Refusing Adulthood: Notes on 'Aging Out'
Naive as I was in the mid-1990s, for a spell I actually thought there was a good chance that, by the turn of the century, the terms "ageism" and "youth liberation" would be ubiquitous in the Left's vocabulary. Toward that goal, I spent most of the decade writing and speaking on youth oppression and liberation. And while I think my own and countless others' attempts to increase awareness of this cause have had some significance, it has mostly been among progressive young people whose collective consciousness has raised somewhat substantially -- not on the adult Left.
It is a success, no doubt, that where youth groups a decade ago were almost exclusively focused on organizing young people around causes not necessarily of specific relevance to kids themselves (such as environmentalism, animal rights, prison abolition, antiwar efforts, and so forth), today there are a number of youth organizations which focus at least somewhat on the causes such as education, child abuse, age prohibition laws like curfews, and so forth.
That is, over the past several years, more and more young people have been taking up their own liberation cause -- not just as young people of color, or young women, working class kids, and so on, but as young people per se. And though I've worked with a wide variety of "kinds" of people focused on huge array of causes, no group has been more inspiring to me than youth liberation activists.
As I get older, I continue to look to self-consciously radical youth for the motivation I need to trudge on as an activist, organizer and commentator. And no matter what I try, or how far from adolescence I get, I am thankfully unable to turn away from the movement which first taught me what principle and revolution are all about. What is inspiring is the very fact that, despite monumental barriers, a youth liberation movement exists at all -- let alone one that flourishes.
This inspiration is remarkable not least because the cause of youth liberation is neither explicitly supported, nor really even recognized, by the broad Left of which most kid lib activists consider themselves a part. Indeed, to an astonishing extent, the existence of ageism -- the oppression of young people based on the factor of age -- is not even considered legitimate enough to go on some of the most exhaustive "laundry lists" of oppressions touted by the Left.
Youth liberation activists are additionally inspiring because the movement itself experiences a rather unique kind of attrition: youth activists, and young people generally, tend to "age out" of being oppressed for their age and enter the oppressing class. At a certain point, we're supposed to look back at all the concerns and all the terrible experiences we had when we were young -- bad experiences we had because we were kids -- and deem them all petty. All of the indoctrination, all of the invalidation, all of the abuse, all of the deprivation, all of the coercion -- it's supposed to vanish. But does it?
As we pass through our twenties we start to forget certain things. If you are poor now and you were poor then, you don't forget the poverty. If you are a female now and you were female then, you don't forget the sexism. But since you're older now, but you were young then, the ageism fades away.
We forget being "tracked" and force-fed lies in school. We forget being denied pursuit of our own interests, or even the prerogative to maintain a shred of dignity in the face of adult authority (and oppressive fellow children). We lose track of what it was like to be told to shut up, to sit still, to mind our own business, to not have an opinion, to do and say and eat what we're told. We slowly fail to recall the way adults spoke to us, or for some even the beatings or the molestations. We forget the daily humiliations, the advertisements which told us to fear (and how to combat) acne, how to "clean" our "dirty" bodies when they bleed. We block out what it was like to be afraid to touch ourselves.
But what did it all do to us? Did we really recover? Worse still, what will not having undergone a thorough process of liberation -- and continuing to resist the impositions of adulthood and its particular expectations -- do to who we are now?
Somehow we begin to convince ourselves that all of the above things -- the characterizations and manifestations of ageism -- are not as relevant to progressive causes, to social change, as are those of racism, sexism, classism, and so on. But why not?
Without for a moment intending to diminish the vitality of being aware of such even extreme acts like racially- or sexually- motivated violence, the actual numbers of these types of crimes are dwarfed on the same scale as those attributable to ageism. Consider just a few facts about the oppression of young people:
+ 5.5 children are murdered by their parents each day.
+ Kids who are sexually violated regularly undergo the experience with startling repetition, not as somewhat isolated incidents (even more often than adult victims of such crimes).
+ In most places, it is legal to hit children, and even to sever certain of their body parts.
+ Not only are children the only classification of humans against whom discrimination is not only legal, but such discrimination is actually encouraged and carried out by laws themselves, approached in severity only by laws regarding disabled people and "illegal" immigrants (two more groups the Left's record of ignoring is shameful).
+ Almost nowhere -- at home, school, or in civil society -- is there even the illusion that children are allowed to make significant decisions for themselves (you won't even find lip-service toward that end).
+ In the US, laws regarding children as property often use precisely the same language as those referring to slaves and wives used to, and all are effectively the same -- the difference being that child property laws are still on the books, virtually unchallenged.
This kind of severity is consistently denied, or at least ignored, by the same Left which champions countless other worthy causes. Yet all of us -- those who define the "Left agenda," to the extent there is one, were at least at one time kids ourselves.
So how long will it take for the age-class consciousness of a generation of young people to be raised? When the barrier is a guaranteed opportunity to convert from oppressor to oppressed (guaranteed to those who survive adolescence), there's no telling what specifically will need to happen before the idea of youth liberation is passed down through generations in place of all the repressive and oppressive shit kids currently inherit.
It's not very comfortable to find oneself among the oppressors. Of course, being among the oppressors is not the same as being one. However, being among them and not self-consciously resisting the role implies our complicity and guarantees our eventual participation. This is so for white people, for men, for straight people, for the economically privileged and the abled, and for all who can benefit from systemic oppressions simply by not being one of those directly oppressed.
Unfortunately, if previous experience with adult denial of ageism and the need for youth liberation (a need which we never outgrow) is an indicator, I know that since you've read this far, it's unlikely you're an adult. However, if you are, perhaps you won't be for long.
Young people are "ageing out" of the youth liberation movement at a slowly but steadily decreasing rate, or so it seems. Still, unless it becomes absolute across a generation, that decreased rate of attrition needs to be complemented by resistance among adults -- not only to their own ageism and that of their "age-class-mates," but to the ageism which has stripped them of all that was once youthful about themselves. Unless becoming an oppressor is somehow biologically ingrained in our beings, it is a social phenomena which we can abolish.
If you're still a kid, I have one piece of advice which I offer at risk of coming off as patronizing: Maintaining your youth is not as easy as literally tattooing your politics on your skin, as I have learned. Anger toward and resistance to adult society aint necessarily as permanent as ink or scars.