Thursday, August 25, 2011

Moynihan on the '60s cultural change

"What has been going on is a pervasive and quite unprecedented onset of role reversal.  The process of socialization is one whereby the infant and then the growing child is gradually taught to perform certain roles that are appropriate to his age, sex, and to a lesser extent his class and caste.  These roles are not performed in a vacuum. Rather, they relate to other roles.  In the case of youth, to that of adults....Typically these have been hierarchical roles, with one person being superior and the other inferior.  These roles have had 'authority' They have been occupied.  In Erickson's formulation, this authority gradually forms as childhood moral standards are acquired, and these gradually transmute into ethical standards in youth.

For reasons difficult to understand, young persons are suddenly reversing these roles.  Of a sudden, they are the superior ones, and are treating their elders as inferiors.  They do so moreover, with a moralistic harshness that is a caricature of the adult world.  They become in effect supermoralistic, treating adults as children who do not know what they are doing really, and certainly cannot fool their all powerful, all knowing guardians.  They turn on adults in a caricature of adults." 

Letter to President, May 17 1969, (page 191) DPM, A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary

I find this interesting because Moynihan's description of what happened in the 1960's seems accurate--at least within a large and influential set of the population--and because the product of this role reversal are now parents and cultural leaders, so that the effect of this change is still very much with us.  I think you can also see the makings of the cultural wars here, in a split between those in the boomer generation who went with this role reversal and those who didn't.

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