SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT
The Generation that Doesn’t Believe Helen Keller Existed
It’s late into the night and I’m scrolling through TikTok. My home feed, or the platform’s “for you page,” consists of the usual: the latest dance trend, up-and-coming comedy pages, random memes, celebrity appearances, and then, the great meme of the hour — Helen Keller.
Specifically, the collective doubting of her existence. Each video that comes up targets a different aspect of her life; her education, her marriage, her ability to give speeches, read, and write, and whatever new information comes to light worth sharing.
In the TikTok fashion, the videos both satirically and seriously question the unbelievable story of Helen Keller’s life, and videos under the hashtags #HelenKeller and #HelenKellerisoverparty have together amassed over 17 million views.
But the most interesting part is that the overwhelming majority of videos were posted on accounts belonging to teenagers. This isn’t particuarly surpusing considering TikTok’s main audience is Gen Z, but it’s also an open platform to millions of users that span multiple generations. Why is it then that the only people who don’t believe in Helen Keller are teenagers?
Maybe it’s because we were never technically educated on her in school like we were on Anne Frank and other historical figures. She’s become something of an urban legend.
It’s gotten to the point where it isn’t even a joke anymore as it originally may have been. Generation Z literally does not believe Helen Keller existed. And frankly, I’m having a hard time accepting that she did myself.
I don’t feel bad or wrong for it, and I don’t think anyone else my age does either. But older generations seem to think differently. “Helen Keller overcame many obstacles, and she’s a great inspiration,” my mother said in an attempt to reason with me. She failed to invalidate my disbelief.
Does it stem from our own insecurities — could it be that a blind, deaf woman with more success in life than all of us is too much to grasp? Possibly.
In thinking about this phenomena I came across an article that describes Gen Z as the “True Gen;”
Our study based on the survey reveals four core Gen Z behaviors, all anchored in one element: this generation’s search for truth. Gen Zers value individual expression and avoid labels. They mobilize themselves for a variety of causes. They believe profoundly in the efficacy of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world. Finally, they make decisions and relate to institutions in a highly analytical and pragmatic way. That is why, for us, Gen Z is “True Gen.”
For the most part, our generation grew up alongside the internet. When I was in 3rd grade, the iPod Touch was released. In 6th, it was the iPhone 4. In high school I had an old Macbook Air (old being 2011 — clearly my concept of time related to technology gives away my youth).
Along the same timeline new social media platforms were released that are now global media powerhouses — Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Vine, Musical.ly and the most recent, TikTok. These gave us a chance to connect with users instead of people, build a following and share our voices from such a young age, and resulted in sensations like Greta Thunberg, Yara Shahidi, Malala Yousafzai, and countless other young activists.
With the internet being our main source of information, and its endless database answering our questions at a moment’s notice, we’ve developed certain habits. Impatience, for one — if it takes more than 10–15 seconds for a web-page to load I find myself groaning about poor connection and the lagginess of the device. We expect information to be readily available, which is a step beyond the Millenial’s hunger for instant gratification.
The internet is an endless pit of data — articles, Wikipedia, sketchy Wordpress blogs — and our new responsibility is to be able to comb through that data to find some semblance of objective truth that will help us form individual opinions.
School is the one place where we take all of what we learn as objective truth, and don’t question how reliable the information our teachers tell us is. As I mentioned, Helen Keller is not a part of most school curriculums, so is our surprise to question new information about her really surprising?
Maybe we don’t believe in her because we’re growing up in a world of fake news. We know the power of manipulation and lies in the media, and we’re losing faith in the sources everyone once trusted. There’s too much data and too many lies circulating for us to process and believe it all.
Boomers and Generation X love to chirp on the younger ones, quoting the adage, “don’t believe everything you read online,” but we’re the ones who have the most trust issues when it comes to news.
We have to fight to have our opinions about the state of our country heard and understood by older generations.
We have to march in the streets and endlessly retweet to try and stop our schools from being shot up.
We have to hear about the injustices committed at the border, against the black community, and against women, all of which are covered in lies that sugarcoat the situation, and you wonder why we have trust issues when it comes to the government.
We don’t have to believe in Helen Keller, and it shouldn’t be surprising if we don’t. The world we were born into makes us profoundly different than other generations, and hopefully, it will also make us into change agents.