato is widely considered to be the most important figure in all of European philosophy. One of Plato’s students, Aristotle, had not yet been born when Aristophanes wrote the words above, but he would be another critically important figure in intellectual history. In other words, Aristophanes was wrong. The kids were alright. They just really liked radishes.

Today we see the same kind of complaints, about Millennials who feel entitled to a living wage (how dare they!?) and complain about the tens of thousands of dollars in student debt they accrue while going to college (they borrowed it! No one forced them!). And so on. There are dozens of articles complaining about Millennials out there. I’m not going to link to any of them; you know how to find them, if you want.

I remember the same sort of complaints about my generation, known as Gen X. We were lazy, cynical, apathetic, spoiled, and so on. We didn’t care about politics. We didn’t care about anything. We listened to shoe-gazing music and our cultural icons dared the world to “entertain us”.

Of course there were articles about how we would do nothing, and civilization was in decline, and where had all the country’s values gone…and so on. So we created the internet, as you know it, and social media, and helped push for a more pluralistic society. We played a huge role in electing the first Black President, an idea that would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. That’s not to say we are perfect. We could be held at least partly responsible for rising college prices, lack of employer loyalty (we famously switch jobs a lot! So perhaps we aren’t worthy of such loyalty) and whatever other modern day problems you want to lay at our feet (but at least for now, please include the Baby Boomers as co-conspirators!).

Lumping a group of people who happen to be a certain age into a group labeled ‘Generation’ is a bit of a silly idea, but it isn’t a new one. What happens is that each generation looks at the youth and decides “They aren’t doing what I did!” For various psychological and sociological reasons, we tend to look for the positives in ourselves and the negatives in others. As a result, you’ll see plenty of people posting macros on FB that basically state “If kids today were spanked, like I was, they’d be much better people!” Almost every person I’ve ever seen post those words should be careful about the stones they throw. I know them, and they are not great examples of the benefits of corporal punishment.

But let’s set aside the fact that hating on the next generation is a historical given, and look at why it is so problematic in this particular case. Many older Americans seem completely unaware of just how privileged they have been. Baby Boomers, and even Gen Xers, who complain about younger people wanting to raise the minimum wage or have free access to college, really should think back to all of the advantages that they had. When you say that a minimum wage job isn’t meant to be a living wage job, you miss a few important facts.

First, the President responsible for implementing the minimum wage (FDR) specifically said that all full time workers were entitled to a living wage. Opponents of raising the minimum wage like to point out that the first minimum wage was only 25 cents an hour, which is nowhere near $15 an hour in real dollars (meaning adjusted for inflation). However, that misses the point. There were many political reasons why the first amount was what it was, but the spirit of the push for a minimum wage, by the person who pushed for it, was that would allow a living wage. When people today say that you aren’t supposed to live on minimum wage, that’s their view, but not the view of Roosevelt when he created it as part of the New Deal.

Second, minimum wage jobs are no longer for teenagers, or at least are no longer filled by teenagers alone. In fact, most of the people who would be affected by raising the minimum wage are over 20. This links to a third issue, which is that the minimum wage when Baby Boomers were making it at 20 years old went a lot further than it does today. In the 70s, there was less expectation that both men and women would be working, and many people were able to go to college while working minimum wage jobs without having to take out loans. Today’s students can’t do that; college prices are way too high. Also, in the 70s, getting that degree almost guaranteed you a decent job, while today’s students almost have to have one in order to get anywhere in their careers. However, having a college degree does not guarantee you a job at all, much less a good one. It’s necessary, but not sufficient, for most people (which means you have to have it to have a chance, but it doesn’t necessarily give you what you want).

The result is a generation that is looking at crippling debt before they even get a chance to start their career, which is likely going to take years to get going properly and will constantly be undermined by student loan payments. Meanwhile, they are being told that they must save up over a million dollars before they retire and that social security won’t be there for them (I think it will, but that’s what they are told). Job security? Nope. Pensions? Seriously? Oh, and many of their elders want to lower or get rid of the security nets that might help those young people who fall through the cracks. Scary world.

