Woodstock and the myth of the Sixties

So it is 40 years since Woodstock, which means we get people (who are cultural theory academics apparently) saying stuff like this:

To many people it kind of represents the 60s and we put that in quotation marks. All of the kind of optimism and energy of the counter-culture of the 1960s seems to have been temporarily placed at Woodstock.

It became the capital of the 60s for a brief period. And of course, I think one of the reasons Woodstock becomes so embraced, it wouldn’t be very many years before so much optimism of that period had in fact collapsed.

Basically, it is mythological bollocks.

Paul Lyons writes about how he sends his undergraduates out each year to interview people who lived during the Sixties.

He describes the reaction of students who are sent to interview baby boomers about their experiences during the decade. Inevitably these students complain that they are “not finding the right people” and that those they interviewed “weren’t really part of the Sixties.” This is because their subjects do not confirm to the tropic understanding of the Sixties held by these students: that the Sixties involved Woodstock, hippies, civil rights and the Vietnam War. For many, the sum of these tropes is the Sixties.

OK, so what is a trope? Hayden White says:

Tropic is the shadow from which all realistic discourse tries to flee. This flight, however, is futile; for tropics is the process by which all discourse constitutes the objects which it pretends only to describe realistically and to analyze objectively.

What he means is that tropes are organising concepts which in the case of history can obscure what we are actually trying to objectively consider. So, in the case of Lyons’ students, they are so fixated on the tropes of the Sixties – the sex, drugs, protest and rock and roll aspect of it – that they are unable to understand that in fact, that isn’t what constituted the experience of most people during the period. And by then denying the voice of the non-tropic recollections of history, the idea that those things constituted the decade becomes further reinforced.

You will probably find that, if you asked, most baby boomers have been to a hell of a lot less protest marches, taken less drugs, had sex with fewer people than most people 20 years younger than them. But not in all cases of course. Someone the other day was saying it would have been exciting to be young in the Sixties. Maybe – if you came from the socio-economic class where you could afford a higher education, where you might, maybe, at university have engaged with political movements. For the majority of young people growing up at the time, it was nothing like that. There is as much excitement and change and pioneering going on nowadays.

This is not to deny that there was signifiant cultural change during the Sixties and that many movements had powerful pioneers during that time to whom we should all be greatful. The women’s movement, the civil rights movements in America and the fight for Aboriginal rights in Australia, the anti-war movement were all critical and significant parts of change. However, they didn’t “happen” to everyone, and not everyone who lead those movements was young at the time.

Nonetheless, we mythologise. And Woodstock was not all peace and love anyway. There was at least one rape reported following the event in 1969 and probably a great deal more that went unreported, given the approach to dealing with rape at the time. And rape could be a very challenging area when intersected with the “free love” movement. It is notable that, by the 1980s, some women viewed their experiences with “free love” and the sexual revolution somewhat skeptically. While there was an undoubted change in the way women dealt with sex during the Sixties, the perspective that many women took by the 1980s was far from a total endorsement their sexual lives from the time. For example, Lillian Rubin interviewed one woman who argued that the revolution, which had freed them to say yes, also disabled them from saying no. “It was weird; it was so hard to say no,” said 38-year-old Paula…“The guys just took it for granted that you’d go to bed with them, and you felt like you had to explain it if you didn’t want to. Then if you tried, you couldn’t think of a good reason why not to, so you did it.” A number of other women interviewed by Rubin repeat this theme. Rubin herself notes that “it was the coercive force of a movement that, in fact, had wide appeal to women, while it also rested on a deeply entrenched structure of roles and relationships that was bound to corrupt the ideals on which it was founded.” Thus free love without sexual equality could lead to coercive expectations on women around sex.

Despite all this, when rapes occured at the Woodstock festival in 1999, it was seen as a condemnation of “young peope today” and moral panic about the manner in which this mythologised event was being diminished. And this is essentially the danger of mythologising and tropes. We can’t critical analyse in a past when we are too obsess with protecting it and with seeing it as representative of everything about an era. Nothing, no single event, and especially not an LSD fuelled orgy can represent an entire decade, and entire generation. To try and argue that it does oversimplifies and, in so doing, distorts the past. And by distorting the past and obscuring the analysis, we can’t understand it in all its complexity.

So, I might have liked to have been at Woodstock – although I tend to avoid music festivals where I have to camp…And it certainly is an interesting event which illustrates the peak, arguably, of a certain small subculture within North America at the time. But let’s not overblow its meaning, let’s not oversimplify what happened in the past.

Generation nothing

When I am at work, my staff know that there is one thing that is guaranteed to make me go an kick a filing cabinet – the reduction of complex issues about the changing nature of the workforce, technology and pretty much anything else to a “Gen X/Gen Y” headline. A very over-used trope in the media, the whole Generation Y thing is particularly abused in discussions whihc focus on jobs and training and management. Unsurprisingly, definition of the generation are constantly mutable, generally fitting whatever point the author is trying to make. And massive, sweeping generalisations abound. My general irritation with the abuse of this notion means I feel I must refute, or at least discuss, a number of aspects of the manner in which this terminology is used.

