My Essay on Adultism: In Which Gwen Takes On Adultism, And Adultism Loses
Since I'm pretty pro-youth-rights, anti-adultism, I'd thought I'd give any readers out there a heads-up to what adultism is and why it should be fought (conveniently the name of my essay). I wrote this for a persuasive essay requirement in English and decided to look up the idea of ageism, a word I had coined (or so I thought) to describe discrimination of people on the basis of age, specifically against those under eighteen or the age of majority. When I looked it up, first I kept finding stuff about the discrimination against old people- definitely also a problem, but they can vote and no one tries to pass curfews or compulsory education laws on them- then I found out that the other word for it was adultism. This got me started in NYRA and the rest, as they say, is history.
November 7, 2004
Adultism: What It Is and Why It Should Be Fought
Adultism- the discrimination of a group of people on the basis of less age- is a harmful oppression that can and should be fought.
Imagine that a certain group of adults- for instance, blue-eyed people- was treated in the same way that under-eighteen-year-olds are. Blue-eyed people would be told that they could be whoever they wanted to be- and yet most would be restrained from having any kind of job whatsoever. Blue-eyed people would be lied to from very early years about such mythical creatures as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the stork, and yet would be expected to trust the people who lied to them. If a blue-eyed person wanted to know about things like politics, economics, and sex- things that would govern their lives in the future- they would be told that they didn’t have the right color eyes to learn about it. If a blue-eyed person were to try to find out about these subjects over the Internet, they would have to hope that their brown- or green-eyed guardian did not have AOL, because the Blue-eyed setting would not let them go to any sites such as the Americans for a Society Free of Eye-color Restrictions or the National Blue-Eyed Rights Association (Wishnetsky). They would not be allowed to smoke, drink, vote, or in many cases hold a job or drive, yet they could pay taxes such as sales tax. Any money they made would be considered the property of some brown-eyed or green-eyed person.
They would be required to spend their life as a blue-eyed person at an education center which was taught by people with non-blue eyes, and where the curriculum would be as much that blue eyes are inferior as that George Washington was our first President. In history and civics, they would be taught about the rights that belong to all American citizens, yet they themselves would be denied these rights. Enrichment activities could include finding out about the laws for voter registration, or writing an essay about how important it was to our founding parents to not have taxation without representation, yet blue-eyed people would be denied the right to vote and be forced to pay taxes. They would be required to start each day with the Pledge of Allegiance, with some places giving punishment if they did not, and try not to see the hypocrisy in saying “with liberty and justice for all” when it would be clear that they themselves were not counted in the “all”. In some states, the education centers would have the right to randomly drug test the blue-eyed people, search their backpacks and lockers at any time, and use corporal punishment when they misbehaved. In some states, laws would be passed requiring blue-eyed people to address their brown-eyed or green-eyed teachers as Sir and Ma’am (Baron). Even progressive teachers would expect blue-eyed people to call them Mr. Smith or Mrs. Smith, and yet call blue-eyed students John and Jane, even though in no other service industry on Earth would those providing the service considered superior to those served. After all, no one would expect a store clerk to receive more respect from the customer than vice versa; the same with a waiter or a waitress and the person patronizing their restaurant! Yet in school, this would be considered standard.
At home blue-eyed people would be expected to do chores, not stay out past curfew, and do whatever they were told, including eating, dressing, and speaking the way the brown- or green-eyed people told them to. If they protested, their privileges- what few ones they would have- could be taken away, or they could be hit or beaten. This would of course be legally sanctioned. Even undisruptive blue-eyed people could be sent to gulag schools, euphemistically called behavior modification centers, where rules would include not looking up, not crossing your legs or your ankles, and not speaking unless spoken to; if they disobeyed, they would be forced to lie on their stomachs with their hands behind their backs and not move or speak (ASFAR). Brown-eyed presidents would support these schools, though PETA would not support such treatment of dogs. Brown-eyed presidential candidates would speak of forced, unpaid volunteerism for blue-eyed people, despite the Thirteenth Amendment (Bank of Knowledge). The media would exaggerate blue-eyed crime; books and movies would continually put blue-eyed people down, even when supposedly catering to them, by showing them hit, shoved aside, and even raped, for no crime at all except being blue-eyed- and this would be called justice. Even the books and movies showing a blue-eyed hero would show him or her as being unable to fend for themselves, defend themselves, or be intelligent enough to even just find ways around restrictions placed on them by their eye color. Non-blue-eyed people would consider themselves superior, their thoughts, desires and dreams more important, and deserving of more rights.
