July 30, 2003
Age Lines: How to Define "Adults" and "Youth"
Youth Liberation seeks to change how adults treat young people. But what makes someone an "adult"? Who falls into the category of "young people"? Where is the line between these two groups?
I. THREE MODELS OF AGE
Before we begin trying to answer these questions, it's valuable to take a step back and look first at the more general concept of age. It seems to me that there are three main models of age:
1. Age as biology
2. Age as legal status
3. Age as personal character
(1) AGE AS BIOLOGY
The "age as biology" model addresses natural phenomena: the sheer number of years that one has been alive, growing taller, physical changes associated with puberty, dental record, brain development, etc. Several of these attributes could be equated with "adulthood": when one has lost all their "baby teeth", when one stops getting taller, when secondary sex characteristics such as menstruation, breast development, and facial hair appear. However, it's important to notice that discussions about "adults" and "youth" seldom have anything to do with biology itself -- focus is almost always on social differences (law and character).
[A noteworthy variant of the "age as biology" model is the concept of "mental age". The "mental age" model suggests that just as the body progresses through stages of development, so does the mind -- but development of the two are not always in sync. This idea most frequently comes up when discussing people with "developmental disabilities" -- adults with the intelligence or emotionality "of a child". ...The popular sentiment that "you're only as old as you feel" also invokes the "mental age" model.]
(2) AGE AS LEGAL STATUS
The "age as legal status" model addresses laws that sort people into the categories "adult" and "minor" (or simply "under age"). While attempts may be made to associate legal age-lines with natural biological changes, they are in themselves entirely artificial. There is no meaningful difference between an 18-year-old on their birthday, and the 17-year-old they were the day before, except that which is invented and imposed by legislators.
(3) AGE AS PERSONAL CHARACTER
The "age as personal character" model equates "adulthood" with behavior: you're an adult when you "act like an adult". ...What do you have to do to act like an adult? There are a variety of ideas about what that entails -- and some conflict with each other.
Frequently adulthood is equated with "maturity" -- a set of virtues that everyone should aspire toward: being responsible, serious, hard-working, intelligent, patient, wise, conscientious, competent, etc. When parents say "grow up!" or "act your age", they seem to be saying that maturity is accomplished by effort and will. On the other hand, when adults say things like "you'll understand when you're older" and "the wisdom of age", it sounds more like maturity can only be achieved by living long enough in the world -- but if you can just do that, then it's inevitable. Other variants on the theme of "acting like an adult" focus on the culture of adults (what they wear, what music they listen to, what kind of language they use), or being in a position to supervise (e.g. the oldest child getting to be "the adult" while their parent is away), or the power of command ("because I'm the adult and you're the kid, that's why!").
Ultimately, the promise that you can get treated like an adult, just by acting differently, is hollow. Even if a 16-year-old is responsible enough to be a store manager, intelligent enough to win national science awards, and / or conscientious enough to start a community service organization, they still don't earn the right to vote.
II. THE LOGIC BEHIND AGE LAWS
Age laws are not entirely consistent. Different laws set different ages as the dividing line between youth and adults: 16, 18, 21, 25, etc. We need to look past the actual numbers and see the logic behind society's structure.
Society is set up to imitate the generations within a family. In the family, there are children, parents, and grandparents. In society at large, there are minors, adults, and senior citizens.
From this perspective, young people are most defined by being living in the home of their parents, and by being financially dependent. A few exceptions should be noted. In addition to living situations with both biological parents, living with a single parent, adoptive parents, or foster parents also counts. Street youth are no less youth, because people generally feel that they're "supposed" to be with the parents. Youth who are financially independent or legally emancipated also count, again being lumped in with their age-peers.
Of the various age-lines established by law, 18 seems to be the most common and most significant. Most high school systems are set up so that students will graduate when they are about 18 years old; most youth also leave their parents' home at about this age. If we had to pick a single age line to define youth, it seems that 18 would probably be the best choice.
Most people, however, don't feel that a person is fully adult upon reaching age 18. Some legal entitlements are still withheld, and much of the social stigma attached to youth remains in place. I'm going to argue that people aged 18-25 constitute a meaningful sub-group of adults. Among activists that I've worked with, "tweeners" is the word being used to discuss people in this position.
People who have just graduated high school and are going off to college are often referred to as "college kids" -- even though they they're now treated as "adults" by the judicial system. Why? I believe it's largely because these students are usually still dependent on their parents for money. They may be living away from home, but the other half of what would make them "youth" is still in place.
The ultimate confirmation of one's adulthood is to marry and become a parent oneself. According to a recent survey from the University of Chicago, the average American feels that people should get married at age 25.7, have children at age 26.2, and that adulthood begins at age 26 (www.norc.uchicago.edu). ...It appears that society's emphasis on attending college has socially (if not legally) extended adolescence.
Perhaps the strongest case for seeing 18-25 as a meaningful grouping is that this age group is required to register for the draft (selective service). Whereas one must be 18 to vote (lowered from 21 in 1971), you must be a minimum of 25 years old to become a state representative, 30 to become a senator, and 35 to be become president. With the exception of these last two cases, 25 is the highest age-line that I am aware of. [You have to be 25 to rent a car -- a fact that once stranded me overnight in Pennsylvania!]
[Within Youth Liberation, questions about where to draw the line between adults youth probably come up most often when deciding who may be members of an organization. There's general recognition that 19- and 20-year-olds still suffer much of the stigma of youth -- but still, they have more legal freedom than 17-year-olds. Often activists' solution is to set the cut-off for membership at a compromise number, such as 23. To me, this is a bad solution. It's offensive that adults base young people's freedom on artificial age lines; it's little better if youth themselves pull numbers out of a hat. I feel that if you're going to draw age-lines, then they should be in direct response to legal realities. For these purposes, "youth" should be defined as "under 18". If you want to include "tweeners", then set the cut-off at 25 -- but set limits on their participation, to help level the playing field for the actual minors in the group.]
III. "ADULTS" AS AN ORGANIZATION
While it is possible to talk about age in terms of biology -- infancy, early childhood, puberty, adolescence, adulthood, etc. -- anatomy and physiology have relatively little to do with adults and youth relate with each other. Infants are physically dependent on others for survival; as society is currently structured, young children require assistance to procure food and clothing; teens typically remain financially dependent. Super-imposed upon these real needs, however, is adults' belief that they should always have the right to command and be obeyed.
Gerontocracy, rule by the elders of a society, has probably existed for thousands of years. It's intuitive for most people to feel that they're better persons because they're older and more experienced. Adultism, however, is a relatively recent development, coinciding with the emergence of organized states. Now instead of whoever's oldest having the most power, adults have organized themselves into a government that wields power over both minors and senior citizens.
