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Refusing Adulthood: Notes on ‘Aging Out’


Brian Dominick

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.

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