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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Youth Oppression, Popular Culture, and 1980s Nostalgia

   Recently I saw the movie It and it struck me just how far we as a culture have fallen in terms of honoring and allowing for youth autonomy. I have never really been struck by the 1980s nostalgia wave like some millennials seem to be. Perhaps it is because I was born in the late 1980s and so my childhood was largely colored by the tropes and trials of the 1990s. But the outpouring of love that millennials who were too young to experience the 1980s heap on movies like It and shows like Stranger Things leads me to believe that something else may be at work as well.

   Perhaps all of this nostalgia for the 1980s (as depicted in the popular culture) is a sign of a repressed yearning for the sort of wild childhood that most of us never had but desperately wanted. We all wanted to grow up in the sort of world where youth had spontaneous adventures that were not micromanaged by adults. Much as humanity longs to return to a mythical Garden of Eden that surely existed in the past even if no one has ever experienced it, younger millennials long for a time before permission slips, zero tolerance policies, hall passes, curfew laws, and a general culture of fear and anguish around unaccompanied minors robbed them of their ability to create meaningful worlds with other youth without the ubiquitous presence of adult gatekeepers and chaperones.

   You can see this impulse at work as well in the excitement which Game of Thrones fans express in reference to the character of young Lyanna Mormont. Lyanna is the head of the House Mormont, a title which she took on at ten years of age. Her house's sigil is the bear and Lyanna lives on Bear Island. She is portrayed in the show as a competent, wise, and brave leader who calls the shots militarily in the context of an always threatening world of war, winter, and intrigue. Game of Thrones fans love Lyanna partially because she is such a striking emblem of youth empowerment. The same can be said for other fan favorites on the show such as Bran, Sansa, Arya, and Shireen - the show being known and lauded among fans for its depictions of strong youth characters.

   It is oftentimes instructive to look towards the popular culture that is most resonant at any given time for clues to elements of the zeitgeist that one may otherwise miss for lack of an obvious cultural calling card. I for one have long thought that Americans' increasing cynicism regarding the political establishment could have been predicted long before Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz learned this lesson at the hands of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders simply by noting the popularity of Veep, House of Cards, and Scandal - shows in which the president and those around him or her are depicted as venal, corrupt, self-interested, and vain. On a similar note, I think that the popularity among adults of shows featuring strong and empowered young characters speaks to both a sense of regret about our own childhoods and anxiety surrounding the way that we continue to raise our children today.      

Thursday, April 16, 2015

We Live In A Deeply Oppressive Dystopia But It Isn't A "Parenting Police State"

Image description: A white sign featuring a red triangle. In the center of the triangle are the black silhouettes of a male and female youth holding hands. The caption beneath the triangle reads "Free range children."

   Recently The Washington Post published a story which has been getting a great deal of attention as of late. Entitled "'Free-Range' Kids And Our Parenting Police State," the article by Petula Dvorak focuses primarily on the case of two youth - siblings aged six and ten years respectively - who were picked up by police officers in Montgomery County, Maryland and held in police custody for hours because they were out walking about two and a half blocks from home without adult supervision. Due to this incident, the parents of the two young people were forced to appear in court and were eventually even found guilty of "unsubstantiated child neglect." As far as this incident goes, these parents and these youth deserve our sympathy and our solidarity as well as our outrage at the horrible ordeal which they were all forced to endure. The Montgomery County Police Department and the county's judicial system deserve our condemnation for it.