I find it extremely useful to think about "adults" as if it is an organization. It's more massive and less orderly than organizations we're used to thinking about, but the metaphor holds up remarkably well. An organization has leaders; given that youth are excluded from running for office, "leaders" here is synonymous with the U.S. government. An organization has members; these are all the adults who passively enjoy rights conferred upon them by the government. [As the advertisement for American Express credit card used to say, "membership has its privileges".] An organization has membership criteria that exclude non-members; in this case, youth are non-members.
The aspect of adulthood that seems least like an organization is the fact that you don't have to do anything to join -- as soon as you turn 18, you're automatically inducted in. However, there may be precedents for other organizations that function like this; perhaps churches that baptize you before you understand their beliefs are an example.
Another thing that may seem wrong about the metaphor is youth's lack of opposition to becoming members. If youth are truly oppressed by adults, wouldn't there need to be some sort of political conversion experience, where youth denounce their former membership? ...I think the reason we don't see this is because most youth spend their 18 years of "childhood" just wishing they could hurry up and join. There is little sense of "joining the enemy" because most youth identify with adults' point of view; it's an issue of assimilation -- as with Jews who want to dissociate from their Jewishness, queers who want to "act straight", or immigrants of any nationality that want to blend into America's "melting pot".
Within the "adults as organization" model, "youth" is not an organization in itself, parallel and equal to "adults". Youth are an unorganized people, defined by their exclusion from the group "adults". Historically, young people have been seen as the living property of adults in the eyes of the law. Things have changed enough that we can forget this fact, but evidence remains embedded in our language. Young people severing themselves from their parents become "emancipated" -- like freed slaves; running away remains illegal, again, as it once was for slaves.
Organizations often have mission statements. If "adults" had one, what would it be? To some extent all-adult government arises because most youth aren't up to the job of running the state, in which case, the "purpose" of the organization would not directly address youth or age. However, given that youth are specifically excluded from participating in democratic decision-making, and the history of youth being treated like property, I would argue that the mission statement could be articulated as "to control youth". Others might argue that the intentions of adults are beneficent in current society, so "to protect and serve" would be a better fit. However, even if that were the intended goal, the means to this end is total control.
IV. BEING A CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR
One reason I like the "adults as organization" model is because I feel it helps spell out what options for action I have as an adult. Just because I am granted membership doesn't mean that I have to identify with the group, or support the policies it makes. Within an organization such as "adults", there are three main positions that can take: you can be a leader, a passive member, or a conscientious objector.
Leadership might mean holding a formal position (e.g. as a senator), or it might mean being an opinion-shaper (e.g. an author who writes about child-rearing). If you have a movement of other adults behind you, you essentially become a "caucus" within the organization. "Adults" is a large enough group to tolerate a great deal of internal dissent -- like the Democrat and Republican parties do, for instance.
Being a passive member, you don't necessarily even think of yourself as an adult. An unmarried, baby-faced, fan of rock'n'roll might not feel like they're a "real" adult. Regardless of how this person feels, though, they still possess basic privileges that minors don't: the right to vote, buy alcohol, rent a car, etc. A person may simply not recognize the ways in which they identify with adults. In looking for your own hidden sense of adulthood, try asking yourself this: "When there are debates on TV about young people, in my mind do I think of the youth as 'them' or 'us'?"
If "adults" is an artificial category, projected onto real physiology, around which a powerful organization has been built -- then a person can choose to be a "conscientious objector", instead of just accepting adulthood as inevitable . There are several ways to approach this concept...
Focusing on the history of adults claiming to own youth as their property, persons who are adult-by-membership can become "age abolitionists" -- attempting to dismantle the legal institution of childhood, just as slavery was dismantled. Recognizing that this position sets them in opposition to the majority of other adults, such people could proudly call themselves "age traitors" (akin to the once derogatory term "race traitor").
As an organization, adulthood has its own sort of "dress codes". An adult-by-membership can choose to break the dress code by wearing styles associated with youth: dyed hair, baggy pants, bright primary colors (associated with very young children). This action could be called "age bending" (akin to "gender bending"). Intentionally mixing adult- and youth-identified clothes with the intent to shock could be call "age fuck" (akin to "gender fuck").
There are several good arguments for age-bending. It's a way of challenging the idea that adults and youth should dress differently. It can be a way of visually showing that you stand with young people. It can be part of a larger commitment to remaining culturally informed about what's going on with youth, instead of ignoring or putting down youth fashions. It can be a part of trying to be a more whole human being, rather than cutting off the parts of oneself that are "childish".
Age-bending can extend to behavior, as well as fashion. The ideal of "maturity" puts value on character traits such as "serious", "stable", "unemotional". The opposite characteristics, associated with youth, are typically stigmatized. However, traits such as "playful", "fluid", and "emotionally engaged" can be reclaimed an given new respect. Adults can model this work by embodying such virtues, explaining their motives, and doing so with mannerisms that are recognizably "young".
The notion that human beings are either "adult" or "young" in nature could be called "age dualism". I've occasionally heard adults talk about their younger selves as if they were separate persons, putting down those younger selves in order to look bigger, just as they might put down any other young person. I offer term "age monism" to describe an alternative: seeing one's earlier life and present life as a continuum, embracing and respecting the person one used to be, even if you would choose to make different choices today. This is the path of trying to be an "ageless being" -- neither "adult" nor "young" in nature, but instead the best of both, or something else entirely. "Ageless being" is about trying to be a person that transcends age -- even while acknowledging one's involuntary membership in the organization "adults", and the privileges that it confers.
V. HOW TO DEFINE "ADULTS" AND "YOUTH"
How should we define "adults" and "youth", and where is the line between the two? I think the question has been answered at this point, but let's put all the pieces together now, as a way of summarizing...
The most common ways of answering this question involve defining "adults" and "youth" in terms of biology, law, or personal character. I propose an alternate model, one which encompasses those three approaches: adults as an organization.
Prior to the emergence of law-based governments, gerontocracy (rule by the oldest) was a fairly common occurrence. By creating laws that discriminate against both the young and the old, adults as a class have ascended to power -- establishing modern adultism.
On top of actual physiological differences, adult-only government has superimposed the artificial concepts of "adult" and "youth", and made them real by passing age-based laws. Adults, out of desire to dissociate themselves from youth (or at least youths' powerlessness), have created a separate culture of adulthood: dress codes of clothing; adult-identified mannerisms, interests, and language; the set of valued personal qualities collectively known as "maturity".