So when you tell Millennials that if they don’t like what they are paid, they should change jobs, you are living in a world that is long gone. Job fluidity is down 15% in many places, compared to 1980. Moving to another state is impossibly expensive for low income people. For the average American, the idea of simply switching jobs when you are unhappy just isn’t realistic. They had a hard enough time finding the job they currently have. They can’t risk losing it. Many of the people living around me in rural Ohio are dwelling in locations where the median household income is less than $30k a year. You’ll note that this is the exact figure that a new minimum wage of $15/hour would give someone if he or she worked 40 hours a week. A family, with children, making less than $30k a year has very little chance to save up enough money to move to another state, even if there were real opportunities for improved employment (which there often aren’t).

So today’s youth are caught in a strange trap. They are told that minimum wage jobs are not meant to be real jobs. To avoid them, they have to go to college. But going to college puts them in debt and does not necessarily give them a job of any sort, much less a good one. Instead, it is a necessary step in having someone look at your application, alongside tens or hundreds of other similarly qualified people desperate to get their feet in the door. Oh, and they have to make these decisions before they even turn 20, which science has shown is before our brains are fully developed for good decision making. And when they do make a choice, no matter which one is made, they are blamed if that choice does not work out for them. Lose-Lose for them. As a bonus, they get to read articles about how terrible they are and see those lucky friends of theirs on Facebook who somehow did find a good job. It’s enough to raise depression and drug use rates!

I was a college student in the 1990s. I’m a college professor in 2016. Today’s students aren’t worse; nor are they better. What they are is frustrated, and they have every right to be frustrated. They really have inherited a world that is worse than the one that those of us 35 or over faced. Recognize that, and stop cheering every time you see another article condemning a whole generation of people that have problems you never had. And before you yell at them to get off your lawn, let them have a few seconds to capture the Pokemon that’s sitting next to your water feature, which might be the only good thing that happens to them that day.

Racism Never Went Away

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This week, the U.S. experienced a series of tragedies that once again remind us of the horrible racism that still exists in America. Well, most of us are reminded of it. Unfortunately, a few people seem to think that these racial tensions are new. Some blame President Obama for fanning the flames, which is a bit like blaming women for catcalling because they have the audacity to walk down the street. President Obama has been subject to racism since before he even entered office. He’s been caricatured as a monkey, accused of being a secret traitor to our country, and even charged with being behind all of our mass shootings, as some nefarious plot to get rid of guns. Meanwhile, more guns are being sold during his Presidency than ever before, and if he were a Muslim spy, he would be pretty terrible at it, considering the relative lack of success that such terrorists have had during his Presidency. But this post isn’t about our President. It’s about racism, and the fact that it never went away and thus was never brought back.

Look, as a white male, I’ve never been the target of racism or sexism. I don’t know what that feels like; I can’t even imagine it, because that would require living every day with the knowledge that you are judged for something completely out of your control. But I was born in the 1970s, in Alabama, a state with a strong reputation of historical racism. Only a few years before my birth, there were still separate water fountains labeled ‘colored’, and the notion of separate but equal facilities was in full swing. A little over ten years before I was born, George Wallace, the Alabama governor, literally stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in an attempt to block segregation. Many people think of the 1960s as the height of racial tensions, and to some degree that is right. But it didn’t end after that. Things didn’t suddenly become equal in this country.

Here’s a few highlight reminders of the tense moments that have occurred in my lifetime (I was born in 1974). Boston had flares of violent protests in its attempts to desegregate the schools and the busing in the city in the mid to late 70s. In 1978, in Houston, a riot occurred during a protest of the police killing a Hispanic man, the tipping point in existing conflicts between the city police and the Hispanic community. In 1980, Miami, riots started after an African American man was beaten to death while being arrested. 1992 saw serious riots in LA after the Rodney King verdict, where officers were acquitted after beating an African American man (on film). The 2001 Cincinnati Riots took place over racial profiling and discrimination. In 2009, riots took place in Oakland, CA, after African American, Oscar Grant, was fatally shot by a transit police officer.

I’ll stop there, because you are likely familiar with the Baltimore Riots, the Ferguson Riots, and the latest incidents of violence that have arisen over racial tensions. Also, these are the ones that people want to blame on renewed racism, whatever that means. But as you can see above, it never went away. And here’s the part that you might not like: it’s our fault, and by ‘our’ I mean White Americans who just aren’t paying attention.