   By referring to a "parenting police state" in the article and its title, Dvorak was undoubtedly intending to evoke the bizarre and dystopian aspects of this situation and this impulse is no doubt one which we all ought to endorse as far as it goes. However, this phrase fundamentally misconstrues the true nature of social, cultural, and political problem at the heart of this incident and other incidents like it and in so doing, makes it more difficult for us to understand and thereby combat these injustices for the benefit of youth and parents alike. Parents, even when grievously harmed as the parents in this incident no doubt were, are not the primary targets in the vast network of laws, discourses, customs, social norms, ideas, and practices which have led to a situation in the contemporary United States in which it is not all that unfathomable for two young people to be picked up and detained for hours by police for being in public without adult supervision a few block from their home and for their parents to have to appear in court due to this incident and to be found guilty of child neglect when they do so. The targets of this network of laws, discourses, customs, social norms, ideas, and practices are young people themselves. The recognition of this reality is not in any way intended to detract from the very real suffering and injustice experienced by the parents in this situation and others situations like it. However, by framing this injustice primarily in terms of its negative effects on parents, Dvorak makes it harder for anyone aware of the incident to understand it because the motives and discourses which make such an event intelligible are obscured.

   The latter part of the twentieth century and the earliest part of the twenty-first century in the United States may well be remembered later in human history as the era in which the world became an increasingly closed and oppressive place for young people. During this period of time, the notion that young people require constant adult supervision and that it is inappropriate for young people to ever occupy public space without an adult escort present to surveil them has gone from being virtually unheard of to taken for granted by American adults and youth alike across a variety of demographic lines. The same impulses driving the laws and attitudes which have created so much hardship for the family profiled in Dvorak's article are also at work in a constellation of discourses and practices which define what it means to be a young person or a parent today including but certainly not limited to school zero tolerance policies, developmental psychology, age-based curfew laws, and movie, videogame, and television ratings based on age. These discourses and practices do not exist for the purpose of subordinating parents qua parents. On the contrary, despite the fact that individual adults and individual parents may oppose some of these restrictions on young people, these discourses and practices are the products of the efforts of adults (including parents) as a political class to subordinate young people as a political class. Adults, in particular parents and teachers opposed to these discourses and practices, may be harmed when they attempt to act on this opposition but from the perspective of this network of ideas and the regulations targeting youth which these ideas support, these adults are something akin to collateral damage. Adults in these incidents are not punished qua adults or qua parents but as traitors to adults and/or parents as a political class who dare to defy commonly held social expectations that young people must be kept, to the greatest extent possible, under the thumb of adult control.

   No two social systems of oppression are the same but there do tend to be common impulses undergirding them. One of the main ways in which almost every type of oppression operates is to place burdensome restrictions on the right and/or ability of members of the oppressed class to appear in public. From the infamous "ugly laws" of the late 1800s and early 1900s targeting Americans with disabilities to the legal restrictions placed on contemporary Saudi Arabian women to prevent them from appearing in public without a male guardian to the anti-African-American Jim Crow laws of the antebellum American South, marking certain classes of allegedly inferior persons as unfit to appear in public is a common tactic used by oppressor classes against oppressed classes. Whether the rationale be phrased in terms of protecting members of the oppressed class (as in the Saudi case) or in terms of protecting the rest of the public from members of the oppressed class (as in the case of Jim Crow), the message is that members of the oppressed class do not belong in the public sphere with the rest of us. (Interestingly, both rationales tend to be used in attempting to justify ageist restrictions which attempt to remove youth from public space. The former discourse tends to be used more often in reference to the youngest youth while the latter discourse tends to be used more often in reference to preteen and teenage youth.) Indeed, it is true that there is a group of people in our country who live in a deeply oppressive dystopia of sorts but that class is not defined in reference to one's status as a parent. It is defined in reference to one's youth.

   In order to show why it is that the notion of a "parenting police state" is something of a red herring in this discussion, it makes sense to look not only at those situations in which parents find themselves harmed qua parents due to certain attitudes and actions but also to explore situations in which parents qua parents are allowed to get away with what strikes most reasonable people in our culture as highly questionable behavior. How can we explain the fact that parents can find themselves in legal trouble for allowing their minor children to be seen unsupervised in public a couple of blocks from home but that many American parents can avoid outside interference when they deny their children medical care under the flimsiest of religious pretenses or pull them out of school to brainwash them into support for a white supremacist cult (to take two especially egregious but not uncommon examples)? Clearly something else is at work here apart from a social obsession with policing the conduct of parents. That something is ageism directed towards youth. In a true "parenting police state" miscarriages of justice like that in Maryland may unfortunately continue to occur but you probably would not also be allowed to get away with abusing and/or oppressing your child in some of the most egregious ways of which we are aware in our culture by doing things which most adults in our society correctly consider to be examples of terrible parenting. However, if we understand both sides of the coin as instances of systemic ageist oppression directed at young people then all of these things begin to make a lot more sense.

