No Future For You . . . th?
The young have left psychology for dead. They do not read, do not think, do not feel. They act, mimic, pretend. They neither mate not desire to. Is this down to them, or those who came before?
When there's no future how can there be sin?
We're the flowers in the dustbin
We're the poison in your human machine
We're the future, your future
No future for you . . .
— John Lydon, God Save the Queen
The Israeli psychologist Professor Sam Vaknin has some tough and pretty terrifying things to say about young people in this recent video, Silence When We Are All Gone:
Professor Vaknin, who specialises in psychopathy and narcissistic disorders, and also has some interesting things to say about the deleterious effects on humanity of the Internet and, in particular, social media, had been doing some preparation for his 2021/22 academic year syllabus, reading the ‘literature’ — international studies and reports ‘comprising a few million people’, talking with young people and investigating under-35 and under-25 activity online.
He has emerged ashen-faced from this rabbit-hole, declaring: ‘I must say that I’m shaken to my foundations.’
He found that the post-millennial generations live in a personal hell-on-earth, having rendered redundant every existing psychological understanding about human beings.
‘There are two possibilities, either everything we think we know in psychology is wrong or there's a new subspecies of humanity, homo sapiens 2.0, that has nothing to do, psychologically speaking, with all previous generations going back to the time of Abraham.
‘People under age 35 are walking dead who live in a dystopian hell, a psychopathic landscape… They have no higher functions, no intellectual life, no interests or hobbies. They are incapable of meaningful conversation. Their speech is flat, comprising dismissive one-liners with no depth or background.’ They are, he says, ‘as dull as drying paint.
‘They are zombified, the walking dead.
‘The people I talked to, the people I read about, what the studies show — these people have sex without commitment, without emotion. They openly admit that the sex is perfunctory, fast, meaningless. In 20 per cent of the cases they don’t know the name of their sexual partner. They regard the partner’s body as a masturbatory tool — a dildo or a sex doll. Many of them abstain from sex altogether.
‘The rate of marriage has collapsed precipitously. A huge portion of these people live as singles most of their lives actually. There's a hook-up culture that is only on paper. They don't even hook up anymore.
‘The rate of relationship failure is mind-boggling. First of all they have an average of nine relationships before they reach 30. And what they call relationships is also in great doubt and question, but even these exact fake imitation relationships don't work. All of them fail, with no exception.
‘It's an absolutely psychopathic landscape. Devoid of empathy. Devoid of connectiveness. Devoid of emotions. Devoid of meaningful sex. Devoid of meaning — at all. Rates of anxiety and depression among these age groups have quintupled, and this was three years before the pandemic. We know that the pandemic has tripled this rate. . . . More than half of young people binge drink to the point of alcoholic blackout every single week.
‘These people are atomised completely. . . . Their main mode of communication is online, and then they chat. A textual analysis revealed that 91 per cent of all chats are comprised of one-liners and emojis. And the average length of the one-liner is three words. They have lost the capacity of language, which had distinguished us as a species from animals. Luckily they still walk erect, on two legs.’
He is not, he stresses, making value judgements about the morality of the young. ‘It’s not what they do; it’s how they do it. They are sleepwalking; they’re sedated. It’s an anaesthetised generation, or generations.
‘The people I talk to they have no emotions. They think they have emotions. They do emotions. They simulate emotions. They have no emotions.
‘They go through the motions. They participate in all the right victimhood movements and they spew out the slogans, and they march and everything. But even this feels very fake, narcissistic, imitative. It’s like mimicry. It’s not the real thing. I witnessed the real thing in the Sixties. This is not the real thing.
‘I can’t find a single point of light in this picture. Even the levels of literacy had collapsed completely. About 40 per cent of these generations cannot properly read a label on a bottle. That’s how bad it is. Well over 50 per cent of them hadn’t touched a book ever. The average number of books was 1.3. Okay — forget books. What do they do? About five hours, video games. The rest? Surf the internet. What do they surf? Do they educate themselves? No. You know what they’re doing. Their heads are filled with trash. It’s terrifying, actually. If these are the custodians of the future of the human species, it’s terrifying.
‘In matters of critical thinking, and analytical thinking, in tests, they have no idea how to think critically or analytically. They don’t know the most basic syllogisms. They don’t even know what is a syllogism, of course! They don’t know how to think. They have lost this part, this faculty. They regurgitate. They emulate. They imitate. They follow, like a herd of lemmings, gurus, dating coaches, business coaches, all kinds of mystics and . . . that’s it.’
