February 20, 2003
Chapter 1: About This Book - part 4
II. Goals [continued]
(2) Redefine "Children's Rights" work as fighting an oppression.
The Children's Rights movement has admirable goals; Youth Liberation could be well described as a sub-variety of activism under the general rubric. However, I believe that getting "rights" is the wrong model for how to improve treatment of youth. Using an oppression / liberation framework instead has distinct advantages.
What is a "right"? It's a guarantee, typically in the form of a government law, e.g. "freedom of speech". Of course, a law is only a piece of paper -- in itself, it provides no powers or protection. The guarantee is made meaningful only to the extent that when someone ignores your right, there's a process in place for registering a complaint, judging it's validity, and enforcing change (e.g. armed police imprisoning the offender, or compelling them to pay a fine). Thus, it can be useful to enshrine a right in law -- but that's only the first step. If young people aren't familiar with their rights, or don't know how to navigate through a legal complaint process -- or if no enforcement agency exists -- then their "rights" are basically useless.
Rights can guarantee that someone will provide you with something: e.g. a material resource, a service, or access to providers of such. Or, they can guarantee that someone will *not* do something to you: e.g. treat you differently from others, physically hurt you, or in some other way punish your actions. In either case, getting justice when your rights have been broken can be extremely difficult. You have to *prove* that the offender committed a crime of commission or omission -- which usually requires material evidence, which can be very hard to come by. [Not to mention that while you pursue justice, the offender may be well within their rights to harass you and make your life generally miserable!] By focusing on "rights", I think youth advocates have unwittingly narrowed potential discussion of how youth are treated to a very small set of issues.
I'm amazed at how little attention is given to young people's subjective quality of life. Providing resources and intervening in horrific abuse both deal with objective harms; hearing about youths' internal experience is not even essential in dealing with such problems. However, an enormous amount of quality of life has to deal with how a youth is treated socially, as a *person*. Are they ignored, interrupted, disparaged, lectured, coerced, dealt with punitively? ...In other words, treated "like a child"? Attitudes toward youth have got to be considered as a fundamental "Children's Rights" issue. And, if youth are disrespected, devalued, and dehumanized -- how can that not contribute to the more objective forms of maltreatment? Unfortunately, a rights framework is not really designed to deal with purely social interactions -- it's set up to demand material evidence.
Richard Farson, John Holt, and Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor -- in my opinion, the founding thinkers of modern Youth Liberation -- all produced "bill of rights"-style documents [probably inspired in part by the "UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child"]. These writings convey a vision of the utopian world that we want to create -- but they also suggest a false image of how change will occur. Whereas the United States' Bill of Rights was passed in one fell swoop (with later additions), each point on the Youth Liberation agenda will have to be won one at a time. Not only will there be strong opposition on the way to any victory, but even after a pro-youth law passes, opponents are likely to continue trying to strike it down, or at least erode its impact.
I believe an oppression / liberation framework does a better job of addressing the social aspects of youth suffering, and just how active opposition to youth freedom really is. There's still a place for rights -- but as a tool of self-defense rather than an end goal.
Some Children's Rights authors have discussed the historical oppression of youth, using the word "oppression" in a fairly loose, but evocative sense. I mean to use "oppression" here in an almost technical sense, linking these issues to an alternate political framework. Alison Jaggar, in her book "Feminist Politics and Human Nature", explains the difference:
"Earlier feminists used the language of "rights" and "equality," but in the late 1960s "oppression" and "liberation" became the key words for the political activists of the new left. [...] The change in language reflects a significant development in the political perspective of contemporary feminism. [...] [O]ppression is the imposition of unjust constraints on the freedom of individuals or groups. Liberation is the correlate of oppression. It is release from oppressive constraints. [...] Oppression is the *imposition* of constraints; it suggests that the problem is not the result of bad luck, ignorance, or prejudice but is caused rather by one group actively subordinating another group to its own interest. Thus, to talk of oppression seems to commit feminists to a world view that includes at least two groups with conflicting interests: the oppressors and the oppressed. It is a world view, moreover, that strongly suggests that liberation is likely to be achieved by rational debate but instead must be the result of political struggle." (pp. 5-6)
Describing adults (collectively) as oppressors accurately conveys the extent to which disrespectful, anti-youth attitudes are pervasive in the mainstream -- even if they're alternately contradicted with declarations of love. It also rightly suggests that adults are *actively* engaged in inventing new rules and legal initiatives to curtail young people's freedom. ...Most of youth advocates' energy could easily be spent just defending what few rights minors have at present -- forget about building utopia!
One final criticism of the "rights" model: I think it fosters the idea that youth won't truly be free until the whole agenda's been won. I object to this; youth are free *now*. The problem is that when youth try to exercise their freedom, adults predictably interfere and prevent them from doing so. But sometimes youth get away with it; they break a rule and don't get caught. Youth are like native people in a land that's been colonized by outsiders; they don't necessarily have to recognize adults' right to rule them. Changing the rules isn't so much about opening up incredible new opportunities -- it's about making it easier to get away with what you intended to do anyway. It's about simply getting adults out of the way, as you live your life in the way that you would choose to normally.
-- to be continued --
February 20, 2003
Posted by Sven at 06:05 PM
NOTE: Imagine that you're reading this on the back cover of the book.
