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October 29, 2005

Hybrid YL Philosophies

In a previous essay I talked about three main varieties of Youth Liberation. In this essay I will talk about a wide variety of Youth Liberation philosophies that can be generated by creating a hybrid of YL and some other school of thought / political movement.


In my essay "Three Types of Youth Liberation: Youth Equality, Youth Power, Youth Culture" (07.30.03) I described what I feel are the most "pure" forms of YL.

YE, YP, & YC each attempt to describe the plight of youth and propose a solution. Three aspects of how they go about doing so contribute to their "purity": (1) Their solutions do not make YL an adjunct of another movement. (2) They claim to address the needs of all youth, rather than just a subset of youth. (3) They are not constrained to a single issue, but rather suggest principles for social change that could, one supposes, be applied to many different issues.

To say that these three philosophies represent YL in its "purest form" does not mean that they are somehow "perfect". Each of them has shortcomings.

None of these three necessarily deals well with the unique issues of girls, youth of color, queer youth, street youth, etc. Consequently, they may all be legitimately criticized for having a bias toward serving straight, white, middle-class, male youth.

Furthermore, for each of these philosophies there are issues that are less easily addressed than others. For instance... Youth Equality, with its emphasis on civil rights, has a difficult time addressing power relationships within the family that aren't legally actionable. Youth Power, with its emphasis on confronting adult authorities, may be a difficult sell to parents and other adults whom we might like to enlist as allies. Youth Culture, by focusing largely on youth getting to express their "true nature" via alternative institutions, lacks motivation to undertake the undesirable (but necessary) work of watchdogging the actions of adult authorities.


In addition to the "pure forms" of YL, a wide variety of hybrid philosophies exist. I will now identify and discuss four categories of these:

  1. YL as an adjunct to another political philosophy
  2. YL as one project of a psychotherapy movement
  3. YL from the point of view of a particular subset of youth
  4. Single-issue activism that furthers YL's cause

1. YL as an adjunct to another political philosophy

There are several political philosophies that have the potential to be friendly to YL. These include:

  • Socialism
  • Anarchism
  • Libertarianism
  • Radical democracy

Each of these political philosophies is defined by the form of national government (or lack thereof) that it would like to exist. Each one has an interest in developing a broad base of support, in order to build the popular movement that would be required to change our current form of government. Toward this end, each potentially has an interest in mobilizing youth to help in the project of social change.

Each of these philosophies has its own analysis of how abuse of power comes to exist -- and thus can make an appeal to youth interested in YL. Socialism sees adult abuse of youth as the result of capitalist interests. Anarchism, with its strong association with anti-police activism, has a natural appeal to youth (especially street youth) who have been persecuted by the police. Libertarianism, with its emphasis on personal freedom and limiting governmental intervention has an appeal to youth who feel that adults have created too many laws regulating their lives. Activists who work to promote and maintain a healthy democracy can recruit youth by talking about the need for "youth voice" in the schools and in society at large.

For the most part, each of these movements does not see adultism as an independent phenomena. They see mistreatment of youth as a function of whatever problem they are already working against: capitalism, organized government itself, overactive government, or democracy that is inadequately inclusive.

A YL that bases itself upon one of these political philosophies is derivative, and maintains at least a psychological tie to the broader movement. In practical terms, it may be valuable to have access to the adult movement's intelligence and physical resources. However, there is also the risk that when there is turn-over in the adult leadership, sympathies will dry up and youth interests will be dropped from the agenda. When YL is merely an adjunct to another movement, you can almost guarantee that it will be a ways down on the priority list.

[Note: I'm tempted to add Liberalism to the list of political philosophies here. By "Liberalism" I do not mean "Democrats", but rather the philosophy created by Locke and others upon which the U.S. was founded. If it were added to the list, then Youth Equality would also have to be seen as a derivative form of YL, rather than as a "pure form". However, my gut sense is that this is not the case...

Because Liberalism represents the form of government that currently exists, there need be no effort to install a new system. If YE subscribes to Liberalism, but Liberalism already exists, then YE is not at risk of merely being an adjunct to an adult social change movement. It seems to me that YE's autonomy as a movement means that it should not be lumped in with these other movements for a change of government.]

2. YL as one project of a psychotherapy movement

I have seen several psychology-based movements pick up Children's Rights as an issue. These include:

  • Re-evaluation Counseling (AKA "Co-counseling")
  • Freudian thinkers
  • Psychohistory

People doing therapy have a natural tendency to become interested in both youth and in social change. When one delves into the psyche, many (if not most) current psychological problems are going to be found to have their origins in childhood. Similarly, when one delves into healing work, there will be times when one discovers that the origins of a problem are not so much in how one interacted with other individuals, but in how society's norms are set up (e.g. racism as a source of mental trauma).

Within the Co-counseling community, there is an active discussion about adultism as one of the oppressions that generate "distress". I cannot prove this, but I see certain buzzwords in the writings of Tony Harris & Jacob Holdt and John Bell that suggest they come out of a Co-counseling background. Alice Miller is a good example of a Freudian thinker advocating for Children's Rights (e.g. "For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence"). For an example of psychohistory, see Lloyd DeMause's classic essay "The Nightmare of Childhood" (collected in "The Children's Rights Movement: Overcoming the Oppression of Young People", eds. Beatrice Gross & Ronald Gross).

