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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 Teens are especially unreasonable -- moody, withdrawn, embarrassed by their parents, rebellious (just to be like their friends), and generally impossible to live with.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 January 9, 2003 04:19 PM