January 22, 2003
Chapter 1: About This Book - part 2
I. The Lack of Youth Liberation Theory
The first 18 years of my life are not a tale of suffering. I was a good student, and usually got along pretty well with my family. But that wasn't the case for all my friends. In high school, we knew whose parents were abusive; people would sometimes stay over at each others' houses to escape physical and verbal violence.
I went to Reed College and majored in psychology. However, more than any class, the lasting impact of those years comes from my involvement in student activism. I cut my political teeth volunteering for the anti-domestic violence movement, getting trained by the Portland Women's Crisis Line and Bradley-Angle House (a battered women's shelter). I learned about a model of sexism that focuses on male power and control, and draws parallels with other oppressions -- racism, classism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc.
Getting and keeping fair treatment for minority groups is a continuing struggle. I got into activism to be an ally, to try to assist them. I've run discussion groups; protested porn stores carrying videos of actual rapes; escorted women past pro-life demonstrators into abortion clinics; handed out cookies at Portland's "Dyke March"; helped on "get out the vote" phone banks; served as a non-profit's executive director; organized conferences; and worked on a committee drafting a new civil rights ordinance for Multnomah county. I learned the tools of social change by doing.
My introduction to the concept of "adultism" was through Re-evaluation Counseling ("RC"), a peer counseling community that I've since renounced and disconnected from. The idea seemed to complement what I already knew of oppressions. I wanted a well thought out analysis -- but RC's discussion was superficial. It failed to really address power and institutions, or to propose the necessary activism for change. Even so, the more I involved myself with movement work, the more I saw young people's oppression as an important piece of the puzzle. It must have an important role in teaching hierarchical relationships... I wondered, could adultism be the original model for all other "isms"? No one seemed to have given adultism the attention it deserved.
Anti-domestic violence agencies addressed teen dating violence and incest survivors, but each essentially as a women's issue. Feminists have redefined battery and rape as issues of power and control; it seemed to me that this insight could be extended to explain child abuse. But age wasn't a part of the discussion. ...If a father strikes his teenage daughter, don't we need to understand the role age plays, as well as sex? For me, memory of my high school friends made explaining parents' violence against teens a pressing concern.
In the realm of psychology, I read comprehensive overviews of the theories that have been proposed to explain child abuse. I was unable to find anything analogous to feminist thought, attributing abuse to a power and control motive. Discussion of violence against teens, in general, seemed rather neglected. But I know that babies and toddlers are not the only victims.
Some activists have tried to get domestic violence seen as a form of hate crime against women. This suggested another intriguing idea, that perhaps prejudice against teens contributes in part to violence. Considering the mean comments I've heard about adolescents -- about their music, hair / clothing, hormones, and character -- it seems like psychology or sociology should have produced some relevant research. Again, I discovered a hole in the literature. Next to nothing has been written on prejudice or discrimination against youth.
Rather late in my research, I finally sought out books about the Children's Rights movement. I found a handful of essays that resonated with the power-aware activist politics I've embraced. However, for the most part, Children's Rights seems isolated from other movements. Almost no authors used the "oppression" framework, or place mistreatment of youth in the context of sexism, racism, classism, etc. Nor do any but a scant few talk about this group's ability to liberate itself through activism. From what's written, you'd think that adults will calmly discuss, agree upon, and then deliver new freedoms, all from above. This does not jibe with my sense that rights are never given voluntarily by the oppressor -- they must be demanded by the oppressed.
Dissatisfied with the lack of well-made Youth Liberation theory, I set out to create it myself. My earliest writing dates back to 1992. Much of the theory for this book was generated as I worked on my undergraduate thesis: "Adult Supremacism: Violence Against Minors Viewed Through an Oppression Framework" (an inadequate and poorly written piece, I feel). Writing since then has continued unabated, augmented along the way by activist experiments. Notably, I initiated the Ending Adult Supremacism Task force, a caucus within the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (the NOMAS leadership council approved formation during its 1995 Men & Masculinity conference at Johnstown, PA). Then, in 1998 I worked again with youth activists as they founded Portland's Sexual Minority Youth Recreation Center -- learning much practical information about doing "by youth, for youth" groups in the process.