"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-Exupéry, The Little Prince.
While many minors are treated well, experiences of being disrespected simply for being young are also widespread – especially among teens. Adults claim near absolute power for guiding, controlling, and correcting their children. This leaves enormous room for abuse of power – from making petty demands to inflicting physical pain. Adults are unlikely to voluntarily limit their own powers; change must be demanded by youth themselves. "Youth Liberation" is teen-led activism: by youth, for youth, against adult oppression.
In this book:
- Youth Liberation basics
- How adults mistreat youth
- "Adultism" defined – the oppression of young people
- How adultism is built into society's institutions
- How adults can be allies to Youth Liberation
February 20, 2003
Posted by Sven at 05:53 PM
February 18, 2003
Chapter 1: About This Book - part 3
I want to provide a theoretical foundation for Youth Liberation activism. In a very general way, my job breaks down into two parts: analysis of the problem (adultism), and proposing a solution / strategy for change (teen-led activism). I've chosen to limit this book to describing the problem -- and even then, for the sake of brevity, only in an introductory way.
I have an academic background and by nature am attracted to a philosophical tone. However, I am also an activist -- which means I have to be concerned with mobilizing specific communities to the cause. I don't think many readers will pick up this book out of pure, uninformed curiosity and then feel moved to become full-time activists. The ideas herein are most likely to appeal to people who are (at least marginally) already involved in Youth Liberation work, or who care about issues that are only a short step away from this topic.
From this perspective, my task is really to introduce several different communities to the ideas of the others. In a sense, I want them to become more ideologically and politically integrated. Indeed, the process of comparing and contrasting their different ideas is what led me to my own beliefs.
I have identified five core goals for all of my Youth Liberation writing:
1. Explain child abuse by using Feminist domestic violence theory.
2. Redefine "Children's Rights" work as fighting an oppression.
3. Promote youth-led activism within the Children's Rights movement.
4. Add Youth Liberation to the Progressive Left's agenda.
5. Offer Youth Liberation a toolbox of activist tactics.
...My goals in writing exceed the scope of this book; not all of these topics will receive direct attention herein. Nonetheless, these themes will doubtlessly influence the present volume, so I think it's appropriate to explain them now, if only briefly. [With luck, I'll be able to follow this book with one that provides a more in-depth and historical analysis, and another that deals with the logistics of youth-led activism.]
(1) Explain child abuse by using Feminist domestic violence theory.
Physical violence receives significant attention in my work. This focus reflects my sense that intentionally causing pain is the epitome of oppression. It is the awful end result of normal values being taken to an extreme, to their logical conclusion. As such, it illuminates the oppressors' most destructive thinking.
Violence also provides a useful focal point for designing specific liberation proposals. In my framework, liberties are seldom just for their own enjoyment -- they are the necessities of self-defense. Most of the agenda points that I support contribute in some way to youth being able to remove themselves, at their own discretion, from an abusive home.
Feminist theories of male violence against women emerged, in part, from an awareness of historical oppression. They emphasize the role of power and control-related motives. A new, Feminist-style analysis could go a long way toward explaining violence against minors. True, it would add little to present understandings of infant abuse. And it would largely neglect various other factors known to contribute to violence -- such as parental drug / alcohol use -- but because these are not seen as *causal* factors. Despite such caveats, translating Feminist insights produces some very useful and previously unexplored perspectives:
Violence is about adults' desire for power and control. It is a means to an end: obtaining minors' obedience. The line between legitimate "discipline" and illegal "abuse" is artificial. Violence is not prohibited; it is simply regulated.
Many grownups have a strong desire to embody the role of "the parent" or "the adult". If being "the parent" is equated with being in control of one's child, then "correcting" them with physical punishment can provide a strong feeling that one has fulfilled the obligations of his/her role. Giving punishment can also reinforce the adult's sense of identity: that they are different from and superior to the younger person (and youth in general), because the youth's subordinance has been made apparent. [This is analogous to how some men's commitment to embodying "masculinity" leads them to subordinate and/or hurt women.]
If adult authority was ever just a tool for protecting youths' well-being, it has since transcended that purpose. For many, authority is an end in itself. People with an "I'm the adult, you're the kid -- do as I say" attitude generally feel entitled to make petty commands, self-serving rules, and major interventions in the young person's life -- actions that provoke legitimate resistance. A resentful tone, being slow to respond, or not doing what you're told, is seen as insubordination: a punishable offense. In this cultural context, it seems inevitable that some percentage of parents will ultimately resort to violence to enforce respect for their position.
Like assaults on other minorities, violence against minors can also be seen as a form of "hate-crime". Prejudice against teens is apparent in adults' widespread disparagement of youth character and culture. Prejudice creates a hostile environment, which increases the likelihood of conflict and use of physical force. Essentially, youth are attacked, within the home, for showing their membership in a disliked group.
Along these same lines, parents may *anticipate* the onset of stereotypical "adolescent behavior" and begin treating their children with suspicion and an overly critical eye. in doing so, they may actually be responsible for creating the "moody", "rude", and "rebellious" behavior that they have expected and feel compelled to punish.
-- to be continued --
February 18, 2003
Posted by Sven at 05:55 PM