Getting the Story Straight

Society is usually schizophrenic in the ways it treats youth. But once in a while, it goes from being schizophrenic to actually telling the truth. That truth is hidden though, and today I want to expose it.

I usually try to leave these complicating exposures to the individuals and organizations that are very good at illustrating them – namely, many youth activists, adults like Mike Males, Henry Giroux, bell hooks, and orgs like the National Youth Rights Association. However, an article in the local newspaper leaves me with no choice. It is so frustrating to me how this ties together.

Here’s the story: Society has moved from a general distrust of young people towards the mass incapacitation of all youth. The case in point comes from Seattle, where a youth recently died while in the hands of the juvenile (in)justice system.

James H. Whiteshield, 17, went into convulsions early Friday morning while being booked into King County juvenile detention center and died Sunday at Harborview Medical Center, authorities said. [Source]

This young person dieing is a travesty, especially in the hands of a system that is supposedly meant to keep him from harming himself. But the focus of my concern here is the way he is treated after life. Newspapers have an ethical obligation to leave the name of young people – minors – out of articles about them, particularly when there has not been a trial or legitimate charges brought against the youth; according to the article, the young person in this case was brought in on illegitimate drug charges.

Newspapers repeatedly violate the legal and social trust society has instilled in them to keep young people anonymous. In 2001, newspaper mogul Gannett issued a defensive statement about their exposure of teens’ identities in a story about prostitution [source]. Their defense basically presumes that since these teens were guilty, the reporters were obligated to expose their names to the public.

Newspapers – and TV shows, and movies – have continuous influence over popular social perspectives of youth. What the stories here prove, along with so many others, is that popular media has effectively desensitized society from feeling sympathic about “youth” as a time of life. Gone is the right to the anonymity once granted by the news. Gone are the rights to be tried as a juvenile, to quality public school education, and to health care. Even social programs are being slashed, as society wakes up to a new way to treat young people.

Why are these basic human rights disappearing from the lives of children and youth today? While newspapers promote every perspective about young people from ephebiphobia to infantilization, somewhere in between another model of treatment is surfacing. Where adultist prejudice once guided society, in the form of judging any one’s ability according to age, rather than ability, there is something new raging across the lands.

That’s where I defer to the individuals and orgs I cited above. NYRA presents good arguments about the voting age and curfews; Males exposes the reality of the juvenile (in)justice system; Giroux identifies how government funding, the education system, and popular media are complicit; and bell hooks reveals how the treatment of parents and mainstream culture promotes negative perspectives of young people.

James Carville has pointed out that all of this seemingly-hypocritical treatment of youth is actually generational warfare, a “declared war on young people.” [source] I know that’s a powerful accusation, but ultimately, I agree with his assessment. However, there is something even more dubious at work. Giroux often suggests that the demonization of youth, the neoliberalism of schooling, and govenment’s abandonment of youth are indications of new roles for youth in society: instead of being “the future” youth have become “the fault”. [source: see p254]

For the last five years the Freechild Project has represented my commitment to expose the reality of youth today. With so many young people struggling to be heard, fighting for power, researching deep knowledge, and contesting hypocrisy throughout society, we luckily have more than a one-sided battle underway. For instance, another story from today’s paper was about a young person in San Jose who is fighting the hypocrisy himself. That is a story Freechild is designed to highlight and encourage.

Thomas Paine was an American revolutionary writer and leader. While he was one of those privileged white men whose hypocrisy is apparent, Paine presented and fought for the most vibrant vision of democracy and universal kinship those colonial times knew. It was in his Common Sense where he wrote,

“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Let’s move that vision forward, and create our own vision in order to fight these hypocrisies and grow this democracy. That is my future.

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