Most of my understanding of adultism and Youth Liberation does not come directly from working with youth. I've been inspired by writings from (and experience with) a coalition of progressive, identity-based social justice movements. Much of what I now believe comes out of extrapolating from their examples. Ultimately, I hope to bring Youth Liberation and these other movements together -- each enriching and completing the other.
-- to be continued --
January 22, 2003
Posted by Sven at 01:28 PM
January 13, 2003
Chapter 1: About This Book - part 1
NOTE: This essay is meant to introduce a book project that I've been working on: "Adultism: How Adults Oppress Teens and Children" (working title). The essay I just completed, "Adult Supremacism", is meant to fall much later in the work. It was useful for me to write on that subject while inspired, but it was just about the worst possible way to introduce new readers to my ideas. So, let me begin again -- at the beginning. ...The first section of the book (Part I) is titled "Adultism is an Oppression", and will take up five to six chapters. At my current rate, I hope to have Part I done by the end of March. Wish me luck!
"I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn't much improved my opinion of them."
-- Antoine de Saint-Exupery, "The Little Prince" (1943)
This book is about adultism: how adults oppress teens and children. It is meant to support the United States' fledgling youth liberation movement. I hope that it will help youth activists and their adult allies better understand the overall problem that they've begun to challenge.
Unlike previous books on "children's rights", little energy will be spent arguing that youth are better quality persons than adults generally think. This is not primarily a book about youth; it is about adults -- how we imagine ourselves, and the harm that we collectively cause in the name of young people's "best interests". The bulk of the work deals with my analysis and criticisms of adulthood: the identity and the organization.
...Yet, I cannot help but begin suggesting some alternatives. I hope and imagine that following this book, I will be able to write one that deals in-depth with the practical issues of youth-led activism. This book is about the problem; that one will be about the solution.
There are many negative things to say about what "being adult" means in our society -- but there is also joy and hope in the struggle to create change. By working to unlearn adultism, adults can begin to relate with youth an a more equal, human basis; we can strive to be more whole persons, setting "ageless being" as our ideal instead of "maturity"; and we can feel pride in our effort to make Justice include all age-groups in its vision. Criticizing how things are now is an important first step. Where it leads is to imagining how things could be made better, and then to the harder work of actually changing our world.
-- to be continued --
January 13, 2003
Posted by Sven at 02:52 PM
January 09, 2003
Adult Supremacism - part 5
VI. "I'm better than you because I'm an adult"
The mirror image of negative perceptions of minors, is adults' positive self-regard. Similar to white supremacism and male supremacism, many people feel at some level "I'm better than you because I'm an adult." Whether or not it's fully articulated, this sense is ultimately what makes adults feel entitled to control youth, that it's their *right*. It's one thing to see youth as a troubled people, or as fundamentally flawed persons -- but it's another to think that you deserve absolute power over their lives because you're so much better.
Adults rationalize their sense of superiority with several lines of reasoning:
- Wise from experience. Having been alive longer, adults have had more experiences, more opportunity to learn life lessons. This wisdom makes them better at making "good choices" -- and able to see when youth are making bad ones (e.g. premarital sex, taking drugs, joining a gang, getting a tattoo).
- Intelligent thinkers. Having completed more school, and learned more about how the world works, adults are better qualified than youth to make important decisions -- such as who should be president and what laws we should live under. Youth are more easily manipulated by flashy ad campaigns and lying politicians.
- Practical competence. Adults are able to take care of themselves. They can drive, get a job, buy groceries, dress and feed themselves. Children are a threat to themselves -- likely to run into the street, touch a hot stove burner, stick a fork in an electric socket, put a marble up their nose, and eat nothing but cookies. [This argument generally focuses on infants and toddlers, ignoring teens entirely.]
- Cultured behavior. Adults are polite, have good manners, and show self-control. Their clothes, haircuts, and music all show that they are civilized human beings. Youth, by contrast, are loud, rude, and wild; their music is awful, and their appearance is ridiculous (e.g. green hair, piercings).
