This summer, while sitting on plastic lawn chairs and drinking soda from glass bottles, my uncle asked me what I thought about the “state of my generation.” My initial answers were about healthcare, lack of access to a stable economy, concern about future employment, and an inability to vote consistently.
But none of these were the answers my uncle was looking for. Instead, he wanted to know if we—meaning college students in 2017—could “think critically,” as in, define our individuality without hiding ourselves in group identities. I was confused; my two years at Columbia have given me an optimistic view of my generation.
This conversation stuck with me for two months and came to the forefront of my mind again as this semester started. I was searching for the lack of critical thought my uncle apparently saw in us. I couldn’t find it, but I think I might have found the impetus for his question.
Three of my five professors started their classes this semester by announcing that their rooms were not “safe spaces” and went on to define their classrooms as places where people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ages, and ability levels could express their opinions and expect respect. They said that we, as students, should not be identified by labels, and that political correctness has corrupted discourse. The opinion section of almost any major newspaper endlessly features op-eds echoing this view. There seems, then, to be a major cultural roadblock between professors and students when it comes to talking about selfhood. In this context, I think I might finally have an answer to the question my uncle was asking.
Academics of a certain generation seem to object to the labels certain liberal college students (myself very much included) use to explain identity, and the inherently political nature of defining oneself. One of the three professors used Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to discuss why labels are so horrible. He said that the thing that saves the sometimes shallow, sometimes small Mrs. Dalloway is her unwillingness “to say of herself, I am this, I am that.” Yet, I believe some of the most powerful moments of the novel come when characters clearly, almost simply define themselves. Lucrezia says boldly, “I am unhappy.” Mrs Dalloway, however, reflects on unhappiness as a feeling rather than a state of being. These women both express the same emotion differently, but both are characters similarly affected by their knowledge of Sir William’s evil.
It seems to me, then, that the generational clash over labels, identity politics, and political correctness comes down to parts of speech. My professor praised Mrs. Dalloway for describing people using verbs—Peter Walsh felt this, Richard felt that. Lucrezia, however, described her world with adjectives. She was unhappy. Septimus wasn’t doing just fine.
The identities that are important to so many people in my life—man, woman, black, white, gay, straight, bi, trans, et cetera—are simply following in Lucrezia’s footsteps, employing adjectives to describe things that are often indescribable. Instead of a political agenda, Lucrezia’s adjectives are a simple assertion of emotional reality. Lucrezia, in Mrs. Dalloway, was far more than unhappy. And Septimus being “fine” was deftly able to emphasize how entirely untrue that statement was. However, despite the adjectives’ inability to describe the entirety of a human experience, they communicate effectively enough to tell the reader the truth, with some attention to detail.
I am a woman, I am a student, I am a Mormon. Those things are all true, but they are not the Truth. They are not the end of my self, nor are they the beginning, but they are a way to express aspects of who I am in a way that allows other people to understand me. I do not diminish myself by stating truth and embracing these adjectives, but I also do not end my identity with an adjective. To know me, one would have to know much more than three adjectives, and many of those things cannot be expressed with just words. But I also wouldn’t be complete if these three critical aspects of my identity didn’t exist. For me, the “identity politics” my generation is so fond of is nothing new. If anything, millennials and members of Generation Z just enjoy creating more precise language to express the oldest feelings.
For example, I could describe my conversation with my uncle in several ways. In the first paragraph, I chose to identify my uncle through his relationship to me—he is my mother’s sister’s husband. But I could describe a conversation with my uncle by saying that someone, whom I assume is white, cisgender (we’ve never had this exact conversation), sat on a Costco lawn chair talking to his young, white, cisgender niece underneath a plum tree (the plums were purple; I don’t know plum trees well enough to identify a species). We drank Diet Coke and cream soda, respectively. In this description, instead of relationships and comparisons, I use adjectives to set a scene, to tell people with similar points of reference (those dreaded, misunderstood labels) what happened when my uncle asked me this lingering question.
And if I were Virginia Woolf (God, what a dream), I could also describe this scene differently. I would start with the crunch of ice in the cooler, the feeling of the hot, Utah sun on my skin. I could mention the light breeze with a lingering scent of too-strong sugar, the gentle clink of glass bottles, the polyester rubbing uncomfortably against my thighs, as a person—who would be described entirely through an incredibly vivid experience—sinks lower into his chair and, entirely comfortable in his own existence, probes beliefs I hold without thought. I would later find myself alone in a room—I might see myself past the adjectives I use to grasp, search, and define my elusive nature in a world that constantly barrages me—all of us—with questions: What are we? What are we doing? How do I explain myself to these people who walk past me with their own deep, lingering questions, entirely anonymous? Then, as a bumblebee (or was it a wasp?) darts by my ear, there I would be.
Unfortunately, I am not Virginia Woolf. I am not revolutionary enough to totally change a narrative. I am a college student, a woman, and a Mormon, stumbling over myself while searching for who I am. If that sounds cliché, it ought to: There is nothing more classically Columbia than a hero’s journey filled with self-discovery. To answer my uncle’s question, I believe my generation, along with the generations before it who are trying to understand the lexicon many Columbia students share, is doing just fine. I’ve been lucky in my family and Columbia community to mostly share spaces with people who are getting at the same ideas of justice and equality, even if we describe them in different ways.
For some, identity might be a verb, a state of mind—for others, we might use adjectives. The way I see it, this distinction isn’t, ultimately, that important. The thing that matters is creating a common understanding and finding a way for adjectives, nouns, and verbs to describe and not divide us. And for that, we just need to find a new way with words.
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