Viewing "adulthood" as a largely artificial invention, we're likely to see "the line" between "adults" and "youth" as primarily a legal one. Particular laws vary, but we can see the logic behind them: just as there are children, parents, and grandparents within a family, society is organized into minors, adults, and senior citizens. As a group, youth are most defined by living in the homes of their parents, upon whom they remain financially dependent. Considering the bulk of laws and their apparent intent, I conclude that it's best to define youth as "people under the age of 18". However, because people in the early years of adulthood still lack some privileges and suffer much of the stigma of youth, I advocate recognizing "tweeners" (ages 18 - 25) as an important subgroup of adults, strong potential allies to actual minors.
The "adults as an organization" model draws a sharp distinction between membership and identity. Whereas membership is involuntary, a legal adult can still disagree with the policies of the adults-only government, and identify with the point of view of youth fighting the system. This is an exciting possibility: adults can be "conscientious objectors", "age abolitionists", "age traitors"; they can "age-bend"; they can aspire to transcend categorization in their personal lives as "ageless beings".
VI. CONCLUSION: PROMOTING THE NEW MODEL OF AGE
In conclusion, it seems apparent to me that how a person defines "youth" and "adults" is going to have a major impact on how they choose to work against adultism, or more generally for the interests of young people. I advocate promoting the "adults as an organization" model in the future. I believe the level of clarity it can provide, combined with the concise options for action that it suggests, give it obvious advantages over the "biology", "law", and "personal character" models of age. It will give Youth Liberation a better foundation to build upon.
And how can a Youth Liberation movement with better thinking help but become more effective?
-- END --
July 30, 2003
The Future of Youth Justice
What does the process of changing society look like? Is it really going to be possible to transform this country's age laws and culture? We have a vision of the society that we want to live in -- but how do we get from here to there?
Youth Liberation is not the first movement to contemplate these questions. Most radical activists have given the topic some thought: Feminists, Marxists, Anarchists, Environmentalists, Queers, Anti-Racist Activists... In this essay, I want to look at five models of social change that radicals have proposed. I'll comment on strengths and weaknesses, attempting to arrive at a better strategy (if not the "best") through the process.
1. VIOLENT REVOLUTION
One vision of social change imagines that there will be historical moment when the oppressed have finally had enough, when they'll rise up and overthrow their oppressors. There's a strong sense of "before" and "after the revolution"; things are bad now, but after a few years of intense struggle, our problems will be solved. Change is going to be violent in the sense of "sudden" -- but some also feel that it will be important to be holding a gun in your hand when the big day arrives.
One thing I admire about this vision is its sense of urgency. One of my favorite quotes comes from julian beck's book "the life of the theatre": "When we feel, we will feel the emergency: when we feel the emergency, we will act: when we act, we will change the world." It seems true to me that social change is seldom moved forward by cool, dispassionate reason alone. People put the effort into making change when there's emotion involved, when an issue *feels* important.
The "violent revolution" model's most serious flaw, in my mind, is imagining that the power to oppress is wielded by only an elite set of individuals. This is certainly not the case for youth. The power to oppress is very distributed among adults; any parent, teacher, or legislator can cause suffering at will. It's true that you can point to some people who are super-powerful in society, like the CEO's of major corporations. But if the guilty are going to be slaughtered in an orgy of rioting, how far down the totem pole of power are you willing to go?
Tearing down the old system is not enough. We also have to build something new in its place. Rather than starting that work after the magic "revolution" has taken place, why not start now? If we work hard enough, perhaps we can simply replace the old structure, piece by piece. We'll be challenged at each step along the path, but the idea is that people's hearts and minds will change, so resistance will get lighter the farther along we get.
...Of course, some opponents won't change, no matter how much the society around them moves forward. I call this the "dinosaur" problem. Some adultists will never accept change -- you just have to let them die off. Personally, I'd rather let them die of natural causes than get blood on my hands.
The necessary aside about violence: I abhor murder. I condemn radicals (whom I've met) for stretching the idea of "self-defense" to justify doing physical violence to other people's bodies. I think hitting or shooting someone can only be justified if they are attempting to do the same to you. A scab that takes your job threatens your money; it's bad, but it's not the same as your life. ...However, on that same note (distinguishing between your money and your life), I am open to discussing destruction of property (e.g. defacing billboards, monkey-wrenching logging equipment). I don't advocate it, but I'm willing to consider situations where it may be an appropriate tactic.
Besides the ethical concerns about doing violence, I think "power comes out of the barrel of a gun" is bad strategy for several reasons. First, in a physical fight, our side is bound to lose. Adults tend to be physically stronger than youth, they own the guns, and control organized police forces. Second, even if youth successfully stage a riot or some kind of assault as a militia, the adult backlash is likely to be too terrible for it to make any sense. Third, violence will alienate youth and adults alike from the cause. Long-term social change, in my opinion, depends on gaining public support.
2. PROGRESSING TOWARD UTOPIA
Another model of social change imagines a slow march toward the perfect society. In this utopia, everyone will have grown beyond the prejudices of the past, everyone will be enlightened (like in "Star Trek"!). Activists with this model in mind tend to put a strong emphasis on doing public education. The idea that we'll have inevitable victory evokes an almost religious sense of faith: the promised land is waiting for us, even if it takes 500 years to get there. I think this feeling grows out of the conviction that we're right. ...Just as science progressed from seeing the world as flat, society will ultimately have to accept youths' equality.
The best thing about this model is perhaps how inspiring it is. The image of a non-adultist society is something worth really fighting for. If youth are damned to forever suffer insults and injuries from adults, why bother trying to change anything? Better to just keep your head down and survive into adulthood without getting into unnecessary trouble. ...The conviction that things could be different gives one the strength to take risks, get through the hard fights, and keep on going after defeat.
The thing that seems least accurate to me about the "utopia" model is the idea that someday history will just come to a stop, and nothing will ever change again. Even in the distant future, I imagine that there will be new scientific innovations, fads and celebrities, good and bad harvests, ongoing political / philosophical debates. In other words, there will always be something to argue over or get upset about. Instead of "working to put ourselves out of a job", I think that we need to organize ourselves to be permanent participants in society's negotiations about what's fair and what's unfair. Youth justice will be an ongoing concern even if we do finally defeat organized adultist oppression.
A word about bigots... We can eliminate an enormous amount of injustice by changing laws and doing public education -- but I don't think we can get rid of it entirely. If an idea can be imagined, then someone somewhere right now probably believes it. After all, there are still people in America that believe the Earth is flat! Even if we could wash history clean and begin with a clean slate, I suspect some people would reinvent racist, sexist, and adultist thinking for themselves. Fairly or unfairly feeling resentment toward members of another group, some people would rationalize their dislike in terms of sweeping, oppressive generalizations. As far as bigots are concerned, I wonder if the best we can do is to keep them in the minority, ostracized by the mainstream. [Personally, I'm just thrilled that most people now view KKK members as fringe extremists!]
