Notre Dame and the Nanny State

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This past Sunday, a couple hundred students made headlines by turning their backs on Vice President and former Indiana Governor Mike Pence as he began his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. These new graduates will hopefully soon discover that such behavior is not acceptable in a professional environment, at least not for the time being. Whether this will remain the case is a more troubling question as the rising Millennial generation builds a world for themselves that more and more resembles their insular and carefree college years. As a vision of things to come–or perhaps a warning–the Washingtonian magazine recently profiled a new type of communal apartments called “WeLive.”

WeLive offers many of the conveniences and comforts of the college dormitory experience. This trend towards “lifestyle” in real estate marketing is eerily similar to the language used by college admissions promotional materials. There are the same sort of planned community activity nights, plenty of “free” amenities, and most of all, an emphasis on building relationships and networking to improve one’s future career prospects–a sort of country club for hipsters. The much ridiculed “pajama boy” stereotype of Millennials could not be further from the truth, as the tenants are very much type-A go-getters. Still, there is a certain Peter Pan quality to pre-furnished apartments where nobody can be bothered to deal with mundane tasks like cooking, cleaning, laundry, or running errands.

The term “adulting” has entered currency as a way of describing these ordinary chores which are now outsourced to the “sharing economy” (a bitterly ironic euphemism if there ever was one). For the rest of us, this is simply called life. The ability to press a button on an iPad in order to command other people is a sort of dumb waiter for the 21st century. It conveniently sanitizes the interaction between the lives of the privileged and those who serve them. Just as lifestyle communities and phone apps allow Millennials to insulate themselves from the annoyances of life in the real world, technology also increasingly allows them to insulate themselves from different ideas.
Although diversity is prized as the highest ideal of academia and the corporate world, when everything can be taken care of at the press of a button, it’s hard to strike up a conversation with the taxi driver who fled from Boko Haram to protect his family or the plumber who had to leave everything he ever knew when the Muslim Brotherhood burned down his church or the pharmacist who used to be a professor of organic chemistry at a university in Cambodia before the Communists took over and murdered all her students. These are people for whom the term “safe spaces” simply means being allowed to live.

With all the horrors and struggles in the world today–yesterday’s terrorist bombing in Manchester which was aimed mainly at defenseless women and children provides a brutal example–the newest graduates of Notre Dame look rather foolish, petty, and small by comparison. Ironically, the Vice President’s speech was about protecting exactly the kind of freedom that privileged Notre Dame students take for granted, both abroad and on campus. A college education is supposed to challenge students to think critically about their assumptions and preconceived notions, but instead, like many universities today, the “Standards of Conduct” for Notre Dame includes a prohibition on “unwelcome communications” as a behavior which is “clearly inconsistent with the University’s expectations for membership in this community.”

As we saw a few weeks ago in Berkeley, these restrictions on speech inevitably lead to violence. When our future leaders are no longer taught how to engage in civil debate and how to politely disagree, they will increasingly resort to riots and mayhem to get their way. Fortunately at Notre Dame the disruption to the commencement ceremony was non-violent, but it is clearly part of a larger trend towards lawless radicalism on college campuses. A student interviewed by CNN described the motivations for the walk-out by saying, “Either we are all Notre Dame or none of us are, ” which as nonsensical as it is, nevertheless has a disturbingly totalitarian ring to it.

In the case of WeLive, instead of expecting the government to take care of everything, Millennials are being trained to trust corporate entities to provide for all their food, furnishings, and entertainment in a self-contained little world. In return for these creature comforts, they can devote more of their time to being productive little worker bees who add value by spending all their waking hours thinking about the new social app they’re developing. Community living is all well and good–to a point. However, the implication is pretty clear that, just as with campus speech codes, only people who buy into the snowflake ethos of today’s college campuses would be welcome there.

For now, this is an experimental form of living that is self-selecting, but it’s not hard to imagine this lifestyle first becoming normal, and then eventually mandatory as a condition of employment for technology companies on the leading edge of innovation, much in the same way that many companies today offer irresistible incentives for tracking previously private choices about diet and exercise or force workers into open plan offices that stifle creativity and productivity. As idealistic college students grow into a world which coddles and comforts them through a perpetual childhood, they will increasingly assume that what is good for them is also good for everyone else. Cut off from disagreement and criticism, they will fail to seek feedback from the very people they ostensibly want to help in the futuristic utopia they aim to create.