- Emotionally stable. Adults are calm, even-tempered, patient, and good-natured. ...Whereas youth are slaves to their emotions. They want everything they see on TV, want it immediately, don't understand having to work for a goal (because they're given everything on a platter), and throw temper-tantrums when they don't get what they desire. Teens are especially unreasonable -- moody, withdrawn, embarrassed by their parents, rebellious (just to be like their friends), and generally impossible to live with.
- In touch with reality. Adults live in the "real" world -- the world of working a job and paying bills. Children are sheltered (as they should be) and innocent of the evil that goes on out here. They believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and play with imaginary friends. Teens think that they're immortal, that they know everything, and that they'll always feel the way they do now (e.g. getting a tattoo, eloping with their first girl- / boyfriend). Adults have their feet on the ground, not their head in the clouds -- like youth who think they'll be rock'n'roll stars some day.
In arguments, the burden is usually upon youth to prove that they are not inferior to adults. But adults are themselves guilty of all these perceived flaws. Plenty of adults are unwise, make decisions based on faulty reasoning, do a poor job of caring for themselves, are ill-mannered, bad-tempered, and out of touch with the equally real world that youth find themselves in each day. Similarly, it's not difficult to produce positive examples of youth who take care of themselves, do good deeds, involved in the community, prodigal at some skill, and so on. The argument then shifts: "But you have to admit that *on average* adults are better at all these things than youth!"
Whether young people have flaws -- even more flaws than adults -- is beside the point, and seldom worth arguing. Adults -- parents, childless citizens, government and school officials -- have claimed *absolute* power over young people: the right to command and be obeyed. Parents have free reign to do with their children as the see fit, with limits placed only on gratuitous abuse. The adult government controls minors as it sees fit, without the checks and balances of young people's direct political participation. Despite noble intentions, it is a situation rife with potential for abuse of power. The burden of proof should be upon adults, to show that they are so perfect that young voices can safely be excluded from decision-making processes.
...Young people *do* have disadvantages in terms of physical ability, economics, and know-how; the kind assistance of adults will always be necessary. But adults must learn humility, and to put firm limits on which areas of young people's self-determination they will meddle with.
[Personal freedom and participating in democracy are not things to be doled out based on superior intelligence. When blacks and women fought for the vote, some felt they weren't reasonable enough beings, that they would destroy the nation. Adults who believe the earth is flat can vote -- let youth, honor society students and drop-outs alike, vote if they choose to. Perhaps it is unlikely that a 10-year-old can drive a car -- but why prohibit them from taking the driver's exam if in fact they have learned how? ...Divesting control frightens adults; familiar institutions will have to be changed, and uncertainty will be introduced into personal relationships. But it is the *just* thing to do. And the opportunity to witness young people as equal beings offers rewards that many aren't even aware of yet.]
I am proposing the abolition of adulthood. Not the biological stage, of course, but all of the laws that artificially establish the group "adults" as an organized power. It is a vision to strive for; countless practical details remain to be hashed out (e.g. I am not proposing that adults should have sex with 4-year-olds). But that is OK -- issues will necessarily be addressed one at a time, and there will be political struggle at every step of the way. Adult supremacism cannot be wiped out with the stroke of a pen.
Furthermore, I advocate that human beings abandon even thinking of themselves as "adults". The identity cannot be redeemed of its supremacism simply by trying to reinvest it with a new meaning, or by striving to be better adults than before. Pride in adulthood is the pride of being something other than a youth. No one should take pride in a purely biological distinction (e.g. white, male) -- unless that difference has historically been put down. For the foreseeable future, it's the work of young people to claim youth and celebrate the ways in which they are different from adults; it's the work of adults to see how humans of all ages are the same. ...Which is not to say that adults should be "age-blind"! Rather, they must be very conscientious about how they interact with people of different ages, and aware that they are being seen as "adults" -- but at the same time striving in their personal lives to be something more whole.