Something else that troubles me about the "utopia" model is that I think it encourages us to equate freedom with accomplishing our ten-point agenda of social change. What does it mean to be free? I think that when you're free, you just decide what you feel like doing, and then do it -- probably without even thinking about it that much. From this point of view, youth could consider themselves free right now. If you're sitting in a school room, that's your choice; you can stand up at any time and just walk out the door.
...The trick, of course, is that there are going to be bad consequences. Adults are going to get in the way of doing what you want, and generally make things unpleasant. In essence, youth are a colonized people. It's as if they were living in the country of Youthistan, and were suddenly invaded by conquerors from Adultistan, who now say that the inhabitants all have to do what they say. From this perspective, Youth Liberation's work is not about getting rights per se, but rather just getting adults out of the way. It would be nice if the adults would recognize the legitimacy of youths' self-determination -- but if you can do the things that you want in life by just not getting caught, then hey, that works too.
3. SHIFTING THE MAINSTREAM CULTURE
Even if we can't accomplish a state of permanent justice, I think it's clear that we do want to make some pretty major changes in society as it stands now. A lot of this work involves changing the law, changing how courts interpret the law, and making sure that the law gets appropriately enforced. Yet, legal change can't occur in a vacuum. How can just laws come into being (and survive) if we don't also have a majority of people supporting the ideals behind them? There needs to be transformation of America's culture, as well as its laws.
Television is probably the strongest force unifying Americans in contemporary society. People anywhere in the nation can watch the same news report or sit-com; TV gives us a common reference point for discussion. Consequently, it is easiest to discuss cultural shift in terms of programming content. Youth want to see stories that portray minors in a positive light, stories that are critical of adultism, and stories that help people get used to non-adultist ways of relating.
Unfortunately, television is big business, which makes it very difficult for youth to influence. Just getting on the local news is a major accomplishment! Activists who want to shift culture are forced turn to other strategies. For instance... They try to influence public opinion through more accessible media: putting essays in magazines, writing letters to the editor, seeking coverage from indie news outlets. They argue that we can shift attitudes by just talking honestly to the people we know, that if millions of us speak out, it will have a huge impact. They advocate confronting adultist language, protesting businesses that have discriminatory policies. They try to foster the growth of alternative culture by hosting special events (conferences, camps, teach-ins, etc.) and making safe spaces for youth (like drop-in centers).
In and of themselves, these all seem like positive actions, helpful to the Youth Liberation cause. The thing that worries me most often about the "culture shift" model of social change is that it's easy to lose sight of the need to be doing legal work at the same time. In my experience, talking to the people in your life -- or even organizing a big youth event -- is much easier than locking horns with an actual political opponent. Proactively proposing new legislation takes a great deal of research and setting up appointments with the people in power. Resisting any kind of political attack -- whether that's a new anti-youth law, a police curfew crack-down, or a cut in funding to youth service providers -- means conforming to a timetable set by the opponent; it's rushed and stressful. It's all too easy to wait around for someone else to deal with the really tough stuff.
Another concern: By focusing on defamation and public image, it seems to me that we're often talking about youth -- when it's really adults that we ought to be talking about. When an adult hears something about young people, they process that information as "about other people". So, if we offer stories about youth who are intelligent, courageous, and principled, the adult just thinks "OK, so there are some exceptional youth". What I think we want instead, is for adults to realize that "there's something wrong with me, with us as adults, we need to change!" To get adults to think about themselves, we need do much less defending of youth, and instead make more pointed criticisms about adults. Look at all the ways in which adults are terrible people: petty, stupid, cruel, unprincipled, moody, reckless, etc. It's really just a matter of emphasis, but I think there's a difference between saying our problem is that youth lack something -- rights -- and saying that adults are withholding something -- again, rights. We shouldn't need to prove that youth deserve better treatment; the burden should be on adults to prove that they deserve such omnipotent power.
Questions about the right balance of public image vs. law-changing work, and about whether we should discuss "us" vs. "them", are really about how to do "culture shift" well. However, I think there's a more basic problem with this vision of social change... Obviously cultural shift does happen: there's more acceptance of inter-racial marriage now, it's unacceptable to use the "N-word", women's competence in the professions and in sports is beyond question, drunk driving is frowned upon, and the climate for people who smoke in public is increasingly hostile. Yet, despite these victories, progressive movements always remain outside of the mainstream. We have utopian visions, but the majority of America makes only minor adjustments in their behavior -- not so much because they embrace our ideals, but just because "everyone else is doing it". Are we really shifting culture if our ideologies aren't making it into the mainstream?
We'd like for America to understand everything there is to know about Youth Liberation -- but in reality, we're just one of dozens (if not hundreds) of minority groups vying for the public's attention. The better established a movement becomes, the more it gets recognized as a "subculture". Feminists, hippies, goths, Harley riders -- we all want to be better understood, to maybe change the world... How many minority groups can any one person be an expert on?
4. INTER-COMMUNITY DIPLOMACY
The "culture shift" approach to social change tends to focus on the state of the nation. If you're committed to the movement, however, you have to start realizing that a national movement is built primarily out of activists doing work in their own cities / states. Youth Liberation activists need to be able to identify which level they're working on with any particular issue: federal, state, county, city, neighborhood, or within-organization.
With this perspective in mind, changing society becomes a problem of influencing one group at a time: your city council, a teacher's association, a homeless youth shelter, etc. You need to identify exactly who's the decision-maker that controls what you want. You can meet with them one-on-one, but it's generally more effective to be able to show that you have the support of some larger body of people.
To this end, you may want to establish some variety of youth community organization. Maybe the constituency is all drawn from a particular school's student body, or maybe your group represents a collection of like-minded individuals from different areas of town. Maybe you try to set up a permanent structure, or maybe you just come together to address a one-time issue. ...Politically, the main benefit of gathering a group is that your voice will be heard more loudly together than alone.
Within your local youth community, there are also levels to consider. There's generally a leadership committee, members who are less actively involved, other local youth groups that are somewhat similar to your own, and a population of youth who aren't yet organized or involved in any way. As an activist, you have to try to communicate effectively with people on all these levels. It's all too common to discover that you've not only failed to tell other youth groups what you're doing -- your own leadership collective isn't even all on the same page.
