An Essay for The Nation

When asked what is of most concern to my generation, I am inclined to respond that we seem to be most concerned with fashion and entertainment, though I know that distorts the meaning of the language in the question. A vast majority of people under thirty, however, seem to be more interested in issues of style than in other issues, such as those that will require our greatest attention as we gradually inherit the responsibilities of designing the legacy we will leave behind are far removed from those concerns. Style is nice, for sure, but we probably do not need many more generations about which we can say, “They left our world in a sorry state, but they dressed well and made great music.” In all seriousness, my generation needs more than anything else to develop global awareness, shared values, and a sense of conscience. As with any other generation, we have a preoccupation with art and entertainment, so the arts will be, as they have always been, an ideal medium for sparking and fueling social change.

Ignorance and apathy are two of the most destructive social forces affecting the coming-of-age population in the United States. Our entertainment industry imposes a limited vision of the world on the youth, with an emphasis on the flashy, materialistic successes of Hollywood superstars. We are taught to put great value on wearing the right clothes and listening to the right music, presenting the right image of ourselves to the people around us. Those who are fortunate enough to have any idea what life is like in other cities, States, and nations seem to easily adopt an attitude that socioeconomic disparities are caused by laziness or lack of ambition. We have a difficult time empathizing with those who can barely afford to eat because we are too caught up in believing that we are impoverished when we cannot afford a new wardrobe every season or the latest DVD-equipped SUV. Young people are encouraged to find a place for themselves in the corporate superstructure, to insulate themselves from the dangers of poverty and secure the means to stay with the times and provide the greatest excesses for their families. We are encouraged to use credit to finance our lifestyle. If we pull it off, if we can convince the people around us that we are capable and accomplished because we have spent enough on our clothes and cribs, then we will eventually be able to pay off our debts. We would be surprised to learn just how much we have compared to those who experience real poverty, and maybe we could begin to understand the problems of the world around us if we were not incessantly inundated with artificial concerns.

In recent years, the popular media seems to be evolving gradually to incorporate a more international perspective. As young people who are willing to stretch their limits begin to have an opportunity to see portrayals of life outside of the United States, we are presented with a challenge to reconsider our values systems. The awareness of actual poverty and need in the world around us should awaken in us a sense of the need to reevaluate the traditional American dream of wealth and prosperity. Where we once believed that prosperity is defined by abundance to excess, we must now begin to face the reality that we have much more than we could ever hope to need. Our values can evolve to include the well-being of others, not just in our own nation but abroad as well. Individualism has hypnotized us into believing that we must meet not only our own needs first, but also our own desires; nationalism has taught us that when we have met our own needs and fulfilled our desires, our duty is to help the people in our country to meet their needs and wants. We demonstrate very little capacity for understanding the differences between needs and desires, and we fail to pay attention to the fact that human desire is unlimited. We tell ourselves that we will help the needy of our own country when we have satisfied ourselves, but we continually re-draw the line in the sand. Similarly, we say that we will help impoverished people in other parts of the world when we have satisfied the people of our nation. When our values evolve to incorporate the needs of all of humanity, we will have an opportunity to develop a collective conscience.

Our conscience must serve as the ability to identify disparities between the values we express and the values demonstrated by our actions. When we have developed such conscience, we will no longer be able to form legal entities whose sole priority is profit. Providing for the common welfare of humanity must become our guiding virtue, a virtue that never interferes with individual rights though it may supersede individual privileges, including the privilege of extravagance.

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