Provocations

By Daniel A. Kaufman

With Spring Break rapidly approaching, I asked my students what their plans were, after telling them that my wife, daughter, and I are going to Miami Beach.

Apparently, there are no traditional Spring-Breakers among my students this year, though a number of them are going on “mission trips,” with their churches.  What these typically involve is traveling to an underdeveloped country, where one engages in some sort of public works project and evangelizes and proselytizes to the local population, the heavy-handedness of which seems to vary, depending on the denomination.

In truth, my students’ replies were not at all surprising –  I ask them this question every year, and I can’t remember the last time someone answered with “Daytona beach” or “Panama City” – but they irritated me nonetheless, as they did last year.  Yes, yes…I know…why do I keep asking? Am I trying to aggravate myself?  Perhaps.  But, this year, I am determined to get to the bottom of it.  Not why they keep going on these mission trips – I know the answer to that – but why their doing so bothers me so damned much.

It’s unnatural

At the simplest level, it’s just plain unnatural for a nineteen or twenty year-old to want to spend his or her vacation in some disease-ridden shantytown, wading through garbage and contaminated water, rather than at a beach resort, partying with other nineteen and twenty year-olds.  This is the age to be self-indulgent; to act out; strut your stuff; drink; chase girls or boys; you know, act like a fucking young person.  Not only will you have plenty of time – decades upon decades –  to be square and sober and responsible and to do good works, but this time – which is very short, ten years at most – will never come back.  You will never be this young, this beautiful, or this much fun again.

What the hell has happened to the young libido?  It’s bad enough that my students come to class in their pajamas, looking like homeless people, with no apparent desire to attract anyone, but their behavior is even less enticing.  At the fringes, it’s activists yelling about “rape culture” and the like, which is enough to sour any good evening, but even among those who are entirely within the mainstream, there is a strange aversion to physical engagement and contact.  I sometimes get to class a few minutes early and find my students sitting in the room, in the dark, in complete silence.  Young guys sitting next to young girls, completely ignoring one another, while hunched over their phones.  And no, I’m not talking about a handful of nerds, here and there – a few gangly kids playing hand-held video games – it’s freaking everyone. (1)

Even the teens and tweens act like a bunch of old people.  When we (early Gen Xers) were that age, we were essentially glands and hormones on legs, chasing each other left and right, and it was everything our parents could do to rein us in, even a little bit, but things have gotten so weird in the last decade or so that the situation is now reversed, and I find myself begging my daughter and our friends’ kids to date, flirt a little, check someone out, do something in pursuit of the opposite sex (or the same one, if that’s your thing).  It’s no wonder that by the time they get to college they’ve become such asexual lumps.  They haven’t gone off the boil…they never got on it. (2) Indeed, this has become such a problem in Japan that it is a matter of significant public concern (3) and may require governmental action of some kind – I can’t wait to see what that’s like – and in Denmark, public anxiety over young peoples’ shriveled libidos has gotten so bad that it has inspired the launching of a bizarre advertising campaign, called “Do it for Denmark,”in which a parade of senior citizens beg young people to screw more. (4)

Kiddie Philanthropy

There is something else that I dislike about these mission trips and what they represent, and it’s this: they are part of a constant drumbeat for charitable activity, to be performed at ever younger ages.  Elementary and Middle School kids are being saddled with a sense of responsibility for feeding the poor, housing the homeless, curing cancer and the like.  Students in the academically accelerated program, in the high school where my wife teaches – and where my daughter will start as a Freshman next year – are required to put in literally hundreds of hours of “public service,” before they graduate, as a condition for staying in the program.  I hear kids of every age talk about “giving back,” despite the fact that they are too young to have gotten anything of the sort for which “giving back” is even a remotely appropriate reaction.  So incongruous do I find this wave of kiddie social justice that in my darker moods, I wonder whether the whole thing isn’t some horrible conspiracy, hatched up by old, embittered Yippies to turn late-Millennials into a generation of insufferable goody-goodies.  Regardless, it is an unwholesome development – one that burdens children and adolescents with feelings of obligation and duty on a massive scale, even though they are denied the prerogatives and freedoms necessary to act on them in any substantial way, resulting in little more than moral make-work that succeeds in being simultaneously busy and petty.  A ten year-old is obligated to play nicely with others, go to school, listen to his teachers, do his homework, and not hit people.  He is not obligated to Race for a Cure!  or march for civil rights.

