Saturday, February 23, 2013

Millennials and Es Meson

The Greeks of Classical Athens had a habit they called es meson or "putting it in the middle."  To make a matter or a person es meson was to bring them up for public scrutiny and debate.  Athens moderate climate favored this habit by encouraging as much of life as possible to take place out doors in a common area.  Thus even the homes of wealthy Athenians were relatively sparse, and wealth was often displayed in out-door public works projects that could be enjoyed by citizenry as a whole.  Along with the geographical climate, the political climate favored es meson as well.  Athens, during most of the Classical Era, was a democracy and, as thinkers from time immemorial have noted, democracies favor institutions that allow the franchise holder to have his say; a say on everything.

The modern United States is a vast and geographically diverse country separated from Classical Athens by about 2,500 years.  Nevertheless, we also have a democratic habit of es meson.  De Tocqueville noted this n his visit and others have noted it since.  U.S. citizens feel required to both have and state an opinion on everything at the drop of a hat.  Distance and winter once served as a check on this habit until the coming of the telegraph.  With the advent of the internet, the process is only accelerating.

Now what does all this have to do with Millenials (those born around the turning of the millennium)?  I think certain social trends among this generation may further deepen the old democratic habit.  Aside from the aforementioned internet, Millenials are noted for placing far less emphasis on acquiring private property and placing far more on shared experiences.  Whether in sunny SoCal or wintry Wisconsin, this shift in emphasis sounds like a move back to Athens.  Furthermore, the Athenians linked the habit of es meson directly to the strength of the democracy (whether they thought that democracy good or bad).  I wonder, then, if Millenials' tendency to place a premium on shared experience is a sign that a strengthening of the United States' democratic order (for good or ill) is coming down the pipe.  Of course there are many other factors also in play, but it's something I've found myself wondering lately.  A democratic culture is about so much more than showing up at the polls and so it seems worth considering things that don't usually come up when talking politics around the water cooler.


Gabe Moothart said...

How do you think this will affect (the lack of) civil discourse? The internet seems to also be intensifying differences, so you have two sides yelling past each other rather than dialog.

James said...

Gabe, that's been a worry of mine too.

I do wonder who, specifically, it is polarizing. If it's polarizing the already rather "black and white" boomers, then as they die off we may find the internet becoming a more civil place. If that polarization extends to Xers and Millennials, then it will push against the "es meson" tendency. In that case, we'll either have the two forces create some sort of homeostasis or the stronger impulse will ultimately prevail. What that might actually look like in U.S. society, I'm not sure. Perhaps some sort of etiquette will develop for dealing with ideological conflict between groups? That seems overly optimistic, but not impossible. Let me know what you're thinking.