Sunday, 23 September 2012

A Sober Comment: Youth and Violence

I am greatly disturbed and distressed by the outpourings of violence following the release of the anti-Islam video 'Innocence of Muslims'. I'm not putting up a link to that movie, because I'm not going to advertise it freely. I'm sure it is easy enough to find.

Instead, I want to make a comment. While most reports, both in mainstream media and social media, tend to focus on issues like Freedom of Speech, about the Muslim World (#MuslimRage), and about US foreign policy, I want to pay attention to something slightly different: Youth Violence.

Over the past few years, there have been quite a number of instances of outbreaks of mass violence. Some for completely mundane reasons (the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot in Vancouver), some on the basis of one incident that mutated into something larger (the 2011 Tottenham Riots), and now the widespread rioting and embassy-burning violence associated with this video.

This isn't something new, either - the 2007-8 post-election violence in Kenya was largely carried out by groups of young men (See a research study done by the Mercy Corps). A famous part of the 1994 Rwandan genocide was the training and devastating use of the Interhamwe youth to carry out the massacre.

My more suspicious side always sees some sort of planning, some sort of manipulation behind the outpouring of violence. There is always a tendency to label rioting as 'senseless' violence, without particularly examining the spark that catalysed the whole thing - it may be about the movie, but it's not just about the movie.

What's going on? Because every time I see news articles about this I see these kids, mostly male, and all I think of is what it was like for me being a teenager. And all I see is the young person wearing a mask, turning to the camera after throwing a stone at the police and flashing the peace symbol. What's going on?

I feel like it really needs to be stated - there is nothing inherently violent about youth. I know that there is a tendency for people to look at teenagers and young adults and feel mildly threatened by them, by their energy, and yes, sometimes by their rage. But we were all youths once - I find it hard to remove myself from that thought. Especially when I think about all the factors, the privileges, I had going for me in my life. I was 17 once. I lived in a stable country, with stable, upper-middle class family, at a good school, with good friends. Was I just lucky?

I had my energy, my rage, too. I sacrificed my time and damaged my body playing soccer and basketball, and things like that. And I enjoyed the camaraderie, which made it all worth it. What if that energy was focused on fundamentalism? What if I was disenfranchised, poor, and living in conflict? What if I was denied opportunities simply because of my ethnicity? What if I was sitting around with nothing to do all day?

Sometimes, the problems feels like there is just fear everywhere. And that skews perceptions. What would happen if we gave youth more responsibilities, rather than less? I don't know. In the latest Canadian elections, the NDP party was more successful than they'd anticipated, and now there is an MP who was an undergraduate student, and one that was in Las Vegas when she won. In Uganda, a 19 year-old won a by-election to become an MP. The tendency is to always focus on their youth, and not their work. To excuse their 'youthful indiscretions' while at the same time limiting their capacity to take responsibility. Or, worse, to just outright dismiss them from our collective consciousness. What's going to happen to these three youth leaders in the next few years? I don't know, and I am fairly certain the popular media won't update us on their successes and failures.

At least from the perspective of Africa, there is a real focus on either (a) the starving child, (b) the political elite, or (c) the religious/ethnic/socioeconomic ideologies at play. These are important things. Nowadays, there is a push for aid, policy-making, and development to included women and girls, people living with disabilities, non-discrimination, and a host of other critical issues.

But the pictures right now are of 15-25 year old men/boys, with rocks. We've forgotten something.

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