Introduction: Taking Youth Seriously
Youth Liberation is a framework from which we can end ageism, or the systematic and structural prejudice against youth based on their age. Ageism is personified by institutions such as compulsory schools, the structure of the family, and the state.
It should be noted that ageism can apply to the old as well as the young. And often these two distinct forms of ageism have similar overlap in how we treat both of these age groups.
But for the purposes of this essay I will be discussing how it applies to youth and be introducing the ideas of youth liberation. I will also be talking about how youth can empower themselves and ways in which adults can be allies in the struggle to end ageism.
Youth liberation can be summed by the following idea: Take youth seriously.
In this essay I’m defining “youth” as anyone under the age of 20. It’s an arbitrary age restriction and one could easily argue for the “mindset theory” of youth, in that it’s more of a frame of mind and attitude than a specific age group. And while I’m sympathetic to this idea I think it leads to a creeping in of undue adult influence in youth organizations. In addition, I believe that way of defining “youth” ends up looking too loose relative to how we usually picture youth.
I will sometimes qualify what kind of youth I am talking about when I speak about children or teenagers who I take to be different types of youth rather than apart from youth itself. There are many semantic arguments that could be had about any of these decisions but I will set them aside for the purpose of this paper.
To be clear, I’m an adult (25) and therefore only speak from my own experiences with my own previous youth and do not claim to speak for the youth of today. My recommendations for changing how we treat youth should be seen as attempting good allyship and nothing more.
All too often youths ideas are disregarded as foolish, non-serious and, at times, not even worth acknowledging. Indeed, the language of adults often sets itself apart from the world of children by using the term “childish”. As if having the imagination to be indignant at the world and the lack of social awareness to care what adults think is a bad thing.
Youths will often be subject to the cultural presumption that ideas should be weighed on the “seriousness” that they are displayed alongside of.
So adults have their black suits and ties, their graphs and charts and expensive clothing to signal they can be taken seriously. Youths and especially children often do not have the capital (material or social) to “compete” with the level of “seriousness” that many adults take as a baseline in order to discuss their ideas.
Youths are simply not living in the “real world” despite their countless comments on the state of the world and their own feelings about it. Perhaps the adults can reason that they’re too obsessed with “non-serious” pursuits like play to really change anything. But this sort of reasoning betrays the lack of trust we not only put in youths but also the idea of play itself.
When I interact with youths I always try my best to take them seriously first and foremost. If, for instance, I’m a cashier I will endeavor to treat children or teenagers as people as I might treat someone who is my age. I try not to use condescending tones and try my best to be seriously interested in their well-being. Part of that is me presuming that no one else might be or that even when adults do try to take youth’s interests seriously, they’re liable to inject their own adult biases into the conversation.
Naturally, none of us who are adults, whatever our age, are not exempt from injecting our own ideas of what children mean. I am no exception to this rule but unlike most other adults I have the privilege of recognizing my biases and making sure I keep them in check as best as possible.
Youth liberation relies on much more than just taking youth seriously, but it’s a fantastic start that many of us adults would do well to emulate. The cultural presumption that youth’s ideas are inherently less meaningful and important than adult’s needs to be questioned. And at the heart of ideas like these is that “seriousness” is only something reserved for leaders, who are (unsurprisingly) adults most of the time. Seriousness is only something to be had from people who are in higher positions of authority than us and who could be lower than youths?
But that’s exactly the problem; youths largely have these deficiencies of power and authority because of the presumption that they don’t need this access. They’re given game sets, crayon packs, pieces of paper and shuffled off while the “adults” plan their lives for them. As youths get older more and more excuses are given as to why some things are okay for them to do and why others are not. This becomes especially problematic when youths are teenagers and they are allowed to drive metallic boxes of terror (cars) but not ingest alcoholic beverages.
Youth liberation can be part of any philosophy and many youth rights organizations are likely liberal in their implementations. They want to see reforms like voting ages lowered as well as the drinking age either abolished or lowered. They may want things like the end to curfew laws entirely and make it more socially acceptable for youth to be involved in governmental politics.
All of these are worthy aspirations but they do not go far enough.
Instead, youth liberation as I conceive it is a radical philosophy that seeks to liberate youths by dismantling many of the current and prominent institutions in society. In addition, as I’ve tried to show already, youth liberation doesn’t only challenge institutions but it also challenges culture.
Specifically youth liberation seeks to challenge a system based on adult supremacy which is a system that inherently privileges some at the detriment of others. But instead of capitalism whereby those with the most capital are the most privileged, we have those who are “of age” having distinct presumptions and privileges put in their favor from the beginning.
To undermine these presumptions and privileges we must, as I shall argue, undermine the system that gives them this privilege. To do that we need to incorporate radical theories such as anarchism from which we get strategies like direct action, mutual aid, and dual power.
Youth Liberation and Anarchism
Throughout this section I’ll be drawing on the series No! Against Adult Supremacy which is currently a 20 issue zine series produced by Stinney Distro and contains many thoughtful articles.
