« Fragment: Why "Youth Liberation" instead of "Youth Rights"? | Main | Exploration: Outline for a Youth History of Adult Power »

October 27, 2004

YL Theory: Topic Areas

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

My main interest as a writer is in creating theory that will support Youth Liberation -- both by explaining the problem that it seeks to redress, and by talking about how to organize activist efforts. Without even discussing specific campaigns (e.g. winning the vote, ending curfews, discouraging spanking, etc.), there are several books worth of material here. In this essay I will try to identify the main topic areas that I believe YL theory should address, and show how they are interrelated.

I. The Blueprint of Adults’ Oppression

There is a history of adults treating youth as property; it continues on into the present day. This is not right. Youth are persons -- no one’s property but their own.

Treating a person as property means thinking that one has the absolute right to control them. With regards to the relationship between parents and children, there is an initial, inevitable power imbalance due to biology. However, that power imbalance is maintained for an artificially long time, and is taken to unnatural extremes. A hierarchical relationship is presumed to exist between any adult and any minor: the adult is entitled to command as they see fit, the youth is expected to respectfully obey without question.

Topic #1: Youth as Property
What is the history of adults treating youth as property? In what ways are youth still treated like property today? What strategies do parents use to maintain control of their human property? How does adult government legitimize parents’ property rights? How do parents and the government conflict over ownership of youth?

Minors’ place in civil society is modeled after the relationship between parents and their children. Youth are excluded from formal decision making processes (e.g. voting and control of the public school system); adult citizens (or their governmental representatives) are entitled to make laws governing youth as they see fit. Given that there is a biological and chronological continuum between childhood and adulthood, this raises questions about who should be recognized as an actual “adult”.

Topic #2: Age Lines
What is the line between childhood and adulthood? What are different strategies for defining adulthood? [e.g. a biology, law, psychological development, personal character] How is adulthood like a membership organization? What is the history of the concept of “adulthood” and the creation of “adults” as a legal group? What commonalities bind youth together as a group?

Why do adults treat youth as property? The answer is simple: because it benefits them. Benefit may be in the form of financial gain -- but mainly it’s simply a matter of convenience and getting to have things the way that one wants. Treating youth as actual persons means not always getting what you want; it can be inconvenient. But that does not mean that it can’t, or shouldn’t be done.

Adults have a great many rationalizations for why it’s right to treat youth as they do. Adult controlled media generates propaganda suggesting that it’s more important than ever to maintain control over youth. While it’s worthwhile to examine and debunk these arguments, they should not be misinterpreted as adults’ true reasons for acting as property owners.

Topic #3: Adult Supremacism
How do adults rationalize treating youth as property? How are youth portrayed as flawed beings? How do adults argue their own superiority? How do parents understand their entitlement / obligation to guide-supervise-protect-control? How are youth seen as incompetent to participate as citizens? How does the media portray youth as a problem people, with troubling trends, a group that is getting progressively worse? What fears does the prospect of Youth Liberation raise?

II. From Property to Personhood... to Power

Youth Liberation is a subcategory of Children’s Rights work, distinguished foremost by the belief that youth should have access to the vote and by the involvement of actual youth in activist efforts. There are several branches of thought within Youth Liberation. I am a proponent of what might be called the “Youth Power” variety, which emphasizes the importance of youth gaining power -- as opposed to equal treatment, or an independent youth culture.

Topic #4: Varieties of Youth Liberation
How does Youth Liberation differ from the Children’s Rights movement? Within Youth Liberation, what major ideological differences exist? Why “liberation” rather than “rights”? What agenda points are widely agreed upon? What is the history of youth-led, anti-adultism activism?

The guiding principle of “Youth Power” YL is this: youth should be able to remove themselves from harmful situations under their own power. The ability to leave a situation at will is “exit freedom”; from a youth perspective, it is a matter of self-defense. Manifesting this principle of exit freedom throughout society will require changing many laws and institutions. For instance:

  • youth should be able to voluntarily “divorce” their parents, either then becoming emancipated or attached to foster parents;
  • youths’ ability to leave home in an emergency should be supported by an infrastructure of public services (public transit, shelters / hostels, free medical care);
  • to lessen financial dependence on potentially abusive parents, youth should be able to access welfare;
  • youth should be able to leave a school where they are being tormented by peers or abused by teachers;
  • youth should have the power to improve their educational experience, either through participating in hiring / firing / funding / curriculum decisions, or by pursuing self-directed learning at home (“unschooling”);
  • youth should work to remove themselves from harm collectively by lobbying legislators now, and ultimately by winning the right to vote in federal, state, and local elections.

