Children changing politics

Svetlana Erpyleva,
School of Advanced Studies,
University of Tyumen,

On September 23, 2019, the teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg delivered an emotional speech at the UN Climate Summit. She summarized the main causes of global warming and accused an older generation of failing to act in response. Her performance provoked huge public debate. The Guardian compared her speech with Lincoln’s famous address at Gettysburg. Fox News called Greta “a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left.” It is telling that the public was less interested in the content of the speech than in the fact that a political speech was given by a child. What we saw was a child giving a lesson from the UN’s stage instead of answering her lesson in the classroom, as most children do.

The reason why so many people were concerned with Thunberg’s performance is that at least since the 17th–18th century, we have viewed childhood experience and politics as incompatible. Childhood is associated with innocence, while politics is considered to be something ‘dirty.’ Children are portrayed as not fully developed, while participation in contemporary political systems is cast as requiring ‘mature’ cognitive abilities. However, with more and more minors starting to participate in protest politics across the world, cultural beliefs about the incompatibility of childhood and political experience are drawn into question. In the West, children strike against climate change. Former Soviet republics, including Russia, are usually not prone to the international waves of protests, however, children’s level of participation in protest politics has been increasing for the past several years here as well. Does this global increase signify a new historical change in our perception of either childhood or politics? Does it mean that childhood experience and politics are no longer viewed as incompatible?

Let’s look at three recent protest movements where high school aged children took an active stance and see how children themselves framed and justified their political participation. Do politically active minors consider their youth as something which makes them ‘better’ democratic actors, or do they view it as rather complicating their protest participation?

In the “Fridays for future” international campaign, high school aged children are the most visible actors. Even if this campaign truly deserves to be called world-wide, I suggest we focus on one of the prominent European mobilizations, the UK campaign. It is telling that young UK protesters do emphasize their age and status (‘kids’ or ‘schoolchildren’) while speaking publicly. They present their youthfulness as something which gives them a special right to protest. In their narratives, being a child is associated with possessing the future and thus makes their claims about the necessity to prevent future effects of global warming legitimate. “I’m here because global warming is ruining our planet and us kids aren’t going to have a very good future,” says 10 years old female protester in London (Lawton, 2019). Quite often, youthfulness is also understood by young protesters as something which gives them passion and awareness the adults lack. As one of the young leaders of the UK climate change movement put it, “It goes some way to proving that young people aren’t apathetic, we’re passionate, articulate and we’re ready to continue demonstrating the need for urgent and radical climate action.” (Taylor et. al, 2019). In a way, the movement promotes a different understanding of both childhood experience and politics. Childhood is viewed not that much as the time of dependency and immaturity but rather as a time of open-mindedness and passion. The political act requires not that much the ability to understand and resolve complicated issues as the collective will to say a word about the future of society. In this model, the ‘innocence’ of childhood enriches democratic political participation rather than contradicts it.

However, the very fact of minors’ participation in protest politics does not necessarily mean that a new understanding of childhood and political action is developing. In 2011-2012, a big nationwide movement against electoral fraud during Parliamentary election took place in Russia, and minors participated in this movement as well. Like their UK counterparts, high school aged protesters in Russia explicitly invoked their young age when talking about protest participation in interviews. However, in their narratives, youthfulness was directly connected with immaturity, lack of necessary experience, and dependency from authoritative adults. For example, when asked what he usually does as a member of an activist group in St. Petersburg, 16 years old boy responded: “I usually do something small like the distribution of leaflets or sending emails on the Internet to somebody… I cannot do something significant because of my age” (interview from the author’s archive). Politically active children in Russia of 2012, as well as their counterparts from the contemporary UK, opposed their experience to the adult one. However, by opposing it, they created an image of a child-protester who is worse than an adult protester. Despite the fact, that high school aged children visited protest rallies in 2012 Russia, they did not view themselves as full-fledged political actors. The movement relied on and reproduced traditional understanding of both childhood experience and politics where the two of them are barely compatible.

The anti-corruption protest wave which emerged in Russia 6 year later, however, may truly remind us of anti-climate change mobilization in Europe. High school children’s participation in the anti-corruption rallies attracted media attention and the movement was often called the “protest of school children”. High school children became media heroes of the movement. In the interviews, child activists represented themselves as full-fledged political actors, equal to adult protesters. Does it mean that the most recent democratic protests in contemporary Russia finally challenge traditional understanding of politics by making minors a legitimate part of a demos? No, it does not. As we might remember, the UK child activists considered themselves as being different from adult activists ‘in a good way.’ Contemporary Russian child protesters see no difference between themselves and adults in either positive or negative ways.  For them, ‘child-ness’ and ‘youthfulness’ still mean immaturity and dependency, they just do not consider themselves to be children anymore. The only way for de-jure children to become legitimate political actors is to act as de-facto adults, that is, to grow up ‘psychologically.’ Thus, ironically, the figure of a child-protester which represented the whole movement in media, under closer examination appeared to be, as a famous social historian of childhood Phillipe Aries (1965) would say, just a “miniature adult.” Childhood experience and political action continued to be viewed as incompatible in contemporary Russia, even by ‘progressive’ politically active adults and children.

More and more minors start to participate in social movements across the world. These movements can potentially broaden the understanding of the political by counting as a part of demos those who have been traditionally excluded from it, that is, people under a certain artificially established age. However, our cultural beliefs are often more rigid than any written rules. The very fact of minors’ participation in political movements is not enough to challenge the cultural beliefs about the incompatibility of childhood experience and politics, as both Russian cases above showed. After all, the movements also reflect and reproduce the existing cultural repertoire. And it looks like culturally, Russia is not ready to challenge definitions born in the 18th-19th centuries.

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