The most high profile reference to Gen Y ers and their work ethic has been Senator Arbib’s speech last week which has been widely reported as having him refer to them as job snobs. While he notes in The Punch that he did not really say specifically that he does make a number of generalisations about Gen Y. The fact that the media also took the whole Gen Y job-snob label and ran with it also shows how happpily these kinds of concepts get grabbed. Of course, they aren’t new, and this, like so many other “young people today” type admonishments is hardly new. As Dr Verity Archer’s work has showed, this idea about dole bludgers has been alive and well since the mid 1970s. While the focus of the dole bludger label has not always specifically been young people, they have always been strongly associated with labelling in this way. All generations, it would seem, have their own job snobs.

But beyond the “young people today” issues we seen in the generalising about generations, there are some other aspects of the way this labelling gets used that disturb me. For example, it doesn’t seem to occur to people how discriminatory its indiscriminate use is. Try this: find any article about Gen Yers or Xers and substitute the generation label for a term like, say, “black people”, “Asians”, “women”, “Jews” or “the disabled.” The article is probably still about as true, but it will certainly seem a great deal more offensive. Discrimination occurs when individuals are treated as part of a category, for no reason other than they fit some arbitrary aspect that is the same: eg gender, religion, race or date of birth. If you substituted “all Aries people” for Gen Y people, it would seem ludicrous, but lets remember that there is pretty much the same level of arbitrariness going on.

Karl Mannheim in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge notes that  a generation can be consider a constituted group “where a concrete bond is created between members of a generation by their being exposed to the social and intellectual symptoms of a process of dynamic de-stabilization.” By this Mannheim is arguing that being born at the same time is not necessarily enough to constitute a “generation as an actuality”; for example Mannheim would point out that there is little in common between Chinese peasants born into any generation and an American of the same birthdate. As he writes, “mere contemporaneity becomes sociologically significant only when it involves participation in the same historical and social circumstances.” What Mannheim is noting here is that there is indeed a connection between people of a generation because, like women and black people, they are influenced by facing the same social circumstances from the same point of view. It is not that they are inherently the same, but that, because they have shared a range of the same social attitudes and treated, they have in common a range of socially constructed experiences.

However, and this is as always an important however, Mannheim crucially notes that  generations are not monolithic entities and that “within any generation there can exist a number of differentiated, antagonistic generation-units.” Just think back, for example, to the generation to end all generations, the Baby Boomers. Any cursory examination of that generation and the directions in which it has gone can clearly spell out the fact that a generation is not homogeneous. Paul Lyons, for example, in New Left, New Right and the Legacy of the Sixties, identifies at least four significant (American) generation groupings who were active during the Sixties: the left including protesters and political radicals; those who served in Vietnam, mostly American “proletariat and sub-proletariat”; the large “silent majority” who avoided political activism and Vietnam service; and the New Right, a “powerful conservative movement” that emerged in the Sixties.  Going back to Mannheim, he notes that  the “generation-unit tends to impose a much more concrete and binding tie on its members because of the parallelism of responses it involves.”  Thus any individual is will reflect the ideas of the particular sub-set of the generation he or she is a part of to a much greater extent than the characteristics of the generation as a whole. Even Strauss and Howe, the ra-ra agents for the notion of generational identity, implicitly note the problematic nature of generalisations about generations when writing “you and your peers share the same “age location” in history, and your generation’s collective mind-set cannot help but influence you—whether you agree with it or spend your lifetime battling against it.”  And lots of people do spend a lifetime fighting against it.

So when people talk about the fact that “Gen Ys demand more from their jobs” I point out the fact that the modern workplace has changed, consciousness of entitlements and ideas of fairness are current throughout the working environment, so of course young people who have only experienced this will have different expectations. But guess what, all the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have exactly the same expectations nowadays. Similarly, I have seen as many older people in my workplace flit from job to job as I have seen young people – guess what, this is the era of labour mobility – it isn’t an aspect of age or generation! I loved it when at a conference nearly two years ago now, one of the speakers dismissed the generation discourse and said “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t a sage, experienced, quiet, hard worker either when I was 20 – that’s about being young, it isn’t about being in any sort of generation.” Similarly when older people say “it is so hard to communicate with Gen Y” it is not a function of the generation, it is a function of the difference in ages and experience and the subsequently different points of reference in the world – and any cursory glance at literature through the ages will show that isn’t confined to people born since 1980s.

So please journalists and guest speakers everywhere, for the sake of my filing cabinets, could you just stop with this whole Generation Y crapola. It is wrong, it is discriminatory and, bascially, it is lazy!