Issue of Trivial Issues

August 8, 2011

Can there really be any “trivial” issues if they are the result of the same oppressive system that breeds the non-trivial ones?

Been talking to new fellow NYRA Board Members Kathleen O’Neal and Samantha Godwin about this. Is it useless, perhaps even harmful, to work on “less serious” youth rights issues when there are more serious ones?

For example, a few times in NYRA we’ve discussed campaign finance laws, that limit the financial contributions minors can make to political candidates. From a fairness standpoint, obviously, this is wrong because your contributions should not be limited just because of your age. From another standpoint, well, if this rule were changed, would it really make that much of a difference to youth as a whole? Wouldn’t the only youth helped at all be those already economically privileged enough to be giving huge amounts to political campaigns?

Thing is, the system that blocks youth from contributing to campaigns just because of their age is the same oppressive ageist system that enables curfews. What sets it apart, despite affecting very few youth and not seeming to have much benefit, is that it’s probably a relatively easy battle. Chipping away at the oppressive ageist system, even the most seemingly unimportant chips, still cuts away at it, still is a victory against it, still proves it can be attacked and wounded, even if it’s barely a paper cut. Are there more important battles? Absolutely. But none of our youth rights battles stand alone, at least not if we make clear they do not. After all, a desire to see youth equally able to contribute to campaigns comes not from wanting to see candidates better funded but because of the simple issue of equal access and opportunity, something the oppressive ageist system denies to youth, even if this is hardly one of the worst denials.

Many of our issues get pegged as “trivial” actually. Not sure I can even think of one that hasn’t been! We get asked if it’s really so important that 20-year-olds can drink legally. Is it really so important that 17-year-olds can vote? Hell, I’ve heard that about behavior modification, perhaps one of if not the most horrific legal youth rights violation there is, mostly because it’s something that few youth actually go through (though I counter this with, even if few youth in the grand scheme of things actually get sent to these places, ALL youth are at risk as long as these places remain an option for parents and the state!).

I don’t think fighting smaller, easier to win battles harms our overall strategy. I think it helps in a way, mostly through morale, proves to ourselves and our supporters this is winnable. I do think we need to always keep our grander goals in mind and never let our talking points cloud it. I do think, for example, when arguing against curfews, we should avoid making arguments along the lines of “that’s the parents’ decision, not the government’s”, because, honestly, we don’t think the parents should really get to decide that either!

As I mentioned in my recap of the Brown v EMA victory, many saw our battle over the right to buy mature-rated video games to be a trivial issue and not worth our effort. Does it really matter that a 16-year-old can buy Grand Theft Auto unimpeded? Honestly, yes, yes it does. Because, as I concluded with, when discriminatory restrictions are placed, regardless of the seeming unimportance of what the restriction is on, particularly when the restriction has no compelling safety interest, and when violation can lead to serious penalties, it is no longer trivial. Also, youth rights issues do not each exist in a vacuum. They are not independent of each other, and though most people often think so, might fail to see a connection between a restriction limiting a game purchase and one that, say, prevents teens from working in that game store, and it is our job as youth rights activists to make sure people see that connection, that it’s all part of anti-youth oppression.

That is not at all to say a 16-year-old prevented from buying a video game and one who is physically coerced to practice her parents’ religion are equally oppressed, hell no. The latter is unquestionably a worse situation. Just that, while obviously different manifestations, they are symptoms and results of anti-youth oppression all the same, and we should be saying a big loud NO to all of it.

The smaller issues should not be ALL we work on either just because they are more winnable. We can work several fronts at once and be always mindful of and speak about how they are inherently connected. We should be stopping the video game bans AND helping youth be emancipated from horrible parents. We should be taking down ageist store policies limiting teen entry AND shutting down behavior modification facilities. We should be removing restrictions on youth political contributions AND ending corporal punishment at home and school. Because while ignoring the more dangerous youth rights violations in favor of smaller easier battles is wrong, looking only at the most serious while letting smaller ones slip by also looks very silly on our part and actually reduces our own seriousness about the cause.

Of course, in order to work on the trivial and the non-trivial, especially as trivial is very subjective, we must always be very clear when speaking out on these that they are part of the grander scheme of anti-youth oppression, not to pretend any of them stand alone and be sure none of our talking points, regardless of short-term expediency, imply this. Because seeming radical or fringe doesn’t matter as long as we obviously know our issue, have a good strategy, and take it very seriously ourselves. Our issues are only as trivial as we allow people (and ourselves) to think they are.

This has been Day 77 of the 100 Days of Summer, Round 11.

One thought on “Issue of Trivial Issues”

  1. There’s a Jewish tradition called “sandal straps,” where if the Jews are being oppressed, then they must be willing to die for even the traditional way of putting on their shoes, let alone any of the commandments. I think the YR movement, as well as others, are fairly close to declaring “sandal straps.”

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