Some elements of what Professor Vaknin describes are easier to explain than he seems to allow. For example, the collapse of sexual relationships would have been entirely predictable for anyone observing the worm of feminist agitation at work over the past couple of decades, when, no longer content with seeking ‘equality’ with men, feminists were demanding a form of female supremacy and the self-abasement of males. While demonising men at every turn, they were also moving in on the areas long regarded as male strongholds (policing, soldiering, football, etc. — though interestingly not coalmining or waste-disposal). The result is a breed of male unattractive either to himself or to females.
The cancer of misandry (Microsoft Word spellcheck doesn’t recognise the word!) that first crept and later surged into media, advertising and education since the 1970s, has infected everything to do with male-female relations, and turned a majority of young men into cowering soy boys that only psychopathic females are interested in knowing. As a friend puts it, ‘With a freshly sharpened filleting knife carefully remove backbone and save the balls for deep frying later.’ For that matter, only a masochist ‘male’ would surrender his life to the kind of female produced in such a culture.
Since males and females constitute the two halves of the human species, a serious dissonance on either side of the line might be expected to cause difficulties for both parties. Such a state of affairs would not be improved by the encroaching denial that this fundamental division of humanity is itself rooted in nature and therefore fact.
It would be surprising if all this did not have a withering effect on the desiring of both sexes.
And this thought prompts another: A real problem with these generations appears to be that they have no grasp whatsoever of the impact on human desire of the Law of Diminishing Returns: The achievement of desire rarely matches the anticipation; the more frequently we do something, the more it loses appeal. And these conditions accelerate as we grow older. And nor do the young appear to understand that human desiring is a mutual phenomenon. It depends on that mutuality for its existence, just like the contact points in the distributor of an old-fashioned engine depended on each other for the generation of the spark that fired the fuel in the cylinders.
If young people were a country, we might well be talking of sending in the auditors, though not just to look at the books. Exhibit 1: the Italian ‘Censis” report — an annual state-of-the-nation summary of the essential patterns and issues affecting the collective well-being of the nation — which told of the condition of the country two years after the great economic meltdown of 2008. The Censis report combines elements of demographic survey and social analysis, and claims to describe Italy ‘in its most intimate essence’. That particular year’s report was striking for its pessimism and solemnity, in much the same way as Professor Vaknin’s video.
The report found a society possessed of ‘a collective unconscious without any law or desire’. Italian society, the report outlined, ‘slides under a wave of disorderly instincts’, becoming ‘dangerously marked by emptiness’. The report spoke of ‘a painful alienation’, of a ‘flattened society’, dazed and disoriented; of nihilism and of the weakening of the individual citizen’s sense of connection to the pubic realm. It identified profound patterns of cynicism, indifference, passivity, and excessive enslavement to media perspectives and prognoses, which condemned the population ‘to the present without possibility of going deeper in the memory and in the future’. Trust in long-term drifts and in the effectiveness of the governing class was declining alarmingly.
What a strange idea for us who have been bombarded with economistic prescriptions and information: that, underneath all such palaver, the reason for everything may be that our societies have been misunderstanding human desire. This is doubly strange because desire is perhaps the thing our societies pride themselves in understanding better than anything else, on catering for and pandering to absolutely. Desire: the driving agent of our markets, our consumer culture, our media, our individual ‘mechanisms’ as ‘components’ of our societies and consumers of the products and services that keep the wheels of progress turning around.
The failure to define human desire within an absolute framework, in which satisfaction is something to be achieved over the long run, creates an implosion of human energies which in turn sets off a crisis of hope. Disappointment with outcomes in the economic sphere, the Censis report elaborated, creates a ‘flattening’ of faith in future development, and increased cynicism about values and tradition. This was seen to be accelerating an erosion of faith in all former repositories of moral or judicial order and unleashing a ‘widespread and disturbing instinctual disorder’, with individual behaviours increasingly born out of a ‘self-referential and narcissistic selfishness’: gratuitous violence; an impulsive tendency to commit misdemeanours; casual sexual behaviours; the pursuit of personal satisfaction through shopping; a quest for excessive external stimuli that make up for the subject’s interior emptiness; and a ‘demential quest for experiences that challenge death.’
Practically phrase for phrase, that report from a decade ago anticipates Sam Vaknin’s analysis. The problem, then, is not confined to younger people, though younger people may be its herald on account of being visible in a society more than their parents and elders, who have the capacity to hide behind existing structures, identities and norms. The problem may not be that the world will collapse when the present youth generations are obliged to take over at the wheel; the collapse may already be in train and the behaviour of the young simply one of the more visible symptoms of it.
And, of course, the symptoms materialising among young people will more than likely have derived from the nature of the society that begat them.