We are the ones who laugh uncomfortably when black comedians tell us about “driving while being black”. We are the ones who listen to Dave Chappelle talk about his white friend, Chip, and how he can smoke pot in front of cops with no consequences, and then think “that’s clever!” But worst of all, we are the ones who talk about being ‘colorblind’ or how we ‘don’t see color’.

I’ve been there, myself. As a teenager, I remember saying that I didn’t think of people in racial terms at all. I thought this was the enlightened viewpoint-our society was post-racial! Yay! Oh, sure, older people were still racists. I could hear it in the things they said. But not my generation. We were going to be the first non-racist Americans. I was well-intentioned, I suppose, in my own way, but incredibly naïve. This didn’t help anything. Sure, I was better than the outright racists in some ways, but I was still ignoring the persistent inequalities that were happening all around me. I went to a private school through sixth grade. In my time there, I saw two African American students, one of whom was the son of Pittsburgh Steeler legend John Stallworth. He stayed in my class for about a year, until his dad decided that this might be giving him a skewed view of the world. The other stayed about 3 years before switching schools. In my hometown of Huntsville, AL, the high school that I attended, in the SE quadrant, had almost no black students, while the one in the NW quadrant had a majority. The city was basically segregated, not by law, but in practice. I hear it still is.

So, it was pretty easy to be colorblind when I hardly ever had to interact with POCs. When I moved north, to Ohio, I heard people accuse my home state of being racist. As I just noted, this is a fair criticism, in many ways. However, it seemed problematic when I looked around and realized that 95% of the people in my community were white, and only 1% (seriously) were black. In cities like Cleveland, you can literally draw lines down streets that separate white neighborhoods from black neighborhoods, in part due to the failures of the Fair Housing Act.

If you look at the actual stats, you’ll find a huge disparity in how POCs are treated by the police, both in terms of ticketing and, as we’ve recently seen, violent confrontations. Whether Black Americans are 9 times more likely to be shot by police or 21 times more likely, the numbers are shocking.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t new. It isn’t getting better, or if it is, it’s not getting better fast enough. We have a systemic racism problem in this country, and our black President isn’t the source of the problem. Racism never went away. If it seems different today compared to ten or twenty years ago, that’s because the news is covering it more (in part, thanks to protesters, but also thanks to video capture devices). Also, depending on your age, you might have been less aware of the news and general social realities a decade or two ago. These injustices were happening when you were a child, and every year of your life, whether you noticed them or not.

None of this means that you, in particular, caused these problems. However, it does mean that we all need to do a better job of changing the system. More importantly, if these issues seem new to you, then you need to do a better job of listening to what minorities are telling you. When Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock tell us a joke about how black Americans are treated differently than white Americans, it’s OK that you laugh at that joke. But when your nervous laughter is over, it’s time to think about what they’ve said and realize that these jokes shouldn’t exist at all. Comedians often channel their most painful moments into something that teaches us about the world. Let’s learn the lessons, and let’s change the system. How do we do that? We can start by listening to the people who are experiencing the injustices. Don’t get defensive; don’t point out that you aren’t the problem. Listen and learn. We have to understand the problem before we can fix it, and that will require hearing some painful truths, about our society, and about ourselves. It’s time to stop being blind and start seeing again.

Stop Excluding Persons of Color from Fantasy Games in the Name of “Realism”

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In a previous post, I discussed how Valkyria Chronicles does an exceptional job of dealing with race issues via alt-history. In that post, I also mentioned the infamous controversy around Resident Evil 5, which depicted African zombies. Many people find the former example to be a sensitive way to deal with a very difficult racial issue, while the REV approach is often seen as problematic at best.

This led me to wonder about how race is depicted in video games in general. This is a huge topic, and it’s something I’d like to explore for several posts, but I want to start with a basic observation about the ‘realism’ argument for race in games. There are some people (and I won’t link to them because I don’t want to give them any traffic) who have a problem with depicting persons of color (POCs) in fantasy video games. The argument is often similar to the ones made against having women be warriors or have the same strength caps as men—realism.

