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October 12, 2005

Fragment: Limits of the "Civil Rights" Model

This is an unfinished essay that I was working on two years ago. The document appears to have been begun on August 4, 2003 -- and was last updated on August 6, 2003. I was intending to send this to the "YouthRightsLeaders" email list, but got sidetracked. I remember putting a fair amount of work into this one, so I wanted to save it from the dustbin of history -- put it into my official log of essays. I'll be leaving it essentially as-is, including a bunch of notes and alternate paragraphs at the bottom. -- Sven, 10.12.05


Since the emergence of modern Youth Liberation thinking in the early 1970s, the movement has largely worked within a "civil rights" model. Winning civil rights is an important part of fighting adultism -- but it is only one piece of the picture. Adult oppression also manifests on an interpersonal level, which is difficult (if not impossible) to address by just changing the law.

Organizations that focus on legal struggle are vital to the movement. However, at times they seem to suggest that rights are all that is needed for Youth Liberation. For the well-being of the movement, it's important that they come to understand the limits of the "civil rights" model.


The "civil rights model" is a set of beliefs about the nature of justice, and how to go about fighting injustice. It is common within most minority movements, and particularly within Youth Liberation. I will try to summarize the key ideas:

* The "civil rights model" grows out of ideas found in The Declaration of Independence: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness".

* The word "Men", as originally defined, was understood too narrowly. Today, we would replace it with the word "people". The work of broadening inclusion in "Men" is ongoing. Much progress has been made toward including blacks and women -- now youth should be included in the vision of justice as well.

* We live in a society of laws. Justice requires that all people should be treated the same under those laws.

* Any law that does not treat youth as "equal" to adults, is unjust. The struggle for justice is a matter of rewriting civil rights laws to include youth, one law at a time.

* On an individual level, the injustice of treating someone unequally is called "discrimination".

* Because the equality of human beings should be "self-evident", we explain discrimination primarily as a result of misconceptions, "stereotypes". [Note: this use of the word "stereotype" differs from how psychologists understand the term.]

* Public education is an effective means of fighting discrimination. After their stereotypes have been debunked, most people will stop treating youth unjustly.

* While not universal, there's a common sense that progress is inevitable -- the truth will finally become "self-evident" to all.


The influence of our nation's founding documents on Youth Liberation is fairly obvious. Richard Farson, John Holt, and Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor -- arguably the founders of modern Youth Liberation -- each presented their visions of change in a "bill of rights" format.

Today, 30 years after the publication of Youth Liberation's seminal works, the "civil rights" model remains strong. Consider this passage from a National Youth Rights Association statement titled "What is Youth Rights" (Resolution 00-L):

"The organization deals only with civil rights -- freedom from oppression or discrimination by government, business or other powers -- rather than entitlement rights. We do not deal with issues like the quality of education or health care young people receive."

It seems to me that the "civil rights" model dominates the movement. This is worrisome. There are aspects of oppression and aspects of Justice work that the model addresses only poorly. I will proceed to examine its faults under the following four section headings:

  • Rights alone are not enough
  • Issues of respect and dignity
  • The motive behind adultism
  • Justice takes constant effort


Getting a moral right turned into a legal right is only a first step toward justice -- not the final achievement of equality. Besides the law itself, at least three other issues are important: enforcement, the complaint process, and defense against the law being overturned.

Without enforcement, a law is just a piece of paper. Suppose you go to a restaurant, and then the owner throws you out just because you are young, thus violating your right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of age. The existence of that right is going to be meaningless unless there is some agency to contact, that will investigate your case and make a judgment about whether or not the owner is guilty. But then, what good is a judgment if there isn't also a punishment -- a fine or imprisonment? The owner still gets away with their crime unless there are police and a prison system to back up the adjudicating agency's decision with force.

Even if all of the necessary government agencies are in place -- and they're adequately staffed and funded -- it still won't do a young person much good if they don't know that they have a right, and how to navigate through the complaint process. Very few victims of discrimination actually decide to pursue justice; even fewer have the necessary documentation to demonstrate that they have a case; of those, only a minority actually win their case and get some form of reparations -- and the process may take months or years to complete. It's important that these laws do exist; but they don't seem to be a very efficient means of combating wrongful behavior...

If a good pro-youth bill is passed into law, that's not necessarily the end of the story. Laws get repealed, or their effectiveness is eroded away over time by opponents' amendments. Abortion rights are a good case in point. Thirty years after the Roe v. Wade decision, abortion opponents continue the fight for repeal. They've created many legal exceptions (e.g. requiring parental consent for minors), and made it more difficult to access the services that are permitted (by intimidating doctors, so that few are now willing to provide the service). Youth rights activists should anticipate continuing legal opposition, even in the afterglow of a legal victory.

From its writings, the current Youth Liberation movement seems unaware of these issues. As much as winning new rights, I think we need to be concerned with making sure that enforcement agencies are willing to prosecute age discrimination cases, and making sure that these agencies are adequately staffed and funded for the job. We need to put a great deal of effort into educating youth about what their rights are, how to document a case of discrimination, who to contact, and how to navigate through the complaint process. Finally, we need to recognize that youth rights are going to remain controversial for some time to come. If we win new rights, we need to be prepared to defend our victories.


