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Monday, July 16, 2012

Youth Rights 101: How to Analyze Issues Through a Youth Rights Lens

   Previously I have posted about how youth rights is primarily a framing device as opposed to a set of hard and fast positions (i.e. youth rights supporters believe in this or youth rights supporters think that is wrong). As a framework for understanding issues related to young people, youth rights may not always give us a lot of easy answers (although sometimes it will) but it will lead us to ask certain types of questions that help us to understand an issue more clearly that we otherwise might have. This blog post isn't going to tell you how to come to the "youth rights position" on a given issue (as if there was only one!) but it will help you to learn to analyze everything from media representations of youth to legal issues involving minors to situations you observe in your daily life through a youth rights framework.

   First, ask yourself how young people are being framed in a given context. Are they portrayed as delinquent troublemakers up to no good? As helpless victims in need of adult guidance and supervision? As autonomous human beings with their own beliefs, values, and personality? Do youth speak for themselves or are others (parents, teachers, experts, etc.) primarily speaking for them? Are we being led to give the things young people say about themselves credence or are we being led to disregard their perspectives in favor of what someone older has to say ostensibly on their behalf? Documentaries in which adults speak about children without allowing children to speak for themselves in a way the viewer is led to believe are just as credible as adult viewpoints are an example of a problematic framing of youth in the media.

   Ask yourself if the solutions being proposed to deal with problems affecting youth deal with the systemic forces that endanger youth by depriving them of autonomy or if they simply reinscribe the adult supremacist logic which creates many of these problems in the first place. The vast majority of books, movies, television news reports, legislation, etc. that aim to tackle the problem of youth on youth violence and harassment (euphemistically termed "bullying") do little to solve the problem and sometimes even do a fair amount to make it worse. This is primarily because these "solutions" fail to take into account the structural forces which conspire to put youth into oppressive situations which they cannot choose to walk away from. Almost all adults have found themselves in a situation where they experienced alienation and unhappiness with the people around them whether it be at a university, a job, a place of worship, a community organization, or even an entire town. The reason that this sort of thing rarely drives adults to take their own lives or to resort to violence against others is not primarily because adults are more mature than youth are - it is that adults are more or less free to leave these situations and move on to one they are happier about. So "anti-bullying" programs which do not seek to ameliorate the lot of students by giving them greater control over their educational environment do little to actually address the problem.

   Another prime example of this phenomenon is how the issue of LGBT youth homelessness is framed, particularly within the context of the LGBT community. When LGBT people and their supporters speak about the tragedy of youth who are homeless due to rejection by their families on the basis of their sexuality and/or gender identity, the villain is always spoken of the in the vaguest possible terms. It's "homophobia" or "religious fundamentalism" or simply the fact that the young person's parents are bad. All of this is true, but it does little to address the problem of LGBT youth homelessness itself. There will unfortunately always be homophobes and religious fanatics among us. Hopefully there will be fewer of them in the future, but they are unlikely to become extinct any time soon. The reason that LGBT youth are in such a vulnerable position is not simply that many of them have parents who are bigots and fools. That is also true of plenty of LGBT adults who seem to do just fine for themselves. It is because of the legal, political, social, cultural, and economic forces which conspire to make young people without an adult patron essentially helpless in our society. There are almost no jobs where a young person without a diploma can earn a decent living. There are few social services that she is able to access on her own. Due to her age, she may not be legally allowed to sign the paperwork necessary to rent an apartment even in the very unlikely event that she comes into enough money to afford one. It is the evil of ageism even more than the evil of homophobia which works to incapacitate homeless LGBT youth and keep them in a dire situation. And what is worse, focusing solely on homophobia while ignoring institutionalized ageism virtually assures that the problem will never go away.

   Ask yourself if the discourse in play revolves around essentialist notions about young people.   Statements about the supposedly immutable, universal, and and essentialist characteristics that youth of a certain age possess are nearly everywhere in our society. They are so taken for granted in our culture that most people rarely if ever question them and will go so far as to label any deviation from these stereotypes as pathological - a child is "socially stunted" or "extremely gifted" for example. On the other hand, we take for granted that there is a great deal of variation when it comes to say, twenty-five-year-olds. Some are ready to have children of their own; some are not. Some are seasoned professionals in their chosen field; some are not. We don't pathologize these differences - we recognize them as a part of human diversity. We should apply this same attitude to youth and we should be highly skeptical in those instances where we see that it is not being applied. (For a great analysis of this phenomenon by a radical young person, check out this blog post.)

   Asking yourself these three questions is by no means all that it takes to analyze a discourse through a youth rights lens. For most of us interested in these issues - those of us who have read, researched, talked, and thought a lot about them - asking ourselves these questions is not something that we do intentionally when we hear someone make a comment about their children or watch a sitcom where youth are featured. It is rather akin to an automatic reflex. When you begin thinking about youth rights issues and using youth rights as a lens through which to analyze issues affecting young people, you will find that the opportunities to do so are endless. You will also find that most discourses centering on youth would make a lot more sense and do a lot more good if youth rights was a part of the average person's frame of reference.

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