   Petula Dvorak is to be commended for helping to start a public dialogue on these issues. I am glad that she wrote and published the article to which this blog post refers. However, by ending her analysis with the superficial notion of the "parenting police state" Dvorak makes it difficult to truly understand the phenomenon which she so rightly opposes and seeks to shed light on. We need a youth liberationist theoretical framework to accomplish this task so that we may begin to really undo the harm caused by the sorts of situations which Dvorak so passionately and right-thinkingly draws attention to in her article.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Problem with the Ideology of Unschooling

   The ideas expressed in this post have been germinating in my mind for perhaps a little over a year now. In this post, I aim to provide a constructive critique of many of the assumptions that I see guiding many members of the unschooling community and how I feel that some of these assumptions are problematic not so much for reasons frequently found in the mainstream of education policy and parenting discourse but from a solidly and radically youth rights perspective as well. It is within this spirit that I ask the reader to engage with this post. In other words, the things I find problematic about the ideology of much of the unschooling movement I find problematic mostly on youth rights grounds. I do not find the elements of unschooling ideology I set out to critique problematic because I fear that they are too radically pro-youth liberation or for reasons of political expediency. In fact, in my experience most unschooling parents are far more conservative youth rights advocates, if they are youth rights advocates at all, than I try to be. Rather, I fear that elements of unschooling ideology stand to disempower or even endanger young people in ways that youth rights supporters by definition oppose.

   First of all, the idea of unschooling gives parents tremendous control over their children's lives. For all of their problematic aspects, most traditional educational institutions allow young people something of a scope of autonomy (however limited) beyond the reach of their immediate families and they also provide youth with exposure to people of diverse backgrounds and belief systems of the sort whom their parents may not associate with. Unschooling gives parents far more power and control over their children than the traditional division between school and home allots to either parents or school personnel. Unschooling parents have far greater power to surveil their children than they would if the child was spending time away from the parent at school. Furthermore, it is difficult for a young person who spends virtually all of her time around her parents (or those people the parents both know and explicitly endorse the child associating with) to develop a strong sense of independence, identity, and autonomy. Most disturbingly of all, unschooling gives the most dangerous parents even more scope for abuse of their authority whether it involves indoctrinating their child into questionable political or religious beliefs or allowing sexual, emotional, or physical abuse to occur with impunity. With no adults in a child's life besides those handpicked by the parent, it's much easier for serious violations of young people's rights to occur at the hands of the parents themselves.

   Secondly, it is important to note that some young people enjoy school and many more would enjoy it were the most oppressive aspects of the traditional K-12 schooling experience done away with. In the contemporary United States, very few young people have any choice in where they go to school and what they study there. Everything from talking without permission (even outside the classroom) to wearing certain items of clothing to using the restroom without permission to carrying necessary medications in one's purse to self-defense of one's person are prohibited for most youth and oftentimes these things result in harsh punishments with little due process. Even in a society in which young people were completely liberated, many youth would choose to attend school for the same reasons many adults pursue careers as scholars. By presenting a version of educational choices in which the options are either unschooling or schooling in its present form, unschooling advocates often demonstrate their inability to imagine a system in which school could be a far better and less oppressive place for the youth that did want to be there. This is concerning for philosophical reasons, but also for practical ones. Many individuals advocating for unschooling refuse to help work towards policies which would make schools more just.

