19 OCTOBER 1929, Page 10

Our Elders

[This article, which is one giving expression to " The Younger Point of View," and providing an opportunity for the younger generation to express their views, which are not necessarily those of the Spectator, is a reply to the article in our issue of October 5th, on " Youth," by the " Elder Oritie."—En. Spectator.] ANY who were fortunate enough to read " An Elder Critic's " article on " Youth " in the Spectator of October 5th cannot but have been impressed by that writer's broadminded tolerance and scrupulous fairness of mind. In these days such sympathetic understanding of our position is, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule. It is for us, therefore, to show our appreciation by attempting, as well as may be, to return the compliment.

How is it, then, that we of the younger generation have succeeded so unaccountably in losing touch with our elders ? In great measure, as " Elder Critic " suggested, the answer is historical. Our grandfathers were privi- leged to live in an age of discovery such as had never before been contemplated in the history of the world. An age in which no belief, however sacred, no conviction, however hallowed by tradition, seemed safe from the attacks of a newly found science. An age, in short, of social, political, industrial and above all religious upheaval. Is it to be wondered at that they clung fast, in that sea of shifting values, to all established principles, to any arbitrary rules of conduct which could afford firm ground to stand on ? Is it surprising that they took good care to inculcate those rules into their children ?

But for us who were born in the twentieth century the situation is very different. We did not discover democracy ; we did not breed Darwin ; we did not invent steam engines. Our problems are problems of improve- ment rather than invention. We live, for all that may be said to the contrary, in an age of consolidation. And what happens ? When before it was essential to have firm hold on oneself in preparation for none knew what fresh revolution of knowledge or thought, to-day we know, or think we know, what we are and where we are going. Consequently, we do not feel the same need either for the faith or the ideals of our forefathers. We can afford, for a change, to be a little sceptical.

The trouble, however, is not that our environment has changed and with it our sense of values, but that our elders, with the best intentions in the world, seek to impose upon us their philosophy of life for no other reason but that they have found it successful themselves. If we remonstrate, we are answered with scorn : " I am older than you and therefore know better." That, of course, ends the argument. But in reality there is no wisdom so dangerous as the wisdom of experience. What is right in one set of circumstances is not neces- sarily either right or desirable in another. The problem with which we are confronted to-day is to persuade our parents that times have changed sufficiently to justify the drastic change in outlook which they find so alarming ; that what is different is not necessarily worse.

That there are, in fact, valid reasons for at least part of our behaviour is proved by a glance at two of the most common objects of parental disapprobation—our manners and our morals. It is repeatedly urged against the modern young man that he lacks courtesy in his dealings with the opposite sex. That is perfectly true. But the criticism is not altogether relevant. It fails, for one thing, to take account of the fact that the opposite sex is no longer in statu quo. To-day many women resent as an implication of weakness or inferiority attentions which they hitherto expected as the privilege of a weaker sex. It is not that the young man of to-day is less respectful or more lazy or more thoughtless than his predecessors. It is simply that a complicated social readjustment has taken place, which renders the pre- viously accepted attitude at least temporarily meaningless. The essence of good manners is the ability to accom- modate oneself unobtrusively to any situation.

And then, our morals. Here again the emancipation of women has much for which to answer. Where before certain subjects, certain ideas, were categorized as " unmentionable " outside the strictest male society, to-day young women demand to have their opinion asked on every subject under the sun. And what can be discussed privately in conversation is invariably, sooner or later, discussed openly in books or on the stage. It is just here that the trouble begins. Anxious parents find their offspring calmly debating actions and principles which, in " Elder Critic's " own words, " make their hair stand on end." Unfortunately, too few of them resign themselves to that experience with such admirable philosophic calm. The majority leap at once to the conclusion that the young of this generation are scandalously immoral.

But there are two very obvious fallacies inherent in any such denunciation. In the first place, it assumes that reading, writing or talking about certain modes of conduct inevitably involves their subsequent practice, whereas a moment's reflection shows that in no sphere of life is this actually the case. And • secondly, by what authority, we wonder, do our progenitors set theinselves up to judge such actions, when committed, as immoral ? It is here that we come upon the crux of the whole situation. To us, the condemnation of other people's moral behaviour implies a degree of self-confidence which we, for all our naïve conceit, find quite beyond our powers of comprehension. Our elders, apparently, have no such difficulty. For them, right and wrong, are easily distinguished, moral blacks and whites quite simply separated. But when we ask how these judgments are arrived at, we are answered always with rules of conduct which seem strangely obsolete, moral laws which savour strongly of cant, and a priori assumptions which we cannot admit. It is then that it becomes so difficult for us to understand one another. Morality; or more particularly, sexual morality, is regarded by the older generation purely . objectively ; but for us there are no objective moral canons of whose ultimate rightness we can feel certain. For us the words " moral " and " immoral " signify relative not absolute states.

No doubt- the opinions expressed- above will strike the majority of those to whom this essay is addressed as shamefully heretical. But . it is precisely because of this that such an uncompromising attitude at present exists between us. It is not that we have hist all regard for authority ; it is authority backed only by tradition, and with no specific sanction for its claim on our respect, which we refuse' to recognize. It is not even that we have forgotten our religion, though we have lost much of our faith in Christianity. It is simply that we are no longer prepared to accept moral and ethical standards solely on the recommendation of our parents. For this we neither expect nor ask to escape criticism. We only ask not to be judged—or rather not to be prejudged. Give us time to see what we can do before passing sentence. In the meanwhile, a little less intractability on the one hand, and a little more consideration on the other, would do much to bridge the gulf. It is only on those rare occasions when critics like the writer of last week's article come into theopen, that it is possible for us to attempt, however inadequately, to state our