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Is youth’s ‘creeping passivity’ happening by design?

by Stephen Hesse

Last February, I wrote an Our Planet Earth column titled “Don’t give up on Japan’s kids,” noting there that despite all the hand-wringing that goes on about this nation’s young people, my own experience with university students gives me cause for considerable optimism.

I wrote that column in response to questions I often hear in my work as an international educator: What’s wrong with Japanese students; why aren’t more of them studying abroad?

Since peaking in 2004, the number of Japanese studying overseas has steadily declined, and because the reasons for this trend are varied it has perplexed both Japanese and foreign educators.

As that column noted, anecdotal evidence indicates that this trend is now reversing, and as long as the Japanese economy doesn’t tank much further, I’m hopeful that the number of students studying abroad will be on the upswing once again.

Nevertheless, this decline in engaging with the wider world raises a more disturbing question in my mind, one that echoes an ironic bumper sticker from the 1960s: “What happens if someone holds a protest and no one comes?”

What happens if young people decide that safety and predictability — in short, staying home — are preferable to risk-taking and adventure, and perhaps even to rebelling against authority?

As the parent of a rambunctious teenager, I recognize that I am tempting fate by going on record in support of youthful rebellion.

Nonetheless, recently I have had a nagging suspicion that young people no longer embrace defiance with the same gusto they used to. More and more they seem to be abdicating their genetically and culturally ordained roles as rebels and reformers.

To be honest, this just doesn’t seem right, or possible. After all, wolves eat meat and geese fly south in winter. Some things are meant to be.

Unfortunately, though, this creeping passivity is not just in my imagination, because — according to Bruce E. Levine, a clinical psychologist and author — young people really are losing the fire in their bellies.

In an article titled “Youth Subdued: 8 ways young Americans have been dominated,” Levine reported online July 28 on Counterpunch (www.counterpunch.org) that passivity is sweeping America’s youth — because ruling elites “have created societal institutions that have subdued young Americans and broken their spirit of resistance to domination.”

Can this be possible, I wonder? Could nurturing really be pinning nature to the mat?

Today’s young people are more extensively networked than any previous generation. At their fingertips they have the ability to connect with other young people in nations their parents never knew existed. They have access to more and better information sources than their older siblings even dreamed about.

Now, too — along with access to this multilayered matrix of human relationships and data — young people have unique and powerful tools with which to challenge those responsible for undermining society and the planet, from exploitative economies to overexploited ecosystems.

Consequently, where once it took decades to uncover the truth about government or corporate malfeasance, today it can take just months, or even days.

So who will energize and invigorate society if young people, however well informed and capable they might be, choose self-absorption over protest; passive survival over risk-taking?

As the great anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

But what happens as it becomes harder and harder to find small, thoughtful groups committed to reform?

Some may take delight in finding deep-rooted conspiracies in Levine’s observations, while others are likely to find haphazard demoralization trailing in the wake of pell-mell globalization. Either way, Levine is clearly onto something — but you won’t find specific solutions from him, at least not yet. For now, though, simply uncovering these trends may be half the solution.

Judge for yourself. Below are very brief synopses of the eight deadly sins that Levine claims American society is deploying to subdue its young.

Student-loan debt: “Large debt — and the fear it creates — is a pacifying force,” Levine contends.

During one’s late teens and 20s, he explains, “when it should be easiest to resist authority because one does not yet have family responsibilities, many young people worry about the cost of bucking authority, losing their job and being unable to pay an ever-increasing debt. In a vicious cycle, student debt has a subduing effect on activism.”

Psychopathologizing and medicating noncompliance: According to Levine, the American Psychiatric Association is increasingly identifying and definitively naming mental disorders in children and teenagers.

One example he cites is Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), with official symptoms of a sufferer that include: “Often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules”; “often argues with adults”; and “often deliberately does things to annoy other people.”

No doubt Levine agrees with me on this one: If a teenager doesn’t do these things, then there’s a mental-health problem.

Levine also notes that “heavily tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs are now the highest grossing ($16 billion in 2010) class of medication in the United States.”

Schools that educate for compliance and not for democracy: “The nature of most classrooms, regardless of the subject matter, socializes students to be passive and directed by others, to follow orders, to take seriously the rewards and punishments of authorities, to pretend to care about things they don’t care about, and that they are impotent to affect their situation,” writes Levine.

In short, “schools are essentially undemocratic places, and so democracy is not what is instilled in students.”

“No child left behind” and “Race to the top”: These are new educational programs that have been adopted in the United States and, according to Levine, “create fear, which is antithetical to education for a democratic society.

“Fear forces students and teachers to constantly focus on the demands of test creators; it crushes curiosity, critical thinking, questioning of authority, and challenging and resisting illegitimate authority.”

Shaming young people who take education, but not their schooling, seriously: Levine cites Mark Twain’s famous statement, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education” — while pointing out that today, “Americans who lack college degrees are increasingly shamed as ‘losers’ “; a trend that promotes the cycle of domination seen in the third of his “8 ways” (above).

The normalization of surveillance: “The fear of being surveilled makes a population easier to control. … Young Americans have become increasingly acquiescent to corporatocracy surveillance because, beginning at a young age, surveillance is routine in their lives. …

“Increasingly, I talk with young people who lack the confidence that they can even pull off a party when their parents are out of town, and so how much confidence are they going to have about pulling off a democratic movement below the radar of authorities?” writes Levine.

Television: “TV is a ‘dream come true’ for an authoritarian society,” Levine observes.

“Those with the most money own most of what people see; fear-based television programming makes people more afraid and distrustful of one another, which is good for the ruling elite who depend on a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy; TV isolates people so they are not joining together to create resistance to authorities.”

And you thought TV was just mindless entertainment.

Fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist consumerism: Levine points out that progressives often call fundamentalist religion the “opiate of the masses,” but they fail to see consumerism as a similar threat.

“A fundamentalist consumer culture legitimizes advertising, propaganda and all kinds of manipulations, including lies; and when a society gives legitimacy to lies and manipulativeness, it destroys the capacity of people to trust one another and form democratic movements.”

There, in brief, are the eight “ways.” Unfortunately, I only have enough space here to sketch out Levine’s concerns, so find his article online and get the full picture. It might change the way you see our free society.

Of course, America and Japan do not face the same concerns regarding their young people, or their governments and corporations, but their claims to being democratic nations are similar enough.

And if we aspire to true democracy, the citizens of both nations must embrace transparency and accountability, as well as protest and defiance, as essential cornerstones of a just and fair society. If we fail in this today, it is inevitable that we will find ourselves the pawns of the wealthier and more powerful tomorrow.

Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University and director of the Chuo International Center. He can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com.