Teenagers versus The World

Due to a Top Secret Work Project That Cannot Be Discussed Publicly, I recently spent some time with some teenagers. It has been a long time since I have talked to teenagers, and was surprised by how open and smart they were. Sweet, even. According to the media, all teenagers are unthinkably terrible. It turns out that this is not true.

It is not just me that has made this discovery. In his recent BAFTA talk about childrens' TV (streamable here), Russell T. Davies talked about how making Doctor Who had opened his eyes to how demonised children are in our culture, and how surprised he was to discover how impressive they are if you spend any time with them. And he is dead right.

That said, the reason we were with these teenagers is because we were attempting to understand what they want to watch. Many TV people are deeply worried by teenagers' lack of interest in TV. It turns out that what they like to watch is this:

Lovely and smart they may be, but they are still teenagers.

But before you tut, ask yourself this: Were you any different when you was a teenager? I didn't have YouTube, but I loved the Young Ones, which had a tone not dissimilar to the clip above. And we turned out okay, didn't we? More or less?

I was reminded of this when I went to the G20 protest rally at the Bank of England on April 1st. Here we all are, happily exercising our legal right to protest:

This was early on, and very merry and good humoured it was too.

Ah, but what of the Bad Element that the police and press had warned us of? The dreaded Anarchists, black-hooded and with masked faces, intent on bloody violence. Some of these Enemies of Society had even come from Europe, fretted the Daily Mail. Of course the majority of protesters would be legal and peaceful, everyone accepted this. But the very existence of these anarchists was used to justify the £7million pound, 5000-strong police operation - the biggest British policing operation ever.

Look at these devils! Running down British streets!

However, it is not until you find yourself next to these swine that you notice something.

They are children. Teenagers.

Not all, certainly, but the vast majority. They are kids.

I'll admit, this surprised me. The impression that I had from the media was that they were older, hardcore grizzled protesters. Being masked, it is hard to tell their age of course, but when you see them in the flesh you see their body language, their size, and their eyes. And with a shock you realise how young they are. It isn't surprising that the first to be charged with trashing the RBS is a 17 year old girl - a large percentage of them are 17 year old girls.

This photo, I think, comes closest to showing them as they appear when you find yourself in a crowd with them:

True, they were there with the intention of kicking off and probably smashing some windows. When I was there, though, they couldn't. It was a carnival atmosphere. The sun was shining, dub reggae was playing, a hippy lady was handing out paper hearts to everybody. The anarchists I saw were just standing around sheepishly. You can't kick off when there is nothing to kick against.

This was before the police advanced, of course, and started 'kettling' people into containment pens, holding them for hours. Things changed then. Things changed very quickly. Much has been written about the events that followed. I do not intend to add to this here, except to just remind people of the report on the Kingsnorth policing (this video on BoingBoing is a good overview), and how this was not an isolated incident.

But back to the teenagers, intent on smashing things. This is another example of how modern teenagers are still behaving - well, like teenagers. In Brighton, where I live now, the classic example is the fights between Mods and Rockers in the 1960s.

These are events that have heavily romanticised over the years, to the extent that folk in Brighton are weirdly fond of them.

I grew up away from the goodness of Brighton, in North Wales. There were no mass gang fights there, so in order to express the teenage urge to Smash Stuff, we used to go down disused brick works and clay pits. The hope was that you would find a window to smash but you never did, as all the windows had long been smashed by other kids years ago. Instead you had to make do with setting fire to dry gorse bushes. They don't half go up quick, do dry gorse bushes. Like I said, we didn't have YouTube back then.

It's a fact of life, basically, that some teenagers go through a period when they want to Smash Stuff, and that some of them act on it. Large parts of Hollywood and the video games industry are a reaction to this. You could even argue that that this is how we learn about consequences, and why smashing stuff isn't good. It is certainly something that they grow out of. I personally go through my life not smashing anything, and I would bet that you don't either.

