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December 28, 2003

Objections to calling Adultism an "Oppression"

I'm an advocate of progressive politics. Furthermore, I think that the Youth Liberation movement should invest itself in progressive politics. Toward this end, I think that it is beneficial to describe adultism as an "oppression" -- thus giving common ground with other movements. However, adultism differs from other oppressions in several ways. In this post, I'd like to respond to a few of the objections that might arise if adultism is called an "oppression".

First, however, let me take a momentary aside to explain what I mean by "progressive politics"...

About "Progressive" Politics

"Progressive" is sometimes simply equated with lefty politics.

"Progressive" is sometimes contrasted with "regressive". I think I once heard Howard Zinn (in a lecture I attended) say that progressives want to create a better world by going into the future -- while regressives want to create a better future by returning to the past.

"Progressive" is sometimes used to mean a loose alliance between left-leaning social movements. There is a political philosophy that says oppressions are interconnected, and that the various civil rights / liberation movements should try to help one another.

...The way that I tend to understand this last notion is in terms of "isms": racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, anti-Semitism, nationalism, ableism, ageism, etc. Activists who work on one of these problems (in my opinion) should try to acquire at least a basic understanding of each of the other oppressions. I don't advocate dissolving the separate movements in favor of one "big tent" movement -- each issue needs its own experts. However, there are opportunities to help each other... And simply on principle, if you're angry about being oppressed, it seems like you should make a personal effort to avoid oppressing other groups.

Objections to calling Adultism an "Oppression"

Most objections to describing adultism as an oppression are likely to stem from comparing it to racism and sexism -- and from having an overly simplistic understanding of how these two oppressions actually function. My main strategy for creating responses is to make comparisons to other oppressions, showing how adultism is not as unique as it might initially seem.

...I haven't actually heard most of the following objections made -- few people are steeped enough in oppression theory to articulate them -- but I anticipate that these things will be thought at some level, nonetheless. That said, here is what I've brainstormed:

1. The biological state of being young is temporary.

Someone might argue this: "Race is a permanent, 'immutable' characteristic. So is sex. Because being young is a temporary state of being, 'adultism' cannot be considered a true oppression."

Adultism is not the only oppression where we see that a person's body is not unchanging. Ageism, by which I mean the oppression of old people, is a case where members of the oppressor group are transformed by time into members of the oppressed group.

The movement against ableism also touches on this point. I've heard activists talk about how we have many disabilities in childhood, most of us become able-bodied, and then many adults gain further disabilities later in life. These activists call "normal" people "TABs": Temporarily Able-Bodied people.

2. The legal status of being a minor is temporary.

Someone might argue this: "If you're black, or if you're a woman, there's no way to escape your identity. When you're a young person, however, all you have to do is wait long enough, then the limits on your civil rights will go away. All youth are experiencing is a waiting period -- not a true denial of rights."

Part of what makes the legal aspects of adultism oppressive is that minors aren't allowed to transcend strictures by demonstrating merit; the limits on youths' rights are applied across the board. How long should a person be forced to live in such a state? It seems simply callous to me, to say that wrongful treatment doesn't matter, so long as it's temporary.

Furthermore, there is a sense in which we could say that the oppression is permanent. A person is only a minor until they are 18 years old. As a thought experiment, we could imagine that there is a species of people, commingling with the rest of society, who die at age 18. In this imaginary world, could a minor escape their legal status by demonstrating merit? No. ...So, in a sense, the legal oppression is permanent -- when the oppression ends, it's because a person has (in a sense) died to their fellow youth.

3. Age is a continuum.

Someone might argue like this: "Age is a continuum. Unlike with race or sex, you don't have two distinct groups. If there aren't two separate groups, you can't have oppressors and the oppressed. So adultism cannot be an oppression."

While adultism is perhaps the clearest case of there being a continuum between an oppressor group and oppressed group, it is in no way unique. With race, there are people of interracial heritage. With sex, there are people who are born intersexed. With sexual orientation, there is bisexuality. I know less about the discourse around classism these days, but it seems like there's also a strong continuum between rich and poor -- even if there's a wide gap between the richest and the rest of us.

