Several years ago I listened to a Stephen Fry podcast in which he talked about one of the dangers of being a columnist/ essayist/ person who writes a lot: something he called The Milkman’s Cheery Whistle. It was how, after writing for a very long time, one might find oneself short of ideas with a deadline looming, and resort to writing a musing on some thing you remember fondly which is no longer around—a nostalgic regret. For example, a lament that early mornings in residential neighborhoods no longer include the sounds of a milkman cheerfully delivering dairy products to the front doors of customers. Isn’t it sad that everyone, including the author, buys their milk at a local supermarket by simply walking in and buying it when needed, rather than getting that personal touch of a horde of people employed to get up at ungodly hours in the morning and drive around neighborhoods leaving orders in little insulated boxes on your doorstep?
One of the reasons this is a danger is not just because it represents lazy writing and lazy thinking, but because it encourages regressive thinking in the readers. Focusing on the loss of the Milkman’s Cheery Whistle ignores the reasons things have changed. It’s more efficient and cost effective (and safer) to deliver perishable food in quantity to central distribution sites (stores), for instance. Focusing on such nostalgic regret also ignores the less cheerful truths about the past. Nostalgic regret is ultimately about ignorance.
The good old days weren’t simpler, and they certainly weren’t inherently better. For example, throughout most of history child abuse was not only legal, but condoned and even encouraged. In the U.S. it wasn’t until 1962 that the first law requiring health professionals to report suspicions of child abuse was passed in any state, and it wasn’t until the mid-70s that such laws were common. As one of my teachers told me, when he contacted me decades later feeling a need to apologize: a teacher was more likely to lose their job and become completely unemployable for reporting his or her suspicions than any parent was to suffer consequences in child abuse cases.
Nostalgic regret is sometimes about absolving oneself of any guilt from having benefited from societal systems of discrimination. For example, take people claiming now that no one was talking about racism “back in the day.” What they actually mean is that the law and society at large condoned and encouraged racism which benefited some at the expense of others. Laws required “colored people” to use separate drinking fountains, restrooms, and public schools. Lynchings weren’t mysterious events committed only by Klansmen in hoods—in the 1930s white Americans were still proudly posing for newspaper photographers beside the bodies of lynched African Americans, and not just in the south! Most people don’t realize that the NAACP was still campaigning to get anti-lynching laws passed in the 1950s.
So of course, if you were a white person living in the 40s or 50s, no black person would say anything about racism within your hearing. They didn’t want to be the next “uppity” person of color to be executed by a mob!
Nostalgic regret is also about a particular kind of need to feel superior to others. In the screenshot I’ve included at the top of this post, for instance, someone tried to make yet another comment about how kids these days are focused on trivial things instead of something the commenter thinks is more important. In this case, worrying about smart phones instead of protecting one’s virginity. Except what is virginity? It’s a social construct—an ill-defined line in the sand primarily used to define woman as property and prizes belonging to men. An arbitrary distinction purporting to measure innocence. A social contrivance to artificially define natural desires and natural acts as a set of magical experiences which are evil if they occur outside certain prescribed circumstances designed to shore up the hegemony of straight men, or a sacred revelation if they are performed within those prescribed boundaries.
I’ve been told that this isn’t merely an artificial distinction. But certain married men argue that just getting blowjobs isn’t sex (and by implications, isn’t cheating on any vows of fidelity they may have made to their spouse). Certain men who claim to be straight argue that all sorts of sex acts committed with other men aren’t actually sex, because if those acts were, then the men would have to admit they maybe they aren’t straight. And I have heard all sorts of sexual acts emphatically described as not “real sex” by those guys, believe me!
If we’re going to talk about virginity at all, we can call it what it actually is: inexperience. Far more rational to understand that a single action can’t take you from being an innocent person to a “man of the world” or whatever. Far more important than shaming people about a natural biological and social activity (don’t get me started on all the scientific proof that sex in humans and certain other species serves many useful and important other purposes besides reproduction), would be to teach people the importance of treating one another with respect, of setting boundaries about people who don’t treat you with respect, and how to deal with the emotional rollercoaster of relationships.
And as far as worrying about your smart phone: well, they are expensive pieces of equipment (and when they seem not to be expensive, that’s usually just a shell game for the even more expensive contract a phone company has gotten you locked in to), not toys. They are portable computers which usually contain a lot of valuable information—information which could be misused by unscrupulous people for many nefarious purposes. In modern society, they are a necessary tool to keeping one’s life, health, and employment intact. They are valuable in many ways, and often not just to the owner, but to people in the owner’s life. Not worrying about a lost phone would be a pretty irresponsible act.
And yes, may well have far more impact on someone than a single act of inexperienced intimate contact with someone probably nearly as inexperienced.
Perspective—fully-informed perspective and consent—is far more important than nostalgic regret.