Suddenly, lowering the voting age to 16 is a mainstream issue.
It got a lot of support in Congress, if not enough. The issue is being asked of presidential candidates. More and more places are proposing the change. Nancy Pelosi is even claiming she’d always supported it, even though not really but hey still glad to have her on board now.
This issue is one of NYRA’s “holy trinity”, along with drinking age and curfews. When someone would come up to our table at some event all like “the National Youth Rights Association? what’s that?” we’d reply that we’re about those three things and that we look at all the ways youth are discriminated against. They might react with a non-committal shrug and be on their way.
But now it’s 2020, and the 16 voting age has come shockingly close to becoming a thing nationwide. It’s not just coming from us and a few allies anymore. Somehow, some way, it caught at last and everyone is talking about it and seriously considering it.
So let’s say it happens. Hell, let’s say voting and drinking ages get dropped to 12 and curfew laws are all repealed. What would NYRA be anymore? Would there be any reason for such an organization to exist?
The answer is, yes, of course. In fact, I’d say NYRA is needed more than ever now.
Before I continue, I should make clear that, even though I was on NYRA’s board of directors for a long time, I’m not on the board anymore and haven’t been for five years now. I hold no current leadership role. Nothing I say here is intended to speak for the current leadership or to whatever their current strategy and focus may be. Go talk to them if you want to know current stuff. I speak of NYRA here as I’ve always seen it and understood its place in the wider youth rights universe to be.
Anyway, if the three main issues are resolved (whatever that means), we’d simply work on other ones. There’s more than those three! But even then, the cause is more than just issues, and the issues don’t necessarily lead back to the movement as a whole. I’ve talked about this before.
Youth rights isn’t just a list of issues and positions. It’s not even just about getting rid of age restrictions. Rather it’s what ties all those issues together. Youth rights is the core values that young people’s rights, autonomy, and dignity must be respected, that they should be free from discrimination and prejudice and hate. The issues come out of that and may change over time, but those core values are what doesn’t change.
Those core values form the youth rights lens through which we view society and culture, through which we see the injustice of ageism and all its ugly and horrific manifestations. And, seeing this, we believe it doesn’t have to be this way. And, core values of youth rights at heart, we envision a better way. And we try to make that better way a reality.
From there come the various issues and stances, but as we are all different individuals with our own backgrounds and ideologies, what we focus on when looking through that lens and what better ways we envision will differ. And that’s okay and expected. These differences are usually still compatible enough. But that’s why when determining the scope of youth rights, you put those core values at the center rather than any particular issues or tactics.
It also means our thinking goes further than simply “it’s an age restriction, kill it!” We’re opposed to age restrictions in principle, but we also look at the issue surrounding the age restriction in question and determine just what course of action actually would serve the cause of preserving or increasing young people’s rights. For example, we consider it a youth rights victory when gay conversion “therapy” is banned for under-18s. Is it an age restriction? Yeah, but the actual rights issue here is homophobic parents coercing their LGBTQ kids into an abusive program meant to destroy who they are. Of course, what we really want is for this “gay conversion” nonsense to not be around at all and for parents to be unable to coerce their children into anything like this in the first place, but on our way to getting to that point we accept this age restriction as a temporary harm reduction measure.
All this and more represent our unique world view as youth rights supporters. And that’s why NYRA is more important than ever. When lowering the voting age still languished in relative obscurity, we pretty much controlled the narrative around it and took as self-evident its connection to youth rights as a whole. With its recent rise in popularity well beyond our youth rights circles, this connection is much less obvious. Don’t get me wrong. All this interest in lowering the voting age is HUGE! Just that we have to work extra hard now to keep our narrative and philosophy from being drowned out, as others clamor to claim it as their issue and attach their own significance to it.
This concern isn’t without reason. In 2011, Brown v EMA was decided, the case about selling violent video games to minors, in which our side against banning these sales was popularly assumed to be the gaming industry trying to protect profits over the well being and safety of kids. But we youth rights supporters don’t care about gaming industry profits. We’re for youth autonomy, for young people’s freedom of speech and media consumption, against age-based censorship. We also call bullshit on the other side’s claims of protecting children (contrary to common misconception, we absolutely do want young people to be safe, we just know the difference between real youth safety and when that’s just a cover for what’s actually exploitation of youth for political gain). We even worked in some lower voting age arguments (the oral arguments and our rally were on midterm election day after all). But the point is, our perspective was unique and important and mostly unseen.
Of course, lowering the voting age is itself such a pure form of increased rights for youth that it may be in less danger of this than others. The arguments floating around for lowering the voting age are the ones we’ve always been using, so the points about young people having a voice in our system are absolutely part of the conversation. That’s why this is especially huge for our movement, because we’re not only seeing an important change we’ve always wanted but it’s being done for mostly the right reasons. That said, doesn’t mean those making those arguments are youth rights supporters, even though the nature of these arguments suggest they should be at least open to our deeper ideas.
In any case, that’s what’s so important about NYRA. It’s about not only making change for youth rights but making sure the youth rights specific motivation behind it all isn’t lost. It’s not just what issues we tackle but why we care about them at all.
And yet over the years NYRA the organization has gained a reputation of being “moderate”. Approvingly so from those who hope to avoid some supposed trouble spots from its early years. Disapprovingly so from those who are mad at me for saying a few paragraphs back that voting and drinking ages are “resolved” by being lowered to 12 rather than abolished altogether. Me, I’ve watched concerns about being “too moderate” or “too radical” cause way too much hurt and damage that I mostly just want to push you to the ground if you start to utter those words. That and these terms mean nothing.
There is no “moderate” or “radical”. There’s just the core values. A focus on short-term goals is a strategy, not a compromise or a concession. This is easier to understand when you remember the core values are at the center of everything, not the issues and positions themselves. Making incremental progress on the way to and alongside grander structural changes we all envision most definitely is not a betrayal of our core values. By design, when the core values are the motivation, campaigning for any change for youth rights will invoke our grander ideas and plant the seeds for other changes and an overall cultural shift, even if for some longer term change we’re still figuring out specifics. Seeing it only as a matter of lower or abolish is woefully myopic. What really matters is making sure those seeds germinate.
We don’t have all the answers. And that’s okay. Again, that’s why the core values are the point. The core values are the motivation at the heart of youth rights, and as such, there’s space for the open questions, the unknowns, and of course those issues for which you could make a genuine youth rights case multiple ways and thus it’s hard to know what exact position should be taken (compulsory schooling is a prime example of this, particularly when looking globally).
We may not have all the answers, but with the core values at heart, we’re at least asking the right questions, the questions no one else is thinking to ask.