There are two root causes that I believe we need to pay close attention to:
The first is that the generations we are talking about are essentially crèche-reared. They were reared by strangers, who remained strangers by virtue of shifting and switching all the time. The continuity previously offered by the extended family — Granny and Granddad supporting the parents in the day-to-day attrition of child-rearing, was essentially discontinued — or at best contained — in the era of industrial childcare. The absence of the father — a factor since the outset of the first industrial revolution, was all at once aggravated by at least three other absences: of the mother and the two grandparents. In the new dispensation, children — even from a very young age — were being deposited in others people’s houses — adapted, of course, in a professional manner according to the strict criteria applied by the health authorities — to be looked after by whomever happened along in response to a small ad in the local newspaper. Most of these ‘carers’ — overwhelmingly females — were competent, interested, kind, engaged, even loving, but they were not connected to their charges as ‘child-carers’ had been connected for tens of thousands of years —by dint of flesh and blood.
A secondary aspect of this bore down disproportionately on boys: The absence of both father and grandfather removed from them the essential working prototype of a functional, living masculinity. As they moved through the ‘educational’ system, this loss was exacerbated by a form of instruction that informed them that these ancient ‘patriarchal’ models were outmoded and toxic, so that, not only did they not know what they were missing, they learned that what they were missing was something they were better off without. In this we can observe the possibility that Robert Bly’s warnings about the loss of the working-teaching father might be compounded by the losses of inter-generational continuity, folk memory, vertical culture and other elements.
Bly warned in Iron John that the elimination from our culture of the teaching, benign-authoritarian father had left us with generations of young men who were ‘numb in the region of the heart’. Because young men are never allowed to come away from their mothers, they stand on the threshold of manhood but cannot enter. The umbilical cord has been severed, but little more. Still tied to their mothers’ apron strings, young men struggle to find ways to announce their manhood. With their fathers cast into silence, they are starved of the wisdoms and mythologies that might sustain a healthy male existence. Adrift in the numbness that engulfs them, many of our young men now walk with an outward appearance of normality but inwardly lurch uncontrollably — lurching from, for example, a learned piety to intense rage — all the time seeking something to provide some illusion of feeling while simultaneously keeping the numbness at bay. In the childcare era, these complications became multiplied by other losses, the consequences of which have yet to fully show themselves.
The second element of the picture concerns the nature of the supplanting of the former life in the bosom of the extended family by a life in which the gaps between human interactions were filled out, as Professor Vaknin observes, by entertainment, long provided almost exclusively by television but latterly also by video games and social media.
Vaknin’s analysis of this aspect of the youth problem is less than clear. He speaks of the issue as being the predilection of these generations for what he calls ‘action’ — as opposed to thinking or feeling. But the things he describes as ‘actions’ are not what most people would describe as such: reading stuff on smart phones, playing video games, tweeting and texting. The nature of ‘action’ has changed in our world: Where once it meant crafting a chair or fixing a carburettor, now it means fingering a keypad to no purpose that might remotely be deemed useful to humanity beyond the dopamine exchange between participants/combatants. Nowadays, we persuade ourselves that scrolling down a Twitter thread, messaging a friend, scanning an article, posting a selfie, checking our phones for email, or other tippy-tappy functions, amounts to the same thing. Instead, the user is being manipulated into a negative state-of-mind, driven towards increasing irritability and rage and removed from the realm of useful reflection, the better to be exploited by the hidden-persuaders who care little for the net human outcomes or the state of the world.
There is an odd resonance here between the activities Professor Vaknin describes as ‘action’ and the perfunctory modes in which the young generations first encountered the world (of which more later): Social media offers perfunctory and inadequate modes of communication, scratching the surface of true human interaction. They also facilitate acting: It is easy to hide not merely your true identity but also your self, to alter your appearance, personality and past, to participate in the world, after a fashion, without staking anything meaningful of yourself.
‘They are action figures, action oriented,’ Vaknin continues. Some decades ago — 1950s/60s — we made the transition from thinking to emotion, a shift from the Enlightenment pattern in which the emphasis was on thinking. ‘Thinking got us nowhere. Thinking got us to the atomic bomb. Thinking got us to Adolf Hitler. Thinking got us to Communism.
‘For a few decades we tried emotions and feelings. And it too got us nowhere and so we settled on distractions, on entertainment, on leisure, on action. We are obsessed with action. Especially the young generations. That’s why you can’t see a young person without his face buried in a smartphone and his thumb overactive. Action follows us everywhere. Action is in our pockets. Action is in our ears. We are constantly active.
This, he says, is why young people increasingly abandon their studies, walk away from relationships. ‘Actions don’t matter, the heart matters, motivations matter. When action ends, you are still stuck with yourself. Action regulates moods and pleasure, nothing else.’
‘They don’t create families. They don’t create — period, because they don’t get to the finish line. Their actions are wrongly motivated, so they don’t lead to additional actions. But emotions lead to reliable long-term actions.’
