Can adults discuss teenagers rationally?

Can adults discuss teenagers rationally?

We’ve exhaustively documented the thoroughly baseless attacks on young people promulgated in political, interest-group, and major- and alternative-media forums. A mixture of crude profit motive gained from flattering aging constituencies and leadership, visceral fear of racial, social, and technological change, and an ongoing psychological need to affirm the commentators’ own moral superiority to young people underlies the distorted view of youth.

Still, one expects much better of the intellectual, liberal magazines like The New Yorker, Atlantic Magazine, and Harper’s Magazine, which promise innovative thinking, reasoned analysis, and well-considered conclusions to calm the clamor of news media and politicians.

One would be so profoundly wrong in this expectation as to raise the alarming prospect that something about adults prevents rational discussion of young people – or even an interest in fundamental facts, rationality, and fairness. The tone of intellectual-magazine pieces on teenagers and young adults is one of barely-controlled rage. There is nothing new in these articles. Their authors uncritically recycle the worst pop-media anti-youth prejudices and embellish them with a venality more suited to a Klan screed on Haitian immigrants.

Whether Ron Powers or Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic, Rebecca Solnit of Harper’s, Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker, or similar intellectual-outlet authors, there is a dismal sameness to the anger and unreason uniformly hurled at children, teenagers, and young adults. All pronounce the young crazy brats, the signature of savagery from homophobia and bullying to drunken rape and gun violence, presenting apocalyptic dangers to grownups, peers, and themselves, a horrifying affliction imposed on their loving but horrified parents, teachers, and other elders.

These authors uniformly present themselves and peer adults models of perfection. Their image of the adult world is one ruled by civilized reason, completely free of violence, crime, reckless behavior, homophobia, mental illness, and drug and alcohol troubles. There is no abuse of children and youth, no divorce, no abandoned kids in the image created by these authors, just mature sweetness and concern.

Not to put too fine a point on it, these are lunacies. They are so far divorced from reality as to call into question the sanity of the authors and editors who published them. They’re also lazy. Original research, any complexity, and fact-checking seem too much trouble. Some brief examples:

Flanagan (in Atlantic!) writes favorably of a future in which teenagers would be banned from going online without over-the-shoulder adult supervision and a past in which college women had dorm curfews to save them from getting raped (Atlantic follows the official dictate that rape is something that only happens on campuses). She presents no evidence beyond anecdotes and emotional quips and is not worth analytical response. Solnit demonizes teenagers in an ungrounded rant and seeks to end all teenaged peer culture, beginning with abolishing high school. Our responses to Solnit are posted as letters to the editor, which drew a silly non-sequitur response. Powers, in an article modestly titled, “The Apocalypse of Adolescence,” slanders modern youth (in Vermont!) as cold, knife-wielding maniac; my response was in a Los Angeles Times op-ed.

Kolbert calls all teenagers “terrible” and “crazy” and accuses them of menacing themselves and healthy grownups, mainly their all-wise parents. Kolbert’s articles repeat in virtually identical fashion McCall’s January 1953, “I’m Fed Up with Teenagers” and a thousand ventings before and since. Kolbert claims her angry contempt is founded in the “science” of the “teenage brain,” which makes its anti-factuality even more pretentious. Our sourced refutations were sent as letters to The New Yorker and to the editor; note also our review of the book whose faulty notions she fawningly copied, The Teenage Brain.

The facts are directly the opposite of the teen-haters’ imaging. Today, compared to teens age 15 to 19, adults of age to be their parents (say, 40 to 59) are twice as likely by population-adjusted rate to die from violent causes (1.2 times more from guns; 2.3 times more from suicide; 2.6 times more from accidents; eight times more from illicit-drug overdose; nine times more from alcohol binges (see the latest Centers for Disease Control tabulations).

FBI reports show an adult is 3.2 times more likely to murder a youth than a youth is to murder an adult, and 6.7 times more likely to murder a youth than a youth is to murder another youth. Drunken adult drivers age 21 and older kill 1.4 times more teens age 16-19 than drunken teen drivers kill adults. Tens of thousands of children and adolescents are substantiated victims of violence and abuse by parents/caretakers every year.

Even where teens and middle-agers suffer similar risks (i.e., gun killings, violent crime, and traffic fatality in poorer populations), teenaged dangers stem not from faulty “teenage brains” and goading peers, but harsh conditions. Teens are twice as likely to live in poverty (which boosts every kind of hazard) than are middle-agers, which makes the higher rates of midlife risk doubly difficult to explain. Does the middle-aged brain’s memory, learning, and cognition loss exacerbate dangers despite greater experience and economically privileged status —as well as rendering grownups thoroughly irrational when it comes to adolescents?

This displaced venality against an outgroup (in this case, youth) is perfectly predictable when the hater’s own peer group (in the modern era, middle-agers, especially aging whites) is messing up in major ways. And messing up they are. The self-congratulating fantasy-worlds of Kolbert, Powers, Flanagan, and Solnit stand in stark contrast to the real worlds young people and adults actually live in. While youth problems have been plummeting, middle-aged troubles have been skyrocketing in recent decades.

But even if these youth-bashings were factually accurate, what kind of parent would abuse their media power to ridicule their own, easily-identified teenaged kids in front of a national audience? What kind of editors would let them do that? For example, Kolbert, in two articles, brands her own teenaged boys as brats, incompetent, and even dangerous. Well, is it just possible that Kolbert’s kids are fed up with her self-righteousness and public derision?

These kinds of articles could only be published in august forums in a culture that profoundly hated young people. Substitute for “teenager,” “adolescent,” or “student” the name of any other group in society – say, “Jew” or “Muslim” or “African American” – and the result is hate speech. No amount of professed concern makes up for the demonization of young people allowed in journals that promise the highest level of discourse. (Mike Males)

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