The Arrogance of Youth

By Alex Newhouse

Most of us probably came to Middlebury in order to have our beliefs challenged. We wanted to confront situations that would make us think and take on problems from different perspectives. We wanted to expand our ability to consider critically and to learn from the people and places around us.

But we are also young. There’s a self-confidence among the student body the occurs naturally as the result of us having lived so few years, having yet to confront the more brutal responsibilities of adulthood.

This is not the same as ignorance — I have long felt that young people are often unfairly maligned, given no real voice in the matters that concern them and passed over because of a perceived lack of experience-born wisdom. We are all extremely intelligent individuals who have the right to be heard.

But this also does not immunize us from arrogance. Overt, in-your-face arrogance is rare, as having an air of superiority has rightly been shoved away and stigmatized for being destructive and harmful. But under the surface of our interactions and activities simmers a more subtle, more subdued arrogance that can harm just as easily as snobby pretentiousness. It manifests itself in convictions solidified not by rationality but by emotion and in a feeling of invulnerability.

Those who read my columns last year may remember my discussion of student protest movements on campus. I feel that many of these fail to take into consideration the full range of impacts that would arise from their proposed change. This, I believe, is a result of that subtle over-confidence. When we find a matter that interests and inspires us, naturally we wrap ourselves up in it. It becomes a driving force in our day-to-day lives, guiding our actions and giving us the fuel to work harder and longer for the purpose of achieving some change for good. This, however, can lead to an emotional investment in a problem that requires measured rationality.

Everyone emotionally buys into the movements they support. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. But when the emotion comes first, when the rhetoric changes to “Of course I’m right, because this thing is just so clearly wrong,” that’s when the movement shifts. It takes on the burden of being an identity rather than an interest. For struggles that involve our identities, this is often necessary. For more abstract movements, this might be counterproductive. It makes us terrified to be wrong. It takes our ability to accept criticism and dampens it, dissuading us from shifting to seeking a compromise and not an outright destruction of the system we oppose. This is the arrogance of conviction, of allowing emotion to override reason. It’s the arrogance of “I feel that this thing is wrong, so of course it’s wrong, and it should be overthrown.”

The next type of arrogance causes us to think, or at least project the image, that we’re invulnerable. Each weekend, it is common to drink or smoke. And each weekend, it is not unusual to observe students stumbling back to their dorm rooms or throwing up outside of a party, and even less uncommon to simply see people acting in ways that they would never otherwise behave. Each weekend, students elect to imbibe substances that literally change, dampen, enhance or break apart the way the brain works in a simple desire to feel something different. Each weekend, students choose to drink something that is immediately and noticeably poisonous to our bodies in order to feel and act a little differently.

Imagine explaining alcohol someone who has never heard of it before: It’s something that virtually eliminates your social caution, that decreases your balance, that negatively affects your hearing, sight, and speech, will make you throw up and feel awful later if you drink too much, and will destroy some of your organs if you drink a lot for too many months or years. I’m not above drinking at all, and I believe strongly that it can be used fun to do in moderation. But so often students seem convinced that they are invulnerable, that they won’t feel the negative effects of this. Too often do students go into the night with the desire to gamble on their well-being, not fully internalizing that drinking like this can, and does, harm our bodies. And too often do we use alcohol and other substances to hide our vulnerabilities, to avoid the possibility of having to confront true, fully present interactions with other people or the things that weigh down our minds.

I, too, have been subject to both of these arrogances. I am not above them at all. But continually I struggle with the question of why we do these things. Why do we get on the emotional bandwagon of movements? Why are we afraid to consider the possibility of our movement being wrong or not feasible? Why do we put our bodies through pain to reach some ephemeral mental liberation and alteration? Too often do we shy away from these questions. Too often, we allow ourselves to be cloaked in self-confidence, to believe that our way is the right way. Giving students the freedom to do what they want to do is vitally important. But this in no way precludes the ability to challenge overriding social trends. We don’t have to go along with a drinking culture because “students have the right to choose.” We don’t have to let our social movements become fads of emotional bandwagoning. We can push for greater moderation, greater consideration and greater rationality. In our classes we open our minds and accept the fact that we’re not always right. It’s not so different to do the same thing in the rest of our life.