This article by the noted Quaker author and philosopher is reprinted by permission from Quaker Life, published by the Friends United Meeting, Richmond, Indiana.
Though it is sometimes said that ours is an immoral or at least an amoral generation, this is manifestly untrue. It would be far closer to the truth to say that we are too moral, too judgmental, too condemning. The photographs of campus confrontations and violence normally depict those who are "angry." "Professor faces irate students" is a standard headline. Always there is some claim about injustice or unfairness, and the faces in the photographs are contorted by bitterness. If there is any pleasure, it is the pleasure of denunciation. There is no lack of dedication; what is lacking is laughter!
Since the issues in the confrontations are uniformly simple, in the eyes of the violent, instead of calm discussion, we have "demands." The mood which now receives the most publicity is strikingly similar to that of John Brown at Harpers Ferry. The ones who are featured in the headlines are not marked by a lack of concern for morals, but by that extreme concern for morals which is the essence of fanaticism. We are, in fact, plagued by an inverted Puritanism.
The lack of humor is abundantly evident in contemporary student assemblies. The speaker, in addressing a thousand students, employs an approach which has appealed to many other student generations as very funny, but only a small minority now laughs. The others keep their straight Puritanical faces. It is not that they have heard the joke before; it is simply a failure to respond to subtle approaches to the truth. Violent attack is a different matter and this brings instant response, but dull people are not made wise simply by becoming angry.
The decline of laughter is not merely an evidence of the widely publicized "generation gap." Indeed, there is grave doubt whether the generation gap so often mentioned exists at all. Though there is always some difficulty in communication between different ages of human beings, this is not now the chief problem. What has appeared is an "idea gap." I realize how nearly independent of age this is when I encounter the enormous difficulty of communication between groups of the same age. I feel actually closer in thought to some persons of twenty than to some of my own age.
The decline of laughter appears to depend on nothing more profound than the recognition that ours is an imperfect world. Why this should be a shocking discovery, I have no idea, but it seems to be such to many in our generation. Much of the problem is really philosophical. Millions have imbibed the sentimental idea of natural human goodness and have really expected utopia right around the corner. When it does not come, they are angry in their disappointment and begin to indulge in harsh judgment of others. The emphasis, accordingly, is always on other people’s sins, but never on our own. If only the establishment could be changed or replaced, then the problem would be solved! But, of course, it is not solved. In the progress of the French Revolution the establishment was displaced, all right, but what ensued was a reign of terror.
What we need in our time is a mature realism which makes us understand that the human predicament is with us to stay. We shall not eliminate sin in others and we shall not eliminate it in ourselves. We shall not achieve utopia in universities or anywhere else, though we can make some things relatively better than they are. Meanwhile we are wise to learn again to laugh, primarily at ourselves.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.