My grandfather Emmett was a great complainer. He was a justice of the peace in Frazee, Minn., and that gave him a platform for expressing his many discontents.
His favorite complaint was the moral degeneration of society, and he had a long list of examples: hippies, rock music, drug use, disrespect of elders, littering, graffiti, women driving pickup trucks, television shows (except for "Bonanza" and "Hee Haw"), politicians (except for Hubert H. Humphrey) and movie stars (except for John Wayne).
Curious to know what things were like before my generation had led to society's downfall, I asked him what it was like when he was growing up. And then I would hear stories of his early adventures: tipping outhouses on Halloween, stealing watermelons, taking apart a neighbor's wagon and reassembling it on top of his barn, hustling pool, carving plug nickels. The stories went on and on. One of his favorites was about how he and other kids in his North Dakota town would approach an old man who had been a soldier in the Confederate army. They would stand in the street and sing "Marching through Georgia," taunting him until he grabbed his cane to chase them down the street. "He'd get so angry he couldn't even speak," Emmett would say. Then, after a reflective pause, "Oh, we were a terrible bunch of kids."
We find worries about the moral character of the succeeding generation expressed in all cultures at all times in history. We find them in Plato's "Dialogues" from 350 B.C.; we find them in the writings of Sallust and Livy during the height of the Roman Empire; we find them in newspapers from Victorian England and in early American diaries.
Centuries and centuries of people documenting the moral degeneration of their age, and rarely do we find observations of moral improvement. Is it more likely that moral improvement rarely happens or that the observers are biased?
It is easy to find evidence that certain things in our society are getting worse, because society is large and complex. There is always someone ready to point out the latest survey showing that dishonesty in the workplace is increasing or that the high school graduation rate has reached an alarming new low.
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In response, one could point out that some aspects of our society are getting better. One could point to the increasing number of young people volunteering in their communities, or the rising percentage of college students majoring in service-
But pointing out positive stories is only a half-measure: The tendency to complain is not due to a lack of information but to a desire to be relevant.
Finding fault with the next generation is universal because aging is universal. As we age, we discover that the universe that seemed to revolve around us in our youth is following an orbit that we don't control. So we create myths, with ourselves as the Ptolemaic center around which we draw increasingly elaborate orbits. Some of these myths, like the myth of moral degeneration, are as old as history. Others are new, like the myth of generational differences in the workplace.
But sometimes in our reflective moments these pretensions fall away and, face to face with one another, we tell our stories, in which the fears, anxieties, hopes and joys of the parents' youth are seen through the eyes of the children. The stories are what bring us together. They give witness to the tie that binds, a common humanity the years do not erode.
The Ethical Life is a biweekly series of reflections on the ways that ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.