Against adult supremacy
Youth liberation emerged as a distinct social movement nearly a century ago. Yet liberating young people from an oppressive system that treats them as the property of adults is still dismissed as absurd by the mainstream.
No wonder. Liberation for all, irrespective of age, is a powerful idea: it has the potential to unravel systems of control, coercion, patriarchy and hierarchy by starting at the source.
Dog Section Press has recently published an anthology of youth liberation writing entitled NO! Against Adult Supremacy. Here are five reasons you really should care about liberating young people, even if you’re an adult.
Adult supremacy is the basis of all oppression
'Every hierarchy, every abuse, every act of domination that seeks to justify or excuse itself appeals through analogy to the rule of adults over children. We are all indoctrinated from birth in ways of “because I said so.” The flags of supposed experience, benevolence, and familial obligation are the first of many paraded through our lives to celebrate the suppression of our agency, the dismissal of our desires, the reduction of our personhood.’ - Stinney Distro, anthology introduction
Oppression hardly ever looks like Orwell's imagined jackboot in the face forever; on the contrary, it is almost always presented as a duty of care. Done for our own good, carried out reluctantly – difficult decisions made, always on our behalf and in our best interest.
A cornerstone of youth liberation is the conceptual separation of autonomy and independence. It attempts to rethink the idea that just because someone relies on you in some way, you automatically have power or dominion over them. If we remove control from our relations with young people, we can rethink inter-generational assistance as solidarity.
Empowering people is the best form of protection
From the earliest stages we are taught against expressing our will – particularly when our instinct is to refuse or rebel. But children who are allowed to develop a sense of autonomy are empowered to express their will, to say no to adults, and define and enforce their own boundaries.
The idea that parents, teachers and care-givers always know what's best for young people stems from the conceptualization of children as chattel (just as black people and, until even more recently, women have been imagined previously). As youth liberation activist Kathleen O'Neal points out: ‘child abuse and child protectionism are often two sides of the same coin.’
If you think life's hard for an adult member of an oppressed group, imagine being black, female, LGBT, disabled, poor or incarcerated... and young.
Young people are uniquely disenfranchised: the notion that they might be afforded any meaningful political rights at all is universally held to be absurd. Their complete subservience seems absolutely natural and, as a consequence, they’re not even treated like second class citizens – they're not seen as citizens full stop.
One measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. What does it say about our society that it almost always relates to its young through coercion and control? Young people often have it hardest, and that's reason enough for adult solidarity.
There’s a difference between education and learning
Although it's hard to argue against a free universal education, which has undoubtedly been a well-spring of emancipation in the West, it's also hard to describe most modern education systems as a universal experience. State-funded education was first popularized in Europe by the military-aristocracy of 18th century Prussia as a way of rigidly enforcing hierarchies thought to be inherent in society. We no longer think of those hierarchies as inherent, but we do persist with a system that allows the rich to buy the best educations for their young – which only serves to entrench social hierarchy.
Though it's getting better, most educational institutions are still based around discipline, obedience and uni-directional learning. Children learn more through self-directed exploration and having the freedom to fail, and learning is more rewarding when it's part of a two-way exchange. Our contemporary hierarchical education system can't even comprehend learning from young people; if you don't think you have anything to learn from young people, you're quite simply mistaken.
Our children are our future
‘Our whole world is caught in a cycle of abuse, largely unexamined and unnamed. And at its root lies our dehumanisation of children.’
- Stinney Distro, anthology introduction
If we want a social and political revolution then we're going to have to stop reproducing our oppression. If we're going to stop reproducing our oppression, we'll need to confront and disrupt the systems of patriarchy, hierarchy and control that we're all implicated and entangled in. We urgently need to rethink deference and obedience.
All of us have suffered from adult supremacy: it's the hierarchy that absolutely everyone has been at the bottom of. Perhaps one reason it remains so unexamined is because it's also a relation in which everybody will one day, inevitably, gain the upper-hand, with all the power implications of that promotion. We're in charge now, and so the cycle continues.
Although we may appear trapped in this seemingly never-ending, all-consuming cycle, we should also take heart, because a universal experience is a good basis for solidarity; if we can remove control from our relations with young people, we could recast inter-generational exchange as mutual aid.
Vyvian Raoul is an editor at Dog Section Press where NO! Against Adult Supremacy is available for purchase.