Cover Image

Illustration by Liene Magdalena

Youth Activism: A Danger to Democracy

The rapid rise of youth activism begs the question: have we as a society normalized the politicization of youth?

Oct 26, 2019

The youth has been playing an increasingly pivotal role in shaping the modern day landscape of activism. Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, Payal Jangid and Marjory Stoneman high school students are all part of an emerging global phenomenon: young adults speaking up about core social issues that we, collectively as a society, have failed to address, or, in many cases, even acknowledge. While Greta and Malala steal all the headlines, for every youth activist on the cover pages of Forbes and Times, there are thousands more that are fighting for causes like gender and racial equality, climate justice, educational rights and more. But far too often, we fail to consider the dangers youth activism poses, which are just as great as its achievements.
Greta Thunberg single-handedly galvanized a global youth-led climate strike of unprecedented scale. Payal Jangid fought to end child marriage in her native village after escaping it herself, and the Marjory Stoneman high school students have brought gun control and the Second Amendment to the center of the American political discourse. All of these young adults, or what the right-wing media would often condescendingly call “kids”, are rewriting the rules and conventions of activism. In a climate of crippling hopelessness, it is these youth activists that have risen to the challenge of speaking up for future generations, so as to provide a sense of direction to the public.
Looking at the achievements of these exceptional individuals: it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that youth activism is incredibly effective. But there are many caveats that we often fail to consider. The rapid rise of youth activism begs the question: have we, as a society, normalized the politicization of youth?
On probing further, there is something morally unsettling about the rise, or rather even the existence, of youth activism. On one hand, it signifies our failure to adequately tackle social issues while on the other, it’s an indicator of the free nature of our society today. These two potential causes don’t have to be mutually exclusive; if anything, it is highly likely that youth activism is the outcome of both.
The underlying mechanics of youth activism are also morally questionable. Why exactly is it any more effective than traditional activism? The prime reason youth activism seems to be effective is that it’s simply easier to attract public attention by capitalizing on the image of a child’s innocence. Young people are generally not “rational” actors. Their emotional centers of the brain are far more developed than their rational ones. It requires training and consistent conscious effort to fully utilize what Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “System 2” — the analytical and rational part of the brain. Children are naturally geared towards using “System 1”, which is characterized by emotion and intuition. While System 1 makes up for smart politics, the absence of an effective System 2 is a cardinal sin when it comes to policy-making. Pushing all moral qualms aside, manipulating a child’s innocence and emotions as a political asset at the cost of expertise and rationality is not the best way to go about institutional change.
It seems quite reasonable to think that youth activism is an indicator of an effective democracy. While that wishful assumption might be true to some extent, it cannot be generalized. In some ways, youth activism can unintentionally undermine the democratic system. This is because we have an innate instinct to insulate youth activists from criticism, even when it’s desperately needed. It is undeniable that youth activists hold tremendous social and political influence. So, why is it that we do not hold them accountable by the same standards as traditional activism?
If one calls out a youth activist, they risk being castigated in silence. For instance, Greta Thunberg has consistently been subject to the barbaric attacks of far-right politicians and political pundits which conveniently dismiss her as a tool of the left. But these senselessly barbaric attacks from the likes of Laura Ingraham and President Trump take away the credibility and importance of even genuine critiques to Greta’s fairy-tail-like plans.
For instance, Ms. Thunberg’s calls for complete decarbonization without considering the economic costs it will incur on developing countries is a gross oversimplification of the multifaceted climate crisis and can yield dire consequences. Her quick dismissal of economic growth as a “fairy tale” exhibits that despite her good intentions, her perspective on the climate crisis is dangerously oversimplified and stems from a place of privilege.
Her ideology rests on two pillars: simplification and action. As alluring as this ideology may seem at first glance, and I would even concede we need it to some extent, it is undoubtedly somewhat naïve and perhaps even dangerous. While it does inspire action, it isn’t something that should be insulated of criticism and skepticism.
All this does not mean that the youth should not have political agency or be engaged in activism. We must also refrain from painting every youth activist as a naïve teenager jumping on the bandwagon of adolescent insolence or a political pawn. Instead, we must encourage civic engagement and also protect our children from political exploitation. It is also necessary that we protect them from exploitation, but not from accountability. With great power comes great responsibility, and our instinctive sense of protecting them must not exempt them from the accountability that is much needed in our current political arena.
Vatsa Singh is Deputy Features Editor. Email him at
gazelle logo