This talk was given on a panel themed “In Pursuit of the Millennials” during the 22nd annual Civitas conference in Montreal.
While in Israel last summer, I was struck by a story a Holocaust survivor shared. She told us: “A few years ago, a Jewish child came home and asked her mother, ‘Can we get a Christmas tree?’ and the mother replied, ‘No, we don’t really believe in that.’ ‘Well,’ continued the child, ‘Can we have a menorah then?’ And since this mother was a secular Jew and non-observant she answered, ‘We don’t really believe in that, either.’ The child then asked, ‘So what do we believe in?’
Millennials, like most people, are asking this question and it’s partly why we’re not only reading and watching Jordan Peterson, but meeting in pubs and cafes to discuss him, talking about his ideas online, and weaving what we’re learning from him into our studies. Peterson resonates because millennials deeply want: authority, responsibility, and affirmation.
The American writer, Mary Eberstadt, observed: “Our macro-politics have gone tribal because our micro-politics are no longer familial.” The current expression of the state corresponds to the decline of the family, so conservatives and libertarians alike have reason to pay attention to the status of family life in culture.
It’s rare for people my age to speak about their families, so I was surprised, on a summer program with 20 Christian young adults, how many of them spoke about their parents while briefly introducing themselves. Between mentioning their universities, work experience, and achievements, they also said things like, ‘Growing up, my dad went for long walks with me.’ ‘My mom always read to us before we went to bed.’
Recently an interviewer said to Peterson, “It seems you were fathered well” to which he replied, “VERY.” He said, “My father is a formidable person. Both my parents… I’ve been blessed with my parents because they’re extraordinarily honest people. I can’t think of a time when I believe that my parents lied to me about anything. And that’s a great gift. The other thing that my father bequeathed to me when I was a child is an unshakable confidence that I could do what I put my mind and efforts to. He truly believed that. That’s lodged inside me like an unshakable foundation.”
This reminded me of a retreat for young adults that I attended led by Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. What led the son of former Governor General Georges Vanier to devote himself to a life of service and community among persons with disabilities? Introducing himself to us, Jean told us about a turning point in his life that happened when he was 13. It was 1942 and he was living with his family in Canada when he decided to ask his father for permission to enter naval school in England, which meant crossing the Atlantic during the Second World War. He told us, “Papa said to me, ‘I have confidence in you. If this is what you want, then you must do it.’” Jean said these words liberated him, permitted him to be himself, and gave him confidence in his desires and choices.
We need and want authority – fatherly authority – that says, ‘I have confidence in you. I expect things of you. You must decide for yourself and what you decide matters.’
Our families are supposed to be the context in which we develop our personalities that are not reducible to a single identity marker. It’s why our tombstones say things like, ‘beloved daughter, sister, wife, mother’ and not ‘straight, white, middle class, feminist.’ Our tombstones are still relational, not ideological.
Identity politics is the bringing together of people based on some shared facet of identity to which personalities are usually reduced (such as race, class, or gender). If we seek to understand what’s going on, we can see that millennials are looking for belonging and rootedness in social movements and a security that they may not have found in family life.
Paternalists seem to me to offer a counterfeit of true paternity since paternalism restricts freedom and responsibility whereas paternity contributes to it. Paternalists say, ‘I don’t trust you. Let me decide things for you. You’re not really responsible for yourself.’ We need more true fatherhood that says, ‘I have confidence in you. Take some responsibility.’
Jean Vanier’s insight is that, “Biological and spiritual paternity have the same goal: to liberate the son or daughter so that he or she becomes a complete man or woman, responsible for his or her life.” He asks: “But can someone liberate his son or daughter if he himself has not been liberated by his own father?”
Even with the Ten Commandments, God begins by saying, “I am the Lord your God…” The responsibilities are not given before we are secure in our relationship with our Father.
Next, millennials want to be called to responsibility and Jordan Peterson knows it. He says he watches eyes light up when he speaks about how responsibility gives life meaning. And when the Conservative leadership race was taking place, Peterson spoke to the candidates about their difficulties communicating to millennials: “What the hell are conservatives going to sell to young people?” he asked them. “Being conservative is something that happens when you’re older. Well, they can sell responsibility. It’s unbelievable how hungry people are for it and no one’s selling it.”
Peterson tells us, “I believe that your actions tilt the world toward heaven or hell, that your actions have consequences and that’s why they matter, and that this is what gives your life meaning and dignity.”
Last year, when Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was being awarded the Templeton Prize, I paid close attention to what he said was the most defining moment of his life: When he was a student at Cambridge, he travelled to the states to meet the great rabbis of the day. After much persistence, he got a meeting with the leading rabbi. Sacks asked his intellectual questions and the Rabbi answered. But then the Rabbi started asking him questions: ‘How many Jewish students are involved in Jewish life at your university? What are you doing to bring other people in?’ Sacks started saying, ‘In the situation in which I find myself…” and the Rabbi interrupted him: “Nobody finds themselves in a situation. You put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another one.” Rabbi Sacks says this changed his life and propelled his next fifty years of changing the situation.