There certainly have been games that tried to inject a bit of realism in gender differences by giving men higher strength caps. Some of the old SSI Goldbox games come to mind. These games were based on the D&D editions of their time, which had separate caps on stats for men and women. The result is that most of your fighter types in those games have to be men, if you want the best bonuses. Some of those games compensated by giving women higher charisma caps, I guess on the grounds that women are more attractive than men, even though charisma is not the same as attractiveness. I seem to recall a few giving women higher wisdom caps as the compensation, but I could be misremembering. In any case, the goal was to reflect some sort of biological reality. Whether that’s needed in fantasy games could be the subject of another post (in my view, these caps are silly), but I want to stick to the race issue for now.

If you go to almost any article that shows a particular fantasy character being reimagined as a POC, you’ll see comments complaining about political correctness and/or lack of realism. In many cases, the people making these comments see fantasy worlds as analogs to medieval Europe, which in turn they see as exclusively white.

There are two problems with this argument. The first is historical. Turns out there definitely were POCs in Europe, even in the Middle Ages, and many were prominent members of society. Yes, for historical reasons, most people were white, but people of all sorts of ethnicity and background lived in Europe, even back in Roman times.

But I think the second problem is more important, which is that the realism argument is silly from the start. The idea of race is a social construct. At one point, Irish people were considered a separate race in the U.S., and the idea of race being akin to culture is fairly new. The article linked in the previous sentence shows how difficult it is to say what ‘white culture’ would even mean. For racists, it likely means whatever views they currently hold as acceptable, but again this shows how artificial the whole thing is.

I do not mean to suggest that we should therefore be colorblind or that race does not matter. Even if it is a social construct, it still matters, and it has real effects on people. Ignoring that does no one any favors. But it does mean that racial distinctions are largely created, and we can examine history to see how and why. In fantasy worlds, with completely different histories than our own, who knows what would or would not be constructed. What we can say with confidence is that racial divisions, as we know them today, are not historical necessities. So fantasy worlds don’t have to make them. There’s nothing necessarily realistic about including them in a made up world.

Perhaps the realist will now counter by admitting that race is a construct but still insisting that there are evolutionary reasons for skin color. Darker skin is found in Africa because of the climate, where people needed a way to resist the effects of the sun. Lighter skin in Northern Europe comes from the longer winters and colder days, which led to less sun exposure (and the blue eye mutation, I guess!). Let’s assume this is not a way to re-introduce race, but is a sincere attempt at maintaining willing suspension of disbelief in a fantasy setting.

I still don’t buy it. If your fantasy world has magic, with flight, teleportation, or even just dragon riding or other means of conveyance that would far surpass our own medieval methods, then people in your world can migrate with ease. Unless all of these things are very new, no one is stuck in a particular climate or subject to the same rules of our own world.

None of this means that you can’t have critical ethnic differences, culture clashes, etc. in your fantasy world. These kinds of things will happen. But the separation of people based solely on physical features of the sort that we today identify with the term ‘race’ are historically isolated in our own world. They aren’t necessary for realism in a fantasy world. So the creators of those worlds can and should be able to present their denizens in whatever way they wish. If the creators want to have a world where physical differences have led to unfair prejudices, that’s fine. But they don’t have to have that, especially not in the name of realism.

Games are a form of entertainment. More people being able to enjoy that entertainment is a good thing, and part of the beauty of roleplaying games is that you get to explore different aspects of our world in a sandbox where the consequences do not affect you outside the game. Many people like to use this opportunity to play a different version of themselves. They still want to relate to their character though, which means they should have a choice of what gender they want to play, and what physical characteristics they want to have. There is no reason to limit these options.

Furthermore, people like to see themselves represented in games. If you are African American, and even fantasy games suggest that you don’t exist, or that only white people matter, that’s more than just frustrating. It undermines your status as a person. There’s simply no good reason for fantasy worlds to do this. More inclusiveness in fantasy-based games means more people enjoying the amazing worlds that fantasy writers can create.

In the next blog, I’ll talk about the more obvious analog to racism in fantasy worlds, which is really about species (elves, goblins, humans, etc.) and sub-species (High Elves, Sylvan Elves, etc.). Race is not really a formal biological term anymore.