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October 22, 2005

Exploration: Difference - Accommodating the "Average" Human Being vs. "Normal Variations"

I want to suggest an alternate way of conceptualizing age and difference.


One way of conceptualizing age differences, the current way, is to think of adults as "normal", the average or standard human being. The Youth Equality (AKA "Youth Rights") movement accepts this premise. Their argument is that youth and adults should be treated as equals. The problem, then, becomes one of minimizing the differences between youth and adults.

How do we do this? Rhetorically, there are just a few ways to go.

(1) You can argue that youth are underestimated -- that youth in general are more competent, intelligent, and responsible than they have been given credit for. You can draw upon anecdotal evidence, or you can appeal to scientific studies (such as those of Mike Males).

(2) You can point to youth prodigies. The argument could be that prodigies represent what most youth would become if they weren't oppressed. Or, on the other hand, the argument could be that we must remove oppression because it would wrong to stand in the way of prodigies, even if there are few of them. That is, punishing the exceptional few for the failings of the many is wrong. [John Stuart Mills used a strategy like this to argue for the equality of men and women in his book "The Subjection of Women" (1869).]

(3) You can point to the flaws of adults -- their stupidity, cruelty, and misbehavior -- and argue that youth are at least no worse. It's hubris on the part of adults to deny youth rights; the burden is upon them to prove that youth should be excluded -- and the burden of proof has not been met.

(4) You can argue that certain rights are innate, regardless of qualification. For example: adults can believe that the earth is flat and still vote -- there's no IQ test to vote -- that's because it's meant to be a right that one possesses simply for being a participant in society.


The "average" human being isn't necessarily so average. The U.S. began with the notion that only white, adult, wealthy, heterosexual men should enjoy the full privileges of citizenship. Rights have been extended to more and more groups -- but we continue to imagine those men as the standard people, whom all others deviate from.

This thinking gets expressed in some very practical ways. Let's consider differences between men and women for a moment... Light switches are placed at a height on the wall that is based on the average man's height. In medicine, for a long time (this may have changed by now), the "average" body temperature was based on men rather than women. While not all women are pregnant, nearly all women have the potential -- yet, this is seen as a mark against them in a male-dominated workplace -- rather than as an aspect of life that is simply accepted and accommodated.

It seems to me that rather than imagining the fixed characteristics of a single, average person, we should carefully consider the variables inherent in the human condition, and then construct society so that a range of differences are all considered "normal". [I'm supposing that we are able to build society anew, which isn't possible -- but this is a useful perspective if we are interested in transforming what-is into what-could-be.]

...In a village that is struggling for survival, in which all the townsfolk may starve come winter if adequate food is not stored away, it is understandable that the weak may be cut off. But we do not live in that village. We have wealth and abundance in the U.S., and if people starve, it is largely due to how wealth is distributed -- concentrated into the hands of the few. Transforming society to one that is more just, then, has a great deal to do with redistribution of resources...

This is a fairly traditional Marxist line of argument -- but here I want to diverge somewhat. I want to bring in the key concept of "accommodation". I want to say that if our society is not in a state of desperate poverty, then surplus should be dedicated first to re-shaping institutions to be inclusive of the needy -- not simply redistributed among the totality, as if all people are identical. [I may be doing an unfairness to Marxism here. There is that principle of "each according to their need"... But I want to get very specific here about what needs we are dealing with. And I am not arguing for an abolition of capitalism -- merely setting limits on how much one person is permitted to take for themselves, meanwhile taking away from the rest of society.]


As a thought experiment, can we construct an adult who is in all ways except appearance a facsimile of a young child? My sense is that if we do so, we will be better able to get a grasp of what variables society must provide for -- what variations among human beings must be considered "normal", and be accommodated for.

I also want to take this route because I believe we must be vigilant about how we imagine difference. We must continually compare different groups against one another in order to ensure that we are not inventing "false otherness".

...For instance, men in the U.S. during certain periods have imagined women as being more morally virtuous, more poetic, irrational -- yet, in other countries women are viewed as the more pragmatic sex, and the notion that women are irrational has fallen into disrepute, and the idea that women are inherently more noble is quickly slipping away.