I sense he is on to something but is not putting it in the optimal way. Action, in what appears to be a different sense, has defined the human race since Adam was a boy. The actions he describes are more like ghostly parodies of those past functions. Perhaps what he means is that an unconscious understanding of the meaningless of their ‘actions’ is closing down the emotional responses of the young. If their daily functioning was to be devoid of thinking or feeling, that would indeed be a problem, though a different one. The primary problem appears to be that the kinds of action he describes are ones that involve minimal creativity, or even presence, and do not enable the ‘user’ to remain rooted in anything resembling reality.
At first, listening to Professor Vaknin in the ruminative, day-dreamy way I think we all listen to these things, I thought he was talking about ‘acting’. Listening to other people, particularly when it is not a conversation and we have no requirement to make responses, we (I mean ‘I’) tend to go off into reveries about certain points and thoughts, following the logic of something that’s been said, but then missing a chunk that comes after it. So when I thought I heard him say something about the problem having to do with ‘acting’, I thought: That’s it! He’s got it!’ He also said something about under-35s having no capacity for empathy, which as a result they learn to fake things.‘Yes!’: They project their own sorrow for themselves on to fashionable groupings/minorities, constructing whole vistas of pseudo-compassion out of what is essentially self pity — this being the foundational personality of Woke.
Commentary about the damage wrought to human culture by television has perhaps been overdone to little effect. But let us couch the cliché in somewhat different form: From a very early age, the overwhelming majority of human-interaction witnessed by the average contemporary young person takes the form of acting. Instead of sitting on a rug on the floor of their grandmother’s kitchen, where they could scrutinise visitors and eavesdrop on adult conversations, children spend much of their time watching actors doing and saying things that a superficial appraisal might well decide amounted to the same thing, except that such an appraisal would be wrong.
Acting is by definition a simulacrum of real human interchange. Even when it is well done, it is, in a certain sense, perfunctory: it seeks to fill a space between affected actions that adds tones of meaning and clues as to plot dynamic. It is of its essence formulaic, and becomes more and more so by virtue of the tabulation of plot and dialogue arising from the formulising of screenwriting and storylining. With the best will in the world, most of this content is not as though written by Henry James or Flannery O’Connor. It is instrumental and mechanical. It takes the plot (such as it might be) from A to G, then pauses for an ad break. Emotions are conveyed mechanistically, and often accompanied by incidental music designed to fill in the gaps in the writer’s capacities. And, when it happens in the intellectual desert that is ‘Children’s programming’, there is an almost total absence of subtext. Points are hammered home relentlessly by repetition and emphasis. Dialogue is not naturalistic, which is to say that it consists almost entirely of full sentences designed to convey information about what has occurred or what might be about to occur.
Life is not like that. Your grandmother’s kitchen was not like that. Instead, that arena was subject to long periods of close attention, one-to-one, by someone who cared deeply about you but was not being paid to do so. The context was relational, not professional. Your grandmother cared for you but was not a carer. And her ministrations, constant or erratic, were accompanied by a sense of quiet dependability and total unconditionality. Moreover, they were interrupted from time to time by the incursions of outsiders, with whom your grandmother might interact without seeking to ensure that you understood the intended meaning of every word uttered between her and her visitor. You were listening, but were not an ‘audience’. Neither your grandmother nor her visitor finished every sentence and ensured it was laden down with the appropriate cues and clues.
In workaday TV drama, a functional or facilitatory conversation is one that conveys short, pithy bits of perfunctory information. Its purpose is entirely instrumental. It has an objective, an end. It does not occur for its own sake. Moreover, it strives to save time, to convey the essential facts, to move the plot along. Naturalism is boring, repetitive, confusing, flabby, an irritant to those reared on the pared, pointed speech of TV drama.
I recall a conversation I had years ago with the playwright Tom Murphy in which he described what he saw as the importance of subtext in drama. He gave the following example:
You walk into a bar and sit at the counter. Two stools down sits an elderly man, nursing a pint and half one. You give him a nod and say, ‘Howya doin’?’ He answers ‘Good!’ and makes some ritualistic comment about the weather. You respond, elaborating on this meteorological train, perhaps anticipating a change in the climate over the coming days. The old man kicks the ball back, with perhaps a hint of scepticism about weather forecasts. Then you ask him some kind of vaguely personal question, seeking to satisfy some stirring of curiosity, something presumptuous or invasive in a subtle way. Maybe you say, ‘Are you a local man yourself?’ but it is too soon in the conversation for such a liberty. A silence ensues. A beat. Two beats. Three. Then, the old man responds, ‘Yeah, but what’s your name, like, y’know?’