No country ever fell into despotism because they thought they’d be worse off, but it’s always been tied to some promise of greater prosperity and security. As breathtaking as the last 60 years of progress has been, technology companies still have enormous untapped potential as engines of economic growth and greater prosperity for all. However, without deeper reflection on the purpose of the technology we create, technology also gives us the power to make our world into a bleak panopticon of soulless toil. Totalitarianism with white-glove service, a slick social media app, blond hardwoods, free beer, yoga classes, and an on-site gourmet chef is still totalitarianism.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Joshua Bowman joined in full communion with the Catholic Church in 2010 after many years in the spiritual wilderness. He recently moved back to his beloved native Virginia from Columbus, Ohio with his growing family and writes on religion, politics, history, and geographical curiosities.

12 Comments

  1. I work with some ND grads. They are definitely uppidy and tough. VP Pence was not shown the honor of the Vice Presidency during commencement. However, his choice as speaker might present a difficult picture.

    VP Pence told the alumni to be “men and women of INTEGRITY”. He represents an administration where integrity is hard to find. Tell me if integrity applies to the following… unsubstantiated falsehoods about wire tapping. giving a false reason for not releasing one’s taxes, hugging FBI’s Comey and then firing him, demanding that Mexico pay for the allusive wall and then shoving the billion dollar charge under the nose of the taxpayers. There are so many enablers in the Trump administration that they are getting mixed up on his message.

    I don’t like Trump, but as a tax payer I demand that he and Pence clean up their acts.

    • According to you. Many of us disagree with your claim that they lack integrity. Where was your outrage the past eight years? The Obama administration lied to the American people about healthcare, about transparency, about the Iran nuclear deal and about the Benghazi attack. They lied about Clinton’s illegal private email server. Those are just a very few examples.

  2. Isolation due to technology and modern comforts are certainly not exclusive to millennials, and yet somehow people who…live in community-oriented apartments in large, diverse cities…probably don’t care enough about Boko Haram! Unlike older generations in lily-white suburbs and gated communities who hang out with refugees all the time (right after they finish protesting against them living here).

    The ridiculousness of your argument would be enough even if it weren’t written by someone opposed to granting asylum to Syrian refugees.

    Your shamefulness in exploiting refugees to try to score a cheap point (about being an adult, no less) apparently knows no bounds, nor sense of irony or self-awareness. The fact that this came about due to a small, peaceful protest would be enough for anyone to rightly call you the real “snowflake” here.

    I, on the other hand, will just chalk this up to another rant by a fool.

  3. Man, Millennials can’t catch a break.

    A small number of them get violent at a college (that most of them don’t attend) and they are all scolded that they should be peaceful (like the 1500+ people who actually were peaceful at that Milo protest).

    So then 100 students peacefully petition Notre Dame and later walk out, and it’s branded as part of a trend towards more “lawless radicalism”.

    And while most baby boomers inaccurately stereotype Millennials as entitled philosophy degree holders who live with their parents and demand public benefits, Joshua goes on to deride those who decide to live independently with others in private housing while they work in software.

    (Quick story: I have a friend whose new apartment got badly flooded. She and her husband lived at WeLive for a few months. It was a big help for them. They didn’t have to worry about somehow finding a new short-term place and furnishing it. They are not Millennials, don’t work in social media, and they certainly didn’t get laundry washed and meals cooked for them. They had to do it themselves. Sure, they got free coffee and beer, but that was covered by an amenities fee.)

    Anyway, what’s the alternative? Should these young people be buying housing through a multinational real estate broker, then furnishing it from IKEA or Target? If living with mostly like-minded people is wrong, should they do what almost all other Americans do and live by themselves? If they should use their devices less, what about older generations? A Nielsen report earlier this year showed that Gen X used social media more than Millennials, and 77% of Baby Boomers now own smartphones.

    • Gee, you bring up so many good points.
      I’ve noticed that for many conservatives, there is just no acceptable way for a liberal to protest correctly. See, for example, Joshua’s previous attacks on peaceful protestors in the women’s march, or as he calls them, “progressive mobs” who just want to “wear pink hats and shout obscenities about their lady parts.”
      WeLive sounds like a fun place to live in a more communal environment. It’s the type of place where I might choose to live, if I could afford it. And I’ve known and worked with many refugees throughout my life! So one can do both — care about the plight of the persecuted and live as one chooses!

  4. Mr. Bowman: I appreciate the theory you put forth in regards to technology, but surely you must see the absurdity of the situation here? If your organization had its way, there would be no Boko Haram refugee taxi driver for a millennial to even attempt to talk with, regardless of the millenial’s communication skills.

    If millennials can’t connect or empathize with refugees because of technology, so be it. What is the explanation for your organization?

  5. “These new graduates will hopefully soon discover that such behavior is not acceptable in a professional environment”

    Actually, the Catholic Church affirms that employees have a natural law right to strike.

  6. Anonymous Commenter on

    “These new graduates will hopefully soon discover that such behavior is not acceptable in a professional environment”

    A university is not a corporate office and is exactly the kind of place where such student speech should happen.

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