4. All human beings are young at one time.

Someone might argue like this: "Oppression is about a majority treating a minority badly. Because every human being goes through a period of being young, young people can't be considered a minority group. Being young is simply an aspect of being human."

While every human being is young during their lifetime, not all of society is young at the same time. Young people are a minority relative to the adult proportion of society. Social psychologists have demonstrated that prejudice and abusive behavior can be fostered around as insignificant a trait as eye-color. Labeling a portion of humanity "minors" is more than enough to foster an oppression at the societal level -- even if people in the oppressor group were once members of "minors" themselves.

While it seems true that adultism is the most universally experienced oppression, we shouldn't make too much of this, I think. Not all, but most of the population lives to experience the oppression of old people. Women constitute about 51% of the population -- technically they're a majority, and still they've experienced a history of oppression. ...It's the relationship of one's group to power that defines oppression, not the group's size.

5. Youth live in close proximity with adults, dependent upon them.

Someone might argue like this: "Youth and adults live together, intimately. There's no physical distance between youth and adults, as there tends to be between blacks and whites. Consequently, there's no opportunity for prejudice to develop -- adults' perceptions are accurate."

Oppressions are often targeted at "outsiders" in the community. For instance, Africans (and others) were enslaved and brought to the United States. Their "otherness" is a large part of what's made racism possible. Similarly, throughout history Jewish people have been seen as outsiders wherever they've gone (at least until the founding of Israel as a state). Their perceived outsider status has helped enable discrimination, pogroms, and genocide.

Oppressions, however, can also target "insiders" of the community. Women and men live in extreme intimacy with each other, and yet there is a history of oppression. Homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, and intersexed people are all "insiders" in their particular communities -- only to be ostracized or attacked when their true identities are discovered. Living in close company with adults does not mean that youth cannot be oppressed by them.

6. Nearly every youth goes on to become an adult -- an oppressor?

Someone might argue like this: "With racism or sexism, a member of the oppressor group spends their entire life as a white person or a male. They have years to be trained by society to oppress. But adults were once youth themselves. If adultism is really so bad, why do people go on to reproduce what they themselves experienced? It can't have been so bad as to be called "oppression" if everyone does it..."

Why youth go on to become oppressors themselves is perhaps the most significant question for any philosophy of Youth Liberation to answer.

I think that the key to understanding this issue is to know that very few young people actually feel solidarity with young people as a group to begin with. Instead of going through a political conversion at age 18, denouncing their former membership, they spend their entire childhood identifying with the perspective of adults. We feel that we've been wrongly grouped with the other young people, who actually deserve to be treated with disrespect; we see ourselves as special. The strategies that youth employ to dissociate themselves from other young people, trying to shed the negative status of childhood, form the basis for what evolves into full-fledged adult supremacism later on. [This analysis is different from the "cycles of abuse" theory, which (without explanation) simply says that people abused as children go on to abuse others as adults.]

7. Young people are spoiled -- not oppressed!

Someone might argue like this: "Kids are handed everything on a platter. They don't have to work, and adults take care of all their needs. They have it easy. That's not oppression!"

I'm not sure whether or not I should even respond to this notion here. It's not really about whether or not adultism should be counted among the ranks of oppressions. It's more a matter of someone not understanding the nature of oppressions in general....

To say that minors are oppressed is not to say that all minors suffer profoundly. Many, perhaps most, young people find ways to live comfortably under repressive laws, and form workable relationships with adults. This is not to say that the laws and relationships with adults are fair. "Oppression" concerns the relationship between two groups -- there are many ways for individuals to navigate life within that overarching relationship. There are privileged black people and privileged women -- and were even at the height of racism's or sexism's history. In order to see that an oppression -- any oppression -- actually exists, we have to look at beyond how particular individuals feel, at the big picture.

Posted by Sven at December 28, 2003 01:22 AM


Hey Sven, I can't wait to sit down and crunch brains with you. If you brought this article, for exercize we could substantiate a lot of your hypotheticals with a lot of the research I've collected. Hmm. Meeting again will be exciting.

Posted by: Adam at December 29, 2003 11:07 PM