‘Every syllable of that sentence,’ Murphy said, ‘is heavy with meaning.’ There is wariness, suspicion, caginess, stalling, but also a hint of conditional conciliation, which is withheld contingent on your next move. The ‘Yeah’ acts as a kind of brake on the drift of the exchange: Hold on here now! The ‘but’ indicates an alarm that you have been forward and must pull back. The ‘what’s your name’ part is perfunctory, up to a point — a straightforward question — but couched here in a mini-lecture about etiquette and manners, and also — maybe with a slight inflection on the ‘your’ — a slap on the wrist. The ‘like’ is actually quite like the way the word is overused nowadays in the conversation of younger people, meaning ‘kind of thing’. But it is also a kind of buffer word, to soften the hard edge of the question, which the ‘y’know’ at the end tones down even more. The sentence is a meaningful, sincere and pointed question, but also a kind of lesson inflicted, without malice, as a warning: Is it information you’re looking for?
Such subtleties become inaudible in the dialogue of a great playwright, because they seem to chime with the tone and rhythm of the world beyond the theatre. But they are absent utterly from soap opera, sit-coms and cartoons, the main diet of the young for the past several decades. A world formed from such material must therefore be thinner, more artificial, than one formed of spontaneous exchange.
Before assuming that the control context is as it has always been, we might profitably reflect on how the formative background radiation experienced by the generations we are speaking of here had already been altered out of all recognition from what happened around children before. What happened before was life, in all its unpredictability, naturalism, spontaneity and frequent incomprehensibility. What happened here was mainly acting.
In fact, the earliest interchanges of a vaguely human nature observed by the vast majority of children are delivered to them in the form of cartoons, which are almost totally lacking in emotional content and frequently laden down with subtly insinuated propaganda messaging. Should it really surprise us if our children grew up exhibiting the emotional life of Rugrats?
Among the results may be a series of generations of children who are incapable of reading reality unless it comes in the form of a delivered script, which as Professor Vaknin’s findings suggest, they may not be all that interested in reading anyway.
Before television, of course, came cinema, but the cinema was a special, dedicated place to which you went not merely to be distracted but to enter into an experience that announced itself as fictional, fantastical. It did not intrude into everyday life the way TV has managed to, sitting like a pot-bellied bully in the corner of the living room, spitting out angry or sentimental lines of artificial conversation, which pass themselves off as normal and unaffected slices of life.
Vaknin’s analysis is passionate and provocative. It also seems to invite responses. The way he speaks is discursive: like one side of an imagined conversation. He sparks off in the listener’s mind many things he does not spell out.
Young people now are negative, he says, but again his meaning is blurred. Perhaps he means the kind of toxicity that emanates from the ideological cesspit that is social media, elsewhere one of his persistent themes. He doesn’t say so. He avoids overly contentious contemporaneous topics. He seems to buy into the ‘pandemic’, even though he notes en passant that the matters he speaks of as bearing down on the young have all been exacerbated, accelerated by the Covid episode.
He feels that young people have lost positivity, which may be true. But then he jumps immediately to the converse: Young people are negative. Negativity is a form of motivation, he says, but not a good one. We should act out of love, not fear.
But we may need to dig deeper and ask why young people may have become so. Perhaps, afraid to risk their fragile, undernourished emotions, young people prefer to let them atrophy and live an emotional life as though in a soap, a sit-com or a cartoon, since this is their original experience of the world? Perhaps they have become infected by the virus of social media negativity? The pandemic might have been created for them — maybe it was, but Professor Vaknin, for the most part, appears to have decided not to mention the war.
‘Young people lack any background of positivity with which they approach life,’ he says. ‘They lack any resonance with anything positive inside themselves. They experience only the negative, which causes trauma and rejection of life and reality, breeding loners who had stopped mixing long before Covid.
‘Today, most of the actions that we will take resonate with the negativity inside us. And consequently they cause trauma, and a rejection of life and reality. So we end up, all of us, being loners. It’s a loner civilisation. We use the word ‘society’ — it’s fiction! We don’t have society anymore We don’t have communities anymore. We hardly have families anymore — most of us don’t.’
Negativity can take you a long way, but it always ends badly, implodes, falls apart. ‘Negative emotions do not provide the necessary glue for a human life. Rather than glue, they are explosives — they tear things apart.’
Vaknin, not a believer, says: ‘Do not fear hell, but love god — if you’re religious.’
These are all choices. Everything we do in life is a choice.
Negativity and constriction, he says, are choices: blasphemous choices, ‘spitting in life’s face’.
‘We were all given gifts. The aim was to use them for the betterment of ourselves and others. Some people use the word ‘god’ — “God’s gifts”. You know what? If it’s God’s gift, then to be negative, to narrow your life, to limit your choices, to throw emotions out the window when you’re having sex, that is to spit in God’s face, to reject God Himself, if you’re religious, which I’m not. You’re spitting in life’s face. You’re giving up on the world. It’s sacrilegious or inefficacious, depending on if you’re religious or not.