Several ideas are useful in striving to transcend adulthood. If the group "adults" is a powerful organization with members and non-members, then one can imagine being a "conscientious objector", a form of "abolitionist" challenging the group to change, perhaps to the extent that one is considered an "age traitor". If "age dualism" is viewing one's younger self as if s/he was a different and separate person, then the alternative is "age monism": seeing one's life as an unbroken development, with themes continuing from childhood into the present. Let us set this as our ideal: to be an "ageless being". In the process we can reclaim qualities and culture associated with the young by "age-bending" -- thoughtfully mixing youth-identified clothes, interests, and ways of being with those that we value from traditional adulthood.
Dismantling adult supremacism *must* be a humbling experience for adults. It entails giving up a sense of personal superiority, and the security that comes from ordering youth to do what you want. It means embracing one's own flawedness, inviting criticism, and basing self-esteem on how one deals with a situation after having caused harm -- rather than on being "good" for never doing wrong in the first place. But there is also joy in the change: being able to relate with youth on a more equal, human basis; becoming a more whole person; setting age justice as one's noble cause. These are reasons why ending adult supremacism benefits not just youth -- it's for the good of adults too.
-- END --
January 9, 2003
Posted by Sven at 04:19 PM
January 08, 2003
Adult Supremacism - part 4
V. Desire to be Adult [continued]
(C) How Parents Invent Their Adulthood
Previously, I distinguished between three meanings of the word "adult": (1) a biological phase, (2) a legal status, (3) a way of behaving (a subculture). Now there is a fourth sense I'd like to discuss: being "the adult" as an act of wielding power over youth.
People actively pursue being adult in order to get more respect and privilege -- by dissociating themselves from childhood, or by conforming to the fashions of adult subculture. Hypothetically, a person using these strategies doesn't actually have to do anything to anyone younger than themselves -- it's just about getting seen as a certain kind of personality. The person wants to convey that they're unique because they're unlike other youth, or that they're special because their "mature" persona is a product of personal effort.
Using another approach to win status, however, "the adult" is a role that various people can step into interchangeably. A "chaperone" could be essentially anyone, so long as they're adult. Being a "father figure" requires that you be male and adult, not that there be a unique relationship between two individuals. Stepping into one of these roles grants privilege and prestige -- but it's dependent on wielding power over one or more actual young people.
For those who desire to be adult, the ultimate step is to become a parent oneself. [Indeed, among adults, someone who's unmarried and without children is often seen as not really having "grown up" yet.] Most people in U.S. society grow up calling their parents "Mom" and "Dad", or "Mother" and "Father". The words originally (and primarily) denote a biological relationship -- but they've become something more in common usage. If your mother or father divorces and remarries, then the new stepparent is generally entitled to be called "Mom" or "Dad" as well. Because we are so familiar with using them, we think of these words as if they are proper names. They are not. They are titles, which denote a position in a hierarchy.
It is taboo in most families to call one's mother or father by their first name -- even though that is how they address their children. Similarly, it is considered rude for young people to address any other adults by their first names. They are to be addressed by their last names, preceded with the titles Mr., Mrs., or Ms.. More than rude, to call an adult by their first name is understood as a form of insubordination.
In the U.S., parenting is frequently described as a "job". How to do that job is a much discussed and debated topic; few if any parents simply improvise -- they pay attention to commentary and moralistic entertainment in the media, research, and fantasize about how they'll deal with their own kids (long before they even have a child). One important aspect of this mental preparation is imagining how they'll react to disobedience and "problem" behavior.
One of the most powerful ways that individuals invent their own adulthood is by finding fault and then punishing a young person. Early on, soon after becoming verbal, opportunities emerge to witness the youth as a comprehensible mind, an equal being -- different in body, knowledge, skill, and culture -- yet with whom meaningful conversation can be had without reference to age. These begin as moments, but expand (more rapidly when they're nurtured). However, interacting on this equal basis is a threat to parents' sense of their own adulthood. Many parents are deeply invested in being a "good mother" or "good father" -- putting that identity in jeopardy strikes at the very heart of who they see themselves as. To be a good parent, to be "the adult" at all, requires that they feel they are actively supervising / guiding / controlling their children's lives. Nothing creates this feeling more strongly than delivering a punishment.
