Young and Oppressed: Revolution Kid Style



The first essay in this pamphlet, "Young and Oppressed," was originally published only a year ago, though it was written more than a year previous. I have not made substantial changes to this edition, though I was tempted to do so. It stands best as is, written by a 17 year-old and a 20 year-old.


The first edition was released by Behind Enemy Lines Publications, now Critical Mess Media, on the occasion of my co-author’s 19th birthday. Now Sara is 20, and I am 23. We are getting older all the time, but we both attest to feeling youthful, which is what counts.


The obvious change in this edition, besides the publisher, is the inclusion of a second essay, written by myself (with the inclusion of some material written with Sara Zia), called "Revolution Kid Style." The title is taken from a popular slogan, origin unknown. That saying seems to sum up what this world needs dearly at this hour. The call is for all young people to wake up and make change in this world before this world has permanently changed them.


Another difference you might notice is the lack of quotations from other sources which adorned the margins of the last edition. In order to make room for all the new material, including a glossary of terms, I opted to scrap most of the quotes. The bibliography has not been updated, though it may be for the standard edition.


This is a special edition, produced literally the night before the 1997 Youth Summit organized by the National Child Rights Alliance. That means it is liable to be changed slightly and reissued when we have more time to work on it. This is not an official product of Critical Mess Media, but the standard edition will be.


Anal retentive readers will probably find several errors, both large and small, in the content of this pamphlet. Well, that’s life. Hopefully, they will be corrected in the second edition.


I sincerely hope activists, young and old, will find much of value in these pages. Many of the ideas presented are purposely vague and ambiguous, because it is my intention to leave readers open to draw your own conclusions. What is important is that we initiate and maintain discourse on the vital subjects of youth oppression and liberation. It is far less important that we give the answers than that we seek them.


I truly hope readers will get in touch with Sara and me regarding what is written here. I publish a zine called Dissident Scrapbook which is a forum for discourse regarding youth lib issues. As well, we are still looking to begin a zine at Critical Mess Media entitled Kid Lib. Most of all, we just love hearing from other young rads who generally share our beliefs and concerns.


—Brian A. Dominick
    April, 1997




Young and Oppressed 
By Brian Dominick & Sara Zia Ebrahimi


While most common oppressions, such as sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, even speciesism, have been identified, widely acknowledged, thoroughly discussed and deeply analyzed, one oppression remains largely untouched. This fact is astonishing given that the group oppressed by this ignored injustice is one to which every adult human has once belonged. It is the one oppression with which all humans can identify, having suffered from it directly. It is not an oppression of a tiny minority to which few will ever belong. It is not the oppression of people who can be blamed themselves — by any stretch of the imagination — for being among the oppressed.


The oppressed group is that of young people — all young people.


As we will further demonstrate, adults and adult institutions in our society regularly commit acts of abuse, coercion, deprivation, indoctrination and invalidation against young people. From the moment of conception, young people are oppressed by their elders, entirely based on the difference in age, via a process known as "ageism."


As an oppression in need of acknowledgment and understanding, ageism is vital to oppression theory. Yet its overall framework has long been ignored. Sure, many an author has attempted to discuss the relationship between parent and child, teacher and pupil, detention center officer and detainee, etc. But when has it been stated that adult society, as an institution, oppresses the young regularly, consistently, and without exception? And when has it been stated further, in any detail, that this oppression is vital to, and largely born of, society’s need for maintenance at such absurd, atrocious levels?


Let’s face it: when adults look at oppression theory, they do so from a "grown up" perspective — one which sees right over the heads of even their own children. While the Left takes great pride in its defense of women, the impoverished, racial and religious minorities, etc., it fails to realize that among the most thoroughly and widely oppressed are society’s young. In our struggle for true liberation, we can leave no one behind — especially not those to whom the torch of revolution shall be passed. That is why ageism needs to be recognized.


Which brings us to why ageism is unique among oppressions: we are all directly its victims. It is not at all presumptuous to claim that the one oppressive dynamic* of which we have all been on the receiving end is that of ageism. Indeed, we are all victims of every oppression acted out in our society. But none other than ageism claims each of us like a man carves a notch on his headboard, like a bombardier a stencil on his airplane, a capitalist a dollar in his bank account.