   Up until this point, most of my objections towards unschooling could not be said to apply to free schools. While these schools do not follow a set curriculum and simply allow young people to learn and play at their own pace, they provide a scope for youth autonomy outside the parental gaze and could be said to provide a third way between unschooling and traditional schooling. However, the final criticism of unschooling I about about to expound upon could be said to apply equally to free schools and unschooling. In a less direct but still extremely important way, it is a criticism grounded in youth rights concerns and the value of youth autonomy.

   I once knew a man who had attended a traditional private school until dropping out and attending a free school in his late teens. While he greatly enjoyed the experience, he once related to me the tale of a young man he had known in his free schooling days who had attended the school from early childhood on. While the man I knew raved about his free schooling experience he told me that his friend felt less positively towards the free schooling philosophy because he could not read until he was twelve years old despite having no learning disabilities or other circumstances which would possibly delay a young person in another sort of schooling environment in acquiring literacy skills. While some might reply "But this young man learned to read eventually!" and be satisfied with that, I myself continue to be concerned about this aspect of unschooling and free schooling.

   As a supporter of youth liberation I, like all of us committed to this philosophy, want to create a world in which young people are more free than they currently are to manage their own affairs and participate in important community decision-making. If we are serious about young people having a greater scope of autonomy in voting, making medical decisions, managing their own finances, practicing a religion of their choice (or not), advocating for their rights within the legal system, and participating in other things which a youth liberationist perspective stipulates that young people should be participating in, how are they going to be empowered to do so if many of them are not basically literate or numerate? Traditionally women, people of color, ethnic minorities, poor people, rural people, immigrants, and people with disabilities have sought greater access to educational institutions because they realized that learning to read, write, add, and subtract would make them less powerless vis a vis more powerful groups and individuals in their lives. Why do we think that not accessing these same institutions and the knowledge they have to offer is going to make an already disempowered group more able to represent their own interests individually and collectively?

   I would like to close this piece by saying that I do oppose compulsory education and I believe that unschooling, home schooling, and free schooling are the right choice for many youth. I also believe that these options have both advantages and disadvantages vis a vis the more traditional schooling framework in its contemporary form. However, I think that this is an issue we all need to be thinking and speaking more critically about. When unschooling and free schools are discussed in youth rights circles, they are almost always presented as the paradigmatic educational options that radical youth rights supporters need to rally around. I have even heard of youth who desire to attend more traditional schools spoken of by people in the movement as if they are suffering from some sort of false consciousness or as if, by wanting to learn in a traditional environment, they are somehow consenting to the most abusive and oppressive aspects of traditional K-12 schooling, even though these aspects of schooling usually have very little if anything to do with schools' pedagogic mission. (In most cases I would argue that these oppressive and abusive practices in fact undermine and even subvert schools' pedagogic mission.) I hope that this post starts a dialogue on these important issues within the youth rights movement itself. Young people, like adults, deserve a variety of educational options which respect their dignity and autonomy as well as their unique individual strengths, weaknesses, goals, and desires.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Youth Online Privacy and the Paradox of Protection

   As the Internet has grown to be a hegemonic feature of the lives of most people in the developed world, we have come to hear a great deal about the need to protect the online privacy of young people. The specter of pedophiles and others that supposedly seek to prey on children is invoked to justify yet more onerous restrictions on the right of young people to take advantage of the many positive opportunities for friendship, education, and entertainment that the Internet affords to people of all ages. These restrictions, we are told, will protect young people from potentially sharing incriminating information about themselves that could hurt them with employers, educators and admissions officers in academic programs, and others. We are also informed that these restrictions protect young people from adults (like the aforementioned child predators) or other young people (like students at their school who may wish them ill) who may seek to harm them in some way.

   Parallel to this development is another interesting trend taking place. This trend is not discussed in the same tone of public concern and outrage as that expressed by those talking about the former issues, although it is far more pervasive and I would argue more damaging in many cases to young people because it involves a breach of their trust by people they should ideally be able to rely upon. The trend to which I refer is that of parents sharing damaging and confidential information about their children online.