Imagine that a youth does something that their parent doesn't like. The parent can try to raise the issue respectfully, acknowledging that they are asking for a favor (which will take time and humility). *Or*, they can claim superiority: demanding change, delivering a stern lecture, taking away "privileges", "disciplining" by causing some kind of physical pain. The parent in this situation does not have a natural, inherently right authority -- they invent the position of superiority by how they behave. If being "the adult" is an act of wielding power over youth, then by putting their child down with punishments a parent takes the artificial notion of "adulthood" and makes it into something concrete and *real*.
One would imagine that a child's *humanity* grows in a fairly steady and continuous way. Yet, given how current law is written, parental authority is an absolute up until twelve-midnight when the youth turns 18. It should be easy to gradually treat youth more and more as equal human beings -- but because the law keeps adults responsible for controlling them unnaturally long, a notion has evolved that justifies the situation -- and contributes to parents' desire to play "the adult". The common belief is that minors require the strictest supervision of all as they approach adulthood, because they go crazy with hormones, are likely to commit crimes, and generally ruin their lives (and the lives of others) during the teen years. Parents often *expect* teens to behave badly -- the media has warned them about the signs of drug use and gang involvement. By being suspicious and accusatory, they themselves give youth ample reason to be "moody", "withdrawn", and "rebellious". The media portrays "rebellion" as an inevitable phase, a foolish fad that all youth go through. But given a climate of hostility and oppressive control, wouldn't rebellion be a reasonable and legitimate course of action for any self-respecting human being?
(D) Teaching -- The Noble Cause
People have many reasons for wanting to be a parent; having children in order to become a "real adult" is perhaps one of the less flattering ones. Living so intimately with children, of course parents do get to know youth as unique individuals -- it's just that the relationship often gets tainted by trying to play an artificial role. At its worst, the job of "parent" is judge, jury, and prison guard rolled into one (e.g. "grounding" the youth).
Part of what makes the effort seem worthwhile is that raising young people has been portrayed as a noble cause. Platitudes such as "the children are our future" and "children are our most valuable resource" abound. In our country, parents and teachers share responsibility for this work. Many take great pride in the notion that they are shaping the next generation. It's rather like the notion of "the white man's burden"; turning youth into good adults is seen as a sacred duty -- like civilizing the savages. The nobility of the cause makes "adult", again, look like a desirable identity. [Mentoring in any form, even by minors in a "big brother / big sister" capacity, is seen as praiseworthy. Within the constraints of the situation, they get to be "the adult".]
Parenting and teaching have become increasingly similar in the adult public's mind. Before compulsory schooling was instituted in the U.S., when going to school was exceptional, the role of teachers was likened to that of parents. When youth went away to school, the institution was charged with acting "in loco parentis" -- in the place of the parents. Now that schooling is ubiquitous, and takes up more and more time with extracurricular activities and homework, parenting is frequently likened to formal education. Ad campaigns spout slogans like "teaching begins at home", and adult society tries to reach a consensus about whether character and sexuality should be taught by parents or professionals. In the process, young people's interest in creating themselves seems to be getting ignored.
Common metaphors liken children to empty jars, just waiting to be filled with knowledge; or to blank slates ("tabula rasa") waiting to be written upon; or to lumps of clay that need to be shaped. Supposedly youth have to be instilled with an encyclopedia of scientific, historical, and literary information; they need to be taught morality, "right from wrong"; they need to be cultivated into good-mannered, well-kept adults of "character". But how much of this really has to be force-fed to an unwilling audience?
It seems to me that the vast majority of practical and ethical knowledge is simply absorbed by interacting with good, sensible people in one's life. Special areas of knowledge are best learned -- and usually quickly -- when a person chooses to pursue the subject out of their own interest. The unschooling movement (home schooling without parents playing teacher) has demonstrated that math, reading, and other such necessities can be reliably learned without rows of desks, bells, standardized tests, and paid authority figures. One wonders: would teaching be seen as such a noble cause, were there not a billion-dollar schooling industry, populated by teachers whose personal paychecks depend on armies of children being bussed to their workplace each day?
