Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Last Unanswered Prejudice

Now, I don’t mean to claim that things like racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism, are cured, by any means, but I think it’s fair to say the majority of Americans (who are all I can claim knowledge of) at least understand that these things are wrong. Sure, we still have our pockets of skinheads and Klansmen, but, like any virulent disease, moronity will never be completely stamped out. And I think that even those people who actually manifest those isms—even some of those same skinheads and Klansmen—still realize that it’s wrong. They do it anyway, but they know they’re being hateful. They just don’t care. Homophobia is tougher: I think there are still people who honestly believe they’re decent human beings even while denigrating large chunks of the population they’ve never met. But, still, we’ve come a long way since Anita Bryant.

But I do think there’s an area of bigotry that is still largely unconscious on the part of a significant majority of Americans (and probably other nationalities as well). It’s ageism. And I don’t mean discrimination against the elderly: while that turns up in isolated areas of our society, I think for the most part we show a good deal of respect for our oldest members, and, when we don’t, we know we’re being pond scum. But what about when we dismiss the other end of the spectrum? What about when we ignore the rights of children?

Because children should be seen and not heard, right? Their opinions don’t really matter until they turn 18. Well, we hear their opinions, but of course they’re immature. They can’t be expected to make decisions for themselves: that’s what we adults are for. When we have debates about education in this country, do we invite the opinions of those who will be overwhelmingly impacted by whatever decisions are made? No, because they have no idea what’s good for them. But we do.

Sure, I’m deliberately trying to be provocative. But does that make what I’m saying wrong? Are you saying to yourself right now: sure, when you put it that way, it sounds bad ... but, really, all those things are true. I think most of you are (and, if you’re not, you can pack it up right now; you’re definitely not my intended audience). I think most of you have a fundamental blind spot that you don’t even notice. But maybe I can point it out.

We, as a society, have decided that there are certain privileges that require a certain level of responsibility for bestowal: driving, voting, drinking, watching R-rated movies, etc. Now whether we should require it is irrelevant to my point (and, really, I’m not against the requirement per se, although perhaps I might disagree with the level in certain cases); let’s just take that as given. Now, when we say “responsibility,” what we’re talking about here is maturity. You need to have a certain level of maturity to cast a rational vote in our democratic electoral process, let’s say. Okay, fine, I’ll agree to that. Let’s assume we’ve already had our battle over what level of maturity we will require and we’ve settled on ... something.

The next question is: how do enforce this rule we’ve agreed to? We need to find a way to keep people who don’t meet our agreed-upon level of maturity out of the voting club. (And, let’s not fool ourselves: we’re creating an exclusionary club here. We have very good reasons, perhaps, but that doesn’t change what we’re doing.) Well, in order to exclude the people who don’t have the right level of maturity, we first have to determine who they are. That means we need to be able to measure maturity. But how do you measure maturity?

Well, perhaps we could design a test. A test in which the answers would reveal how mature the test-taker actually was. The questions would be controversial, as would the interpretation of the answers. And history shows us the likely outcome: it will be used to discriminate against whatever group is out of favor with whatever governmental agency is chosen to administer it, possibly even differing from location to location. So that’s out. Really, any subjective measurement is going to be suspect. But there isn’t any objective way to measure maturity.

So we look for correlations. The closest correlation to maturity is experience. That is, the more experience a person has, the more likely they are to be mature. Note that I do not say that more experienced people are always more mature. There are still people in the world who, for reasons ranging from mental disability to experiential trauma to just plain stubbornness, aren’t any good at converting experience to maturity. But at least we can say that a lack of experience practically guarantees a lack of maturity.

So we just need to count a person’s experiences, and then we’ll agree on how many formative experiences are required before a person is ready to vote. We might quibble over the definition of “formative” in this case, but there’s no point, as we have a much bigger problem: how can you count the number of experiences a person has had? You weren’t there. For any given individual, there is no other single person who can recount every minute of their life. And, since we often have formative experiences when there’s no one else around to report on it, we can’t even tot them up by consulting a variety of different people. And, even if we could, it just isn’t practical.