   The Liza Long incident, which has generated widespread public interest, is of course an extreme example. Few parents take to the web to compare their children to mass murderers. But all too many parents, including those who love their children and claim they wish to protect them, take an all too casual attitude to sharing embarrassing or even damaging personal information about their children online. Because the children have no choice in who their parents are; because they have no legal recourse to demand that these violations of their privacy cease; because many members of the public do not even acknowledge the harm accruing to these youth - I would argue that this is a far more oppressive phenomenon than the ones typically brought up when our society discusses issues of young people's online privacy.

   Much of what we see parents doing to violate their children's privacy rights does not strike us as all that problematic at first glance as it has become increasingly common due to the rise of online forums, social media websites, blogs, and the like. Nonetheless, if we attempt to see things through the eyes of the child, we would rightly find much of this appalling. No one would want pictures of them crying while getting a shot at the doctor's office, for example, shared widely on Facebook with people that are no more than mere acquaintances of their parents. No one would want people they live with and rely upon for emotional, financial, and other types of support to share anecdotes about them on a blog which paint them at their worst.

   It seems to me that our society has struck fundamentally the wrong balance when it comes to protecting young people's rights online and it is a balance that, as it stands now, has far more to do with controlling youth than with protecting young people from the most serious breaches of confidentiality and some of the most problematic types of harm. Through age restrictions on social media websites, Internet filters, and the like we impede the ability of young people to make new friends, learn new things, and derive enjoyment from the online world. At the same time, we allow parents and other adults in a child's life (some, although by no means all, teachers will take to social media websites to share unflattering information about their students) to potentially damage their children's reputations and betray their trust while we sit idly by. This is the wrong calculation.

   Social media can be a wonderful tool for parents. They can share pride in a child's accomplishments and with that child's consent, both parent and child can enjoy the positive feedback they get from friends, relatives, and others. They can help their child to keep in touch with family friends and relatives around the world who can develop a connection with the child as he or she grows up that would have been impossible in days past. All of these things are positive developments for people of all ages and this blog post is by no means an indictment of them. However, when sharing information about a child that could be potentially damaging or embarrassing or that simply divulges information the child does not want shared with whomever it is being shared with, we need to respect that boundary. We talk a lot about protecting children from random people on the Internet. Perhaps we need to talk a lot more about protecting children from their web savvy parents. Until we are willing to do so, it is obvious that we are much more interested in controlling young peoples' online interactions than we are in protecting them in any meaningful sense.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Response to "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother"

   Perhaps many of you have seen a post that has recently gone viral in the wake of the heartbreaking and senseless tragedy in Connecticut. The name of that piece is "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" and the author of the piece is self-described "anarchist soccer mom" Liza Long. (Contrary to normal policy at this blog I am not linking to this piece as I do not want to give this woman another forum to publicly bash her child and violate his privacy.) As the actual Adam Lanza's mother was killed in a horrible act of violence by her obviously troubled son, this is of course not an article that truly reflects the perspectives of the mother of a mass murderer - it is instead a relatively unknown blogger's attempt to capitalize on the tragedy that has befallen this family in order to tell a story about her own family. While it is impossible to say without knowing much about either Lanza's family or this woman's son what similarities do or do not exist between the two situations, it is obvious from a youth rights and a disability rights perspective that there is a great deal that is problematic within Long's family and a great deal of it has to do with Long herself. While it is easy for many people (especially parents) to sympathize with the perspective that Long endorses, reading the article while keeping in mind her son's perspective makes it obvious that Long's words about her son may be less than reliable.

   The essay begins with what the author dubs an "affable, reasonable" request to dictate to her son that he wear the color pants of her choosing. When her son objects to this request, a request that most adults would find bizarre and offensive if made to them under similar circumstances, he lashes out at her in a way that she uses to bolster her claim that her son is mentally ill. She then proceeds to tell her son he is "grounded from electronics" and when her attempts to dictate his in no way socially unacceptable use of his property inspire further (I would say quite reasonable) anger in him, she chalks it up once again to her son being "mentally ill."