...Along these lines, I reject the notion that youth are uniquely zestful, playful, energetic, irresponsible. There may be subcultures among youth that embody these qualities -- but to posit that they are part of youth's essential nature is a case of "false otherness".

That all said, here is the meat of the essay -- constructing an adult that is philosophically identical to a young child:

(1) dwarf

Let's get this one out of the way. There are adults who are very short. The wikipedia entry for the word "midget" says everything I would want to:

"In the 19th century, midget was a medical term referring to an extremely short but normally-proportioned person (e.g., with growth hormone deficiency), and was used in contrast to dwarf, which denoted disproportionate shortness. Like many other older medical terms, as it became part of popular language, it was usually used in a pejorative sense. When applied to a person who is extremely short, midget is now considered derogatory. The word dwarf has generally replaced midget even for proportionally short people, and the term little person is also sometimes used. According to the Little People of America, the human definition of this term is stated as such 'a medical or genetic condition that usually results in an adult height of 4'10" or shorter, among both men and women, although in some cases a person with a dwarfing condition may be slightly taller than that.'"

Building a society that accommodates the needs of little people (e.g. lower light switches, easily opened doors, lower urinals, etc.) will also benefit youth.

(2) impoverished

A young person is born without (a) home, (b) money, (c) clothes, (d) food. In these respects, a young person is essentially impoverished -- even homeless. Creating a social safety net that deals with needs of the extremely poor would also benefit youth.

(3) immigrant, non-English-speaking

Youth are much like newly arrived immigrants from an alien culture, who don't understand the culture or know how to navigate its institutions. Learning to survive here requires an orientation to American customs and systems. Like adults for whom English is a second language, youth are born without the ability to articulate themselves -- though they quickly gain the ability to conduct at least basic communications. [Being born to parents might be likened to being brought to America by a host family, as an exchange student.]

(4) disability

There are many forms of disability. One can lack a sense, such as sight or hearing -- this is not the case for most youth. One can have limited mobility, e.g. needing a wheel chair -- or lack motor control to the extent that a full-time care-giver is required. This is the case of the newborn or the toddler.

There are also a variety of mental disabilities -- these are a thornier issue. It's more difficult (for me at least) to sort out how society ought to accommodate adults with mental disabilities -- but looking at how competency is tested, and how care-givers maximize independence is an intriguing starting place for further research. There are impulse-control disorders, "developmental disorders" that impair reasoning, and other mental issues that lead to what we understand as incompetence. ...What humane options for dealing with incompetency among adults have been developed? ...And how can one ever prove one's competency once the label has been applied?

(5) suggestibility

The quality of young people that I'm least able to find an analog for, which is perhaps most uniquely belonging to youth, is their lack of experience. Youth are impressionable / malleable in a way that adults generally aren't simply because they are experiencing things for the first time. As much as I criticize the notion that youth are empty containers just waiting to be filled with knowledge, there is a way in which this is also true -- at least in terms of there being a vulnerability to manipulation. How important is this? I'm not sure.


I feel like I probably should have started with the metaphorical section first, comparing youth to other social groups. It's easy enough to say this: There are few ways in which youth are unique. Youth have common cause with several vulnerable adult populations...

I think I've got a good concept, criticizing the notion of the "average" person and replacing it with a notion of "normal variations". I think "accommodation" is an incredibly key term here -- one that has potential for reshaping the YL dialogue about equality. However, until I have a better sense of how vulnerable adult populations are / should be accommodated, I think my argument is a bit weak.

...I'm also pleased with the concept of "false otherness". I could probably go farther with that.

Hm. I also notice upon re-reading this essay that I didn't talk about variations among human beings that have practical consequences, versus those that are of purely social significance. Skin color, for instance -- apart from the significance that people project upon it, I can't think of any practical difference it creates. Pregnancy, on the other hand, is a prime example of a practical difference with significant consequences. [In the same way that Susan Moller Okins has coined the term "false gender neutrality", I think we could talk about "false age neutrality" -- badly ignoring age differences that do exist.]

Posted by Sven at October 22, 2005 09:26 PM


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