Having examined the notion that youth must be forcibly taught to be adult, let's now revisit the idea of "maturity as a virtue". In *retrospect* adults usually want to describe their persona as a personal achievement: they figured out life lessons on their own, and created an image for themselves that they could feel proud of. Judging youth from their current vantage point, however, many adults seem to think that human beings do not take an interest in their own lives and learning about the world unless they're sat down at a desk and forced. Maturity is an achievement if you're an adult -- but if you're young, credit for your character must go to someone else. Despite any pretenses that acting mature or immature is unrelated to biological age, youth who act "mature" ("for their age") are seen as behaving in a way that is against their own nature -- as are adults that act "immature". No matter how much of a child prodigy you are, you can never escape the social stigma of being biologically young. You are an exception to the rule that youth are inferior, not disproof of the rule, and you're damned for "growing up too fast" to boot.
-- to be continued --
January 8, 2003
Posted by Sven at 05:48 PM
January 06, 2003
Adult Supremacism - part 3
V. Desire to be Adult
The biggest challenge for any theory of adultism is to answer this question: why do so many adults embrace supremacism -- when they themselves were oppressed as youth? Part of the answer is that adults simply imitate what was done to them, because it's what they know. Without visible alternatives, the command / obey relationship can seem natural, as if it's the only way that things *could* be. There's more to it, though. Both youth and adults actively pursue being adult.
Three meanings of the word "adult" are relevant here:
1. The biological phase that follows puberty
2. A legal status conferred by the state, typically at age 18
3. A way of behaving that is considered the highest achievement of character development
The individual can't alter biology or their legal status (except by emancipation, and then only partially) -- but how you act is under your control. At the interpersonal level, this is what really matters. Once you can walk and talk intelligently, biological age differences between people don't mean that much. Nor, most of the time, do youth and adults have to actively think about how age-based laws personally affect them. When adults and youth interact with each other, a great deal of the supposed difference has to be invented by the adult (especially dealing with a teen). The categories "infant" and "young child" refer to an obviously natural stage of life. But "adult" -- whether that means people aged 18-65, or people whose personal development qualifies them to control others -- has become an almost entirely artificial category in modern society.
No one wants to be on the receiving end of control; we want (minimally) to be free from pressure to obey, or better yet, able to make commands ourselves. Power automatically gives you status -- prestige and esteem from others. Having no *formal* decision-making power over their own lives, youth are at the bottom of the social ladder. They are adults' social inferiors, looked down upon with something like scorn. There's little that youth can do about their legal standing -- but there are other ways to win status. The struggle for status is what sets the stage for embracing adult supremacism.
(A) Escape from Childhood
From the media we hear troubling stories about the state of minors today. However, youth aren't just portrayed as a problem group for adults to deal with -- the very state of being young is seen as flawed and objectionable. This is perhaps best revealed by how we use age-based language. Consider all of the words that describe the biological state of being young: baby, infant, child, puerile, juvenile, pre-pubescent, adolescent. Each of these words is synonymous with having a bad character -- to be "childish" is to be silly / irresponsible / stupid / rude. Note that these aren't words merely associated with young people, like say "vivacious" or "playful" -- they are the words that denote physical age itself. Compare this to how it would sound to say "womanish", "black", or "gay" in a similar sense.
As soon as toddlers can understand language, they learn that being young is something that you don't want to be. If youth felt solidarity with minors as a class, then the switch to supporting adult supremacy would be a change of loyalty. Instead, from the youngest age most minors attempt to dissociate themselves from other youth. It's a form of social mobility: if they can distance themselves from younger age groups, seem adult-like by super-achieving, steal the markers of adulthood (like sex, smoking, drinking, fake I.D.'s), or look bigger by putting down the maturity of a peer -- then maybe they'll receive a little more respect and privilege.
