Political and media commentary on young people resurrects ugly “demographic distancing” — including among liberals who claim to abhor every other prejudice
In a report on the theater shootings in Colorado and Louisiana the evening this is written (July 30, 2015), progressive MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow used the word “young man” repeatedly to describe the then-24-year-old Colorado shooter – but did not use the word “older man” to describe the 59-year-old Louisiana gunman. In another typical article featured by Political Research Associates (a progressive group formed to challenge right-wing bigotry) newly arrived in my inbox, psychologist Naomi Braine used “young” repeatedly to characterize two gunman, while downplaying other characteristics such as sex and race. Other commentators engage this double standard all the time.
Very well. If age (as opposed to any other demographic characteristic, or none at all) is paramount, why don’t commentators repeat “older man” or “middle aged man” or “30-age man” over and over to describe the Louisiana theater shooter; the 46-year-old who shot three Muslim students to death in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; the 32-year-old who killed nine schoolgirls at an Amish school; the 51 year-old assassin of a Kansas abortion doctor; the 40-year-old who shot seven to death at a Sikh temple – or any of the 55% of public “active shooters” since 2000 the FBI reports were age 35 and older?
In characterizing mass killers, President Obama deplored influences that “poison the minds of young people.” Why didn’t the president deplore influences that “poison the minds of white men”? A much higher percentage of mass shooters are male and white than are young.
The reason is that America’s president, other leaders, and major commentators still perpetrate “demographic distancing,” the old-speak in which the powerful invoke a selected demographic characteristic to distance their own groups (“people like us”) from villains and miscreants (“not like us”). ”Demographic distancing” allows the elite to make their peers’ sins invisible, to protect the groups they identify with from stigma, and to invoke the privilege of individuality rather than the faceless-mass collective guilt they impose on powerless, despised populations.
In the past, certain immigrant, ethnic, and religious groups, gays, and other powerless populations were blamed en masse for social ills, including drugs, crime, excessive sexuality and reproduction, personal and cultural inferiority, disloyalty, etc. Among many conservatives, such stigmas remain safe to perpetuate today.
However, the growing power of former outgroups has created serious difficulties for moderates and liberals who seek the benefits of both of demographic distancing and minority constituencies’ support. Hosts, panels and guests on mainstream and liberal shows often include representations from racial and ethnic minorities of every type, gays, immigrant groups, feminists, and other former outgroups. That’s a good thing – but it’s depriving the center-Left of demographic scapegoats.
So, that leaves one group consistently unrepresented in political and major-media forums: young people. In 100% of political forums and 99% of media forums, there will be no one under age 25, nor any true advocate therefor. (When young people are allowed on stage, they’re nearly always there to support a cause championed by older constituencies, such as anti-bullying or anti-campus-rape campaigns aimed solely at youth.) The one demographic characteristic all members of officialdom and the commentariat share is that none are teenagers or young adults, nor will they ever be. Media surveys show the audience for most major media across the spectrum average 50 and older.
Thus, in the same way a lunchroom gossip session might trash the colleague not present, commentators and politicians up to the president to unite in picking on young age. Privileged commentators lavishly praise themselves and their own peer groups as morally superior to the young, sometimes openly, sometimes indirectly by implication. We are “not like them”!
In that role, young people are vital to rhetorical evasion. Commentators who are squeamish about invoking race or class in an unpleasant context such as crime or violence can employ the “race-to-age transfer” (discussed in a separate post), in which bad behaviors involving persons of races, ethnicities, religious, or other groups that would be impolitic to present critically are recast as the sins of “youth.” Difficult issues of poverty and disadvantage can be dodged by characterizations of a bad behavior simply as a feature of young age.
But – even though “statistical bigotry” is unacceptable to deploy when discussing race, gender, or other demographics (that is, even if African Americans do have a higher murder rate, or Whites a higher drug abuse death rate), are the statistics of older-versus-younger age so compelling as to justify the age exception?
Not even nearly. When President Obama blamed “teenagers doing stupid things” for crime and drug woes that generate excessive imprisonment, he failed to note that the latest FBI reports show many more Americans age 45-54 were arrested for criminal offenses (1.40 million, including 147,000 for drugs) than teenagers under age 18 (1.06 million, including 121,000 for drugs). Or, that more people the president’s age (53) alone died from abusing illegal drugs (1,159 in 2013) than all teenagers age 12-19 combined (695).
The real issue in “statistical bigotry” is that it’s not permissible in today’s demographic-distancing discourse to identify a “respectable” population, such as middle-agers, with a stigmatizing social problems such as crime or illicit drugs. (Or even to point out that teens who get arrested and abuse drugs are not random, alien entities, but tend to be around adults who get arrested and abuse drugs.)
Rather, progressives condemn routinely aim bigoted comments at young people under the same rubric that far-right pundits like Bob Grant or Alex Jones exploit to issue racist, xenophobic diatribes: because they can.
This is very depressing. It suggests that whatever tolerance is accorded by humans in 2015, including intelligent progressives who pride themselves in rational and non-prejudicial logic, is not motivated by lofty modern principles, but merely by the perceived power of a group to hurt them. Would panelists on MSNBC’s The Cycle, or Alex Wagner’s or Chris Hayes’s or Jon Stewart’s shows characterize adult African Americans or Muslims or gays or parents as collectively guilty, for example, of a “high school rape culture,” or duped by TV and films into seeing guns as “sexy” and ”cool”, or naturally “secretive” bombers, or delusion-driven “terrorists” or prostitutes or porn actors due to immature “decisions” based on the actions of a tiny number of their number? Based on this or that individual they know? (It’s amazing that commentators at MSNBC, the New Yorker, etc., will disparage their own identifiable kids before a national audience. Would they similarly disparage their spouses? Co-workers?)
The harsh language matches the harsh actions of American leaders toward young people. Both are unwarranted. We’ve documented exhaustively on this site that young people don’t deserve these deprivations and attacks, nor the relentlessly negative characterizations and intemperate language. Integrating young people into a share of media and political power where they can represent themselves is essential to counter the misrepresentations of geriatric media and politics. (Mike Males)
*Of course, other groups are unrepresented in official/media forums, such as the mentally ill. But unlike youth, the mentally ill seem to have genuine advocates – or at least, advocates see no profit in trashing their clientele. Whenever a killer or other assailant is described as having a history of mental illness, professionals immediately respond with urgings not to stigmatize the mentally ill. But strangely, when a killer or rapist is young, I’ve never heard one commentator urging not to stigmatize all young people.