‘Total rejection of life is suicide. And in every conceivable philosophical and religious system, suicide is the biggest possible sin. But here are whole generations committing mental suicide, and they convince themselves that mental suicide is not as bad as physical suicide. I beg to differ. Mental suicide is much worse. In physical suicide you die once, in mental suicide you die every second of every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of your life.
‘There have never been generations more sinful than today’s generations. Why? Because they’re all dead, and they’re dead by their own hands.
‘Everything is falling apart because the young generations have forgotten the art of connecting, the art of emoting, the search for meaning. They have rendered their lives worthless, dispensable, disposable, interchangeable, commodified, ugly. Theres no beauty. It’s ugly, It’s simply ugly to behold. The young generations are repulsive. I’m repelled. I feel the need to take a shower after each study, How do they survive? Or, shall I ask?: Do they survive?’
Psychology, he says, ‘has told us that relationships are important, that they create the self, that the self is relational. We believe that sex is always meaningful, even if it’s a quickie. We believe that intellectual stimulation is like hunger: you can’t do without it. All our theories, all our hypotheses, are dying — slaughtered by the young generations. Their psychology has yet to be captured.
‘I can see my young students gazing back at me with derision in their eyes, mocking me openly when I tell them, for example, that sex always has an emotional aspect, because of hormones. They laugh! They don’t know what the heck I am talking about! Or when I say that relationships are very important. They say, “relationship always end badly — better not to have them.”’
‘Everything we thought we knew in psychology, and everything we are teaching, is obsolete. Absolutely obsolete. And this has to do with the transition to action.
‘Action is always psychopathic. Action is always goal-oriented, no matter how minor the goal, however unimportant the goal. And action does not involve — or rarely involves — overt emotions, or empathy, and so on. It’s a very solipsistic thing, a very self-centred thing. When you act, you act. And then you act upon someone else. So you objectify the other person. In an age when only action matters, and feelings and emotions are a threat, because they always result in pain, where communication has been rendered virtual and simulated, where other people are avatars on Tinder — in this kind of period in history, the basic components of the human mind — cognition, emotion, empathy, relational — they’re irrelevant. They are inactivated. They’re disabled.
‘The overwhelming majority of actions take you away from people, take you away from life, separate you from reality, especially in today’s world where there are alternative universes, for example on social media, online.
‘When the action ends, you’re still stuck with yourself. Action takes you nowhere. It’s circular. It’s from you to you! Action regulate your moods maybe. Action causes you pleasure, if you are capable of pleasure. Because about one-third of young people are unhedonic, incapable of pleasure, in anything.’
Without meaning, deriving from emotion, he says, we are very badly designed animals. “The only things that keep us alive are the narratives that unite us. We need these emotional and cognitive orientations to motivate our actions, because we need a story to glue us together. If we lose this glue, as we are doing acceleratingly fast — the moment we lose this glue finally, irrevocably, irretrievably, we’re doomed as a species.
‘We have nothing left. No institution, no fabric, no network, no one to look to for succour, for support, for empathy, for compassion, for comfort, no one to go to — least of all to ourselves, because we are imbued with negative toxicity, emanating from all possible directions, from the first second we open our eyes to the last second that we dive into sleep.’
‘There is no future,’ he says. ‘No hope. No nothing. It’s a culture of nihilism, because the only thing left is nothing — not ‘nothingness’, which is positive. Emptiness, which is negative, the malignant form of nothingness. It’s The Void. We are all floating in deep space, about to be disconnected from our oxygen tanks, about to become untethered from the mother ship.’
‘I don’t recall any system of thought, any ideology which had rejected life, not even Nazism. And yet here we are: the ideology of unbeing. The ideology of emptiness is upon us, the ideology of the spectacle, the ideology of make-believe and imitation and simulacrum and simulation. The ideology of Why do I need to be if instead I can act? It’s not going to end well, and we are already halfway there. Armageddon is not a battle. It is silence when we are all gone.’
Professor Vaknin nevertheless notably, in seeking to explain why young people ‘keep failing’, talks about ‘we’ having taken ‘the wrong fork in the road — not with regard to the hardware but with regard to the software’. By ‘software’ he seems to refer to the inability of young people to connect, to deal with emotions, to discover meaning in reality. It is important, in opening up this metaphor, to remember that it was we, the parent generations, who uploaded the ‘software’. This implies that there is nothing wrong with the basic structure of the young person — the ‘hardware’: The programming has been woeful.