Cultural Invasion and Quid Pro Quo Charity

The kiddie social justice phenomenon is ubiquitous these days, and you’re as likely to find secular kids saddled with charity work as the religious.  The “mission trip,” however, is a distinctively religious phenomenon with its own distinctive faults.  I’ll close with two of the worst:

(a)  To try and convince others to abandon their religious identities is an inherently hostile act and involves at least tacit contempt for the other person’s heritage.  The only reason to try and convert someone, after all, is because one believes the other’s religion to be defective in some way, an ungenerous attitude in itself.  To target poor, vulnerable people, who may practice indigenous, native religions, which are often ancient and at risk of extinction, only makes the practice more abhorrent, and the tactics employed by missionaries are often highly sophisticated, involving misrepresentation, deception, and soft coercion, as well as taking advantage of their targets’ weaknesses. (5)  The religious cultures of the world are human treasures.  Efforts to erase or absorb them, consequently, cannot be anything but objectionable in the extreme.

(b)  Charity with strings attached is no charity at all, which is what is so offensive about organizations like the Salvation Army, in which tzedakah is treated as a kind of quid pro quo (where food and shelter are traded for prayer and religious instruction), which is particularly despicable, given just how helpless many of the recipients are.   Mission trips involve precisely the same kind of structurally repugnant relationship with the poor and needy in foreign lands, although, the degree to which they are objectionable in this way depends upon the amount and the coerciveness of the evangelizing involved.

While the quid pro quo aspect of missionizing and evangelizing are their most repugnant features, they also involve smaller violations of the fundamental principles of charity, such as shaming the recipients – see my previous point, regarding the attitudes and postures involved in missionizing – and engendering a sense of indebtedness that ratchets up the pressure to convert.   Indeed, so confused are these missionaries as to what charity actually consists of that one wishes that they would all be required to read Maimonides’ “Eight Levels of Charity” in the Mishneh Torah, which might help clear things up a bit. (6)


 

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What Spring Break Should Look Like

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What Spring Break Should Not Look Like

Notes

1. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/02/25/we-are-hopelessly-hooked/

2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/05/06/why-millennials-have-sex-with-fewer-partners-than-their-parents-did/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-gen-y-guide/201510/why-millennials-are-failing-shack

3. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/young-people-japan-stopped-having-sex

4. Do it for Denmark (1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrO3TfJc9Qw

Do it for Denmark (2)     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B00grl3K01g

5. http://www.sanskritimagazine.com/india/christian-missionaries-india/hindus-under-siege-evangelical-missionary-war-on-india/

6. Maimonides on the Eight Levels of Charity

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Levels_of_Giving.html

http://www.sefaria.org/Mishneh_Torah,_Gifts_to_the_Poor.10.7-14?lang=he-en&layout=heLeft&sidebarLang=all

Categories: Provocations

23 Comments »

  1. A terrific agora;Having them dwell into mishne torah and rambam although appropriate does not exactly jive w the take of the article. But it fits. Kudos

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  2. A provocation indeed and rather enjoyable! I love it when you write from your heart with eloquent and forceful prose, even though I think you’ve got it all wrong.

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  3. These are written with style very much at the forefront of my attention. They also are not intended as developed thoughts, but rather as instinctive outbursts, which may contain nuggets worthy of exploration.