In addition to legal change, YL must pursue cultural changes in our society. We must be concerned with countering anti-youth propaganda -- however, we must pay at least as much attention to how adults see themselves, as to how they see youth.

The adults who oppress youth now, were once youth themselves. Many minors never truly think of themselves as youth; rather, they are always intent on associating themselves with the prestige of adulthood. Instead of standing in solidarity with other youth, they try to dissociate themselves from the group. The “adulthood” that they are ultimately passively granted by law is seemingly contingent upon having become a superior being and joining the societal effort to control younger folk.

In place of this vision of adulthood, YL promotes the notion of “ageless being” -- which strives to see the humanity in beings of all ages, is encouraging of their efforts at self-determination, and assumes a humbleness regarding one’s own competence.

Topic #5: Age Identity
If youth are oppressed, why do they go on to become adult oppressors? What strategies do youth use to dissociate themselves from childhood, to gain social status? What’s wrong with treating “maturity” as a virtue? How can an adult be a “conscientious objector” to adulthood? What is the vision of “ageless being”?

III. The Practical Work of Movement-Building

The activist work of building exit freedom into the family, schools, and government will ideally proceed with the help of supportive adults. However, even “enlightened” adults should not be entrusted to protect youth in the total absence of input from youth. Because YL is concerned with youths’ control of their lives, its method for bringing about social change should involve activists who are youth themselves. The YL movement must always be concerned with cooptation by well-meaning, yet oppressive adult leadership.

Topic #6: Working Inside YL Organizations
What criteria determine whether or not an organization is doing Youth Liberation work? What are the arguments for a “by youth, for youth” organization? What are the proper roles for adults, “tweens”, and youth in the YL movement? What are common ways in which adults take over youth organizations? What principles should adult allies observe when working with youth activists? What processes can help deal with adultism when it emerges within a YL organization? How can one identify cooptation?

Youth Liberation’s allies may come from outside of the movement, that is, from within other liberation movements. Adultism is an oppression; it has commonalities with other oppressions, such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, anti-semitism, ableism, and ageism. I promote the notion that YL activists should both seek the help of other progressive movements, and themselves lend assistance when possible.

Topic #7: Adultism as an Oppression
What criteria define an “oppression”? How is “oppression” commonly misunderstood? What is the root cause of adults’ oppression? In what ways is adultism different from other oppressions? What does adultism have in common with the oppressions of other groups? [particularly women and blacks] Why use the word “adultism” rather than “ageism”? How can YL activists build partnerships with other movements? Why should other progressive movements be interested in Youth Liberation?

IV. Specific Campaigns

In this essay I’ve attempted to identify the broad topic areas that should be of interest to YL theory. I believe that these areas set the stage for understanding the problem of adultism, and for designing activism to fight it. What is notably lacking in this essay is a discussion of specific campaign issues.

The reason for this is that I expect strategies for any particular issue to be somewhat different depending upon what locality an activist is working in. Also, it seems to me that while there will be consensus among YL activists on many issues, the principles of YL may lead to differing conclusions when applied at different times. For instance, YL activists will likely always agree that youth should be able to vote -- but whether or not school uniforms are appropriate may be an issue that depends upon how badly factionalism is hurting a particular population of students.

I may or may not address specific campaigns in the future. I encourage other authors to apply the frameworks I have developed to these issues. I leave you with a partial list of issues deserving consideration (and activism):

  • non-oppressive parenting styles
  • right to “divorce” one’s parents
  • access to welfare
  • treating violence against minors as assault, rather than “discipline”
  • giving teens reasons to trust that child protection services will give them more control over their lives, not less
  • school: getting to vote in hiring, firing, funding, and curriculum decisions
  • ending nighttime and daytime curfews
  • winning the right to vote in federal, state, and local elections
  • drivers’ licenses already require a test; eliminate the age requirement
  • vice law: smoking, drinking, porn -- an appropriate stance?
  • design “age of consent” laws that are neither based on artificial numbers, nor leave youth at the mercy of adult predators

Posted by Sven at October 27, 2004 12:00 PM