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October 07, 2004

Fragment: Why "Youth Liberation" instead of "Youth Rights"?

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 16, 2005]

I'll offer four reasons...

1. In essence, youth are still their parents' property. A person's property doesn't have rights of its own.

At one point, black slaves, women, children, and cattle all had a similar status -- essentially as the property of adult, white, male heads-of-households. Whereas blacks and women have essentially won their freedom (if not full equality), youth have yet to truly move from property to personhood in this country. Notice that guardians have the right to use physical violence to maintain control, and that it is illegal for youth to run away. Youth are tied to their guardian, good or bad, and it is very difficult to sever the tie.

Youth cannot effectively argue for having rights equal to those of all other citizens because they're not even fully recognized as persons yet. The African-American civil rights movement could not happen until decades after the Emancipation Proclamation gave blacks their freedom. Similarly, youth must win their fundamental emancipation before we can treat the notion that "discrimination is wrong" as a given.

2. People who write about rights rarely discuss how to redress wrongs.

Within the Children's Rights and Youth Rights movements, it is common to propose "Bill of Rights"-style documents. These are valuable visions of how things should be. However, in imagining what sort of utopia we are shooting for, authors seldom discuss how to deal with redress of wrongs. Even if the rights we desire become law, they'll be meaningless if we don't have enforcement agencies -- ones that actually do their duty, and that are adequately staffed and funded to deal with their workload.

People talking about Bills of Rights also tend to ignore the nature of this struggle. They often suggest, at least implicitly, that to achieve progress, we just need to keep marching forward. In reality, however, we are on the defensive. Adult supremacists keep on asserting new ways to curtail youth freedoms. We are doing well if we just manage to defeat each new attack as it comes along. Most of the time, our struggle would be best described as a "resistance" movement.

I choose to use the word "Liberation" not because legal rights aren't important -- they are! -- but because this word connects our struggle with an Oppression / Liberation framework. An Op/Lib frame more accurately describes our opponents as an active force, responding to us, and working against our goals. "Liberation" says that to redress wrongs, we have to fight back. Given that forward progress is so difficult, there is less burden to describe our ultimate goals.

[The Op/Lib also gives us a means for connecting with other anti-oppression movements. When adultism is described as an oppression, we can show progressive activists working on racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc. that we have a common cause.]

3. Equality, if that's interpreted as "identical rights" under the law, doesn't make sense for youth.

The Youth Rights movement is a variety of civil rights movement. Civil rights movements in the U.S. draw their power from The Declaration of Independence: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal". They seek equality, which has tended to be interpreted as identical rights under law. The notion that everyone should be treated identically has been problematic for other group (e.g. women re pregnancy, or people with disabilities re physical accommodations) -- it is even more so for youth.

4. To distinguish "by youth, for youth" activism from "children's rights" organizations that are entirely controlled by adults.

Posted by Sven at October 7, 2004 12:00 PM