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  4. Yes, and that is why it makes such a good essay. It has provoked my engagement with the theme at the same time that I enjoyed its presentation. I’m still trying to get my thoughts in order about your really interesting talk of meaning and purpose. I thought it deserved a careful response which can translate into a response so delayed there is no response 🙂

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  5. What you say is kind off odd, the most common complaint that I hear is that millennials are too narcissistic and lazy. Your experience seems to contradict what is repeated all the time.

    I agree with you on religious missions, and your comment that they do more harm than good,demanding to people that they change their core beliefs in exchange for material aid is denigrating to those people, it dehumanizes those people, as they assume that their beliefs are not to be treated that can be discussed and understood,and that peoples principles can be “bought”.

    The attitudes towards sex and dating you speak about do not surprise me, since you seem to be on a very religious community, where sex education consists of just traumatizing and shocking kids into not having sex, teaching them how to understand and accepting their sexuality.

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  6. Excellent piece, particularly the sections on young libido and charity. In terms of charity, you voiced (somewhat tongue in cheek, I take it) a reason why we older folks might be imposing this charity regime. Any thoughts as to why we’ve allowed youth libido to be turned off by tech, etc.?

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  7. francis:

    The thing re: the sex is, data shows that this is national and even worldwide, in modern industrial countries. So, it’s not just young evangelicals who aren’t having sex. Indeed, you have governments taking action, in response to this, as I indicated in my references to Japan and Denmark.

    Re: the other point, I don’t see the contradiction between being self-absorbed and manically engaging in charitable works. There is a *version* of self-absorption, in which the two would be incongruous, but it’s hardly the only one. Indeed, it’s quite common for self-absorption to manifest itself through moralizing.

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  8. Dan,
    It is odd to find worries about increasing disinterest in sex in the current era, which sees media of all sorts pandering to the salaciousness of its audiences.

    I recently went binge watching recent television shows, mostly detective shows. According to the writers of these shows, the primary reason people choose law enforcement as a career is because they want to have sex – with other law officers, with criminals and victims, with lawyers, with the divorced spouses of their colleagues, etc. Basically, “join the police and rut” seems to be the recruiting motto of the police departments portrayed in these shows.

    So how do young audiences of such shows accept such nonsense in their entertainments, and yet lose interest in behavior that might accomplish the rutting such shows tell them they want?

    I think the answer is that the sexuality we see in media lacks intimacy; and it is an increasing anxiety concerning intimacy that results in less interest in sex; in having fun with others; in talking directly to others rather than texting or tweeting or yammering dramatically over cell phones. So in an overtly sexualized culture, what seems to be getting lost is direct contact with another person – getting to know someone, learning their history and interests, their hope, their vulnerabilities.

    That may not be “The answer,” but it appears to be an underlying theme of many phenomena of which you complain. (Even perhaps of the bargained or invasive ‘charity’ you describe. After all, such ‘charity’ requires denial of the personhood of those the charity attempts to convert. “There is no love in this world any more,” Howard Devoto once sang. Perhaps that’s the real problem here….)

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  9. ej: But that would seem to suggest that young people are craving intimacy when their behavior — touch aversion; preference for interacting through media; lack of dating and marriage — all suggest exactly the opposite.

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  10. Dear mr. Kaufman,

    Thanks for this piece. I always read your Provocations with much pleasure – the one about punk was great. Two questions, though. Is there a relationship with religion? America is culturally a predominantly protestant country, like Denmark (but Japan isn’t of course). I live in a country that’s predominantly catholic and I don’t see this phenomenon – quite the opposite, to be honest. Nice middle-class parents from solid culturally catholic backgrounds have children who ask them if their boy- or girlfriends can sleep over, and they can (if the parents of the boy- or girlfriend agree!). It’s a all very catholic and hypocrite, with lectures about birth control and about why it’s not done, but now that you ask, you’ll be having sex anyhow, so it’s better that you have it at home, so … One father complained to me that one night his three sons (aged 17 to 21) had their girlfriends sleep over at the same time, and he was afraid the house was going to cave in.