   Before we analyze this article any further I would like my adult readers to contemplate for a moment that an arbitrary authority figure in their lives sought to dictate to them what color of clothing they could wear or when and how they could use their property in socially acceptable ways. For us, our belligerence would be deemed reasonable and appropriate but for this young man it bolster's his mother's claim that he is mentally ill. Clearly a sense of personal boundaries and a desire for self-determination is seen as a healthy sign of self-respect in adults but in young people like Michael (the name of the young man in the article) it is interpreted as a sign that he is off the deep end. (As the article continues, we even hear of the mother's taking her son to a mental hospital against his will.)

   The article continues with the mother proffering more proof of her son's supposed mental illness. Some of this, if true, is compelling. For example, she states that at one point he attempted to pull a knife on her. She also goes on to state that various psychiatric and neurodevelopmental diagnoses have been tossed around, including Autism, to ostensibly explain her son's violent outbursts. This is where we learn that the individual writing this piece is operating from a place of not only ageism but ableism.

   While it is worth noting that Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability/difference as opposed to something which makes people into mindless killers, Long states at one point that her son has a "sensitivity to sensory stimuli." This is common for many people on the Autism spectrum. I tend to think that it is quite possible that Michael is simply a bright young person trapped in an oppressive situation with a controlling mother that refuses to respect his basic autonomy, that takes away his only outlets for self-expression and letting off steam (like videogames), and that doesn't respect his needs for the kind of sensory environment that his disability may entail. In a similar situation, many of us would likely feel trapped and lash out too, perhaps even violently. Just reading this article makes it obvious that there may be more to the story than Michael being a violent, irrational lunatic as his mother portrays him to be. Certainly if my mother compared me to mass murderers and sought to impose arbitrary restrictions on my perfectly acceptable behavior, I could be reasonably expected to lash out.

   Another obvious concern is the fact that, if Michael is as troubled as his mother claims him to be, it seems highly unethical for her to be sharing his psychiatric problems with the wider public at all, especially since she is not using a pseudonym for herself. If this young man is so imbalanced that he requires the type of psychiatric help she claims that he needs, surely he cannot be helped by having his mother compare him to mass murderers to a wide internet audience of strangers. Medical and mental health professionals are bound by a code of ethics to keep their patients' medical and psychological issues private. Certainly we should ask the same of parents dealing with their children's private emotional turmoil. While I can choose my doctor or therapist and choose to interact with them as more or less a free agent, I cannot choose my parents and therefore one could argue that the moral duty upon parents to keep their children's medical and psychiatric histories private is a duty even more incumbent upon them than it is upon doctors, nurses, therapists, and the like.

   For all of this, the most damning evidence about the character and unreliability of Long comes in other posts she makes about her children, posts which have nothing to do with mental illness or the issues raised in "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother." In one post entitled "The  Room of Doom" she begins by talking about the difficulties attendant in natural childbirth. The relevance of this is at first blush hard to determine except that it gives her one more occasion to rant about the grief the four children she chose to have have brought into her life. She tells prospective parents to get a puppy instead of having children because "the puppy won't grow up to be a teenager." You see, Long doesn't wish to accommodate the needs of an autonomous human being so she would rather have a dog. She goes on to bash her son (whether the same son she speaks of in the Lanza piece or another son I could not tell). She goes through his room, attempting to throw away possessions of his that he found to be of value and then speaks ill of him for his support of President Obama. Her patronizing attitude towards her teenage son is summed up in this gem of a quote: "Liberals, by the way, are not silly. At least not the ones I know. In an election season that is already shaping up to be one of the ugliest on record, I think we all need to focus on bringing respect back to the public debate. It’s okay for reasonable people to disagree about politics, and I am grateful for the perspective my liberal friends share with me (but you’re WRONG! Big wasteful disincentivizing government is not the answer! Sorry, couldn’t resist. And yes, for the record, I stuck my tongue out). Teenagers, however, are not reasonable people." You see, because her son is a teenager nothing he has to say is of value unlike the supposed wisdom spouted by Long's adult friends.

