The Kids Were Always Alright: Breaking the Spell of Ageless Ageism

Pictured: Twitter. (Actual photo credit, still from the film Spirited Away)

Pictured: Twitter. (Actual photo credit, still from the film Spirited Away)

The belief that the world is bad and getting worse is one of the most venerable motifs of human civilization, appearing as far back as our record of written language exists. There are even Egyptian hieroglyphs suggesting that our next stop on this handbasket trip is Hell. Consider some of the guiding myths of our age that have been with us since time immemorial: even if you are not Christian, something about the myth of Eden and the Fall stays with you, guiding that pessimistic sense that we’ve declined ever more precipitously from a state of grace. Although the Fall myth is about a collapse from a very ancient grace that is firmly in the past, I’d argue the very idea of it as a popular myth represents our ongoing anxiety that this fall is a continuous one, each generation tumbling yet lower than the one that preceded it.

A parallel track to this, however, is the persistent belief that it is young people who are the agents of this decline. Whatever precipice we seem to be falling from, you can rest assured it is the youth who will be named oblivion’s field marshals.

Yes, the old “young people are fucking everything up” trope. To say it is as ‘old as the hills’ is an understatement. The myth of the Fall, for which impetuous youth are responsible, has likely been with us since before the first cuneiform was carved into clay.

It’s not a coincidence that this mythology inflects some of the most tedious and depressing debates going on now among leftists and social justice activists. It was at the heart of Jack Halberstam’s recent piece on trigger warnings, wherein he all but accused young queer feminists of ruining the knowing, hip parodically performative fun of 90s activism. It is at the heart of the equally depressing debate around the word “tranny” that has set salivating media tongues awag. There again appears the motif: young people are censorious and hyper sensitive, the grownups are wiser and have a sense of history.

The Fetish for Youth

In 423 BCE, Aristophanes debuted his comedic play, The Clouds, which was meant to satirize the growing sway of Socratic philosophy. Who was Aristophanes’ vehicle? A young man caught between dueling caricatures: a stout-hearted old soldier who preaches traditionalism, and a seductive, airy philosopher who offers trendy academic fashions. The play is an attack on critical reasoning, in many respects, but it also signifies the core battleground for such ideological warfare: the hearts and minds of the young, symbolising the elder generation’s fear that their children will fall under the sway of fashion and be ruin the of us all.

Nearly 2,500 years later we’re no closer to a resolution of that battle. But the nature of the debate remains founded on a centuries-deep layer of ideological leavings and it is long past time for those of us who fancy ourselves forward-looking revolutionaries to stop this fetishization of the young.

Why a fetish? In the leftist political imagination youth are actually prized, in a strange way: we are the great change-makers on whom all hope for our movements depends. In lofty and airy terms that efface any individual reality, young activists will sometimes be held up as potential saviors. The downside, and where the popular impulse to blame the youth for cultural decline comes in, is that we will inevitably fail to live up to those impossible dreams to finish the revolution in one go. Thus, in conjunction with the the cynicism that runs rampant in our communities, it becomes easy to say that if things are getting worse, it must be the young people’s fault, squandering their limitless potential, and possibly even breaking activism altogether.

This split mentality leads to such contradictory patterns as older leftists chafing at the suggestion that monstrous student loan debt is the fault of young students, while also blaming those self-same twentysomethings for ruining the culture of activism somehow.

It’s frustrating on a personal level: activist culture presents us with much to criticize and be mindful of. But if there is blame to be cast, it knows no generation. As usual, the scapegoating of the young is meant to allow older generations to take comfort in that perversely reassuring myth of Eden: we’re going to hell in a handbasket, but at least it’s not our fault. 

Generational conflict is one of the hoariest clichés in feminism and left politics more widely. There’s the old (patently untrue, and frankly racist) old saw about how young women are abandoning feminism and flouting the hard work of our foremothers, for instance. Among transgender people—trans women in particular—the conceit of generational battles has some ground in reality but it is often vastly oversimplified in most online discourse, to the detriment of us all. Young trans people or young transitioners are conceived of as impatient, impetuous, disorderly and flamboyant; older trans people are seen as inherently conservative, dangerously quietist, and out of touch. Both archetypes were always wrong, though it’s not unfair to say that the one about youth bites the hardest. It pushes us into perilous territory where we fail to evaluate claims made by youth on their merits, treating them with respect and dignity, and instead just cast their work out of hand as valueless for its failure to resemble what has gone before.

Fear of change drives all this, at least in part. Even for those radicals who fetishise youth as the ultimate changemakers, one of the ways we inevitably disappoint is that our vision of the future differs, often as not, from that of our forebears. Change is scary, even if change is what you claim to be seeking.

As the seasons of civilization shift, there will be plenty of people—even self-styled progressives, yes—who will wring their hands nervously at the unknowable future spreading before us. As I wrote recently about hope, it should be precisely tomorrow’s x-variable nature that should inspire the greatest hope and courage. Yet, into the void we often project our fears. Then, we turn to the young people standing next to us. Perhaps they look eagerly into that void, perhaps they see something you do not; smiling, thoughtful, contemplative. Instead of a demon-haunted future, they see possibility. And in our cynicism, we react violently to that display of hope.

As a certified young person, I am all too ready to admit that youth does indeed entail a certain brashness, and the occasional bouts of unreason. We do, indeed, make a hash of things, betimes. But to screw up is human; youth have no monopoly on it, however many fireworks we may sometimes inject into our failures.

Youth-Scorning and Intersectionality

The problems caused by thinking that young people are uniquely destructive are legion for activists: it fractures the energies of our movement and denies useful tools to those who may need them most.

The recent New York Times piece about the shift away from pro-choice rhetoric was roundly, and rightly condemned for failing to grapple with reproductive justice organizations that were responsible for driving the shift in the first place. Feminism, and its mainstream chroniclers, ignoring the contributions of women of color is, tragically, nothing new; inflecting this particular faux pas, however, was also scorn for the words and work of the young—not to mention the fact that reproductive justice movements have hosted abiding alliances between elder and younger activists that defy every iota of conventional wisdom about generational warfare.

Time and again, at conferences like CLPP: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom, or at the organisations whose boards I serve on, or on the streets doing hard work beneath unforgiving skies, I see young people. All the people who, we’re told, have no truck with gender justice: youth, people of colour, working class people. They’re all there. And the scorn for the young heaped upon us by older, more established activist thought-leaders is always a neat fit with efforts that marginalize or ignore other groups as well; it is easy to cast efforts at inclusion as just more angry young whiners, after all. So many trans women of color, for instance, who labor to bring truth to feminism are young.

For those like Michelle Goldberg, Andrea James, or Jack Halberstam who see youth as the barbarians storming the gates of old leftist redoubts, I continue to remind them that it does not have to be like this. The old myth of the Fall comprises the strings by which too many of us have been moved, yes, but we have the power to snip them if we choose. That these strings are thousands of years old makes it yet more embarrassing to cling to them.

The void before is not oblivion. It is, well, I can simply return to Virginia Woolf’s words from two weeks ago:

“The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.”

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross is a whippersnapper, just not in the sense most people mean it.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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