Now, there are two differences between the teenager's of yore, and those in black hoodies at the Bank of England. The first is that these modern teenagers have focused their aggression on a genuine target. People often dismiss these protesters on the ground that they 'don't know what they are protesting about', or that they are not protesting against anything specific enough. I disagree, I think it is very simple and very clear. The political and financial systems refuse to accept that there are any limits to growth, while the scientific and ecological institutions argue very persuasively that not only are there limits to growth, but that the consequences of overshooting them will be unimaginably terrible. This issue is often expressed in many different ways, for it has far-reaching implications, but ultimately that is what it boils down to.

These teenagers know that it is they who will have to face this future. Their anger is focused on the political and financial institutions that refuse to acknowledge the future consequences of their actions. I can't help but think that this is more admirable than taking it out on mods or gorse bushes.

The second difference is that their anger is under the spotlight of the media. Just look at the amount of media surrounding the guy who instigated the trashing of the RBS.

With images like that, press and politicians have their excuse. 'Violent extremists' (or, as we now know, teenagers) have to be stopped, even at the cost of removing civil liberties and curtailing the right to peaceful political protest. Perhaps newspaper columnists need reminding that our society survived the Mods and Rockers.

After the police actions of April 1st, it is now wildly understood that if you wish to protest, it is likely that you will be detained indefinitely, arrested if you do not give your name and address, photographed, and quite possibly beaten. JFK has been quoted a lot in the last few days - 'Those who make peaceful protest impossible make violent protest inevitable'. Bad things are ahead.

Why does this matter? Well, there is a long history of protest, riots and civil disobedience in this country, and by studying it with hindsight we can see some recurring themes.

Firstly, they act as a pressure valve that releases anger and prevents society from exploding - note that full scale revolutions of history are largely in countries that don't have this release valve.

Secondly, rioters do not have the answers to solve the problem. Poll tax rioters did not have carefully costed Community Charge blueprints in their back pockets. They are a reaction to the problem, not the solution.

And thirdly, and most importantly: Although it is rarely acknowledged at the time, history shows that mass civil disobedience - from the Suffragettes to the road protestors of the 90s or the million-strong anti-war march before the invasion of Iraq - are almost always right. Not in the protesters' understanding of what needed to be done, perhaps, but in their analysis of what the problem is. That much anger does not build up among deluded people, only in those who can see the problem clearly and can also see that the problem is being ignored. Even given the horrors of the Reign of Terror, to use the most extreme example, you would be hard pushed now to find a Frenchman who does not think that the French Revolution was justified and the right thing to do.

April 1st reminded me of the previous anti-capitalist riots in the city, on May Day in 2001. Once again the complaint is the same as it is now - that the financial system is unsustainable and unjust, and that persuing short-term growth with no regard for the consequences was going to end very badly. Famously, bankers looked down at the protesters from their offices and waved fifty pound notes and champagne bottles at them. They didn't consider that the protesters complaints were in any way valid, and they certainly didn't consider regulation or reforms based on the opinions of the mob in the street. This year, the didn't wave £100 notes at the protesters, as they would have expected. They waved tenners. And they still tell each other that nobody could have predicted what was going to happen.

If the media's love of demonising teenagers costs the British people their right to protest, we will have lost a very valuable thing. And the teenagers - well, they'll still be teenagers. Even if they are right.


  1. Having been a teenager myself, which will surprise my daughters who think I am still a child, I believe teenagers' unalloyed enthusiasm for life, their innocent morality, their pure vision unsullied by practicalities, are the saving grace of the world.

    If we listen to them, they talk a lot of sense - I'm just listening to a bunch of black teenagers, all girls as it happens, talking on Radio 4's Broadcasting House, 9 - 10 am Sunday, I'd be proud to be associated with any one of them.

    In many respects, it is their world. We have had our go and not been too successful.

    We need our children to become more political, more radicalised, to shake the feebleness from our bones, our sad and dangerous view that we cannot achieve anything so why bother.


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