Respectful ambivalence

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve observed significant changes in the way young people think about moral, political and religious subjects.

Their general approach could be described as respectful ambivalence.

These young people consider it virtuous to remain agnostic about issues society considers too controversial.

Taking a non responsive stand is viewed as the polite alternative to the dreaded possibility of being judgmental.

Some of this came to my attention when I spoke to a large group of university students on a Christian view of sexuality.

I was a guest member of a panel hosted by the philosophy department at Franklin and Marshal College (PA). Their theme was “God, Government and Gays,” and the panel was weighted with professors who favored gay marriage.

During two hours of questions, the most respectful members of the audience were the university students. They expressed sincere interest in knowing why I choose to follow the Christian Scriptures and why I do not endorse homosexual relationships. Yet the disturbing part of the student response was a notable degree of respectful ambivalence toward moral opinions.

When adult participants became emotionally charged and angry with their questions, students rolled their eyes in disgust. When I encouraged these adults to calm down so that we could have an informed discussion, the students shook their heads in agreement.

Yet most of the young people remained generally unmoved by different points of view. They seemed comfortable with moral indifference and respectfully confused about what the “big deal” is with gay marriage.

In his research on youth, (Soul Searching, The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Oxford 2005), Christian Smith discovered that youth had a one word response religious and moral opinions: “Whatever.”

“What’s the big deal?” “Who really cares?” Why get worked up about it?” “It won’t change anything?”

Underneath the surface, these common lines also express a degree of angst with issues that divide people.

Influences of  public education

It’s significant that many of these young people came up through educational atmospheres where tolerance was required (with no exceptions tolerated!).

In these settings, youth learned to suppress or at least suspend their thoughts, beliefs and feelings by remaining publicly neutral on issues considered divisive.

As a result, these youth also became inarticulate on certain matters of controversy.

Among today’s young students, Smith noticed that, “The strategy for dealing with religious and moral disagreement is: ‘You don’t go there.’” Going there only causes trouble.

Humor as a means of dissent

When these teenagers became young adults, The Office became one of their favorite television programs. Taking the ultimate “whatever” approach to all things political, social and moral, the main characters of this show spare no humor on politically correct stuff. Whether it’s race, gender, sexuality, class associations, religion — all is fair game for light-hearted humor! What’s the big deal anyway?

After spending years under the influence of forced acceptance and required affirmation of everyone’s religious, moral or political viewpoints, it’s not surprising that this generation would enjoy a program that treats it all so lightly.

Perhaps they’ve turned to humor as a means of dissent – or even, as a way to detox. 

Political dissent

Interestingly, in the political realm, many young people are choosing to be independents because of their aversion to divisive partisanship between the reigning parties. Watch how this will change the nature of political debate in the next few decades.


Although I was grateful for the respectful and inquisitive responses of the students at Franklin Marshal College, I found myself asking if they will take seriously matters of great importance to the future of our nation. The default to a “whatever” position among a large group of citizens could become a political opportunity for evil. 

Steve Cornell


About Wisdomforlife

Just another field worker in God's field.
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3 Responses to Respectful ambivalence

  1. The default “Whatever” allows an easy path for evil to proceed unhindered. The freedom that these young people enjoy (to even take the “whatever” stance) was bought at great price by people who had a firm belief in truth and moral absolutes. If our forefathers philosophy had been “Whatever” then we would more likely being living is an oppressive totalitarian hell.

    • Yes, so true! I am concerned that a pervasive “Whatever” attitude could lead us toward a disastrous future. If people refuse to take seriously moral issues, someone will come along and by political force bring them under a morality of a dictators choosing.

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