Even though you're trying to deal with the relationships between groups (allies, neutrals, opponents), it usually doesn't work very well to try to address a group as an organization. The best activists' secret weapon is incredibly simple: invite people out for coffee dates and get to know who they are as individuals. That way, when you're sitting at a table with a group of people, you already have a sense of who's going to agree with you, what skills each person has, and who you might ask to take on some extra work.
Many youth feel uncomfortable speaking for youth as a whole, and insist that they can only address their own experience. As a group leader, you can earn the right to speak for the group by a couple of means. You can study the history of Youth Liberation, and so speak from a body of knowledge that you have. You can participate in lots of group discussions, or have coffee dates with individual youth, so that it's legitimate to generalize about what the youth that you know are saying. You can be formally elected by a youth organization to be one of its leaders / a spokesperson. While it's true that you can't speak for every youth, being able to represent at least some portion of the youth community can make youth groups more effective.
The original purpose of bringing youth together is maybe to do political work, but it's easy for "having as many members as possible" to become an end in itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing; organizations that focus on community-building events (discussion groups, socials, internal workshops, conferences, etc.) help create a pool of engaged youth, from which activism may arise. However, the tendency to want to invite all youth in can also stand in the way of doing politics. If the group is too diverse, you may not be able to arrive at a consensus, or otherwise rally enough support to justify taking a collective position.
Doing public education workshops is generally less controversial than challenging a political opponent. However, how effective it is at creating social change is debatable. To begin with, panels / workshops have a very limited audience. Within your city, there are only so many groups that are interested in hosting speakers. You might be able to get engagements in college classes, youth service organizations, teachers' organizations, possibly churches... Ultimately, the list you come up with is going to be finite.
What if you had an unlimited pool of youth speakers to draw upon, and a full-time organizer to schedule workshops? What would happen is that you'd develop a list of groups that you revisit each year, doing more-or-less the same presentation over and over again. You'd be reaching more and more people as new members joined those groups; for everyone else it would be an annual refresher.
�If you combined this program of speaking engagements with coffee date check-ins for the outside groups' leaders, then what you've got is an excellent strategy for maintaining diplomatic relationships between the various communities in your area. The trouble is that none of your political opponents are ever going to host you. It can begin to feel like you're just preaching to the choir (although that's not entirely true). Political work that addresses your opponents requires an entirely separate process.
5. WATCHDOG GROUPS & COMMUNITY DEFENSE
Youth community groups are an important base for social change work. Young persons gathering, talking with each other, and getting inspired, is what makes the emergence of activist projects possible. However, my experiences lead me to think social and political concerns should be dealt with by separate groups -- rather than trying to form one super-organization that addresses all needs.
I think that politics are best done by a small cadre of activists, who devote a lot of intellectual energy to researching their projects, and who are willing to take positions that aren't always popular. If they're doing their work well, the cadre will decide which issues to take on largely based on conversations with the greater youth community, strategy ideas will be discussed at open community forums, and the projects will involve more and more people as they gain momentum.
We need to keep in mind the utopian vision of the society we want to create, but we also have to protect what freedoms youth have at present. Adultists aren't standing still -- they're actively making new assaults on young people's freedoms. In the long run, more of our energy is probably going to go into resistance than proactive projects. When we do have victories, we're likely to suffer a backlash, and spend years defending what we've won from being eroded away.
We'd like to "put ourselves out of a job", but I think we have to remain vigilant even when things seem to be going well. It's haunting to recall that Jews enjoyed greater freedom in pre-World War II Germany than they had for hundreds of years anywhere else. Because the natural anatomical, economic, and social differences between adults and youth are significant, youth will always be at risk of becoming a scapegoat group. In defense, we need to maintain watchdog groups, and be certain that the skills of activism get passed on from generation to generation.
Ideally, there would be watchdog groups at each level of society -- national, state, city -- and the groups would be diversified, each watching over as narrow an issue as possible: school policy, police issues, violence against minors, youth service providers, new legislation, court cases, media defamation, hate-group activities, etc. Justice isn't a permanent state that we can achieve -- there are going to constantly be issues arising that we need to negotiate. Unfortunately, this will probably always be a sloppy process. There aren't enough activists to deal with every issue; we'll take on the big fights, but be forced to just let the lesser stuff slide by.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
What does the process of changing society look like?
It begins with a utopian vision of the society we'd like to live in. The idea that things could be different than they are now makes activism worth all the risk and struggle.
At the same time, we know that justice is a matter of constant negotiation between different groups, all trying to work out a deal that benefits their own members. Society will never stand still, so instead of trying to "put ourselves out of a job", we need to secure ourselves a place in the decision-making process.
We'll work to change laws and organizational policies, to influence court interpretation of existing laws, and to make sure that laws and policies are properly enforced. At the same time, we'll need to work to shape public opinion: getting youth seen in a positive light, denouncing adultism, and promoting understanding of new, better ways for adults and youth to relate. Changing law and shifting culture go hand-in-hand.
Work will take place at different levels of society: national, state, county, city, neighborhood, within-organization. The movement's foundation will be bringing youth together as a community, hosting events where youth can discuss things, socialize, and support each other. Separately from youth community groups, but working in cooperation, small activist cadres will be formed to address political concerns.
As much effort as possible will go toward building a better world -- but much of our energy will have to go to resisting new adultist assaults. Doing public education that acts as inter-community diplomacy will do some good, but will be limited by who's interested in hosting our panels. The main burden of social change will fall upon small watchdog organizations, each paying close attention to policy matters and news events in fairly narrow areas.
Justice will always be a little haphazard, some injustices slipping through the cracks. Advocating for a community's needs takes enormous amounts of energy -- there just aren't enough activists to go around -- and the public is overwhelmed by different groups vying for their attention. The issues that Youth Liberation makes the most progress on will be the ones that inspire a strong emotional response and a sense of urgency.
Some final words of hope: Adultism is so big... Putting energy into the place where you live can be a bit dispiriting, because it doesn't feel like you're really making a dent in the big picture. It's important to remember that our actions have a ripple effect. People we'll never even meet hear about what we do, and the rumor of freedom spreads. We have no idea how powerful we actually are.
Ultimately, we find the courage to take on this problem not because we know that we will succeed -- but because, win or lose, our consciences compel the attempt. The struggle for justice may begin with outrage, but continues on because we desire to be just persons ourselves.
-- END --
July 13, 2003
Posted by Sven at 12:58 PM
The Role of Adults within Youth Liberation
When adults and youth work together for Youth Liberation causes, there is always a danger that the adults will bring adultism with them, getting in the way of the youths' work or taking over entirely.
I believe it's important to articulate a code of conduct for "adult allies". Adults need to understand this Ally Framework to avoid inappropriate behavior -- but it's also valuable for youth. It's good to have a standard for what to expect from adults; it makes it easier to identify internal problems when they come up; and it helps youth prepare for when they become adults themselves.
