I recently got into an argument with a stranger who was trying to cut through my bike lock with a torch. This was in the middle of a crowd, and I knew he would be long gone if I waited for the police to show up. When I saw him at work, I figured that this is someone who slinks around looking only for unguarded valuables. He’s not scary, and he knows it.
Sure enough, as soon as he realized he’d been found out, he immediately started offering me money—first for my bike, and then as a bribe. But in a fit of adrenaline-fueled outrage, I simply said to him, “That’s really sad you don’t have anything better to do with your life than steal a cheap bike off the street.”
He stammered and then eventually said, “I do have something better.”
I gestured for him to leave. “Go and do it then.”
He started to go, and then turned back and said, “Hey, you can’t talk to me like that. You’re just a kid, you gotta show some respect. You can’t talk to me like that.”
I started trying to take his picture, but he ran off into the crowd, and that was it.
When I told the story to my family, they were of course surprised to hear that I was the “kid,” not the bike thief. It doesn’t even occur to most of us that a middle-aged adult could commit a petty crime against someone younger. Worse crimes (abuse, abduction, etc.) we can see, but it’s difficult for us even to picture an older adult vandalizing or stealing a young person’s possessions. Such a thing would be absurd, almost comical, like something out of a Seth Rogen film.
But this really happened to me. And the incident left me—for the thousandth time since I was a teenager—unsure about whether I really am a kid. Recently, I’ve found that I’ve unconsciously identified with adulthood, using “we” whenever I refer to this group. But the instant I feel sure the world has recognized that I’m not a kid anymore, someone will call me one, or treat me like one (e.g. liquor store clerks pointedly scrutinizing my ID far longer than they could possibly need to).
I’m in a period of life psychologists have recently started calling “emerging adulthood.” Evidently, adolescence isn’t enough of a buffer between childhood and adulthood, so another one had to be tacked on. No doubt within a decade or two, psychologists will have discovered yet another period of development after emerging adulthood, and called it “new adulthood,” or something similar. As depressing as this trend of inventing more and more age-based labels may sound for youth rights (two was more than enough), the good news is that if it goes on unchecked, we must inevitably reach a moment when there are so many stages preceding adulthood that hardly anyone ever reaches it. Once that happens, youth rights will have to become relevant to everyone.
The concept of emerging adulthood allows society to see me as a kid—when it’s convenient. If I were arrested for a crime (especially one that people are currently eager to see punished), this same society would reverse its opinion, and decide that I was an adult—though it would, of course, continue to call me a “kid” out of pure spite. Nothing can get me out of being called a kid—not good behavior, not bad behavior, and not anything in between.
My thief knew this. I suspect that the reason he chose to point out our relative ages was that there was no other way for him to win the moral high ground. He couldn’t even fault me for being more privileged than he was, since he clearly wasn’t starving or homeless. He could also apparently afford quality sneakers—not to mention a quality blowtorch (assuming, of course, that he didn’t steal these things). And not only did he offer me money, he also admitted to me, “I do have something better [to do with my life].” It seems pretty clear, all things considered, that stealing my bike was something he was doing by choice, not out of resignation or desperation.
It’s easy to laugh and say he was talking nonsense. After all, who has the gumption to criticize the manners of someone he’s just tried to rob? But then we have to remember that there are many people in this country, and in this world, who would hear my story and stand up for my thief, and tell me he was right: I had no right to talk to him the way I did, even in light of the circumstances. Respect for one’s elders, they would argue, is unconditional. Even if a young person has to call the police on someone older, he should never forget his place: he should show respect even while dialing the number.
As I understand it, this expectation is based on the principle that every adult is a representative of the institution of adulthood, just as the president is a representative of the government. To disrespect one adult is to disrespect them all. I wasn’t just showing contempt for my bike thief, but for every single one of my elders, all the way from my parents to my grandmother to the Pope.
But this justification is problematic. When one person represents a whole institution, that institution is also responsible for his actions. If my bike thief behaved disgracefully in his capacity as a representative of adulthood (which he did), then the entire institution of adulthood behaved disgracefully. When this happens, an institution has the responsibility to impeach its representative. Yet to my knowledge, no adult in the history of Western civilization has ever been “impeached”—that is, stripped of his status as an adult—because of his disgraceful conduct. Even if I’d succeeded in getting him arrested and sent off to jail, it would never happen. According to our view, no middle-aged adult could commit a crime so heinous that he deserved to be taunted by children, or even by older “kids” like me. If this isn’t clear, we should imagine what would happen if I visited my thief in his jail cell, in the company of other adults his age. They could scold him and disrespect him without any problems. But if I did the same, these adults would become extremely uncomfortable and likely object to my behavior, reminding me that even though he was in jail, he was still my elder. They would want me to show him special respect, no matter what he’d done.
But it is immoral for a person or institution to demand privileged respect—even from a child—without accountability. In fact, it is amoral, since without accountability, morality cannot exist. This idea goes back to Locke: to give anyone unconditional privilege is inconsistent with a civilized society.
This is something children understand intuitively. It’s only through “teaching” that that they come to forget it: a process that begins well before adolescence. If we’re lucky, in our teen years we still have enough good childish sense to distrust words like, “respect,” which are touted as “pillars of character”—yet are hardly ever honored by the adults we are supposed to be emulating. I was one of the only people I knew who managed to escape both the hypocrisy of my elders and the nihilism of my peers, repeating over and over again, “I believe in respect, but I won’t respect a teacher who doesn’t respect me.”
There is only one way for adults to rightfully deserve special respect from young people (or from anyone): by being kind and honest, and generally doing good things for humanity. Needless to say, there are many adults who pass this test. But truly respectable people don’t feel the need to be constantly reassured about it. If we pay close attention, we’ll see that the adults who are most adamant about their juniors showing them respect tend to be those who least deserve it: those who are insecure, having little to be proud of, and few real accomplishments to their name. Truly respectable people have the humility—or the dignity, depending on how you look at it—not to strut around “teaching people their place,” and demanding that their critics retract disrespectful statements under threat of punishment. The only possible reason to behave this way is a deep-seated fear of being, in reality, unrespectable: a fear that proves itself true the more we use force to try to assuage it.
It’s sad that so many people reach middle age without either understanding or deserving respect. And it’s also sad that many have nothing better to do with their lives than to try and make young people as miserable as possible—or what is essentially the same thing, to disregard (or even brag about) the suffering we cause them in our quest to “benefit” them. This is a cycle: a virus of bitterness that gets passed from one generation to the next. This virus depends on the model of treating elders with unconditional respect, and young people with unconditional disrespect, reinforcing the notion that how we behave doesn’t matter, that fairness is nonsense, and that to improve our lot is beyond our control.
None of this would be possible if we started applying moral rather than amoral expectations to people of all ages: considering everyone to be capable of earning or losing respect according to their actions, not their age. If we could accomplish that, the chances of someone abandoning morality and reaching middle age without having done anything respectable would be far smaller. At the very least, thieves, bullies, sadists, and hypocrites would no longer feel entitled to special treatment from their juniors, when in fact they did not deserve it from anyone.