    Second question: isn’t this phenomenon happening because young people aren’t allowed to fail anymore? Because absolutely everything has to have a purpose? You know – if I’m spending too much time with the opposite (or the same) sex, if I’m not doing this missionary work and this community service … I’ll blow my chance to go to Harvard (or Yale or MIT or whatever) and become a banker or a high-powered lawyer or whatever.

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  11. Dan K:

    “Even the teens and tweens act like a bunch of old people.”

    Obviously, you’re acquainted with a different bunch of old people than I am. 🙂

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  12. “…at least tacit contempt for the other person’s heritage”. Personally, I believe there are some heritages or elements of heritage worthy of contempt, and I suspect you can think of some. One of them might be the tendency of some Christians to evangelize people they haven’t met before – a pattern of behaviour in that heritage for a little while now. The other part of the Christian heritage is the idea that saintliness is possible for some, and is a target worth aiming for – even if most people don’t reach this level, they are not failures, just less successful.

    There is a further assumption here that changing beliefs an individual acquired before the age of 12 are somehow exempted from being of interest to other people. Whether consent is impaired by the offer of a free gift at the end of an intervention or study does bother the ethics committees I have to deal with, but as long as we keep the inducements small enough they don’t seem to mind.

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  13. Dan,

    “that would seem to suggest that young people are craving intimacy when their behavior (…) all suggest exactly the opposite.”

    But of course both could be true. Anxiety over intimacy, leading to avoidance behaviors, doesn’t mean that the anxious do not crave it, only that they are wary of it. (And unfortunately the surrounding culture seems to assure them that it is not necessary. Well, technically it isn’t strictly ‘necessary’ – but our lives are certainly impoverished without it.)

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  14. couvent: I *do* think that part of the kiddie-philanthropy phenomenon has to do with overachievement more generally. When I complain to my wife about the phenomenon — she teaches in one of the local high schools — she tells me that all this volunteering is perceived as necessary for one’s “resume” and college admissions.

    I would agree with you re: the religious point, except for the fact that the data is nationwide and worldwide. The generation, as a whole, is having less sex. I don’t deny that this is more true in some places than others, and the point re: Catholics is well taken. That said, Europe as a whole has anemic birthrates.

    davidlduffy: I would separate the contempt that one feels for bad people from contempt that one expresses for perfectly decent folk, in the process of ostensibly serving them in a charitable capacity.

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  15. Good piece, I am with you completely on the missionary thing, but I can’t get bothered over young people not squelching enough. It is up to them.

    At their age I preferred to spend holidays driving ir walking into some vast lost and desolate area, far from anyone.

    As for how the young are turned out, I can’t help notice that they seem to take exquisite care of their appearance in Sydney. I am not convinced by the bushranger beard, but some men carry it off well.

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  16. Robin: Well, the behavior of others at a certain point has an effect on everyone else. You have entire countries now, whose birth/replacement rates are so inadequate that their social infrastructure is at risk of collapsing. One can get to the point at which preference so violates nature that it can cause serious problems and even catastrophes.

    Part of the reason Europe has encouraged so much immigration from the Middle East is because of its anemic birth rates and consequently stagnating populations. And it’s in the process of blowing up in their faces.

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  17. Robin: There also is something just plain weird — pitiful even — about having to beg young people to have sex. That youthful libidos are as they are is a serious problem, not just a preference.

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  18. “Are you ready for the summer
    Are you ready for the sunshine
    Are you ready for the birds and bees,
    the apple trees,
    and a whole lot of foolin’ around”
    – theme from meatballs
    (the way summer used to be)

    Hi Dan, great public criticism piece, as usual.

    Obviously I would disagree that what we are seeing is “unnatural”. Boring, depressing, a point of concern for maintaining our populations… sure. But this is the natural result of something going on in the physical or social environment (who can claim ours was the “natural” environment and behavior?).