[NOTE: Not all Youth Liberation work is done by organizations. Individuals can do good work fighting adultism. Groups of individuals can come together to address an issue without setting up rules, formal roles, or long-range plans. Still, my focus here is going to be on organizations. Because they have explicit structure, and are intended to last for some time, it's easier to discuss their internal dynamics.]
I. ADULTISM WITHIN THE YOUTH LIBERATION MOVEMENT
The Ally Framework is meant to help prevent inappropriate adult behavior within Youth Liberation organizations. Before going on to describe the solution, though, let's take a closer look at the kind of problems that come up, so that they're fresh in our minds.
When adults and youth sit in a circle having discussion, adults have several bad tendencies. They talk too often and for too long, taking up time that could be spent hearing from youth. They interrupt youth who are speaking. They address the other adults in the room instead of everyone, sometimes acting even as if the youth aren't really there. When youth make a point, the adults sometimes act as if they didn't hear it -- going on with their own train of thought, instead of responding to what's been said. Youth in the room can be in consensus, but the adults continue to make objections and try to put a stop to the young people's plans.
When adults participate in the upkeep of a Youth Liberation organization, they sometimes seize control. If the adults can vote, situations arise where they out-vote the will of the youth in the group. If they have keys to the building where the group meets, they can deny access, or just get in the way of youth meeting by being unavailable to open the door. If they control the budget, they can decide that they don't want to fund the youths' initiatives. It's common for the adults to be getting paid, and for there to be no paid positions for youth. Particularly if adults are securing money from grants, they can suddenly decide to change the group's name, or put up a sign for their "parent" organization on the front of the building.
Where public appearances are being made, adults can set themselves up as spokespersons for youth, not letting youth speak for themselves. If there's a TV camera involved, an adult member of the group may feel that they are most articulate. They may feel that the young people don't look normal enough, or will come across as too radical. If there's a panel presentation, it's often an adult who plays the role of facilitator -- introducing the event and the youth on the panel, giving the impression that the youth are cute puppets being trotted out. Adults organizing panels also often stretch the concept of youth to include anyone younger than themselves; 30-year-olds should not be on youth panels. When ballot measures are being fought over, adults are prone to pay a polling service to help set the campaign's message, youth falling out of the decision-making process almost entirely.
When youth attempt to confront the offending behavior of adults in their group, the adults may respond poorly. They may become angry and defensive, making themselves scary people to try to raise concerns with in the future. They may refuse to listen to criticism because the youth are angry (because of how they've been treated) and don't sound respectful / deferential enough for the adults' taste. They may try to out-reason youth, sticking with the rightness of their opinions and actions until youth just give up out of exhaustion. They may agree that their behavior must change, but then conveniently forget, and just keep on behaving as they did before.
II. "BY YOUTH, FOR YOUTH" ORGANIZATIONS
One of the most important things that a Youth Liberation organization can do to combat internal adultism is to choose an appropriate group structure, particularly in terms of the balance of power between adults and youth. Here are the five essential options:
1. Youth only, no adults involved
2. Youth lead, adults follow and support their decisions
3. Youth and adults are equal participants
4. Adults lead, youth follow and support their decisions
5. Adults only, no youth involved
Personally, I think that adult-only organizations are adultist by definition. Even if they address issues that youth care about, like ending violence against minors, the means for achieving that end cannot be considered Youth Liberationist. Whether or not that invalidates the group's accomplishments is a matter for debate.
A lot of people like the idea of groups where adults and youth are equal participants (sometimes called "intergenerational" or "multi-generational" organizations). The problem I see with this kind of group is that they don't usually seem to talk about adultism. If you're not talking about it, how can you avoid it? I get the impression that most multi-generational groups slide into the typical "adults lead, youth obey" pattern.
People tend to have strong feelings about the idea of youth-only organizations. I think that they get a bad rap. A truly separatist organization has the benefit of completely avoiding the danger of adult take-overs from within. In my opinion, a group of youth, taking a stand and speaking out, is the very ideal of what Youth Liberation is about.
The trouble with youth separatism is really all about practical things: the difficulty of finding meeting space, learning activist techniques, reinventing ideas that youth-now-adults have already tried. A reasonable compromise, I think, is the "by youth, for youth" model -- where adults help out inside the Youth Liberation organization, but willingly limit the ways in which they participate.
III. FOR AND AGAINST LIMITING ADULT PARTICIPATION
When a group starts talking about adopting the "by youth, for youth" model, there's typically a heated discussion. It's difficult to do justice to both sides of the argument -- but trying to be fair, here are a few of the more common objections I've heard:
It discriminates against adults. It's wrong to not treat everyone exactly the same.
Adults have valuable ideas and information to share.
Not all youth are Youth Liberationists... Adults can be more knowledgeable about the movement than the youth are.
It doesn't matter who helps in the cause. All that matters is winning the fight at hand.
Focus on internal processing distracts from the real work.
�And here are a few counter-arguments on the "pro" side:
Even well-meaning adults bring adultism with them, which can derail or destroy youths' efforts.
If the point of our work is to eliminate adultism, how does it make sense to ignore the bad behavior of supposed "allies"? Any adult that truly wants to be an ally will invite criticism, so they can better learn how not to be adultist.
The movement is for youths' sake. For better or worse, they should get to be in control of their destiny.
It's not discrimination if adults voluntarily limit their use of power. If they don't want to play by the rules set by the youth, they can go back to the rest of the world, where adults are in charge.
Adults don't have a right to be involved in Youth Liberation work... It is a privilege to be allowed to assist in youths' movement.
IV. GUIDELINES FOR ADULT ALLIES
The essence of being an adult ally is to let youth leaders make all the decisions, and to support their choices with your time, sweat, and money. It's generally valid to offer a service if the youth are free to turn it down -- and anything goes if the youth specifically ask it of you -- but otherwise, you should be vigilant about not determining the direction that a youth group takes. Toward that goal, here's a list suggesting practical ways in which you can limit your influence...
1. Let youth decide if you're an ally.
Aspire to be helpful to youth, but be agnostic about your success. It should be up to youth to decide whether or not you're actually their friend. One way to support this is by saying that you're "pro" youth liberation, rather than a youth liberationist yourself.
2. Limit how long and how often you speak in discussions.
When there are group discussions, pay attention to how often the adults are talking. If the adults are talking too much, you may need to let go of the really-important-thing that you want to say. If you have a piece of paper in front of you, it can be useful to keep a running count: How many adult comments? How many youth comments?