   So, my friends, keep in mind as you look for essays and articles to help you make sense of the tragedy in Connecticut that this is not what Long is offering. She is instead a child-hater and a teenager-hater, someone whose words give one the impression she deeply resents having children and probably should not have had them, someone who does not wish to respect her growing children's autonomy, and someone whose underlying assumptions about disability are deeply problematic. She is a third rate writer and a fifth rate parent (as anyone is that publicly bashes their children on the internet) capitalizing on a tragedy in order to find a greater platform in order to bash her children some more (something she was doing long before the tragedy in Connecticut occurred). Don't give her this platform. While the Adam Lanza article touches on many important aspects of our nation's mental healthcare system (and this is definitely a conversation worth having as a society) certainly we can find a better catalyst to discuss these issues than an embittered individual who wishes to use a nation's horror at violence against children to vent her rage at her own.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Problematic Nature of Viewing Parental Rights as Individual Rights

   In the context of the upcoming Supreme Court case addressing the issue of same-sex marriage, there has been a large degree of speculation about how Justice Anthony Kennedy could be expected to cast his vote. In an article from the Los Angelos Times Kennedy is quoted as saying that he is a strong believer in the rights of individuals to "make personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education." This quote was passed off in the article as a testament to Kennedy's belief in the rights of individuals to make decisions about their life free from government interference and nothing more. And while to most of the article's readers it likely seemed fairly unproblematic, the level of Orwellian doublespeak in such a statement is actually quite striking if one simply takes a moment to examine it critically.

   It is truly bizarre that in our political culture as well as in the wider society, choices about "child rearing and education" are seen as individual rights of a sort with the choices that an individual makes about her own lifestyle, family, relationships, and body. While the decision to marry someone of the same sex or to use contraception are truly personal choices that chiefly affect the individual in question (as well as other individuals who have freely consented to be a part of these decisions), choices about child rearing are choices imposed on an individual - a socially, politically, and economically powerless individual - by others. Framing choices about how one raises her children as individual rights of the same sort as the others that Justice Kennedy mentions inverts the concept of individual rights. It is indeed the antithesis of individual rights because it involves allowing some individuals state-backed power over other individuals.

   I by no means intend to single out Justice Kennedy for this problematic statement. It reflects a mentality that is all too common among educated and intelligent individuals across the political spectrum. Nonetheless it is a deeply wrong-headed mentality.

   With such a statement, Justice Kennedy highlights all the ways in which minors are viewed by the law and the wider culture as parental property and mere extensions of the adults in their lives without liberty and justice interests of their own worth protecting. Minors may have an interest in avoiding religious indoctrination foisted upon them by the adults in their lives. They may have an interest in avoiding the type of education their parents wish they would pursue. They may have an interest in making medical decisions their guardians disapprove of. They may have an interest in associating with individuals their family would prefer they not associate with. All of these possibilities are erased by Justice Kennedy's conflation of the individual right of someone to engage in sexual relations with the partner of their choosing, for example, and the right of a parent to force a lifestyle choice of any sort (like attending a certain school) upon their children without the child's autonomy interests being taken into consideration.

   Choices about parenting are not "individual rights" of the sort that we cherish in this country and other free societies. They are a denial of the rights of the most powerless members of our society. Even if one does believe that children are best served by a certain level of paternalism (a position I object to but that is beyond the scope of this post) it is best that one be honest about his belief that this is what is best for a child and that he be willing to set more stringent parameters for when that assumption can be overridden as opposed to framing almost any choice a parent makes on behalf of another person as an "individual right."