If we all agree that blue-eyed people would, in this scenario, be completely and thoroughly oppressed, why do we expect every single person alive to have to go through this oppression for eighteen years?
There are restrictions on under-eighteen-year-olds that find their parallels in sexism and racism. For instance, they are not allowed to vote. Keeping them with the same amount of say in laws that govern their lives as pets keeps it legal to treat them like pets, or in some cases- like in gulag schools- less than pets, just as women not being allowed to vote until 1920 and blacks not being allowed to vote until 1870 kept them legally inferior. Old laws that kept women from owning property, or where they were allowed, made that property their husband’s as soon as they were married; and laws that outlawed the owning of property for blacks, or in cases of slaves or even former slaves, considered property find their parallels in laws that make sure that people under eighteen are not allowed to open a bank account without their guardian’s signature and their property is legally considered the property of their parents or guardians. Even when they are allowed to own jobs, the money they earn is only considered theirs when they are paying income and sales tax or when their parents or guardians let them keep it for themselves. Legal emancipation for women was limited to not marrying or divorcing; slaves had to be freed by their owners; youth today must apply through a court and prove an ability to be on their own, not required of over-eighteen-year-olds. Slaves were returned to their owners under the Fugitive Slave Laws, which are strangely parallel to runaway laws, except that there is little outcry over runaway laws, and there is no convenient North or Canada to which young people can run away. And the list goes on.
The most-used argument in favor of adultism is that young people deserve it somehow- they are stupid, their fears and desires unimportant and petty, or they are violent criminals that should be punished. However, this argument is statistically invalid.
Fig. 1. Graph of Juvenile and Crime Rates over Time from statistics from the FBI site.
Crime rates among people under eighteen are below those of adults and are falling at a faster rate (FBI). Simply put, without facts to back up these accusations of these “criminal kids,” they do not hold water.
Other common arguments are that adultism is universal for the oppressed as a group and temporary for each of the oppressed individuals. However, these points do not make it less valid or oppressive; in fact, they make it worse.
The universality of adultism means that there is nowhere that a youth can go to get help or rights. There may be less oppression in certain states, countries, or cultures, but there is still oppression everywhere. Despite what some people might try to make you believe, commonality does not mean acceptability no matter what the oppression.
The temporary condition of adultism makes it worse. As Brian Dominick explains in an online essay:
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
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 [another word used for adultism but also used in age
discrimination against seniors] fades away. (Dominick)
The temporary condition is also worse because it is often used as an argument against youth- “you’ll grow out of it”- but this is ridiculous. Eighteen years of oppression is certainly nothing to be simply waved aside. Furthermore, turning into one of the oppressors does not make you liberated. Try suggesting to feminists that women can simply get a sex-change operation to get equal rights with men, and see the reaction you get. “Growing out of it” is a temporary solution to what is so far a permanent problem.
Adultism is harmful because it causes internalization of oppression. Young people who try to rebel against the system are punished, and any behavior that adults approve of- such as obedience to all adults- is praised and rewarded in a way similar to the ways of training a dog. Young people are expected to jump through all of the hoops adults and society put up for them and act as though they like it, or they are branded “rebellious” or “disrespectful.” Even the usually rational adults expect younger people to respect all adults simply because of the amount of years from birth, regardless of intelligence, kindness, maturity, or integrity. Experience is certainly important, but in a world where 83% of murdered children, 50% of murdered teenagers, and 85% of murdered adults are murdered by people over twenty, can anyone claim that it always equals wisdom? (Pro-Youth Pages.) “Look around you- it’s the way life is,” people are told from birth, and when they do, all they see is other people who have also internalized the oppression. They are expected to ignore, of course, the fact that this was an argument used to argue for every oppression humankind has ever created.
