One of the problems with liberal mantras like rights and freedom is that they're meaningless unless you specify rights to what
and freedom from what
. Once you get into the habit of specifying rights to
and freedoms from
, things get more murky, more complex, because not everyone agrees on what it's desirable to have a right to
, or a freedom from
. Bush told us that Bin Laden hated freedom, for instance, but one of Bin Laden's stated goals was the desire to free sacred sites in Saudia Arabia from the proximity of American troops. They both believe in "freedom"; the difference comes in what they think we need to be free from
It's the same with rights; the important question is not "do you believe people should have rights?", but what you think those rights should be to
. That's where the differences, and therefore the politics, come in. The default liberal position in the West is that children have a right to non-agency, rather than a right to agency. In other words, contrary to previous centuries and other cultures which see children as smaller versions of adults, we maintain that they need protection. That word, though, also requires a qualifying from
, and in general we think children need protection from work, from sexuality, from intoxication, from punishment and from agency. The problem with that view (which clearly has a lot to recommend it) is that when children do
become actors on the stage of society, they have a ghostly, problematical status. They're there, but not really there, people but not really people.
We saw in The search for clean cotton and pure childhood
some of the contradictory knots this attitude leads to; outraged by a violation of Uzbeki children's perceived right not to work, some British consumers banned cotton from Uzbekistan, apparently oblivious to the fact that the well-being of all
Uzbekis depends on the cotton harvest, and that a ban would hit the welfare of Uzbeki children (along with all other Uzbeki citizens) by hitting the Uzbeki economy.
A similar ambivalence emerged in responses to the death of Michael Jackson; while Joe Jackson emerges as a villain in most biographical accounts for having made Michael work so hard so young, most commentators agreed that Michael Jackson, by starting so early, had packed more experience (not to mention money) into his six decades of life than most of us will fit into eight. He did this by eradicating the barrier between childhood and adulthood which liberals take to be sacred; Michael Jackson was both a hard-working adult all his life, and a child all his life, and both of those options defy the liberal belief that a clear barrier -- a barrier on either side of which attitudes to agency reverse -- should stand somewhere between the ages of 16 and 21. (Jackson also avoided the physiological token of that transition barrier; his voice never broke.)
At the beginning of John Ware's TV essay, shown last week on BBC 2, The Death of Respect
(available to those outside the UK here
), CCTV footage showed kids throwing stones at firemen at the scene of a blaze. "Why don't you just turn a hose on them?" Ware asked a fire superintendant. The man replied that once upon a time they would have done just that, but now "If you turn a hose on a young person, that's assault... I have a sense of responsibility in my actions, I have a sense of what I can and can't do. That isn't reciprocated by the child or young person. They're secure in their belief that they are untouchable." Later, the documentary raises the Bulger case, in which children murdered another child. The theme (apart from the right-wing motif that "the country is going to the dogs") was that children can act as badly as adult criminals, yet enjoy a state of legal non-responsibility. This legal protection -- based on a conception of them as ghostly non-agents, not responsible for their actions -- actually becomes a danger to a society in which children are acting, in fact, pretty much the way other citizens -- including criminals -- act.
I've noticed a similarly negative attitude to the agency of children in some reactions to a young style blogger called Tavi, "the new girl in town". My sister drew my attention the other day to Tavi's elegant and articulate fashion blog Style Rookie
, where Tavi describes herself as a "a tiny 13 year old dork that sits inside all day wearing awkward jackets and pretty hats, scatters black petals on Rei Kawakubo's doorsteps and serenades her in rap. Rather cynical and cute as a drained rat. In a sewer. Farting. And spitting out guts."
Tavi has appeared on the cover of Pop
magazines. She isn't just a model, though; for Love she interviewed conceptual artist Jordan Wolfson, managing to edit a 4,431 word interview with him down to 208 words. She also impressed the bloggers at The Moment
But while one coterie applauds Tavi and delivers her the fame she so obviously craves and deserves, others express doubts. When Tavi scored a feature in New York magazine
aged 12, writer Jessica Coen said: "We're not sure if a 12-year-old is actually doing all this or if she's getting some help from a mom or older sister (some of the photos of her were definitely not self-shot)." Comments ranged from "when I was 12 kids were drinking and smoking weed" to "totally not 12... Tavi is around 10 and the person writing her blog is in her 20s". Later coverage in New York was more positive
after Coen received a comment-lashing from people (many of them 12 year-olds themselves) demanding to know why a tween couldn't
write well and have cool style. T Magazine was only marginally more respectful: "Not bad for a 12 year-old," wrote Elizabeth Spiridakis in a feature entitled Post Adolescents
. "As an almost-30-year-old style blogger myself, I have to ask: Whom will I envy next? Kindergartners?"
While others see Tavi's age as the most interesting thing about her, Tavi herself sees style as a way to transcend age. "I like creating characters," she told T Magazine, summoning images of Cindy Sherman or Sophie Calle. "Example: I’m wearing a long sweater, glasses and a colorful blazer. I am a 23-year-old living in D.C. and I like to visit quaint coffee shops. My mother died when I was 3, and my father remarried this woman who is always buying me perfume I never use."
Australian fashion blog Frockwriter
pinned the liberal dilemma in their Tavi coverage: "Now look I know David Jones is doing his darndest to head off at the pass any future underage model scandals – by banning runway models
under the age of 18. Some have applauded the decision. But what is one to do when cashed-up, tech-savvy kids are getting onto the net posting pics of themselves in their latest outfits?"
It's a ticklish issue: do kids (like french muslims wearing veils) have a right to be seen, or a right to be not-seen? How, amidst the universal self-mediation of the internet, do you prevent children from asserting their agency and beginning the kind of work they'll no doubt be doing all their lives? And why would you want to?