Thursday, August 3rd, 2017 03:24 pm
I keep seeing people modelling ageism towards the young with a simplistic privileged/marginalised dichotomy, and while there is a huge power differential between adults and young people(*), I think this kind of model is really unhelpful.

I mean, simplistic privileged/marginalised dichotomies are a flawed way to describe anything. But there's cases where it at least kind of works, and age isn't one of them.

Consider, by contrast, gender. While non binary and other trans people are non-negligible edge cases, the majority of people divide neatly into Men (privileged) and Women (marginalised) and tend to stay in the same category their whole lives. Women can organise long term, and mentor each other, and dedicate their lives to feminism. Simplisticly treating All Men like The Enemy is unfair, and complete separatism is impractical, but women can find joy and support through pride in their womanhood and solidarity with other women their whole lives. Meanwhile, cis men can just accept that women are the experts on sexism. There are huge issues with white straight cis etc women acting like they have ownership of The Universal Experience Of Womanhood, and with everyone erasing or belittling trans experiences, but the Men vs Women model still mostly works most of the time.

Now consider age. It's all edge conditions. Instead of two fuzzy edged but obvious sets of Privileged vs Marginalised, we have a smooth continuum with no obvious place to draw a line(**). Instead of people mostly staying in one set, literally everyone shifts up that continuum at a steady rate their whole lives. Specifically, they shift from marginalised to privileged (and then, if they live long enough, back to marginalised again)

On an individual level you can use the rough rule of thumb that more age = more privilege (up to a certain point). The problem is when people try and divide groups of people into "the ones with age privilege" and "the ones without", and act like this is an immutable trait.

Any form of organisation or solidarity either includes adults or forces kids to lose their support once they reach a sufficient age. If a kid sees adults as The Enemy they will eventually see themselves as the enemy. All adults have experienced being a kid, and most of us are still processing those experiences. Ignoring the opinions of adults means you're stuck with the fresh but unrefined opinions of people still finding their feet, and silencing those people after only a short window.

I'm not saying there shouldn't be awareness of the power differentials between adults and young people. I'm just saying that it can't be treated as a simple divide into two or more discrete groups. The power divide between a 37 year old like me and, say, a ten year old is pretty straightforward. But what about me and a 27 year old? Or the ten year old and a five year old? If I met someone when I was 20 and they were 10, and we kept in contact for the next 17 years, at what point would we have gone from adult and child to two adults? Would my power dynamic with them be different to that with a 27 year old I met today?

Treating adults like an enemy to be ignored and excluded is most harmful in marginalisd communities. Imagine being a queer teenager who's finally found community with other queer teens, and is told to completely avoid adults and adult social spaces. What happens when that teen hits adulthood? They're now A Gross Grownup everyone in their youth focussed community is told to avoid, but they have no connections to adult queer spaces because until now they were told to avoid them. Where do they go? How do they feel about themselves and their sexuality?

There absolutely is a place for age segregated spaces. But only as part of a broader, more diverse community. Kids can form community amongst themselves in youth spaces, but also connect to people of wider ages in other spaces. (I mean if an individual young person wants to avoid adults, and as an adult just hangs with their similarly aged friends, then that's fine! But it's not a very good universal model)

I'm actually working on a post about how to ethically navigate mixed age spaces as an adult, because it's a really complex problem and the discussions I've seen about it tend to be pretty unhelpful. But suffice to say: it's a serious and complex issue, and I don't mean to gloss over it.

I'm also not saying adults should be treated as the experts on childhood. Sadly, while we do have personal experience with being children, we're generally too blinded by nostalgia and our acquired privilege to be objective. But we have different flaws in our perspective than younger people, so we need to all compare notes and listen to each other.

And in that vein, if anyone has other perspectives on ageism towards young people I'd be very interested to hear them! And yes, that includes young people :) I haven't resarched this very deeply, I'm mainly working from thoughts I've had during conversations about age in fandom.

Also, couldn't find a better place to put this, but: one of the problems with discussing privilege that applies here as much as everywhere else is the complex interactions with gender, disability etc. For example: Adult women overall have privilege over young girls(***), but sexism affects adult women in unique ways, it's not just "like being a young girl minus ageism". Girls don't get attacked with Old Woman sexist tropes, and sometimes thoughtlessly use these tropes without thinking about how harmful they are. Meanwhile the personal sting of Young Girl tropes have worn off for older women and they often use them gleefully. Thinking of this as a simple privilege1+privilege2 algebra misses the complexities.

(*)I was going to link to a simple description of all the ways adults have power over children but I can't find much. So here's This chapter on Feminist Parenting by bell hooks and a post about 'adultism' in youth workers. Everyday Feminism is irritating but here's 20+ Examples of Age Privilege about ageism against old people. Maybe the fact that ageism is so fuzzy is one reason there isn't much decent discussion of it?
(**)Sure, you can use "legally an adult" etc, but asides from a few specific circumstances where the legal distinction does make a big difference, this is entirely arbitrary. For example, the power difference between a a 17 year old and someone who just turned 18 is much less than that between a 14 year old and a 17 year old, or an 18 year old and a 21 year old. And unless you create some sort of complex function involving relative ages, social position etc there's no easy way to compare or equate these differences. Also, the significance of these differences changes drastically over time.
(***)I originally had "younger women" instead of "girls" but as someone pointed out that's not unambiguously true.


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