Ultimately, by this analysis, we the parents may have to face the fact that we have been guilty of mass abandonment of our children to an inhospitable culture. That, in specific instances, this may have arisen in whole or in part from the ‘software’ uploaded to culture by others is an defence but not one qualifying as outright mitigation. We did not effectively object then, as we are not objecting adequately now, about the incursions into our lives by economics, ideology, sociology, et cetera. We grasped the ‘freedoms’ and thought them absolute and cost-free.
None of us is innocent. For all the years of her childhood, I fought like a terrier to protect my relationship with my daughter, born to unmarried parents. I resisted with all my might the power of the state bureaucracies and legal jurisdictions of two countries which sought to deny the significance of a father in the life of a child and bully me out of protecting her. I had a kind of ‘victory’: joint custody by the Swedish system known as 5225 — every second weekend and a shorter period of two days in between.
Many years on, I was sitting one day in a hotel lounge with a good friend who had travelled a similar path with his own children. Both of us, our children reared, were revisiting the years of struggle and heartache. In somewhat self-congratulatory mode, I observed that, all said and done, we had acted as well as we could in difficult circumstances, had raised our children to be responsible and capable adults. We had triumphed against the grain of the times and could be proud of our achievements.
My friend, a wise Brit, shook his head. ‘No, John,’ he said, ‘the truth is that we abandoned our children once a week for the whole of their childhoods.’ I fell silent, then pushed back, but without conviction. Deeper down I knew he was painfully correct. I might plead that we had had little choice in the matter, but that did not alter the nature of what we were obliged to collude in. It was, in effect, a weekly abandonment, when we would hand our children into situations we knew to be far from ideal. That we could not help it was, in a sense, on us: Our fathers would have found a way of helping it. Moreover, if we looked into our hearts, we could each see ways in which the situation we had ended up in might have been avoided, or rendered different, by our own earlier actions. We had both colluded with a culture of constructive abandonment, in which the sacred function of procreation had become trivialised and abused. We could, neither of us, plead Not Guilty. And nor can anyone else who has stood in relative equanimity observing the deterioration of our culture over the past several decades.
In this rather different disposition, I watch young people going about and realise that, were I dependent entirely on his observations, I might find myself in total agreement with Professor Vaknin. But my friend’s sobering words continue to haunt me, and I also know a few other young people of whom my knowledge and experience confides that there may be more to it. There is something about Vaknin’s diagnosis that seems to impute disproportionate blame and responsibility to the young, rather than looking more closely at the context they have emerged from.
In general, I have found the younger generations — superficially, at least — in line with Vaknin’s diagnosis, which is to say superficially superficial. They seem to exist in a dream of disconnection from any form of gravity or sincerity. They don’t seem to know much. They have zero sense of any form of transcendence, not even by something like Sam Vaknin’s formulation. Everything they say aspires to the condition of joke, usually delivered in the manner of the prevailing TV sit-com style.
One of the elements of his diagnosis that I think Vaknin has approximately right is the idea that young people now trade in a currency of victimhood.
They understand emotions very well, in a certain sense: they know how emotions are conveyed via terse series of words. I am not sure that any of this means they lack an emotional life. What they lack, I believe, is a means of adequate expression.
It might be observed that they do experience emotions, but that the dominant emotion they experience is self-pity, perhaps deriving from the context I have described, and that, rather than couching things in this way, they project their own self-pity on to victim groups which they use as extensions of themselves to make statements about a world that is both inhospitable and somewhat inscrutable to them.
In some of these young people I have had occasion to know, I have found that in extremis they are just about capable of communicating emotions like grief and fear and longings of different kinds. From time to time, I have found myself called upon for help when such circumstances have arisen. Such encounters tend to have the potential to be awkward. It is necessary to know what you are doing, what you are going to say. The worst thing is if you are taken by surprise, when you are likely to frighten the animal away permanently. It can be a little, I imagine, like defusing a bomb. It is necessary to be cautious but not overtly so. Bold, nonchalant words are necessary. You need to remember that you are dealing with someone who is not connected to the world as you know it. He or she is likely to be one of Alexander Mitscherlich’s ‘siblings’, the emotionally stunted half-adults, emerged from history devoid of the sustenance of vertical culture, lacking not emotions but an adequately complex vocabulary of emotions.
What I have found is that, if you can edge your way into the circumstances occasioning the instant distress, it is possible to open up a flow of thoughts in a safe way. Best to stick to the facts at first, before probing deeper. The problem may be romantic or something trickier, and in general what I have discovered is not an absence of insight, including self-insight, but a kind of embarrassment, self-consciousness, about expressing what seem to be lumbering clichés, which all romantic situations generate by the tonne: They shudder knowingly to hear themselves sound like they are in a soap opera.
