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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 February 20, 2003 06:05 PM