3. Don't vote.
If you're invited to participate in a discussion, then feel free to share your opinions. But when it comes time for a real decision, gracefully bow out, and let the youth alone cast their votes.
4. Encourage post-discussion processing time.
It's a good practice to set aside a period of time after regular meetings for processing. One of my favorite formats is to give oppressed minorities (youth, people of color, queers, etc.) time to talk about anything that felt oppressive during the meeting; members of the majority group listen without responding. The point is not to punish any particular individual, but to educate the group about the everyday "stings" that go unnoticed.
5. Don't be in charge of the group's money, space, or resources.
There may be practical reasons why this is not possible. Still, if you can pull it off, make sure that the youth have keys to the building, the financial records, constant access to the photocopier and paper supply, etc.
6. Don't get paid.
Money that goes to you is money being kept out of the hands of youth. If the youth group is associated with a drop-in center, there may be legal reasons why there must be an adult staff person. In an ideal world, the youth center would sever itself from any "parent" service providers, thus allowing it to restructure. Do what you can to make sure that there are paid youth staff positions.
7. Don't get in front of TV cameras.
Avoid presenting the appearance that you're in charge of the youth in the group. Make certain that youth get to be their own spokespersons. If a reporter wants to talk to you, refer them to a youth instead.
8. Be cautious about participating in panels on Youth Liberation.
The facilitator has the appearance of being in power. Avoid being a facilitator -- or if the youth ask you, then be sure to make the audience understand that you are serving, not leading. If adults invite you to speak on a panel about youth, find an actual youth to do it instead.
9. "Nothing about us without us."
If you're talking with other adults about hosting a conference on youth-related topics, or if you are considering responding to a political issue that affects youth, don't even start the work until youth are at the table to give their input.
V. THE HEART AND SOUL OF AN ALLY
It's challenging to just be supportive about an issue that you really care about. You have to let go of a lot of ego and humble yourself. I want to conclude with some thoughts about the emotional aspects of trying to be an ally...
Don't invest yourself in being "one of the good ones". Instead of thinking that you have nothing in common with adult supremacists, "those monsters", look for the ghost of their beliefs in yourself. If you can talk about what you still find yourself struggling with, it makes you better able to bring other adults toward the light.
Accept that you're going to accidentally say and do adultist things. We've all absorbed adultist thinking, and will almost inevitably hurt / offend someone without realizing it. If you want to believe that you never do wrong, then it's likely that you're going to be defensive -- which makes you a more dangerous person for youth to confront. Instead of being the person who never makes mistakes, invest your self-esteem in being the person who takes criticism well, and really follows through when they say they'll change.
Invite criticism. It's through being confronted about oppressive behavior that we learn to be better. Criticism is a gift; appreciate how scary it is to confront someone, how much courage and caring it takes to try to deal with the person that hurt / offended you. Do whatever you can to let people know that you welcome feedback about how you're doing as an ally.
Listen, even when the person who's confronting you is angry. It's unfair to ask oppressed persons to just put aside their anger when they've been hurt, to only listen if they're going to be calm and nice. If you can learn to listen to angry criticism, you have much greater opportunities to learn. Personally, I try to even listen through criticism that has swearing and name-calling (if it's coming from oppressed person). So long as I'm not physically endangered, so long as I can leave whenever I want, I try to set my standard for "verbal abuse" high. The more I can sit through, the more I can learn, the deeper the wounds that may be able to be healed.
Be prepared to lose arguments. When I'm in a discussion with a circle of youth, I can feel pretty passionately that my opinions are correct. I have to keep reminding myself that the decisions are theirs to make. Maybe their decisions will mean that the group folds. I have to be OK with that too. Youth get to choose, even if (in my opinion) they choose wrongly. And -- who knows? -- maybe I'll discover that I was wrong, and that there's more than one way to get Youth Liberation done.
-- END --
July 10, 2003
Three Types of Youth Liberation: Youth Equality, Youth Power, Youth Culture
In this essay, I'm going to talk a bit about three different philosophies of Youth Liberation, problems that are likely to arise between them, and how each is basically responding to a different (and important) aspect of adultism.
I. THREE FLAVORS OF YOUTH LIBERATION
There are lots of different ways to approach Youth Liberation. However, I think three particular philosophies (flavors if you will) are bound to manifest within the movement: youth equality, youth power, and youth culture. I'll characterize them briefly.
1. "Youth equality" activists tend to explain adultism in terms of stereotypes and discrimination. Adults harm youth because they have bad ideas about them; adults fail to see shared humanity. Solutions may involve questioning double-standards, or trying to be "age-blind", living without assumptions.
2. "Youth power" activists tend to explain adultism in terms of the history of youth being treated like human property. Adults unjustly claim the right to command young people's obedience. Liberation projects might include taking away adults' right to spank, changing the power structure in schools, winning the vote.
3. "Youth culture" (or "youthcentrist") activists tend to think about adultism in terms of adult repression of youth culture. Young people have their own ways of being: e.g. playful, dyed hair, music choices, swearing, etc. Liberation involves embracing youth culture and creating alternative spaces where it can flourish, like free-schools and recreation centers.
II. "EQUALITY" / "POWER" / "CULTURE" IN OTHER MOVEMENTS
I think these three philosophies are guaranteed to manifest within the Youth Liberation movement because they've manifested in other movements: feminism, black civil rights, and queer activism, for instance. I'll take a moment to show the similarities.
Feminism: In the second wave of feminism (feminism since 1970), the "equality" perspective is embodied by women concerned with androgyny, challenging stereotypes about what women "are like", joining traditionally male professions, and the Equal Rights Amendment. ...The "power" perspective has been promoted most strongly by the battered women's movement. They talk about violence as a means of control, the history of marriage as a transfer of human property from a father to the new husband, and the fact that we've yet to have a female president. ...The "culture" perspective has focused on communes and women-only gatherings (e.g. the Michigan Women's Festival) and revaluing women's supposedly natural qualities (e.g. nurturing, mothering, empathy).
Black civil rights: The "equality" perspective, again, is characterized by a focus on stereotypes, discrimination, and aspiring to be "color-blind". The "power" perspective focuses on the history of slavery, unjust laws, and organizing political pressure (like the Montgomery bus boycott). The "culture" perspective, or "afrocentrism", deals with things like discovering your family's original pre-slavery names, embracing African music and spirituality, reclaiming kinky hair as beautiful, etc.