For example, the first issue of No! has an article entitled Anarchism and Youth Liberation by Marc Silverstein. In this article Silverstein discusses the possible benefits of weaving youth liberation concerns through an anarchist framework.
Helpfully, Silverstein also gives a rough idea of what anarchism is, which is an excellent starting point to this section. Silverstein sees anarchism as “…based on the principles of individual sovereignty, non-coercion, free association and mutual aid…”
Silverstein sees these principles as countering the prevailing narratives of seeing children in a hierarchical relationship with their parents.
Along similar lines, anarchism has a longstanding history of being, at the very least, highly suspicious of hierarchies. If we want to give the proper attention to the way that children are currently dominated in hierarchical relationships, anarchism provides a useful and radical way of doing so.
Many of the relationships that children are put into such as with parents, schools, governments and others are often deeply entrenched with norms about who should have authority and should not. Often times reforms from more liberal minded youth liberationists, while well-intentioned, ultimately fail to get to the root of the issue.
Contrary to this, anarchism has been getting to the root of this issue for hundreds of years now, for example Emma Goldman was writing about these issues in her The Child and its Enemies in 1906 where she says:
Every institution of our day, the family, the State, our moral codes, sees in every strong, beautiful, uncompromising personality a deadly enemy; therefore every effort is being made to cramp human emotion and originality of thought in the individual into a straight-jacket from its earliest infancy; or to shape every human being according to one pattern; not into a well-rounded individuality, but into a patient work slave, professional automaton, tax-paying citizen, or righteous moralist.
The No! series also helpfully reminds us that there are still anarchists who are writing about these issues. Throughout the No! series we have articles such as Taking Anarchism Seriously, Unschooling and Anarchism and Playground Anarchy?. The No! series also features many anarchist writers like Ryan Calhoun, Nathan Goodman, Brian Dominick, myself and others.
And Silverstein also points out, anarchist tactics can easily be taken from the workplace to other places of oppression such as schools:
Class consciousness is essential.
Children need to recognize that they are a uniquely oppressed class vis a vis the oppressing class which dictates the conditions of their existence.
To paraphrase the Preamble to the IWW Constitution, the oppressed class and the oppressing class have nothing in common.
Disobedience can be expressed small ways (kind of like sabotage in the workplace) by refusing to pledge allegiance, to participate in prayer (in religious schools), or by choosing to write school essays on, for example, Youth Revolt Throughout History, Emma Goldman, or the case of Katie Sierra (a 15-year old anarchist suspended from school for wearing homemade anti-war shirts and for trying to start up an anarchist club) and deliver them in front of class.
I agree with Silverstein that anarchism has much to offer youth liberation with its emphasis on anti-authoritarianism and non-coercion it makes for the perfect ideological framing. It reminds us that while reform efforts such as marches against curfew laws or voting restrictions on youth may be long-term irrelevant, they can also help radicalize people, if done right.
Anarchism also gives youth liberationists the important concept of dual power, that is to say, building new institutions while tearing down the existing ones. Some examples of this may involve free schools, autonomously created networks of play, autonomous businesses run by children and so on. Without this conception of dual power, youth liberation theorists busy themselves reforming an economy and culture that is too deeply mired in authoritarianism.
What youth liberation needs is a radical toolkit to deal with the present threats to children and anarchism gives them that.
Youth Liberation in Practice
One advantage about youth liberation over other ideologies is that its specific focus on a given subset of the population makes practice slightly easier than more abstract theories.
For example, I write often about the merits of anti-work philosophy but one of the biggest downsides of focusing on this theory in particular is that “work” is a hard to define concept and it’s difficult to know where to start in making work obsolete.
This problem may exist within youth liberation, perhaps we could discuss whether institutions such as schools, the nuclear family unit or juvenile detention centers are more important than the other. But despite valid discussions such as that, we know that those questions are likely best left up to the youth who are most affected by it.
This is not so with anti-work theory.
One other advantage about youth liberation as other writers have noted is that it’s a universal experience. Everyone has been a kid or a teenager at some point and so it’s a lot easier to get people to rally around these experiences than in cases of racial or gendered injustice. Which isn’t to say those less universal forms of justice should be ignored and especially not for some pseudo-universalism at the expense of what makes individuals unique and beautiful.
But at the same time it’s worth noting that youth liberation and particularly through institutions such as the schools and family are near-universal experiences for people to go through. Many adults I know treat school with contempt or at least acknowledge it was and continues to be seriously flawed in how it’s carried out and how youth are treated.
As youth liberationists we need to seize upon this fact and highlight the reality that most people dislike school at the very least. That many of us felt like the learning we got had almost no relevance to our own interests. Many of us developed our real interests outside of school or during times where we could goof off and think about what we wanted, as individuals.
Getting youth to think similarly about themselves, as not just another cog in the machinations of school is one strategy to help youths liberate themselves. Often, giving youth the tools to liberate themselves is more than enough for them to do it on their own, without adults.
Although I’m skeptical of any sort of unifying theory about a human “nature” it occurs to me that most youth I know are deeply curious, skeptical and imaginative. And developing these traits are often as simple as leaving them to their own devices and seeing what happens next.