Sunday, March 25, 2012

Is the Facebook Generation More Compassionate?

When I was in grade school, the last thing on my mind was diversity or multiculturalism. I was more concerned with winning the game of kickball at recess and then making sure that the girls knew about it. When I was in grade school words like "globalization" or "internet" hadn't even been written into our text books yet.

But today there seems to be a significant change in the way young people see the world. Over the last month I've been substitute teaching at a public school that I once attended and a lot has changed. I've spotted new additions to the building, new teachers, and new kind of trend: almost everywhere I turn there are posters, books, and curricula that emphasize diversity, multiculturalism, tolerance, and compassion.

For example, I saw a poster in a 5th grade classroom that read:




Each other

Regardless of



Talents or


I was taken aback. I genuinely doubt that this poster would have been in a classroom in 1995. And then there was the 3rd grade test on a story titled, "Suki's Kimono." The story not only offers a look into Japanese culture but also emphasizes compassion and tolerance of diversity. The last question of the test: How do people sometimes act when they see someone who looks different? (One student's answer: "They act weird because they don't know them on the inside.")

Now, we might chalk these examples up to standard elementary school teachings on morality and social behavior. And that's certainly plausible. But it seems to me that there is a notable increase in the amount of teaching on these concepts, which makes sense since a lot has changed since when I was in grade school. The world today is flat, the internet has now evolved from information retrieval to collaborative exchange (otherwise known as Web 2.0), and kids today have far more opportunities to connect with this incredibly diverse world.

On the wall next to one 1st-grade classroom hangs a large Ugandan flag. This class has successfully partnered with Circle of Peace School across the Atlantic in Uganda by giving money through Givology, sharing digital video/audio, and writing letters. When I was in grade school we learned about Uganda through an encyclopedia. Today, kids talk to other kids in Uganda.

The world is changing so rapidly that kids today can't help but learn to be more accepting of diversity. Borders are thinning, social networks are growing, and new global paradigms are emerging.

It isn't just an elementary phenomenon. Just the other day in the local Hamburg newspaper an 11th grader from Immaculata Academy wrote an editorial titled, "Just Stop the Hate." Her essay reflected upon the recent suicide of a gay teenager in her school district. She urged fellow students to be more accepting and compassionate, writing ,"Love is love," and "Everyone has their right to opinions." And that's exactly what young people are being taught today by the likes of Lady Gaga or the new film project Bully (coming to theaters March 30th). Kids today see the world differently than their parents' generation. And I would argue that their paradigm is naturally more compassionate.

All of this has me wondering: Is humankind evolving toward increased compassion? As a follower of Christ, this is my hope. I believe that Jesus reveals what it means to be a human person (the "True Adam," so to speak). Humankind's ultimate goal, therefore, is to relate to one another in the manner of Christ. We're not there yet (obviously). But are we moving in that direction? I actually believe that we might be.

This hypothesis has some scientific (as well as sociological) merit. Evolutionary biologists are now arguing that nature evolves more strongly with cooperation than with competition. In a video series, Process Theologian Philip Clayton says, "It seems to me now that the pendulum has swung and we're beginning to see that this - what you see around us - is more a story of cooperation than it is of competition. Certainly for person's of faith, that's a welcome result; because it suggests... a nature which shows a kind of altruism; a sharing, a dividing, and a gaining from each other."

Is it possible that humankind is evolving toward greater cooperation and compassion? Well, if humanity bears the stamp of the God who is community, then this makes a whole lot of sense. The more that I observe trends in human psychology, global culture, and technology, the more I am inclined to believe that humankind is - or, at least, ought to be - evolving toward greater cooperation and compassion.

But then again, there is plenty of evidence for the contrary. There would be no anti-bullying movement if there were no bullies. It seems that kids today are just as mean as in previous generations. One might even argue that increased connectivity makes today's kids meaner (Increased connectivity means increased opportunities for harassment). And let's face it, Facebook isn't exactly grooming mini Christ's or Dalai Lamas. Moreover, trends in globalization and multiculturalism might simply be the reflection of international economies - competition and greed, not cooperation and altruism.

Yes, maybe all of this "evolving toward compassion" stuff is just a bunch of hype. In his weekly column for Time Magazine Joel Stein laments that Generation Y "can't be bothered to save the planet." Stein cites psychologist Jean Twenge (author of Generation Me) who published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which she reports that today's young people do less to help the environment than their parents did. Why? Because they (er, I mean, we) are lazier and more materialistic than previous generations! Thus, the Facebook generation may talk the talk, but we do not walk the walk. This, I believe, is due to the fact that our deepest issues are systemic; and few are willing to go there. Hence, capitalism will swallow up well-intended movements like the green movement - and actually destroy the environment in the process. Compassion cannot ignore the systemic. My friend and pastor Bruce McKay once said, "Having compassion for someone without considering the system that makes them an object of compassion is not compassion but sympathy." Generation Y's inability to confront the system results in much of what we see today: a faux green movement and "Occupy" t-shirts.

None of this does any good for my hypothesis or my hope in a more compassionate world.

The truth, I believe, is that we are evolving toward greater cooperation and compassion; but that evolution includes the possibility of compassion's polar opposite: bullying, oppression, injustice. In this case, the Facebook generation - and every subsequent generation - is the generation with the most potential for compassion, justice, and global good. At the same time, they (we) have the greatest potential for the opposite.

If our potential for increased cooperation and compassion is true, if it is a realistic hope, then why not tack up a poster about the value of diversity? Why not read a book about compassion to a 3rd grader? Why not speak up for the youth who are trying to make the world a better place? And why not join them? After all, we know what bullying, injustice and oppression look like; we've been there before. I'm on the team that's going to dream for where we haven't yet been. I'm on the team that says we're evolving toward a global community of cooperation and compassion. Not just because I'm convinced that we're evolving there, but because I want to see what it looks like.


  1. This is yet another exceptional, very original essay, Josh. It should tell you a lot about my views on your work that I have chosen to catch up on your blog as a way to spend my day off in the aftermath of a week's intensive teaching experience!

    I hear a subplot in your essay that relates to the question: How does the compassionate side of young humanity triumph over the bullying side. Is this where Clayton is wrong? You note systemic problems. I agree and remind you of Niebuhr's, albeit rather pessimistic Moral Man and Immoral Society. But to the point: Will the compassionate only inevitably triumph through self-sacrifice? As I ask this, I wonder if I am assuming something about human nature that may not be accurate: Human conscience will prevent a complete slaughter of those who refuse to express hatred final form. But, nevertheless, I agree with you: the effort to end the hatred by “propaganda” or persuasion is worth it and a hopeful project. The best preachers do it every Sunday.

  2. Some good insights here, Brescia. The more I have thought about it, the more I believe that the compassionate side of humanity will ONLY triumph through the necessary sacrifice(s). This is the truth of life: the truly good comes about through difficulty (For wide is the gate that leads to destruction; narrow is the gate to life).

    And hence, the apathy of humanity is its own demise.

    I am confused as to where you see Clayton being wrong. I think he is speaking more of bio-evolution than anthropology; but I think he would be optimistic about the evolution of compassionate humanity.

    As for Niebuhr, I have never been able to build a paradigm around the notion that humanity is sinful and self-centered. I do believe that it's true of humanity, but it is not the final word. And I cannot build a system of theology on it. For me, that system was crucified with Jesus.