Queer activism: The "equality" perspective promotes the idea that "we're just like you [heterosexuals]", in every way except choice of partner. The "power" perspective focuses on the ways in which gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, transgendered, intersexed people and other sexual minorities have been forcibly kept down and harmed: queer-bashing, anti-sodomy laws, preemptive laws against same-sex marriage, religious leaders calling us "abnormal and perverse". "Culture" -oriented activists focus on community events like Pride marches, reclaiming closeted historical figures, and creating queer safe zones.
III. PREDICTABLE CONFLICTS WITHIN THE MOVEMENT
I wanted to really spell out how the Equality / Power / Culture philosophies manifest in each of these movements so I could make my next point more forcefully: there's always tension within a movement between people with different emphases. It's predictable, because beginning from their different starting points, activists develop these ideas to their logical -- and mutually exclusive -- conclusions. Three predictable conflicts strike me as particularly common in all these movements: bridge-building vs. confrontation, partnership vs. separatism, and assimilation vs. cultural pride.
Bridge-Building vs. Confrontation: Youth "equality" activists may want to reveal our shared humanity by developing personal friendships with adults. Youth "power" activists on the other hand, may favor a more confrontational style, letting authentic anger convey the harm that particular adults are doing. The "power" activists can end up feeling that the "equality" activists are cozying up with the enemy -- whereas the "equality" activists feel like the others are alienating potential allies.
Partnership vs. Separatism: "Equality" activists are likely to favor organizations that have both adult and youth members, all with equal votes; it's in sync with the ideal of adults and youth working well together. "Culture" activists are likely to favor youth-only spaces, where they can celebrate youth-identified values, qualities, and activities without interruption. "Equality" activists may see youth-only space as discriminatory against adults; "culture" activists may sense that adults' presence restrains youth from being as radical as they would otherwise choose to be. ["Power activists" may go either way, seeing the usefulness of adults' resources, but also the danger of adults asserting too much control.]
Assimilation vs. Cultural Pride: This conflict usually comes up when there's an opportunity to be in front of TV cameras. "Culture" activists will probably want to be as much themselves in front of the camera as possible, showing pride in looking like a youth rather than changing how they look to be accepted. "Equality" activists seem to have an interest in presenting an impression of maturity, responsibility, etc.; this grows out of the idea that the best qualities in adults and youth are the same, and have nothing to do with age. "Power" activists may go either way; there's also, though, an appreciation of the respect that a suit and tie garners. Obviously, each vying to promote their own version of what youth are like, conflict is going to arise.
IV. THE LOGIC BEHIND THESE THREE CATEGORIES
Personally, I have a fairly strong bias towards the youth power variety of Youth Liberation. However, I think that all three approaches to YL have their own value; each addresses part of the truth about what adultism is. So, while I'm interested in making sure that youth power gets at least a fair hearing, I want to avoid arguments about which is the one and only true path.
I think the reason why "equality", "power", and "culture" forms of activism appear in multiple movements -- along with the accompanying conflicts -- is because these categories say something important about the structure of oppression in general. That is, these aren't artificial categories that I'm identifying -- they are intimately rooted in the nature of the problem.
Adultism (like racism, sexism, etc.) is a very broad and general word. It encompasses lots of different injustices and social dynamics. It's just a way of pointing at a collection of phenomena; in itself, it doesn't say why those phenomena exist. To have a more sophisticated discussion about adultism, you need to create new vocabulary. In my opinion, three of the more important terms that you can add to your vocabulary are age dualism, adultarchy, and adultcentrism.
Age Dualism: The tendency to emphasize (and exaggerate) how different youth and adults are. Examples: ...The ways in which clothing, television, breakfast cereals, music, and everything else, is divided into "adult stuff" or "kids' stuff". ...In the wake of the Columbine massacre, a fair number of news stories ran about the science of how teens' brains are different from those of adults.
Adultarchy: A system of government in which people are divided into adults and youth, and power is vested exclusively in the hands of the adults. [You need to name a thing in order to begin imagining its alternative!] ...It's the way that federal, state, county, and city governments' charters are drawn up. ...It's the way that public schools and private families are structured.
Adultcentrism: The view that adults are the standard, "normal" human being; youth are seen deviations from the norm, their differences typically being interpreted as flaws. For instance: ...The word "human" evokes the mental image of an adult -- you need to specify if you are talking about a youth. ...The field of "psychology" deals with adults; the study of young people is qualified as "developmental" psychology. ...Stairs, light switches, buses, toilets, the international symbols for "men" and "women" on bathroom doors -- are all designed with adults in mind.
It seems to me that "equality", "power", and "culture" activists each address one of these dynamics -- I mean predominantly, not exclusively. "Equality" tends to deal with age dualism. "Power" tends to deal with adultarchy. "Culture" tends to deal with adultcentrism.
V. THE OPPRESSION TRIANGLE
Some time ago, I developed an educational tool for describing how these dynamics of adultism interrelate with each other. I call it the "oppression triangle".
Imagine that you're looking at a piece of graph paper, with a horizontal X-axis and a vertical Y-axis drawn on it. Now imagine that you're holding two boxes, one labeled "adults", and the other labeled "youth". Put both boxes on the very center of your grid, where the two axes meet.
When adults make a big deal about youth being different from themselves, it's like youth are being pushed away. Adults are distancing (dissociating) themselves from youth. So, let's push the "youth" box away from the "adult box", horizontally along the Y-axis. This represents age dualism.
When adults claim power over youth, or say something bad about youth to justify the power-grab, it feels like they're putting youth "down". So, now lets move the "youth" box downward on the graph. This represents both the practice of adultarchy, and the supporting ideology of adult supremacism.
So, now we have "adults" sitting there in the center of the graph, and "youth" over to the right and below. It's sort of like adults are at the center of the universe. Adultcentrism, which is kind of a combination of dualism and adultarchy, is represented by the diagonal distance from the center point over and down to where the "youth" box sits now.
Draw a horizontal line from the center to where we first pushed the "youth" box to, a vertical line down from there, and then a diagonal line back to the start, and you have yourself a triangle. ...It's hard to do the model justice without actually drawing it, but to me it does a nice job of showing how three dynamics work together, in a way that makes intuitive sense.
I suggest that it's useful to identify three flavors of youth liberation activism: youth equality, youth power, and youth culture.
I see "equality", "power", and "culture" as flavors of activism that appear in other movements. I used feminism, black civil rights, and queer activism to demonstrate the point.
It's useful to think about the greater youth liberation movement in terms of these flavors because it lets you predict and facilitate your way through conflicts that are likely to arise.
I argue against trying to pick one flavor as the "right" way by showing that each addresses an important dynamic of adultism.
I concluded by offering a model, "the oppression triangle", that I find useful for conceptualizing how the three dynamics relate to each other.
-- END --
July 8, 2003
Posted by Sven at 12:40 PM