The Problem with Being “Unapologetically You”

As a high school teacher, I have the fortune of meeting dozens of young people each year. One of the perks of my career is that these students can often be charming, entertaining, and inspiring. One of the downsides? They can also be incredibly callous.

A while ago, on my lunch break — which may be more aptly dubbed my Kids Break — I had a conversation with a colleague about the changing dynamics of youth culture. Not unlike the generations that preceded ours, we bemoaned shortcomings and exchanged fearful predictions about the generations of the future. Of course, we also acknowledged the futility of this tradition — the criticism of younger generations by those far “wiser” and older; but our conversation really didn’t dwell long on the tried-and-true adages about the work ethic, morals, or potential technological downfall of millenials.

Instead, we talked about a well-intended trend that has taken on a virulent life of its own: the concept of being “unapologetically you.”

At first glance, this two-word quip seems inspirational, fearless, philosophical (if not a little trite). Adolescents are encouraged by musical artists, actors, politicians, athletes in the limelight — Be yourself, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not smart/good/kind/important/etc. A great soundbite, to be sure.

If that was where the sentiment stopped, if teens were inspired to own their oddities and embrace the characteristics of themselves that make them unique human beings — I would be all over this concept of being unapologetically you. Unfortunately, the message isn’t that simple.

Somehow, an altogether different spin has been placed on being shamelessly individual. I’ve noticed, over time, adolescents and young adults have begun to see this mantra as an excuse for being unapologetic assholes.

Yeah. I said it. They’re using this slogan as an excuse to be assholes.

Don’t believe me? Take a closer look at Instagram. A number of accounts thrive solely on posts that sing the praises of being “bitches” — their words, not mine. These “humor” accounts are chock-full of memes that glorify women who hate everything but wine and pizza, or individuals who take pride in having hearts of stone.

When did this become cute? At what point in time did an entire subgroup of individuals deem it appropriate, funny, charming — to be jerks?

On a daily basis, I overhear students spout the phrase, “Sorry, not sorry!” like it’s some sort of excuse for piss-poor behavior. I watch friends, students, and acquaintances post memes on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram that laud their lack of empathy or feelings for anyone else, dismissing the messages as humor. Students in my classes act reprehensibly, then dismiss their behavior as self-expression.

The concept of being unapologetically you should not be synonymous with being a jerk. When people excuse rude, damaging behavior as an acceptable form of “personality,” they perpetuate a shift toward a culture that is callous and incapable of empathy or manners.

I’m all for any social movement that embraces the individuality of young men and women, rather than stifling their unique personalities . . . but I’m also highly in favor of maintaining a culture of respect for one another.

It’s time for us to change the message on social (and other) media: you can be you without being hateful. In all likelihood, a compassionate and kind you is much more enjoyable.

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