So let’s look for correlations again. What is required to gain experience? Well, experiences take time, certainly, so the more time you’ve been around in this life, the more experiences you’ve had ... probably. And, the shorter amount of time you’ve been around, the fewer experiences you’ve had ... again, probably. It’s a bit rough, but, you know, given the age of a person, we could speculate on how much experience they’ve had, and consequently how mature they are. And age is absolutely objective, and easy to determine, because of birth certificates and driver’s licenses and other forms of identification. So, voilà, problem solved. We just decide on an age ... let’s see ... how about 18? Yeah, that works.

So now we have a system where, one day, you’re not considered responsible enough to vote (or to be held responsible for crimes you commit, or to marry without your parents’ consent, or even to have sex), then you go to sleep, and you wake up the next day, and bam! you’re good to go. All that responsibility and maturity just popped into your head overnight. Obviously that’s one hell of a night’s sleep you got there, conferring all that responsibility on you in one fell swoop.

Aside from the patent ridiculousness of being mature enough one day but not the day before (and, if you think about it hard enough, you’re actually mature enough one second but not the second before), we’ve also completely forgotten that age has nothing to do with what we’re actually trying to measure here. Age is, in fact, twice removed from what we really wanted to measure, and the correlations were spotty to begin with. I’m not saying that the law should be written another way—law often forces us to make unpalatable compromises, and this is just one of them—but judging a person by how old they are is inherently flawed.

Now, I sense that many people will not be convinced by this argument, particularly if they are parents of younger children. Johnny Depp once compared very young children to drunks: they stumble around and bump into things, and they throw up a lot. Surely no one in his right mind would entrust anything serious to such a being? People in that state can’t be responsible for what they do, or what they say. And that’s true, as far as it goes. But that period of childhood is, after all, relatively short. I think that, as parents, we get stuck in that mindset; we continue to see our children as those miniature drunks long after they’ve grown out of it. Or perhaps we look back at our own childhood and remember all the stupid things we did, and are fearful of trusting children because of it. But ask yourself honestly: did you magically stop doing stupid things when you turned 18? Didn’t you do some stupid things at 25, or at 45, or even at 65? Does that make your opinion invalid?

Perhaps it is true that an average “child” (however you decide to define that term) is less mature than the average “adult.” But imagine if you were reading a scientific study, and you ran across the statement that, statistically, most Japanese tourists wear cameras around their necks. Or that, on average, women don’t have as much physical strength as men. Or that black people statistically claim to enjoy watermelon or fried chicken more than white people do. Forget whether such statements might have any basis in provable fact: would you be offended by such statements, particularly if you were a member of the group in question? In fact, being in a scientific study would likely make it even more offensive: if it were a statement by someone up on stage in a comedy club, you might laugh (especially if you and the performer shared membership in the group at hand). But, as a serious statement, regardless of veracity, you would be offended. But the original statement—that children are, on average, less mature than adults—that didn’t offend you, did it? Possibly you nodded your head in agreement when I made the assertion. All this despite the fact that, as already discussed, maturity isn’t measurable and therefore the statement can’t possibly be proven one way or the other.

I’m always deeply suspicious of people who make decisions for children, their own or those of others, “for their own good.” Such decisions are nearly always made without ever consulting any actual children. We, as adults, seem full of secret knowledge about what children want and need and deserve. We do have one advantage that men making decisions about women or heterosexuals making decisions about homosexuals, lack: we were all once children. But I’m not sure that’s sufficient. We’re still making decisions about other people. When men make decisions about women (at least in modern times), they at least allow the women to say something about it (usually). Theoretically, they even listen to them. Even men making decisions for other men will generally not assume that, just because they share a gender, they automatically know what’s best for them. Yet how many children are allowed to speak at school board meetings, or are seriously considered even if they do speak? How many legislators, or psychologists, or authors, consult children before they pass their laws or make their recommendations or write their books about how children should be “allowed” to act?

Perhaps it’s not taxation without representation, but it’s certainly something without representation. Children (as if one word could encompass the myriad of human beings between birth and age 18) have opinions, and desires, and worldviews, and thoughts both deep and shallow, just like all the rest of us. Yes, often they are unformed and require guidance, but that is true of the rest of us as well. The only real difference that I see is that children seem more likely to recognize that their opinions are unformed; we adults often forget that we don’t know everything, and so our opinions are just as likely to be silly and pointless. Children are still learning, and they know it. Adults, on the other hand, are also still learning ... but sometimes we forget that crucial fact.

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