I know one individual, a male, just south of Professor Vaknin’s boundary line, who makes for a remarkable exemplar. He is a loner, yes, but also remarkably shrewd, witty, garrulous after a fashion, sharp without being conventionally intelligent. He doesn’t read, but absorbs lots of material online. He isn’t Woke, but isn’t the opposite either. He just avoids the issue — a bit like Vaknin! — but is privately deeply sceptical of Wokery while also careful not to publicly offend its tenets.
He in unable to conduct a serious conversation that impinges on himself. His preference, conversation-wise, if for ‘the bant’, a mode of exchange — especially between young males — that allows for great numbers of words to be expended with a total absence of content, something like what we used to call ‘slagging’.
He can analyse other people’s problems for hours on end — and cogently, coherently — but, other than in extremis, clams up when the subject turns to himself. He is uncomfortable discussing anything serious, anything ‘heavy’, anything that smacks even vaguely of the highfalutin. He lacks knowledge about pretty much everything except sport, popular music and certain forms of technology. Sometimes, though, he has the capacity to surprise, by becoming interested in someone or something unexpected. On such occasions, he will have spotted something that is not obvious, not commonly understood.
He is a terrific mimic, perhaps his most interesting aspect. He really is good — and not just in taking off the voice and mannerisms of an individual, well-known or otherwise, but in being able to capture the essence of someone’s personality in a phrase or two that seems to contain the entire character and personality of the subject. Watchful and big-eared, he spots these quirks instantly. Most of the time, he speaks to me through these characters. ‘How are we?’ he will greet me, twisting the ‘are’ into ‘air’ and the ‘we’ into ‘weh’. He becomes the 17-stone bus driver who fancies himself with young American tourists. ‘Woo-hoo, Sunny Jim’, he says, and is instantly the living spit of Enda Kenny. Somehow, in a half-sentence, he has the capacity to create the person he’s lampooning, like producing an origami castle from an egg. And he is also, from time to time, capable of extending these catchphrases into something like an entire personality, constructing whole monologues — unbelievably funny rants and musings — out of the essence he has rinsed things down to.
This talent chimes with Vaknin’s description of the yoof predilection for short phrases of three words or less. But it also, albeit anecdotally, underlines that Vaknin’s despair does not capture the full story. Maybe it is not that these generations are somehow lacking in the essences of personality as that they believe themselves to lack the necessary permission to express themselves as they would like. Maybe there is more going on in there than their soap-stunted vocabularies allow to emerge? And maybe this is especially true of males, but has somehow come to infect the entirety of youth culture.
Sam Vaknin is a brilliant man. He is also a highly interesting and entertaining speaker, deeply provocative and more than occasionally straying into genius territory. But I think that, whereas his warnings may be worth listening to, they allow us what amount at most to partial understandings. Perhaps, indeed, the problem is that, as a psychologist turning his gaze to the social, he places excessive emphasis on psychology, an individualising paradigm, expanding it to the societal level without also accounting for all the other social and cultural factors. It is hard, sometimes, to avoid the thought that we never seemed to have so many problems when we knew a lot less about psychology.
The problems he has identified, therefore, may not have their roots purely in the condition of the young. Although they certainly manifest most strongly in the young, as he observes, it is not sufficient to indict the young for their shortcomings without fully exploring what the causes of these shortcomings might be. It is unlikely that they came to infect the young in the manner of a virus from outer space. Perhaps we all need to start asking ourselves why young people are like this when young people were never like this before.
We should resist, I believe, the temptation to decide that there is something novel or unprecedented about the ‘youth of today’. I note this as a penitent, not a judge. It can be tempting, in these ideological times, for those of us who have occasion to be irritated by the young to decide that they are indeed the sole source of the problem. But they are emanations of our society — to the extent that it still exists — and therefore present themselves as tempting cultural scapegoats for the mess they have been obliged to inhabit. I have found myself sometimes in sympathy with diagnoses that declared the under-35s, the millennials etc., to be soulless ‘NPCs’ — an acronym from video games referring to the ‘non-player character’, i.e. a character not controlled by a player but by an algorithm, gamemaster or referee. The tendencies referred to by this appellation relate to predetermined or responsive behaviour: the character lacks a ‘mind’ of its own. Some people even go as far as to hazard that such people — literally — have no souls, lacking an inner life or inner dialogue.
This analysis may betimes facilitate us in letting off some of the steam built up in contemplation of the many absurdities currently being imposed on our societies by the young — BLM, Antifa, transgenderism etc. But I do not believe we should regard such characterisations as anything other than functional metaphors. We speak, after all, about our children. And we might remind ourselves that our grandchildren will not be far behind them on the path Sam Vaknin has so graphically described. Rather than craning our necks to see what hell that path might lead to, let us turn and look to where it comes from. Let us trace it back to its beginnings. In doing that, I suspect we will encounter our own messy footprints around the point where our world took that wrong fork in the road.