The United Nations commemorated Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 with a focus on youth leadership and voice. The UN notes that young people have often been marginalized and ignored. But youth movements are also in the forefront of social change. The motto of this year’s UN’s Human Rights campaign is, “never too young to change the world.”
Youth power is on the rise. Students have taken to the streets in Hong Kong and in climate action strikes around the globe. A 34-year-old woman, Sanna Marin, became prime minister of Finland. And Time recognized 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg as the magazine’s Person of the Year.
Our irascible president reacted to this last development with an insulting tweet directed at Thunberg. He said that Thunberg should work on her anger management issues and just chill out.
Grumpy old Scrooges have often told young people to chill out. They view youthful outrage as a pathetic phase. They mock youthful impatience to fix a broken world.
At the global climate change summit in Madrid, Thunberg said, “The change we need is not going to come from the people in power.” She said world leaders are betraying us by failing the fix the climate crisis.
Young people have often accused their elders of betrayal. The youth refuses to accept a broken system. They won’t tolerate the hypocrisies of business as usual.
Old folks view all of this as naïve. When you grow up, they say, you will grow out of your idealism. But young people don’t know any better. They don’t know enough, yet, to doubt their dreams.
This self-righteous enthusiasm typically fades over time. We mellow with age. Experience shows us patterns that repeat themselves. Those patterns become ruts, familiar and confining. You grow weary of struggle. You prefer stability. You become skeptical of revolution.
REVOLUTION IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER
For the youth, however, things look different. The audacity of youth is hopeful, creative and in love with the possible. Each moment is a new opportunity. The patterns are not familiar. There are no ruts to fall into. Revolution is waiting just around the corner.
These are stereotypes, of course. Some oldsters are radical and hopeful. And some youngsters are cynical. There is nothing sadder, I think, than a young person without hope. And there is something inspiring about old folks who encourage the youth to dream.
Consider Socrates. He was accused of corrupting the youth. He was executed at age 72 for daring to encourage the youth to think for themselves – about politics, religion, and the meaning of life. More recently, at age 79, the French philosopher Alan Badiou wrote a book explaining his desire to “corrupt the youth” by turning them away from a typical life spent in endless pursuit of power, money and gratification.
Badiou calls on us to live “a true life.” That would be a life of wisdom that is deeply critical of the hypocrisies of the status quo. To corrupt the youth is to help them become authentic. This means, “to try to ensure that young people don’t go down the paths already mapped out, that they are not condemned to obey social customs, that they can create something new.”
This “something new” is the key to hope. We don’t know what the youth will give birth to. Hope embraces an unknown future, betting that whatever comes tomorrow will be better than today. This is the attitude of youth: a reckless embrace of the future that is not cowed by convention.
Philosophy is not alone in embracing the audacity of youth. The message of youth power is appropriate at Christmas. Christianity began as a youth movement. Mary was a teenage mother, after all. And Jesus was only 33 when he was crucified. It was the old establishment that left Mary out in the cold and rejected the gospel of love.
So let’s hear it for corrupting the youth and empowering them to change the system. The system is broken. Its old cronies are bitter Scrooges and angry Trumps. But something beautiful and different is waiting to be born, if we let it. You are never too young to change the world. And you are never too old to hope.