The Rise of the Amphibians

Posted February 15, 2018 10:23 p.m. EST

During moments of historic transition, generation gaps open up. So I’ve begun a little tour in which I gather millennials for interviews and ask them what they have faith in and how they are going to lead us in the years ahead. The first uplifting results seem worth unveiling this week, a week otherwise filled with sadness, mourning and a sense of national futility.

One thing that’s hit me over the head right away is how many young adults have interesting backgrounds — one is part French, part Costa Rican. Another is a conservative lesbian from the rural Midwest who came to study in the urban East.

A number talked with me about the difficulties of living with heterogeneous backgrounds: Who am I? If people ask me where I’m from, what do I say? “The problem is being hyphenated,” one graduate student said. “It’s a spiritual problem.”

But those people who are fishes out of water were often the most vibrant ones in the room. I’ve begun to recognize a social type, the Amphibians — people who can thrive in radically different environments.

It’s possible to be an important change-agent if you stay in your lane: If you grow up in a progressive middle-class home, go to a liberal arts college and then move to a hipster neighborhood. But you really have to work at it.

But if you grew up in war-torn Syria and wound up at a community college in Ohio, you’re almost bound to be magnetic and original. If you grew up in a Baptist home in Alabama and now are first-generation college at an Ivy League school, your life is propelled by an electric, crosscutting cultural dynamic.

The Amphibians are pluralism personified. Pluralism, remember, isn’t just living with difference, or tolerance. It’s the weaving together of different life commitments. It’s being planted here and also being planted there, but somehow forming yourself into a third thing, one coherent personality. Amphibians make E pluribus unum their life mission.

Amphibians have to master two or three different ways of being in the world, and often they do not fit perfectly anywhere. They were considered liberals in their Midwestern high school but are considered conservatives in college. They come from a mostly black town and work at a mostly white company. They have that on the edge-of-inside mindset. They are within the circle of the group, but at the edge, where they can most easily communicate with those on the outside. They are at the meeting-place of difference where creativity happens. They have that semi-outsider mentality that forces them to observe everything more closely.

It seems to me that the Amphibians are best suited to solve three of the big challenges of their generation:

Bridging Capital. Robert Putnam speaks of bonding and bridging capital. One binds people within communities and the other binds different communities together. We need more of both kinds of social capital, but we need bridging capital more. The thing you notice about Amphibians is that they come to regard their ability to enter different cultures as a thrilling adventure, their defining life trait. They may have been born into one monoculture, but they’ve made a life calling of diving into others. It would be excellent for America if that kind of leap became a rite of passage for young Americans — if young adults from Waco were expected to spend a few years working in and exploring Burlington, and vice versa.

Re-Centering. We have a lot of thriving cities and local communities, but we have no compelling center. We lack a unifying narrative to explain how a pluralistic people live into a common national life. We don’t know how to take what’s happening at the local level and make it work nationally.

Amphibians spend their lives creating centering syntheses. They understand from experience that the only way you can bring different groups together is by uniting them at a higher level. It would be great if, having found a way to create a narrative and a cohering ideal to unify their personal internal diversity, they could do the same for the nation.

A Culture of Connection. So many voices tell oppressor/oppressed and elite/populist stories that put each person in a single box. They assert that the way you see the world is determined by your single tribal identity. They describe society as a battleground with one group here and the other group there. In so doing they cultivate mistrust, division and emotional frozenness.

The Amphibians’ lives teach us that backgrounds are more complicated than simple class- or race-conflict stories. Their lives demonstrate that society is not a battlefield but a jungle with unexpected connections and migrations. Their lives teach that what matters is what you do with your background, the viewpoints you construct by combining viewpoints. Their lives are examples of the power of love to slice through tribal identity. If you start with the Amphibian approach — that every new and different person you meet is first of all my brother, my sister — then the concept of difference changes. The emotional atmosphere is transformed.

One thing I’ve learned so far: When you talk to young adults you hear a lot of disillusion and disaffection. But when you look at their lives you see a lot of hope.

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