I regularly go to conferences and I am met with questions and/or frustrations at the state of youth today and how politically disengaged they are. And people are often trying to figure out some sort of way to 'trick' them into caring about politics, maybe with a pretty celebrity or possibly an iPad! It's discussed in various ways, but the question lingers:
Why does it appear that many young people are discouraged by the political process?
As readers I ask you to consider your willingness to engage in a dialogue about this. This requires that you listen and ask questions of young people (lots of them) and not just around election time. It requires that you challenge your own assumptions and stereotypes and possibly even make changes to the way you think or act.
Let’s reframe the question, instead of blaming the people, let us examine the system:
Why does the political process discourage many young people?
Systems are flawed because humans built them. Humans, on the other hand respond to stimuli, they respond to culture and to influence. Regardless of how violent, confusing, irrational it might be, our responses have a context that we can understand if we take the time to. When we deconstruct context, we can find the source of a challenge and address it at its root.
In institutional education in Ontario, which is predominantly what I can speak to, we learn nothing about the political process. We are taught that all defining politics happened in 1812 and the 1960's and was a process that happened between white male straight able bodied colonizers and their military or a handful of Black revolutionaries who 'succeeded' and are all dead and gone.
We don't study the many different ways that communities have organized both in the past and present. We don't actively critique our current political process, nor do we interrogate ourselves to see what we need of our government. We don't learn how to exact pressure on politicians, don't learn how to challenge oppressive laws; we don't talk about the ways that government is meant to be accountable to us. We don't learn of alternatives to these systems except as examples of what not to do.
Every other type of political process is dismissed as archaic, savage, counter-democratic or mythology. Every single contribution by trans folks, many by womyn and particularly womyn of colour is erased in favour of battle stories and tales of small rooms with few men signing documents making nation-states on occupied land.
This is an education system that deems grammar and spelling more significant than anti-racism. This is a system that gathers people under the pretense of learning and sacrifices creativity and community based modes of learning for the sake of conformity and deference to authority of the violent 'victors' of history.
This is not to say that there are not incredible educators and institutions including the June Jordan School Of Equity and alternative educators like The Audre Lorde Project or Lost Lyrics but this is a critique of systemic education.
The best and the brightest adult minds of the past few generations spend millions and billions of dollars to figure out how we think. And they don't do this to figure out how to love us better or to encourage healthy self esteem (apparently only parents should be required to do that in isolation) or how we can work to share space and resources more equitably. They do this to figure out how to sell us something.
"Cool" isn't an idea that comes from the ground up. Cool is developed in board rooms where they sell the idea that all young people are getting wasted, and driving nice cars, and wearing hundreds of dollars in new clothes. They tell us that so that even the ones of us who aren't drinking and are cash-poor are made to feel so ashamed of our existence that we will do anything to hide and continue to perpetuate the myth that we are all happiest drunk and insecure in bars and clubs across the country (no shade to anyone here, do what makes sense for you and respect those around you).
We have literally been asked to stop thinking, by a few greedy folks of a few generations above us who have developed an economy that requires unrestrained consumption. With taglines like, 'Just Do It', and "Be Stupid', we have to acknowledge that there is a very deliberate culture that has been created by adults (not all adults) that has begun to saturate us in advertisings on diapers and on fb. Could you imagine if billions of dollars were spent on encouraging young people to learn about themselves and others and to stay informed and keep each other safe?
Some of us are accepting a world where corporations can say and do whatever they want, and in particular things that we know have negative effects on others and they get let off the hook. But we want to blame young people solely for not being able to resist the persistence of the powerful mass media? People spend their entire educations and careers specializing in manipulation through marketing and media, build entire companies fortified by teams of lawyers and we are confounded at their enormous success? There is reason why Coke and Nike and McDonalds are so successful at making money off of low quality goods, they invest primarily in the propaganda.
Nation states dedicated to genocide have known the same thing, if through the repeating of images and messages, we can get entire countries to participate in the massacre of millions through warfare, I am again not sure why we don't think the sexy messaging of the mainstream media would not also have a powerful effects on minds of all ages.
We know this to be true, the more you hear something and the more that it comes from 'authority', the more likely you are to believe it. On top of that we train young people to defer to authority and to adults at all cost. The adults that this society glorifies by investing in them financially and giving them the most air time are celebrities, athletes and corporations and they share in common an ability to be bought and sold to the highest bidder.
When adults at school and adults in the media and authority figures continually reaffirm, 'stop thinking and buy stuff', including buying your way out of guilt with breast cancer lip-glosses and bono-sponsored sweatshop made swag.
This exists and has very real effects. Once people fall outside of the category of being consumers or producers and they are in positions where they require care from others, they are immediately deemed less valuable. As young people, we are not able to vote until we are 18 and until that point our opinion is irrelevant, coloured by our immaturity and our inability to be anything but selfish. But the moment that we are 18, all that apparently drains right out of us, and our authentic adult, mature, decision-making self emerges! Suddenly we can vote and now our opinions matter. This ‘transition’ doesn’t do service to young people in general much less in engaging them in politics. Wouldn't it be valuable to engage young people in politics and political organizing when we are young?
It is possible to explain how the system works (or doesn't work) and the younger we do this, the quicker we grasp it and the more able we are to deconstruct it and hopefully transform it.
We Are Political!
Just because young people are not appearing to be engaged in voting does not mean that they are not political. There are so many ways that young folks organize and resist that is highly political and visible but is not acknowledge in the mainstream voting process. Shouldn't politicians have a responsibility to come to us as well? To meet us where we are at and to take a look and research all the powerful organizing we have done with and for each other without the resources, without the support, without the knowledge.
We meet in living rooms and over Skype, across borders that we did not make. We work on the internet until 3 in the morning researching Dionne Brand and Vandana Shiva and make images and share quotes to help educate ourselves and others about the political climate that we are in that no one in the mainstream voting process is being 100% honest about. We piece together the histories of our communities and meet and share skills and we can do so much of this online which give us space to be our anxious, awkward, fearful, urgent, powerful selves.
You are wondering why some of us don't desire to be accountable to a voting process that has not been accountable to us. That only shakes hands and kisses babies. To politicians who blame young people for a system that we didn't create and depending on our social location may not even benefit from it.
I am not saying that we all shouldn't ask questions about how to engage our communities broadly around politics. I am not saying that young people have no agency and are not able to discern or deconstruct messages, quite the contrary. I am saying that nothing happens in a vacuum and we need to consider the world that young people are raised in and work to understand the many different motivations that would make anyone feel disenfranchised with voting. I am saying that we should speak directly to young people, that we should examine young people's relationship to politics in context and that we need to challenge the monopoly that voting has over politics. It is not useful to guilt and to pander to young just to demand that they go through the motions, ignoring systemic problems does not make them disappear.
The government is meant to serve the people, not the other way around.