    I agree that in our generation (or the way it seemed to me) “we were essentially glands and hormones on legs, chasing each other left and right, and it was everything our parents could do to rein us in, even a little bit…”. Of course being a socially awkward introvert it didn’t take much to reign me in and you might very well have found me sitting quietly in a room not talking to girls, or well, anyone. So it is a bit more complex between what is seen on the outside and what is going on in the inside.

    I guess this is somewhat a nod to what ejwinner was saying (maybe they’re all pent up introverted types), though I wholly disagree with the source of the problem EJ suggests. Media may be more sexually explicit, but to my mind it lacks the excitement and fun surrounding sex, and more importantly the idea teens intrinsically might want sex and that it would turn out to be a joyful experience for them.

    This dovetails with all of the public fear about sex shoved at post Gen-Xers: how harmful it will be psychologically (“damaging” because they have no interest or “aren’t ready”) and physically (disease). Not to mention the punishment they see inflicted on people whose sex lives are exposed publicly.

    We’ve made life a bit too hard, too demanding and fraught with peril. Thus the safest course is to keep checking for better options (to be sure) through electronic screening devices in some safe space. Not to mention sacrificing fun for points on your cv.

    That said, doing missionary/humanitarian work rather than taking spring break would seem to be more a US thing, than some global phenomenon.

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  19. dbholmes: It seems to me that if anything counts as unnatural, it’s people at the peak of their hormonal explosion having so little interest in sex. Puberty is a nature-thing, even if we’ve stretched *social* maturity out much longer (which strikes me as a mistake too).

    I agree with the point re: risk aversion. When you constantly blast everyone with how dangerous everything is, it’s not surprising that they become skittish about doing anything.

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  20. Hi Dan, point taken.

    I was arguing this being natural more along the lines of girls who stop menstruating during times of physical/emotional stress. That might be unusual, but certainly a natural response to any environment the girl is in. So the arrow of “unnatural” points more to the environment (which is the cause) than the physico-behavioral change (which is simply a natural result).

    In this case I think people are still producing the right hormones and likely even the excitement, it’s just that the resulting drives have been repressed or channeled into different outlets. Thus the environment we have placed them in is unnatural, definitely artificial, compared to the one where human sexuality developed/flourishes.

    And now I have to take some of the heat as well. It’s not exactly like I’ve helped increase the population. There is a difference between lack of pursuing sex/relationships and lack of having kids. If I understand right in Japan it is both, but in Denmark it may just be the latter. Many people avoid having kids out of social fears regarding overpopulation and/or the financial/personal burden they (purportedly) impose. That certainly was the case for me and several gfs.

    On young people acting like old people, you’ll appreciate this story…

    The other day I was reviewing my 80s music preferences while working in the lab. At some point I decided to throw on the RepoMan soundtrack. Then someone walks in and tells me to turn it off or to something else. This 20-something then lectured me about listening to shitty, distorted music with disturbing titles like “suicidal tendencies”. I grumbled that was the name of the band, not the song. Then it hit me. I had the exact same argument with some old guy thirty years ago. I laughed as he turned the music to… no kidding… Back Street Boys. Might as well have been Lawrence Welk. 🙂

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  21. You are in a better position to know this than I am, but do you in fact know that your students are engaging in the kind of proselytizing that you’re accusing them of? And even if they are aggressively proselytizing, those who must live in the vulnerable, underdeveloped areas your students visit may view undergoing quid pro quo evangelization as worth the risk if it means the difference between starving and not. At least it gives them options they might not have otherwise. Furthermore, the religious cultures in these places are not museum pieces. They are contested by elements both within and without their own culture even absent the presence of Christian missionaries. These cultures and peoples may be vulnerable, culturally, socially, and economically, but give them credit for the intelligence, resourcefulness, and creativity that they do have..

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