Not all injustices can be dealt with by law. The law can prohibit (or license) activities like voting, driving, drinking, and marriage. It's equipped to address harms that can be easily documented: like being fired from a job, or struck in a way that leaves bruises, broken bones. What it cannot easily deal with is subjective feelings.

One of the main ways that youth suffer at the hands of adults is by constantly being disrespected and denied dignity. The law protects essentially all of this behavior as "free speech" -- but a youth movement that ignores it is failing to deal with some of the issues that "sting" youth most of all.

In the public domain, we see defamation of youth in news coverage, TV sitcoms, magazines, and movies. Youth are commonly portrayed as fundamentally flawed beings: stupid, reckless, dangerous to themselves and others, laughable for their foibles, lamentable in their tastes.

Interacting on a personal level, parents' and teachers' attitudes toward youth often range from belittling to punitive. Being in a position of authority, these adults feel that they are entitled / obligated to stand in judgment of youth -- freely expressing their disapproval, doling out lectures, and attempting to coerce the youth to their will. While so sensitive to rudeness from youth, most adults seem entirely blind to their own disrespectful behavior.

Among themselves (or even in the presence of youth), many adults feel free express their naked bigotry toward youth: ridiculing youth culture (e.g. dyed hair, piercings, music), commiserating about how awful their own children are, joking about how "we should be able to lock them up until they're 18".

Most youth are used to the idea of not having civil rights. The fact that they won't be able to vote or apply for a driver's license until a certain age can recede to the back of their minds; disrespect, however, is not so easy to forget. It's perhaps the aspect of adultism that most impacts upon quality of life. It is a major failing of the "civil rights" model that it is unable to meaningfully address these issues.


To fully understand adultism in the U.S., we need to look at the history of how adults have treated youth...

At the beginning of the 20th century (and before), youth were viewed as the property of their parents. Like animals or slaves, much of youths' value was as exploitable farm labor. Just as the owner of a mule or the owner of a slave could inflict pain to discipline their possessions, so too have parents been entitled to use corporal punishment on their children. Strides have been made toward treating young people better, but vestiges of youth-as-property remain visible today in laws that prohibit running away, and in the description of legal independence as "emancipation".

The essence of treating youth as property is this idea: that adults should command, youth should obey. Government, schools, the family -- in almost every institution where adults and youth interact, we see the "command / obey" relationship manifested. I believe it is the fundamental dynamic of adultism. Adults don't simply have mistaken ideas about youth; they have a stake in adultism -- they personally benefit from being in positions of control (whether or not they realize it).

People working within the "rights" model don't seem to talk much about the actual history of adultism. It could be attributed to optimism: looking forward to a time when youth are full-fledged equal citizens, they see the present as "a glass half-full". The problem I see with this is that it can lead to very inaccurate ideas about adultism. In a future where our utopian bills of rights have all come to pass, then perhaps the nature of adultism could be reduced to "discrimination". However, looking back at the past, it seems absurd to sum up the injustices as "treating youth as if they're different from anyone else". The youth-as-property model of the past has not yet been defeated. Adults still maintain and promote the "adults command / youth obey" relationship as what's natural and necessary. It seems to me that we need to acknowledge this, rather than "discrimination", as our main problem at present.

Being in control, getting your own way, is its own benefit. There are lots of ways to rationalize and justify it. An adult can feel that they have young people's "best interests" at heart, and deserve power because they're better qualified than youth to make decisions. On the other hand, they could justify control by putting youth down, finding (or inventing) all sorts of faults in their character, depicting the latest generation as worse than any before. It seems to me that the best way to describe the negative things adults say about youth, is as a sort of propaganda, meant to justify adult power.

People working within the "rights" model tend to discuss bigotry and defamation in terms of "stereotypes" (or "prejudice"). These are some typical recommendations that I've heard in anti-adultism workshops: avoid ever making generalizations about youth; make no assumptions about a person before you get to know them; avoid "either / or" thinking. ...In themselves, these may or may not be wise ideas. As ways of avoiding adultism, however, they seem to me very much beside the point.

"Rights" model advocates tend to ignore the roots of adultism and adults' personal stake in maintaining control. They act as if "discrimination" has no history (except that it's been going on for some time). They act as if "stereotypes" are just the result of mistaken thinking. If the movement cannot accurately describe the origins and motives of adultism -- its cause -- how can it hope to effectively challenge the problem?


Youth Liberation's founding thinkers described their visions of justice in the form of bills of rights. The format seems to suggest that Justice will be achieved only after all the principles that it describes have been passed into law. Once that's done, Youth Liberation activists will be out a job.

I think this is a false idea. Imagine a time when all the best possible laws have been put into place. Even then, the world will continue changing. Year-in and year-out, there will still be new inventions, new celebrities and politicians, powerful people saying stupid or cruel things, events and public debates that keep newspapers publishing and the six o'clock news on the air. We can do an enormous amount toward eliminating adultism -- but we be trying to "put ourselves out of a job". Youth need to always be prepared to weigh-in on issues. Youth should aim at becoming permanent participants in society's decision-making processes.

