On Social Evil and Ephebiphobia

There are, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ten social evils in our present age. Young people are one of them – either the victims of evil or the perpetrators of evil. That should come as no surprise to anybody who attended Professor Tanya Byron’s inaugural lecture which took as its theme, ephibephobia, the irrational fear or hatred of teenagers. Ephebes, teenagers; phobia, fear. Various reasons were given for this irrational fear. The media are culpable. So are government. On that, Tanya and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation appear to agree. As Tanya also rightly pointed out, in a freedom loving democracy, we get the media we deserve (we buy their papers) and the politicians we deserve (we vote for them). So actually, the media and the government are us. Does that mean that WE are culpable? That YOU and I are a social evil? Tanya pointed out the difference between the hysterical, blame-anybody-but-me driven UK treatment of the Jamie Bulger case and the measured, corporately responsible, soul searching treatment by the Norwegians of a similar case in which a five year old girl was murdered by young boys. This is a pattern that fits the UNICEF Innocenti Report which places the UK firmly in 21st place out of 21 on the two crucial measures of family and peer relationships and behaviour and risk. We don’t love our children, and the consequence is that they behave badly and take foolish risks.

Well, things aren’t that simple, of course. For a start, “we” and “they” are stretching aggregates and generalisations too far. On the same day as Tanya’s inaugural, CLIS held an intergenerational identities symposium in which young people and older people uniquely came together to discuss the ‘social evil’ of – ephebiphobia! What wonderful young people they were. We were also delighted to welcome Tanya to our morning session. We were treated both to a sneak preview of the inaugural and also to Tanya’s responses to some of the young people’s presentations. What did we learn?

Well, the first thing is that we have an answer to the question Is Facebook replacing parents? with which we tagged this symposium some six months ago. The answer is that no it isn’t. And neither is Bebo, MySpace, Ning, Zwinkey, Second Life or any other virtual world. Early attempts at inter-generational dialogue appear to suggest that the virtual world is nothing more than a technological extension of the real world. As far as on-line identities go, we have a very clear answer. Inter-generational dialogue in the virtual world can only be between people who have met and are well known to each other in the real world first. A lot more of that in later blogs and forthcoming symposium outputs.

The second big thing that we learned is that we are probably right in CLIS to pursue our hexagonal identity model (see our website if you don’t know what that is!) Whilst symposium participants were brought together on the basis of generational difference, they were probably more united by similarity of social class than divided by generation. That really does open a can of worms as well as future challenges. I loved the suggestion that a future symposium should have a video link to enable the participation of incarcerated young offenders. It also points to two more “evils” that exist alongside ephibephobia: the breakdown of family and poverty. We have an appalling rich-poor gap in the UK and I seem to recall Tanya hinting that amongst those most ready to condemn the young might be those who could themselves be more condemned for their inflated sense of self-importance. Indefensibly high salaries might just be part of it. Greed is the simple word. All these things were also identified in the Joseph Rowntree consultation as “social evils”. The UNICEF report on the UK’s league table position for tackling child poverty does not make comfortable reading either.

How are these evils, including ephebiphobia to be tackled? Well, according to one fourteen year old delegate, we should have “less academic blah blah and more action!” We should do something! Yes, I am very aware that our youngest delegates noticed that adults just will take things over and be boring, even in inter-generational dialogue. Point taken uncomfortably with sharp intake of breath! But I also take comfort from what Tanya said to the young people about the fact that older people do have wisdom – wisdom that comes at least in part from much reading, deep reflection and theoretical analysis. So I’ll continue to do that. Of course, when the technology failed at a vital moment in the symposium, I automatically called on one of the young people for rescue. Thank you for that! Encapsulated there is another major symposium outcome that Tanya summarised nicely. Young people have fantastic ability to use new media and they’ll always be ten steps ahead of me (even though I have a Second Life avatar!) But they don’t have the wisdom of years. And there is the real way forward for inter-generational working. Creative use of new media plus wisdom.

So how about this action? Well, starter for ten, CLIS is already signed up to the Children’s Rights Alliance’s campaign against age discrimination as a corporate supporter. Did you know that? Have a look at the CRAE website. We had some very interesting discussions around the similarities between the suffragettes and the current high levels of discrimination against children and young people (yes, the UK government are in trouble again!) This was also one of Tanya’s inaugural themes. To quote a Y10 delegate exactly: “If the media treated disabled or ethnic minorities the way they treat young people, they’d be absolutely slammed.” Yes, I think they would. So isn’t it about time we used our position as academics and articulate social commentators to start “slamming” the social evil of ephebiphobia? The young people have the technology. We have the wisdom.