We’re starved for this ennobling reminder of what lies within our responsibility. We need to face the reality of our own potential in order to appreciate the freedom and responsibility we have to realize worthy ends. And who is calling us to responsibility?
This year, Catholic Christian Outreach hosted its annual conference attended by 1,000 young adults from coast to coast. Fr. Raymond de Souza addressed us saying, ‘You will forgive me if this talk is more of a challenge than a consolation.’ He basically spent half an hour saying, ‘You’re not yet who you should be’ and we were transfixed. We were captivated because he cared enough to admonish us.
He said, “My dear sons – do not be afraid to challenge the casual assumptions of what it means to be a man on campus, that to be a man is to indulge the appetites, drink too much, play video games and seduce girls. The world needs better men, and it needs you to be those men.” And then he said, “My dear daughters: Men often live up or down to standards that are set for them by the women in their lives, beginning with their mothers and sisters, and later the girls who capture their hearts. Be demanding of them.”
To anyone thinking millennials seeking to grow in the ethical maturity that comes from mastery over our freedom is an anomaly, I saw a thousand Canadian millennials taking seriously this call to responsibility and it gave everyone hope. I have confidence that they – that we – will do the things that count.
Debriefing Fr. de Souza’s talk with one attendee I asked him, ‘Why is it that we want a priest who tells us we’re in the wrong place?’ and without hesitation he said, ‘For the same reason we want a doctor who prescribes things to heal us.’ This same young man told me, ‘I don’t like the term social conservatism but prefer to think of social elevation. We’re not trying to go back to some idyllic former age; we’re striving for fundamentally human ideals which are good and true and elevate our life together.’
We want to be judged and admonished because it’s a sign that someone cares for us enough to want our good, which is one definition of love. The libertarian seminars I attended as an undergrad always left me wondering, ‘But what, after all, is freedom for?’ We intuitively know that how we exercise our freedom matters. Freedom is only meaningful in relation to moral consequences, which are either good or bad.
So millennials actually do want elevating expectations that call us to responsibility and the moral adventure of freedom because this corresponds to who we are in truth.
Finally, I want to mention that we appreciate Jordan Peterson because he’s pointing out worthwhile values, but even more because there is a sense that’s he’s accompanying us. Through YouTube videos, books, talks, and Twitter, he makes himself available.
A friend of mine who attended his event in Toronto alternated her gaze between Peterson and the students, including afterward when he stayed to speak with them one-on-one. She told me, “The very way that he looks at people is affirming. He has a way of showing people they’re worth listening to. Here’s someone who loves people enough to bring out the best in us and who believes we’re capable of it.”
Millennials long for this affirmation and accompaniment. We need others who take us seriously and who help us contend with the reality of brokenness without sacrificing ideals.
We need to remind one another of the fundamental goodness of the world because if we believe that the world is good and that people are very good, then we’ll always have reasons to be hopeful and to take responsibility personally.
Affirmative action, then, seems to be a counterfeit of true affirmation. It’s true that we all need the rootedness. stability, and belonging that we find in relationships of unconditional love. Against affirmative action, let’s promote affirming actions that value the freedom and dignity of persons, not only for what they can do but for who they are – affirming actions like eating dinner as a family, involving grandparents in our lives, going to church together, and welcoming the presence especially of the vulnerable who so well reveal our humanity to us.
If we do not discover our identity through our relationships with God and others, then we will seek counterfeits to substitute telling us who we are.
As Benedict XVI put it:
It’s crucial to have this certainty, based on faith, that I am wanted; I have a task in history; I am accepted I am loved. […] Those who are unloved cannot even love themselves. This sense of being accepted comes in the first instance from other human beings. But all human acceptance is fragile. Ultimately we need a sense of being accepted unconditionally. Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: it is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being. If ever man’s sense of being accepted and loved by God is lost, then there is no longer any answer to the question whether to be a human being is good at all.
And so, against the counterfeit of paternalism, let’s seek the freedom-respecting, confidence-instilling encouragement of true paternity. Against the counterfeit of group conventions, let’s promote elevating expectations and personal responsibility. And against rootlessness and individualism, let’s seek the accompaniment and affirmation that liberates us to rejoice in what is good and contribute to it.
Marco asked me to share what I’d most like you to know about millennials. To sum up, we need you. We need your presence in our lives to say to us, ‘I have confidence in you. I expect things of you. You’re responsible and how you act matters. I’m glad you exist. You matter for who you are, not only for what you can do. Let’s rejoice in the goodness of the world that has been entrusted to us and may we love it enough to cooperate in taking responsibility for it.’
Amanda Achtman studied political science in her hometown of Calgary, Alberta and recently completed an MA in Philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland. She is an alumna of the Philos Project’s Leadership Institute.