That is significant. When we step back and observe the social engineering performed by society’s institutions upon its members, oppressions are plainly spotted in the tool chest of the dominant. Among those oppressions which help maintain the power positions of the wealthy white Christian heterosexual male elitist adult, ageism is universal. It is also, unlike the others which are interchangeable, completely indispensable to society’s maintenance of individual apathy.


In order to be a permanent victim of an unjust society’s power structure — that is, accepting and not resisting one’s own victimization — one must be engineered as a child to remain docile in the face of oppression. Certainly young people who are impoverished, female, African American, gay or otherwise in position to be oppressed, are conditioned for disempowerment. But what about white male children of upper class parents? Why do they show the same signs of submission and apathy when confronted by oppressors? Why do they, by and large, fail to expose and resist injustices, both in concept and in everyday encounters? Could it be because, as children, they undergo a rigorous process of indoctrination, both formal and informal, in schools, on television, at church, in the home? Could it be because they have been abused and coerced by legal systems, parents, teachers, police? Because they have been invalidated by overpowering institutions and individuals whose purpose it has been to teach them of their "incompetence," their "worthlessness"? Could they be so as a result of having been deprived of their right to self management, of simple needs, indeed of love and understanding and support? Could it be, at last, because throughout childhood and adolescence they have been treated as adult society has seen fit for its young — ignored, conditioned, neglected, brutalized, violated and compelled?


Then, as adults, they reproduce their own suffering, this time inflicting it upon those the society of which they are now full members has traditionally oppressed. As adults, they are offered power over — if no one else — the people on whose behalf few stand: their children, their younger neighbors, their adolescent customers, their voiceless constituents.


It is clear that ageism is not just another oppression. In some cases (few would disagree) age difference, aside from being the basis for oppression, is a justification for special treatment. Surely children require guidance as they learn for themselves about social realities. In many cases, clear bounds need setting by adults, for the child’s safety and indeed for her or his benefit. But how much more often than not does the relationship between adult and young person — between adult institution and the young population — become counterproductive, destructive, outright violent? Why are these inequities not exposed, denounced and struggled against by those of us who regularly fight other oppressions?


These issues, equal in importance to the full examination of ageism itself, are in dire need of discourse. With that in mind, we hope to present, from our own biased perspective as young people, what we see as the issue: What is ageism? How does it manifest itself in practice? What are its results?


Political Ageism


Few oppressions are more obvious than those perpetrated by governments. From laws to bureaucracies, the manipulation factor in state systems is staggering. The most blatant mechanism employed by government towards the oppression of its subjects is certainly the legal system. Consistently, it is laws made specifically against young people which most flagrantly display the state’s contempt for their youthful attitudes; mindsets which by their nature contradict prevailing social values and norms. After all, young people are one of the only oppressed groups which the US government not only discriminates against in an official capacity, but towards whom it does so unabashedly and without apology. The list of things the state will not allow people to do based on their age is seemingly endless. At the same time, the rights and "equality" of most other oppressed groups are lauded and, at least to some extent, protected by government agencies.


There is little validity to the argument that young people, due to their inexperience, need to be protected from themselves by agents of the state. It is the government’s own interests which require defense from young people’s natural lack of subordination and submission. Hence, authoritarian structures are forced to protect themselves by containing the expression of free thought and activity by children and adolescents. As a sort of insurance policy, the government stunts self-confidence, individuality and creativity at the earliest age possible, knowing full well that its resurgence in adult life will then be unlikely. People must be trained for submission when they are most vulnerable to impression, which happens to be when they are young.


The government displays its contempt for young people’s ability to determine the courses of their own lives by trying to restrict their access to everything from R-rated movies and ear piercing to alcohol and tobacco. Conflicting with the concurrent pressures introduced by the market economy — which encourage participation in "risqué" entertainment, exotic fashion and drug usage — the imposition of such limitations is counterproductive at best, probably even devastating. The mixed messages conveyed by the two wings of the establishment that possess the farthest-reaching influence pit (commercially manufactured) impulse against (state-imposed) inhibitions, and the confused results are ruinous.


Another outstanding and pressingly current example of legal ageism is the rash of curfew laws which is presently sweeping the nation. While crime rates hover at mid-1970s levels, violent incidences have become increasingly concentrated among the young community, particularly in urban areas. Rather than take an approach which could be labeled even slightly rational, many local governments have decided to pass new laws and further restrict the rights of young people. Though laws will never keep young people indoors, they will surely keep them out of places where they can safely meet and recreate. Meanwhile, the boredom, frustration and despair felt by many young people is only fueled and aggravated. This is a clear example of coercive power used to deprive young people of the freedom to act as they choose, regardless of whether harm would be done to themselves or someone else (the usual accepted criteria for determining legislation).


