Missing the point about emos
It is natural for every generation to have its own distinguishing characteristics, its own sub-culture movement. We are all conditioned by the environment we grow up in and this includes whatever phenomenon the prevailing cultural genre is. This is indulging in stereotypes but teenagers, with their inherent need for self-identification and self-expression are most susceptible to embracing fads, trends, and lifestyles.
I will not go into the anthropological and sociological gibberish because we’ve all been there, haven’t we? It was largely about the music at first. Then as now, music has always been the social glue that helps define and bind generations and movements. Eventually, it stops just being about the music. It becomes about fashion, emotions, and lifestyles. My parents were hippies. I was into rock. My younger siblings were into new wave and grunge. My kids were into goth at one point. Many kids today are into emo.
And as always, we’re all helplessly grappling with the social phenomena that come with each generational sub-culture, magnified by our sheer inability to accept, much less comprehend, cross-generational issues. Every generation seems to have this built-in contempt and intolerance for the lifestyles of the generation that succeeds them.
For example, my colleagues and I in the human resource management profession has been struggling for quite sometime now to “bridge” cross-generational issues in the workplace. It’s a problem that is particularly vexing to many managers.
This is because we are seeing today a workplace that’s pulsating with the urgent need to manage diversity issues. From the standpoint of organizational behavior, the current workplace is unique as we’re finally seeing four generational cohorts actively asserting their own lifestyles, work ethics, and preferences. A few of the so-called veterans are still in the workplace sitting in the top echelons of business organizations as board of directors or chief executive officers. Most senior executives are baby boomers. Middle management layers are peopled by those belonging to Generation X. And of course, members of Generation Y are now entering the workplace and rising very, very swiftly to leadership positions. It’s a potent brew because each generation happens to look at things from a different perspective and display their own management styles.
Incidentally, the veterans and the baby boomers will be retiring in a few years’ time. Many experts peg the date to 2010. This means a huge shortfall of potential leaders as there are obviously fewer people belonging to Generation X.
Indulging in generalizations is always a dangerous thing, of course. But managing diversity has not always been our best suit as a people. We do try to put up this front of being a very tolerant people, but most of our actions are really borne out of denial rather than clear understanding or acceptance of the differences. For the most part, we think that that avoiding potential or real conflicts already constitutes a solution. Thus, we seem forever stuck in limbo, haunted by a long, very long list of unresolved issues that demand closure. This is the case in politics, as it is clearly the norm in business and in society.
What prompted this column was a discussion with two very alarmed colleagues. They felt the need to bring to everyone’s attention this new teen culture phenomenon that is apparently sweeping the country today: It’s called emo culture.
If you haven’t heard about what emo is about, here’s a quick summary. It started out as a musical genre—some kind of a sub-classification of rock and grunge music —that effectively captured teen angst because of its extreme emphasis on melodrama, self-expression, sadness and emotion. In short, something kids with raging hormones and struggling with feelings of alienation and rebellion can relate with. Opinion editor Adelle Chua Tulagan has written about this topic in her column Chasing Happy in the past. If we go by its etymology, emo is actually not short for emotional, although that seems to be the general perception nowadays, but stands for “emotive hardcore” a phrase coined to describe a type of hard-core rock music.
How the emo sub-culture has evolved through the years is less important than its current social implications. The stereotyped emo today is someone who is chronically depressed, marginalized, has long bangs, and wears black clothes, tight pants, and black eyeliners. It is a stereotype and my kids’ friends who also self-identify as emo are upset with the generalization. They say they don’t always wear black clothes, they just like the music genre. Of course they also identify with the whole spirit of the sub-culture movement which is that they are misunderstood and that their lives suck, bigtime.
The angst is pretty much understandable. These are kids who have parents who work full time, most of them abroad. Heck, the current situation in the world is depressing even for adults; how much more for kids?
My colleagues shared with me the disturbing news. In the schools where their kids go to, a number of pupils (yes, they are in the elementary grades) are into emo at a very young age. In this exclusive school in Navotas, a number of kids were suspended because they were discovered to have scars on their wrists. This phenomenon of kids slashing their wrists and wearing the scars as some kind of a badge of self-expression is something that has become widespread. Both colleagues shared that in the schools that their kids attend, the practice is quite common and their kids report having classmates who are into it.
Some proud emos counter that self-mutilation is not exactly something that they invented—previous generations were into body piercing and tattoos, a number of gangs and fraternities were and are still into branding their members with burns on their bodies. I came across blogs and friendster accounts in the internet where some emos proudly display bleeding wrists as their symbol.
As someone who fancies himself to have an open mind and a high level of tolerance for diversity issues, I must admit that I myself am quite alarmed at this new phenomenon. The high level of angst among our kids today, their seeming inability to cope with their issues and their tendency to flaunt their depression through self-mutilation strike me as disturbing. But what alarms me even more is the seeming collective reaction to the phenomenon. It is a reaction not grounded on a comprehensive appreciation of the phenomenon, nor of the complex context around it.
If we come to think about it, the whole emo phenomenon is grounded on this overwhelming feeling of isolation, this need to be understood and appreciated, kids’ desire to assert their individuality.
So what really alarms me is the automatic contempt and marginalization directed at emos. Making an outcast of people who display deviant behaviors is not a solution. Neither do punitive measures such as expelling students, or grounding children for being emo. What kids need is real parenting. What pupils really need is sincere and competent molding of minds. What the new generation needs are more role models. But as usual, we are missing the point.