The toddler insists "I'm not a baby, I'm a big boy!"; the 11th grade student avoids the stigma of hanging out with a 10th-grader; and after getting out of the compulsory school system, most adults never want to look back. Some even take dissociation a step farther, by putting down their former self. One portrayal of aging depicts the years before adulthood as "development", a difficult struggle upward, and adulthood as a long plateau of unchanging completeness. Another metaphor likens the adult to a butterfly, which has transformed from its ugly caterpillar stage into a new, different animal. An alternative to these views of aging sees development and change as a constant across the life span, emphasizes positive personality traits that have remained the same over time, and extends compassion to previous attempts at navigating life -- even if you would do differently now. From this perspective, it's sad to see someone prop up their current life by telling a self-deprecating story, "I was such a stupid kid!"
(B) Maturity as a Virtue
People don't pursue being adult just to avoid the stigma of childhood; maturity is seen as a virtue in itself. Again, "adult" and "mature" are words that denote both a biological state and the quality of one's character. "Adult" (as an adjective) encompasses a number of characteristics: being responsible, competent, hard-working, self-aware, even-tempered, socially adept -- all positive traits.
"Mature" and "adult" are both umbrella terms: their intended meaning can be conveyed by listing a variety of qualities that do not have to do with age. It is an anti-adultist act to stop using the words "mature" and "adult" as praise, both for minors and adults. For "mature" and "adult" to be understood as positive, "immature" and "young" must be negatives. Praising someone for being adult-like implicitly says that people who are youth-like are inferior persons. "Youth-like" must include all actual young persons -- except possibly for rare individuals who are young but don't "act their age". That is, who don't don't "act like young people". ...Praise for being "exceptional" is as much a slur against the group as slandering it outright.
By equating the word "adult" with so many positive traits, U.S. culture conveys an image of what human beings are supposed to aspire towards. However, not everyone has an equally strong desire to embody the ideal. Some are enthusiastic to be "good" people by being adult. Most, though, just want to "pass". Despite *legal* inclusion in the group "adults", they neither identify with the label, nor feel like they're actually "real" grownups yet.
Perhaps more than developing one's personality, acting "adult" is about wearing the right clothes and having the right interests. Youth culture, because it's associated with young people, is considered "low" and looked down upon. Slang, mannerisms, clothes, hairstyles, music, books, movies, games -- and whatever else gets linked to minors -- is generally thought of as inferior to the culture of adults. Much commentary is made about "youth culture" -- but adults have a culture too; and inasmuch as adults are not the only age-group within society, it is a subculture. How are we to compare the subcultures of two age groups? I think we should be critical of assigning adults' customs more value than those of young people. Would it be appropriate to say that Russian customs are superior to those of Japan? ...To say that the culture of industrial Europe is superior to that of the Australian aborigines? [If you *would* call industrial cultures superior, can you do so without also describing aboriginal peoples as *child-like*? Early anthropologists' tendency to depict tribes as "primitive" has come under much fire during the past few decades...]
If it's to be said that youth have a legitimate subculture, care must be taken to distinguish between genuine enthusiasms and inventions emerging from within youth communities, and marketing ploys that have been projected onto youth by adult business interests. This is not to say that the only legitimate "youth culture" is that which bears no hint of adults! In contemporary industrial societies, subcultural identity generally has a great deal to do with brand-name affiliation -- this is true for adults as well as youth. Try to imagine "acting adult" in terms of language, mannerisms, clothes, hairstyles, and so on. Which company manufactures those clothes? What company produces the film or TV show that popularized those mannerisms?
My purpose here is not to catalog all the ways that businesses manufacture popular culture and subcultural identities. However, looking at the interests of the business community raises an interesting question: to what extent are the qualities associated with being "mature" (responsible, hard-working, serious, etc.) really just the qualities of being a good worker? These traits describe what is valued in the business world; so maybe acting "adult" is really about embodying the subculture of "professionalism". It's more a matter of *class* norms than age. It seems inappropriate to condemn youth as a group for being "irresponsible" when there may not even be anything meaningful to be responsible for yet (like tending a store). ...Even more so if the accusation is ultimately motivated by classism.
-- to be continued --
January 6, 2003
Posted by Sven at 09:34 PM