April 13, 2004

It is the nature of a teenager to want to destroy

So says Michael Chabon in a NYT op-ed piece on the Jan Richman/Academy of Art brouhaha. This seems one-sided to me: too negative about teenagers, not negative enough about adults. His sarcastic conclusion:

Let teenagers languish, therefore, in their sense of isolation, without outlet or nourishment, bereft of the only thing that makes it all bearable: knowing that somebody else has felt the way that you feel, has faced it, run from it, rued it, lamented it and transformed it into art; has been there, and returned, and lived, for the only good reason we have: to tell the tale. How confident we shall be, once we have done this, of never encountering the ugliness again! How happy our children will be, and how brave, and how safe!

I agree with his anti-censorship conclusion, though his argument seems facile, especially since he starts from the premise that "We tend to view idealism and cynicism as opposites, when in fact neither possesses any merit or power unless tempered by, fused with, the other." Doesn't this argue for some intervention on behalf of positive values, to strike a balance?

Anyhow, this is an old argument. Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) was said to have inspired many suicides after it was published in 1774, when its author was 25. Chabon is skeptical that "when, once in a great while, a teenager reaches for an easy gun and shoots somebody or himself" it would have made any difference "if we had only censored his journals and curtailed his music and video games". Isn't this too facile? Suppose that Young Werther really did inspire a rash of suicides across Europe, while undermining the Enlightenment and helping to start the Romantic movement. Should it have been suppressed on that account, as many proposed at the time?

All this is not entirely irrelevant to language. Some people think that adolescent identity formation plays as big a role in language change as the initial acquisition process does. But the impulses involved seem to be more creative than destructive. In any case, it's certainly fruitless to try to thwart them, though perhaps adult disapproval is an important part of the package, like pruning roses to improve their blooms.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 13, 2004 09:29 PM