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The (New) Age of Disillusionment

Opinion | January 31, 2012

At some point, everyone experiences that disappointing, moment when, for the first time, admired leaders let their veil of morality and wisdom slip, revealing their imperfections. This person might be a beloved teacher, an older sibling, a politician, a university administrator, or even the head coach of a football dynasty. For me, growing up Catholic and attending Catholic schools, disillusionment arrived with the first wave of abuse scandals. There is perhaps nothing more disheartening than eyewitness views of hypocrisy from those we respect most.
A good leader is hard to find, as the nation has painfully witnessed these past few months. From UC Davis administrators’ inability to protect peaceful student protestors, to Penn State leaders’ unwillingness to protect vulnerable children, to politicians and televangelists caught in varying stages of sexual impropriety, disillusionment is swiftly handed down from one generation to the next with the blow of each new headline.  In a post-9/11, post-fame, post-change-campaign nation, the blissful ignorance of youth seems shorter than ever as we race toward toward the painful challenges that lie ahead. Students (those of us who can even afford college) are feeling the full effects of the economic downturn as tuition hikes increase and the job market becomes increasingly difficult to navigate, or even enter. Young soldiers returning from war face painful reentry into a civilian society unprepared to handle their unique issues. More and more, I find myself listening to conversations with peers that hint at feelings of vague resignation and hopelessness.
Painful as these feelings may be, there’s nothing wrong with being disillusioned with the actions of our leaders. In many cases it can be healthy because it has the potential to foster growth and a more mature view of the world. Disillusionment paired with outrage can provide the necessary motivation for action. Had the first Occupiers of Wall Street not felt so disillusioned and outraged with the status quo, we would not be having the national conversation about economic inequality we are having today. It’s certainly not a new story nor feeling, and the archetypal loss of innocence is no novel experience. However, the way each person and each generation deals with the realization that institutional values and leaders can be severely flawed, (and even flat-out evil) is new and different. Some of the methods may be the same—Occupiers obviously did not invent the protest – but just as generations grow and evolve with time, so do our values and hopes for the future. Our own morals are solid, despite the institutions that have let us down.
This generation of activists has already begun to show itself as an entirely different force with the help of social media. As we saw with the Arab Spring, and the viral videos of the UC Davis pepper spraying incident, accountability by leaders increases as we immediately document and share information about their actions. Generations before us have weathered storms of equal caliber. We don’t need a wake-up call: we’re awake and moving forward every day. We’ve already begun to prove that disappointment and apathy don’t have to go hand in hand.
Disillusionment, however painful, can have a positive effect if it connects those who have a choice to those who don’t.  Let’s stop looking for those elusive good leaders in institutions and start looking for them amongst ourselves.