I think the bill of rights format also suggests to many people that social change work will be a steady march forward -- that once a point on our agenda is won, we can just move on. As discussed earlier, this is unlikely to be so. Youth Liberation is controversial, and if there are victories, they will have to be defended against erosion or repeal for years to come.

Most of our efforts, however, probably won't be about winning ground. The opponents of Youth Liberation are strong and aggressive. We keep on having to defend against new attacks, exhausting ourselves just to protect the rights that we've got at present. Realistically, the better part of the movement's energies will probably go to this end.


To summarize: As a model for achieving justice, the notion that "all we need is civil rights" is flawed...

* It ignores the need for good enforcement agencies, educating youth about how to use the complaint process, and defending good laws after they've been passed.

* It fails to address bigotry and defamation -- which also hurts youth -- because it is protected as "free speech".

* It ignores the history of youth being treated as property and adults' interest in maintaining the "adults command / youth obey" relationship throughout society.

* ...Consequently, it wrongly identifies "youth being treated differently from other citizens" as young people's main problem, and promotes advice that has little bearing on adultism's real cause.

* It implies that once rights are won, permanent justice will have been achieved.

Winning civil rights is still important -- it's just not the *only* battle that needs to be fought.

Organizations such as NYRA probably shouldn't change their current mission statements. If they are going to work on legal issues, then they'll probably be most effective by keeping their focus narrow -- not trying branch out to address every issue at once. [Even attempting to address all legal issues may be too broad of a focus, to be really effective.]

Youth Rights organizations can shift their perspectives while still working on the same projects. A better model of how to bring about justice can only make the movement stronger. In the following section, I'll discuss what I think is the best alternative to the "rights" model of justice and social change.


[Note: This is as far as I got when I was writing back in 2003. Following this point, it's just notes to myself and alternate paragraphs. -- Sven, 10.12.05]

* Society is made of groups with conflicting points of view.

* Justice is an ongoing process, in which different groups each attempt to negotiate for their own best interests, hoping to arrive at deal that is felt to be fair by everyone involved.

* At various points in history, one group has gained the upper-hand over another, benefiting from an arrangement that is not fair to others. A historical relationship where one group has power over another is defined as "oppression".

* The motive behind oppressive... XXXX is simple self-interest.

* Laws -- along with courts, police, and prison systems -- are tools for asserting control over a population. Whether the laws are fair, or enforced at all, has a great deal to do with what group's members are in positions of power.

Some Children's Rights authors have discussed the historical oppression of youth, using the word "oppression" in a fairly loose, but evocative sense. I mean to use "oppression" here in an almost technical sense, linking these issues to an alternate political framework. Alison Jaggar, in her book "Feminist Politics and Human Nature", explains the difference:

"Earlier feminists used the language of "rights" and "equality," but in the late 1960s "oppression" and "liberation" became the key words for the political activists of the new left. [...] The change in language reflects a significant development in the political perspective of contemporary feminism. [...] [O]ppression is the imposition of unjust constraints on the freedom of individuals or groups. Liberation is the correlate of oppression. It is release from oppressive constraints. [...] Oppression is the *imposition* of constraints; it suggests that the problem is not the result of bad luck, ignorance, or prejudice but is caused rather by one group actively subordinating another group to its own interest. Thus, to talk of oppression seems to commit feminists to a world view that includes at least two groups with conflicting interests: the oppressors and the oppressed. It is a world view, moreover, that strongly suggests that liberation is likely to be achieved by rational debate but instead must be the result of political struggle." (pp. 5-6)

The concept of discrimination is meant to be used in the context of applying laws to the citizenry. It is a stretch to use it in a social context, not treating a person as if they are the same to everyone else. Why do people do so? Stereotypes? Stereotypes are frequently described in incredibly passive terms: bad mental photographs, overgeneralizations, making assumptions before you get to know someone, "either / or" thinking. While some adults may not fully understand their own motives, adultism is motivated.

Why do adults treat youth so badly? I don't find the "rights" model's explanation convincing. It only identifies one form of mistreatment: discrimination. Within it's original context, discrimination means not treating everyone the same under the law. The concept can be stretched to cover social situations, like youth not being treated with respect equal to that of adults -- but it's still not a good fit for all aspects of adultism.

NYRA Mission Statement

"The National Youth Rights Association is dedicated to defending the civil and human rights of young people in the United States. We believe certain basic rights are intrinsic parts of American citizenship and transcend age or status limits. As the world's leading democracy, the United States should not lag behind other nations in granting first-class citizenship to its young people.

"NYRA aims to achieve its goals through educating people about youth rights, working with public officials to devise fitting policy solutions to problems affecting young people and empowering young people to work on their own behalf."

This mission statement was adopted by the NYRA Board of Directors on Tuesday, January 25, 2000.

Posted by Sven at October 12, 2005 10:54 PM


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