As few clear-minded folks would dispute, modern states have managed with alarming success to master the art of indoctrination. Without using severe and boisterous methods of brainwashing, the government has achieved the relatively efficient production of numbed minds, conditioned for obedience, servitude and, in turn, the perpetuation and magnification of state power. Not only does the state define the curricula which will be imposed upon any student whose parents cannot afford private school (and upon many whose can), but it forces them to attend classes in Eurocentric barbarism, as dictated by powerful adults who define education standards. Those mental factories which the government does not control it at least regulates.


In the classroom, the student learns, above all else, that learning is boring, degrading and difficult. Based on quantitative systems of instruction, even the most progressive mainstream schools educate young people of little else than submission, assimilation and conformity. It’s not what you learn that counts, it’s how much you can prove you know. More still, as education standards and expectations regress, the rule is who knows more, not if anyone knows anything of relevance.


The enforced process of hand-raising, through which the student demonstrates her or his subservience to the teacher, is a classic display of the demeaning relationship promoted by formal scholastic activity. The teacher, at the same time, is an adult who is chosen unpluralistically and given ultimate authority — not only in the sense of "expertise" but also of "power." That is, the class is being run by someone who is vastly different in age from the students, and was chosen not because of leadership competence but knowledge alone; charisma, compatibility and attitude being irrelevant.


While the teacher is dictating many rules and little important knowledge, the students are being stratified and segregated. Young people begin the process of discrimination by gender, class, race, etc., which reflects the attitudes of parents and teachers, before they are in grade school. "Boys are good at math and science, girls needn’t so much as try their best." "Black students do not possess the capacity to learn as well as whites, so we’d might as well spend less energy trying to teach them." The pattern is irrational, but it has been consistent and unwavering for centuries.


Although experimentation with a progressive concept known as "inclusive education" is now being undertaken around the country, the separation of students according to their perceived ability to learn is still dominant throughout most US schools. Elites are formed of "gifted" students who display a propensity to learn at a faster pace, while "normal" students are herded into overcrowded classrooms across the way from those tagged "disabled." Do these distinctions haunt the adult lives of students grouped as such because they were originally accurate or because they became self-fulfilled prophecies during childhood and adolescence? Furthermore, in case the labelling system does not sufficiently stabilize a young person’s self-image, requiring that his or her class ranking be included on every high school transcript does the trick.


Formal education, whether it be collegiate or secondary, is wonderful practice for one experience which can be looked forward to by prospective adults: routinization. School teaches people to fall into line, obey rules and, most of all, to qualify. Whether one learns anything or not, one had better pass the final; whether one works a fulfilling job as an adult, one had better bring home a paycheck.


Other government institutions practice ageism as well. There is little argument on the Left that the US military — any military, for that matter — uses severe forms of indoctrination, coercion and invalidation, whose effects overshadow even those of the most thorough scholastic "education." The recruitment practices of the armed forces are diabolical in their use of propaganda and outright lies, as well as their focus on young people, not so much for the acquisition of strong, young bodies as impressionable minds. Save for professional criminality, the military is often seen by America‘s poor to be the only way out of poverty, a fact illustrated by disproportionate numbers of Latino, Afro-American and working class recruits. And again, the military complex instills the same biases and psychological effects as the education system, only with much greater severity. The broad effects of military service on the individual young person, not to mention whoever s/he is manipulated or forced or bribed into killing, are clear and disastrous.


As our world becomes more and more technologically advanced, it has become increasingly difficult for individuals to maintain any sense of individuality. As humanity is herded and oppressed as a whole, it is the young who receive the most trampling. As if the isolation felt by adults is not enough, their needs are often fulfilled by the state (over which adults at least have some power) far prior to the needs of their children. We live in a system where even those adults whose voices are allowed hearing receive very little from the power structure which holds them down. So how can we (especially those of us on the Left) have gone so long without recognizing that young people, whose voices are seldom heard if ever, are even more severely oppressed by that same, inherently violent system of authority and subordination?


Economic Ageism