If you have been told that you were worthless on the basis of nothing more than the time from your birth, you are much more likely to accept the idea of being worthless on the basis of nothing more than the melanin in your skin or the arrangement of your 23rd chromosome. Adultism is indoctrination into irrational inferiority, and a chisel creating a crack to allow the wedges of other oppressions in.
It is a clinically proven fact that abuse creates abusers. Bullies have been bullied. Adultism is indoctrination into irrational superiority as well- if I am better because I am older, then why am I not better because I am whiter? Adults need to create an increasingly elaborate system of justifications to accept adultism as legitimate in the same way that under-eighteen-year-olds have to internalize their oppression.
Clearly the line between the oppressors and the oppressed is less clear in adultism than in sexism. After all, there are no graduated genders. There is, however, a parallel in racism. Mark Twain shows the normal attitude to part blacks in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson: “To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a Negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a Negro” (Twain, 32-33). Despite the fact that she is a slave like all of the other slaves, she considers herself better than them because she is whiter, enough to pass for white. This same hierarchy exists among non-adults: the “big kids” are better than the “little kids.” Even one year is enough of a barrier to consider the younger as inferior to the older as the adults are to the older, showing how easily adultism is recreated among the oppressed. However, no matter what the ages of the oppressors and the oppressed, there is still a clear line separating each, at least during the oppression, allowing an analysis of the harms to each.
Adultism is harmful to the oppressed because they learn to internalize abuse and accept it as a way of life. They are continually reminded, “Life’s not fair. Get used to it.” Often this oppression leads them to lash out in violent or hostile behavior towards others or violent behavior to themselves, like cutting. Some of them spend their time alone and avoid others, or seek to fill their time with too much activity to avoid thinking about it or in some cases even illegal substance abuse. Adultism also leads them to become the oppressors because it is simply considered a way of life.
Adultism is harmful to the oppressors as well. It may cause self-esteem or feelings of superiority; however, like any feeling of happiness that does not stem from one’s own self-worth and self-esteem, this sense is unhealthy and leads to a dependency on what causes it- in this case, putting someone else down. This leads to insecurity- “I’m not good unless you are bad”- which can lead to racism, sexism, homophobia, and other oppressions.
For all of these reasons, adultism- harmful, oppressive, leading to other oppressions- should be stopped. And it can be stopped. The outlook may seem bleak, but it is possible to break the cycle, simply by practicing and encouraging more equality for all rather than discrimination on the basis of age.
There are many ways to combat adultism on an individual level. For instance, try not to talk down to those younger than yourself or treat them as inferior. Before you take something from a child or touch them spontaneously, ask yourself, “Would I treat someone my age that way? Would I like to be treated that way myself?” Of course, there are cases in which your No is backed up with reasons- for instance, expecting a four-year-old to hold your hand when you cross the street- but if you do not have any reasons for it, do not do it. More actively, if someone else makes an adultist comment or joke, treat it as you would a racist or sexist comment- explain to them that you do not appreciate that comment. Often the person does not realize that he or she is being adultist- or may not even know what adultism is- which is when you can tell them. You could also join a youth rights organization, such as Americans For A Society Free of Age Restrictions, the Freechild Project or the National Youth Rights Association, or start your own. Do research on this topic and try to educate the people you know about adultism. Avoid being pushy or rude, because that would turn people off even more, but remember that knowing that there is a problem is the first step to finding a solution.
It may take a while, but we can fight to put a stop to adultism.
Americans For a Society Free of Age Restrictions. Schneider-Joseph, David. 23 August
Baron, Dennis. “To Sir, or Ma’am, With Love?”
Dominick, Brian. “Refusing Adulthood: Notes on ‘Aging Out.’” 2 February 2000
“Federal Bureau of Investigation: Uniform Crime Reports (Crime Index Spreadsheet).”
Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2003.
“Kerry: A New Era of National Service.” Bank of Knowledge. 2004.
Pro-Youth Pages, The. Medic, Bill. 27 November 2004.
Twain, Mark. The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Hartford: American Publishing
Wishnetsky, Susan. http://www.oblivion.net/
So there you have it. If you actually read through the whole thing without falling asleep, you now know why I'm against age discrimination. I've been against it for a long time, refusing to simply blindly accept that "life's not fair, get used to it," but this essay represents the first time I consolidated my thoughts, did research, and put my arguments into cogent form.