Max Planck, the German scientist whose discoveries in physics laid the foundations for quantum theory, famously said that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.
More succinctly, he cynically said that “science advances one funeral at a time”. Other noted scientists who came after him, notably Thomas Kuhn, have often quoted this insight.
Apart from being an epistemic statement, however, the idea expressed therein is most poignantly a psychological one, and it is about the conservatism — and the defensiveness — inherent in human collectives. And if it is true about the natural sciences community, how much truer is it not about the social sciences? And how much truer is it not in areas of human activities where truth, or the search for truth, almost always bows to the machinations of power?
It is also a statement reminiscent of the “generational gap”, a term full of consequence in the 1960s which in being out of fashion today should set off alarm bells. That ties in to Kuhn’s paradigmatic shift that denotes how a new set of perspectives and conditions, on reaching a mature point, jumps into acceptance, replacing old perspectives that once seemed invincible and eternal.
When applied to social sciences, the intergenerational inability to comprehend each other transcends mere difficulties in epistemology to reveal conflicts of interest between the old and the young, beyond perspectival differences. So, while moving ahead one funeral at a time may be in the interest of the young, the fortress that the old erect to delay the young and disappoint their enthusiasm is a formidable one.
Nothing is handed over without a fight.
In the arena of eternal conspiracy, conflict and contestation that we call politics, there is little reason for anyone to expect a prevailing system to admit that its time is up and to voluntarily relinquish its power, position and privilege.
In fact, one should expect it to do everything in its power to break the revolutionary instincts of the next generation. The gates are guarded, the windows barred, and all who enter queued and quarantined to weed out radical elements.
Thus, we see that not all generations manage to topple the old and claim that they changed the world. That is in fact testimony to the success of the generation before them in stymying challenges to their privileges and in diluting the collective force of those younger than themselves. The old often manages to absorb and conform the young, ageing them before their time as it were. After all, they have endless resources in their power to do so.
Gradualism is a well-tried scheme. Since no enthusiasm lasts forever, delaying and disillusioning the young, and diffusing and confusing their energies, are always promising and cogent field tactics. Once the young think they have to, and should wait their turn, then they have with high probability lost their chance — lost their collective moment — to define the future in their image.
As one generation overstays its right as the defining cohort in society, a queue of generations naturally builds up behind them — all waiting their turn. We see this clearly in Malaysian politics, where this phenomenon has been allowed to ferment since the emergence of racialism as the raison d’etre of most national policies.
Nonagenarians now compete with octogenarians for top positions, while septuagenarians fend off quinquagenarians behind them, all the time keeping an eye out for the quadragenarians who manage to thrash the stubborn tricenarians and the luckless vicenarians. No wonder the petulant teenagers try their best to stay away from the madness, having just left the follies of infancy so recently.
There are generational interests, just as there are class interests, gender interests or community interests. The world looks very different to a 20-year-old than it does to his grandmother. Thus, if the old gets to define and decide the future of the young, then we should not be surprised if you end up with a society where all feel alienated, disoriented and victimised, and feel that they do not belong. The world they inherit would after all have been built by the old for the old. A funeral at a time does not, in society, always change the world. The wrinkled hand of the old can be heavy enough to last for generations.
Resetting Malaysia, a cry of distress that has been echoing in the country since the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, is therefore a cry coming from the bottom of the generational heap. That cry has to lead to action if the Age Pyramid of Power is to be overturned. And indeed, much action is taking place, with the demands for the lowering of the voting age to be fully met, the forming of a youth-based party, and the appearance of NGOs calling for changes in the country’s political culture.
The future is an asset always held in (dis)trust by the old for as long as they like, or live. And if the old generation is not to be trusted, then the young need to repossess the future using their own strength. Otherwise, the future that awaits them will not be worth having.
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include As Empires Fell: The Life and Times of Lee Hau-Shik, the First Finance Minister of Malaya (ISEAS 2020). Homepage: wikibeng.com.