Young People – The World’s Last Chattel?

This latest round of high-profile revelations of at times systemic cover-ups of the sexual abuse of young people at Penn State and elsewhere has been topping the news lately. There seem to be ongoing issues with this within the Catholic denomination but that is no longer news. Still in much of the world young people are coerced into military service, marriage or as sex workers under the threat of violence and often death. They are essentially “chattel”, human assets that are either owned and controlled by adult family members by accident of birth, or by “legitimate” or illegitimate sale to or seizure by others.

From my reading of history, at least since the beginnings of formal hierarchical organization of society perhaps 5000 years ago, the most prominent civilizations have featured an elite group of male people wielding power and authority (what I and others call “patriarchy”). The overwhelming majority of people – whether slaves, peasants, women or children – were essentially voiceless, owned and/or controlled by this elite group of men. With the ethical innovations of the “Axial Age” (~800 to 200 BCE) the legitimacy of slavery (particularly of adult males) began to be challenged, though it was still practiced in parts of Europe and the United States well into the 19th century CE. And in many parts of the world even today women continue to be virtual slaves to their fathers or husbands.

It is only in the Modern Era (since ~1500 CE) that adult males beyond the elites began to gain their autonomy and freedom from ownership or absolute control by those elites. A key indicator of that broadening autonomy was the growing number of voices that could be read in the burgeoning new medium of the printed word in the form of fliers, newspapers, journals and books. Still male voices almost exclusively, but male voices beyond the privileged elite often challenging the legitimacy of that privilege.

Privileged people tend to do what they can to perpetuate their privilege until confronted with no good alternatives but to surrender at least some of it in the hope of maintaining the rest. So it makes sense that in a hierarchical male-dominated society, the broadening of autonomy would play out in a way that enfranchised larger and larger circles of men while maintaining general male control over women and children. It is only in the previous two centuries that adult women began to challenge male privilege and control of their lives and demand their own autonomy and voice.

But all sorts of vestiges of this ancient hierarchical privilege still exist in the world today, even in a society like the United States that envisions itself as egalitarian (and even a beacon of egalitarianism to the world). Certainly the “Occupy” movement is challenging the legitimacy of continuing economic privilege in what is otherwise advertised as an egalitarian society.

In all these vestiges of privilege and its perpetuation, it is young people who tend to fall at the bottom of that pecking order. If the legitimacy of all other forms of privilege are being challenged, there is still adult privilege which remains largely legitimate and mostly unchallenged.

That said, young people have come a long way in our society in their relationships with their adult stewards from the 19th century standard of being “seen and not heard”, speaking “only when spoken to” and adult violence based on “spare the rod and spoil the child”. Today, at least in many homes, young people are allowed or even encouraged to speak their minds and be decision-makers in their own lives, and corporal punishment is not the widely accepted practice it used to be.

In our modern egalitarian ethos, the exercise of governance by our elected leaders is no longer a matter of imposing absolute control. It has evolved, at least to a large degree, to a more collaborative exercise of facilitating the effective functioning of civic, social and economic institutions. This is the case at least for adults, but not necessarily in the social institutions we create for our young people, schools in particular. Still in most schools that I am aware of today, adult stewardship is authoritarian control pure and simple, not the more egalitarian facilitation. This is old-school monarchy stuff, in my sense of history, a remaining vestige of a hierarchical past now beyond effectiveness or ethical justification.

Yet still many adults mythologize that teens are at the mercy of their hormones so they can’t think clearly enough to direct their own lives. Interestingly, a similar hormonal incapacity argument used to be employed to justify keeping adult women under the control of men. Then there is the whole pejorative connotation of “behaving like children”, a standard epithet for being selfish and undisciplined. A similar argument was used historically by white Europeans who conquered and exercised control over indigenous people of color.

What this tells me is that much of the current conventional wisdom about the inability of young people justifying tight adult control is not based on thoughtful observation and understanding, but is simply perpetuating the vestiges of an ancient hierarchical control model, certainly outmoded now if it ever was appropriate in the past. What I’m talking about is “adultism” beyond the legitimate stewardship role that adults play in the lives of young people.

There are stories every day about exceptional young people making great achievements “beyond their years”. But are they really that exceptional and really functioning beyond the normal capacity of people their age? Or have we not fully recalibrated our thinking away from outmoded ideologies like the Calvinist view of innate human depravity? As more adult people around the world challenge the conventional wisdom of authoritarian control that limits their expression of autonomy and treats them “like children”, doesn’t it make sense to reexamine our whole concept of what it truly means to be tagged with that baggage-ridden label of “child”?

I think it is time. I’m all about promoting human development, and I can see no more valuable use of efforts in that regard than reexamining our cultural conventional wisdom and mythology around adult “rules of engagement” with our young people.

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