Friday, August 31, 2012

Remembering Shulamith Firestone and Carrying Forth Her Youth Rights Feminist Vision

   Shulamith Firestone, who died recently, did not use the words "youth rights feminism" to describe her worldview, but it was certainly the view of the world she presented in her second wave feminist class The Dialectic of Sex (published in 1970). Firestone was a radical who believed that what was natural was not necessarily human - she advocated for artificial reproductive technologies to free women from the burdens of biology and for contraception to give women more control over their bodies and their lives. (In particular, she supported the creation of artificial wombs and the abolition of pregnancy which she described as "barbaric.") She advocated for a classless society in which resources were distributed fairly. She spoke out against racism and called attention to the ways in which African-American men often failed to speak to the interests and realities of African-American women. She wrote about the ways in which women are conditioned to view culture through a male lens and thus lose the ability to authentically experience the world as women. But her most radical idea was probably the one that has been paid the least attention - that childhood in its current incarnation is oppressive to both children and women and must be radically reconstituted.

   In the space of the thirty pages of the fourth chapter of The Dialectic of Sex, entitled "Down with Childhood," Firestone begins by seeking to prove that childhood as we know it is a social construct designed to serve patriarchal ideals. Drawing heavily on the work of historian Philippe Aries, Firestone traces the advent of contemporary notions of childhood to the rise of schools and the nuclear family. She then lays out the case for children as an oppressed class - she decries the age segregation and repression of educational institutions, bemoans children's economic powerlessness, laments children's sexual repression, and lambasts the educators, psychologists, social workers, and other adults tasked with managing children and their lives. She sees children as an oppressed class - one whose oppression rests in both their physical limitations and their enforced subservience to adults. Finally, Firestone connects the oppression of children to the oppression of women. She attacks the ideology of motherhood which stipulates that children are delicate flowers in need of constant supervision and identifies this view as serving the interests of the patriarchy, not the interests of mothers or children. She contends that the supposedly special bond between women and children is "no more than shared oppression."

   Against the backdrop of a feminist landscape in which childfree feminists frequently resort to ageist attacks on children to justify their choices while other people tell women they're unfit mothers if they're not having natural births, breastfeeding for years at a time, and wholly giving themselves over physically and psychologically to their role as mothers, Shulamith Firestone's vision is needed now more than ever. In a world in which children are increasingly cut off from the rest of the world, where legislation and school zero tolerance policies affecting youth grow more restrictive and confining, and where the socially prescribed demands on mothers grow more onerous, where most American feminist activism on behalf of children both here and abroad is more concerned with paternalistically controlling young people than liberating them, Firestone's vision of an anti-sexist, anti-ageist society is a light in the darkness, showing us that there is a better way than the visions of childhood and the family presented to us by both the mainstream culture and the majority of third wave feminism.

   Because of her radical vision of freedom for children and women (as well as poor people and people of color) Firestone will always be someone I have the greatest respect and admiration for. She was a part of the generation of feminists who bequeathed a legacy of greater reproductive freedom, more opportunity in the workforce, and a less constraining image of what it means to be a woman to people of my generation. While that work is far from over, we have come a long way from where we were and Firestone and many of other women (and a few men) from that generation are the main reason why. But youth rights is the unfinished business on Firestone's agenda where we haven't come that far at all - in fact, in most ways we have gone backward and it hurts not only children but parents (especially mothers) as well. That is the agenda of this blog and the cause I am the most passionate about.

   On a personal note, Shulamith Firestone was one of the first thinkers on youth rights issues that I ever read. After encountering a number of misogynistic supposed youth rights supporters as well as many supposed feminists who were all too eager to deny the autonomy they cherished for themselves to those younger than they are, Firestone's work was a revelation. We've all seen the bumper stickers, buttons, and the like that say "Pro-Woman, Pro-Child, Pro-Choice." Firestone was truly all of these things in the most radical and liberating way possible. When I label myself and other pro-woman, pro-youth individuals as youth rights feminists, I see us as working in a tradition that starts with Shulamith Firestone. Rest in peace, radical sister.