One of the troubles with psychotherapy movements is that they are not geared for doing social change work. Their theories may have explanatory power -- but forming activist groups falls outside of the realm of therapy work.

...Is therapy that helps one deal with the psychological consequences of adultism -- but doesn't address the institutions that cause this suffering -- a kind of social change activism? Is an analysis of adultism without a program for social change still YL? In my opinion, the answer to both questions is "no". Nonetheless, the spirit of YL is strong enough within these psychotherapeutic movements that they're worth mentioning as a form of YL hybrid.

3. YL from the point of view of a particular subset of youth

There are several subsets of youth who have a clear history of youth rights activism (that I know about). These include:

  • girls
  • youth of color
  • queer youth
  • street youth

Additionally, I would like to suggest several subgroups of youth that have a strong potential for organizing, based upon the actions of their adult peers and youth-specific issues associated with the identity:
  • youth workers
  • battered youth
  • mentally ill youth
  • youth with disabilities
  • incarcerated youth

When any of these groups of youth organize themselves to address their specific needs, a hybrid-YL group comes into being. These groups may or may not make explicit reference to adultism or Youth Liberation -- but simply by the virtue of being made of youth who are addressing youth-specific issues, they add "topics of interest" to YL's master agenda.

Again, I want to emphasize that being a "pure" YL organization -- one that addresses issues faced by all youth, rather than just a subset -- does not make one superior. A YL movement that addresses only the "pure" issues is failing to care for the needs of a great many youth.

[I'm not sure whether or not to include students in this list. My gut sense says "no", that students belong in the next section, the one about issue-based activism. Perhaps this is because school attendance is nearly universal. School attendance is currently part of what it means to be a typical youth -- going to school puts you in the majority, rather than in a minority.]

4. Single-issue activism that furthers YL's cause

A "pure" YL group tends to have some sort of "Bill of Rights" or laundry list of agenda items that it wants to pursue -- even if it can only practically pursue one issue at a time. To an extent, having that big vision is what really and clearly makes a group Youth Liberationist.

However, having lots of agenda items does not necessarily make one an effective YL organization. Being instead a single-issue group allows focus, and makes it easier to create a coalition of like-minded activists who might not agree on any other points.

Here are a few single-issue projects that might overlap with YL:

  • school reform
  • home-schooling
  • anti-police harassment
  • teen abortion rights
  • prohibiting spanking

Several issues are almost guaranteed to be motivated by a pure Youth Liberation philosophy: the right to vote, eliminating the curfew, lowering the drinking age, etc. With the issues listed above, however, adults and youth may find themselves seeking a common goal, but for different reasons.

For instance... Home-schooling might be an issue of youth escaping the oppressive school environment -- or of parents seizing further control of their children's lives. Anti-police harassment may be about police picking on youth -- but it may also be about how the police treat people of color or the homeless. Teen abortion rights may be approached as an issue impinging upon young women's rights -- or it can be seen as part of protecting all women's rights. School reform and prohibiting spanking can be done for motives that are either liberationist or protectionist.

Deciding whether a particular single-issue campaign should be considered "pure" or "hybrid" may be impossible for an outside observer. If a campaign has described its goal narrowly enough -- that is, in a way that may appeal to many people, without regard to their overarching ideology -- then ideological motives may well be invisible. You'd have to be on the inside of the group, listening to people talk about their personal reasons for being involved, to figure out how to classify it.


To summarize... There are organizations that embody a "pure form" of Youth Liberation. These groups can be recognized in part because they (1) advocate a multi-issue agenda, (2) address issues that are experienced by all youth, and (3) operate independently of adult organizations whose main focus is something other than the needs of youth.

In addition to "pure" YL groups, however, we need to recognize that a variety of "hybrid" organizations exist. In this essay I looked at four types of hybrid:

  1. YL as an adjunct to another political philosophy
  2. YL as one project of a psychotherapy movement
  3. YL from the point of view of a particular subset of youth
  4. Single-issue activism that furthers YL's cause

Being a "pure" Youth Liberation organization should not be viewed as a mark of superiority. In fact, organizations that are single-issue or that work under a "parent" movement may have several advantages: (1) Youth working under a "parent" movement may have better access to resources and training than youth who work independently. (2) Single-issue groups may be better able to mobilize allies when a concrete goal, rather than ideology, is in the spotlight. (3) Activists who work at the intersection of youth and another identity (e.g. female, black, queer) address issues that a more generalist group may fail to notice, find too controversial, or lack direct knowledge about. (4) Working on a single issue allows a group to specialize, to develop their analysis and strategies to a higher degree.

It seems to me that we need both "pure" YL organizations -- which articulate a broad and general vision of social change -- and hybrid organizations, which are well-suited to specialized work. The danger of hybrid philosophies that we must beware of, however, is that the "parent" philosophy may overwhelm YL -- either diverting YL activists to its own cause, or simply jettisoning youth when the adults in charge lose interest in them.

Posted by Sven at October 29, 2005 08:49 PM


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