On Teen Angst

Two complementary theories of teen angst:

  1. Our homo hypocritus ancestors overtly followed idealistic norms, such as against dominance and bragging, but covertly violated them. They also cheated often on norms of sexual fidelity. An important part of growing up in such a world was learning to see that acts oft deviate from spoken ideals, and to affirm ideals via outrage at such hypocrisy, before one was old enough to have been very hypocritical oneself. And since the young seek to displace the old in the positions of highest status, old hypocrisy makes a good rallying cry.
  2. In the vast majority of the past, and the vast majority of the future, people grow up in a world for which they were designed – their inborn expectations and intuitions are good guides to their world. But in this the great Dreamtime, only ten thousand years old, mostly done, and near its peak, our inborn intuitions are poor guides – we awake into a world we find strange, fake, and wrong. So when young, we are drawn to stories about righting those wrongs by exposing this fake world, replacing it with a true one, and in the process having an adventure where we prove our mettle and impress potential mates and allies.

Below are quotes on teen angst in fiction.  They inspire this open letter of mine:

Dear angsty teen,

As you suspect, the world into which you have been born is indeed strange, fake, and wrong, relative to your inborn intuitions. Adults have not been frank with you, or themselves, about how often they fail to live up to your ideals or theirs. In fact, much of the function of school and other ways adults shape your youth is to use social pressure to get you to replace your inborn ideals with new given ideals, and to accept your and others’ hypocrisies.

There maybe be places you could move which better fit your inborn ideals and expectations, and there may be ways to change your current place to better fit such things. You may even devote some energy to such moving or changing.  But the vast majority of you will mostly forget your angst, eagerly trading your inborn ideals for the hope of social approval and respect. A few of you will hold the most strongly to your inborn ideals, paying great costs to move or change. Some such efforts will even succeed, moving your world closer to your inborn ideals.

But know that your world is stable enough so that if you actually “fight the power,” you will on average lose.  Most of what looks like young “rebels” winning is actually part of the established order.  New art, tech, political groups, etc. often replace old ones with rhetoric about how the change better achieves natural ideals.  Such rhetoric can bind “rebels” together, helping them beat rivals. But most such changes do little about hypocrisy or idealism overall, and the few that do mostly reflect larger trends, not a triumph of some group’s moral fervor.

On average, real rebels who most hold to their inborn ideals do not thereby gain social approval or respect – they lose it.  Real rebels are little like the heroes of your teen angst fiction, who accumulate fascinating stories while proving their mettle and impressing potential mates and allies. While some real rebels succeed in exposing more hypocrisy to those willing to listen, it is the willingness to listen that is the main block. Those willing to look for hypocrisy can find it easily enough themselves, most anywhere they look.

Finally, pause for a moment and ask: how sure can you be that your inborn ideals are really better than the ideals society wishes to imprint on you? Your inborn ideals were adaptive to a world that is long gone, and only then in conjunction with lots of hypocrisy; the ideals adults want to imprint on you instead seem better adapted to your current world. There is no solid rock on which you can stand; we all float in a sea of choice; choose your ideals, and your level of hypocrisy, and pay the price.

Now for those quotes.  On JD Salinger:

Mr. Salinger had such unerring radar for the feelings of teenage angst and vulnerability and anger … Mr. Salinger’s people tend to be outsiders — spiritual voyagers shipwrecked in a vulgar and materialistic world, misfits who never really outgrew adolescent feelings of estrangement. … Such characters have a yearning for some greater spiritual truth, but they are also given to an adolescent either/or view of the world and tend to divide people into categories: the authentic and the phony, those with an understanding … and those coarse, unenlightened morons who will never get it — a sprawling category, it turns out, that includes everyone from pompous college students parroting trendy lit crit theories to fashionable, well-fed theater-goers to self-satisfied blowhards who recount every play in a football game or proudly wear tattersall vests.

On Dystopian Teen Fiction:

A recent boom in dystopian fiction for young people. … Intricately imagined worlds. … For example, all sixteen-year-olds undergo surgery to conform to a universal standard of prettiness. … Teen-age boys awaken, all memories of their previous lives wiped clean, in a walled compound surrounded by a monster-filled labyrinth. The books tend to end in cliff-hangers. … There are, or will soon be, books about teen-agers slotted into governmentally arranged professions and marriages or harvested for spare parts or genetically engineered for particular skills or brainwashed by subliminal messages embedded in music or outfitted with Internet connections in their brains. Then, there are the post-apocalyptic scenarios in which humanity is reduced to subsistence farming or neo-feudalism. … A new, better way of life can be assembled from the ruins. …

Dystopian fiction … it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader. “The success of ‘Uglies,’ … is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.” … As a tool of practical propaganda, the [Hunger Games] don’t make much sense. … If, on the other hand, you consider the games as a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience, they become perfectly intelligible. Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake. Adults don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are; your whole life could be over, and they act like it’s just some “phase”! Everyone’s always watching you, scrutinizing your clothes or your friends … but no one cares who you really are or how you really feel about anything.

The typical arc of the dystopian narrative mirrors the course of adolescent disaffection. First, the fictional world is laid out. It may seem pleasant enough. Tally … looks forward to the surgery that will transform her into a Pretty. … Then somebody new, a misfit, turns up, or the hero stumbles on an incongruity. A crack opens in the façade. If the society is a false utopia, the hero discovers the lie at its very foundation: the Pretties are lobotomized when they receive their plastic surgery. … If the society is frankly miserable or oppressive, the hero will learn that, contrary to what he’s been told, there may be an alternative out there, somewhere. Conditions at home become more and more unbearable until finally the hero, alone or with a companion, decides to make a break for it, heading out across dangerous terrain. …

Incorporating the particular flavor of contemporary kid culture. Waking up in a hostile, confined place without an identity or any notion of what you’re supposed to do or how you can get out … is a scenario often found in video games. … There’s more hand-to-hand combat in these dystopias. … Some [kids] will surely grow up to write dystopian tales of their own, incited by technologies or social trends we have yet to conceive. By then, reality TV and privacy on the Internet may seem like quaint, outdated problems. But the part about the world being broken or intolerable, about the need to sweep away the past to make room for the new? That part never gets old.

Added 13June: Reports of teen angst seem more common in industry and among farmer aristocrats than elsewhere.  This could be because such folks are more articulate, and have high enough status to complain. If not, this fact seems to favor the second of the two explanations I offered above.

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