A century of children that wants to fire on a century of adults, the great difficulty is getting into shooting position. But the terrible part comes after, i.e., once the shooting starts, there’s not one youth who doesn’t become an “adult.”
Henri Michaux, Face aux verrous
I want to reassure everyone right off. This text is not a genocidal program, it’s a political eye-opener. Its goal is not aimed at human beings—who happen to be children. Rather it calls for a revolution of the eye.
Who sees children? That is, who sees beings deprived of a voice (in-fans)? Is it she who wanders among the mute or she who hears nothing—and understands nothing?
Childhood is but a word. But what do we do with words if these refer to an intangible reality, impalpable and supposedly immutable at one and the same time?
Childhood isn’t something like a reality set up in front of us; there you have a construction. To say that is in no way pejorative. Constructions are quite real but they can be differently, unlike what is “natural.”
An exercise in self-description: if I had to make this or that gesture, how would I do it if I knew others saw me as a child? Would that change my intentions? And if yes, in what way? Towards self-censorship, humility, gentleness, fear, a blithe lack of concern? “What child would I be?” is an answer perhaps to the question “What adult have I become?”
Childhood is imagination. It is a way of seeing a certain span of our existence, a very practical way that often justifies odd behavior on the part of those who “no longer” feel like children.
That “no longer” tells us nothing about a being; it arises from the gaze of others. Just as Hannah Arendt discovered she was Jewish from the taunts of her classmates, so we learn we are children, then later we learn we aren’t any longer, “Our tendency—to be like this or that—arises from this play of positions.” (Definition of a power relation.)
To go over to the dark side of power presupposes a forgetting of the self—of what one was. It is especially striking with age dominance: why do I manage to visit on others what my whole childhood sensibility experienced as insufferable? Can I keep my childhood fractures intact, not out of some kind of masochism of memory but rather so that those feelings of injustice help me today not to commit injustice in turn?
“She needs to go back to school.” When Greta Thunberg uses her different voice (16 years old at the time of the events), she is subjected to attacks about her age with a feeling of impunity that no longer exists today with sexism or racism. For example, they say “she’s only a child” to account for her radical commitment to solving climate change. Yet to discredit an individual by reducing them to a category (tacitly deemed pejorative) is to employ an obvious fact that is only understood among those who are dominant.
The child is not a state or moment in our existence, it is a process of stigmatization. That is, there is no child, there is only infantilization. Let’s not confuse “taking care” of a human being with “infantilizing” them. We are all vulnerable, without exception, so let’s beware of people who look to make vulnerability a pretext for depriving someone of their rights.
Probe the forces at work in me: who do I have a tendency to infantilize? Is it the weak or, on the contrary, those whose blithe disregard I can’t stand because it reminds me of my own concessions? To be an adult would then be the result of all those concessions; yet what is worse than being finished?
One is not a child, one is the child of another, in other words caught in the gaze of another. But do exits exist, other than becoming a catcher oneself—tempted to infantilize in turn for having been so in the past?
I’d like to propose a pastiche of Simone de Beauvoir: one is not born, but rather becomes, a child.
It is not for nothing that the greatest philosophers have attached no little importance to the problem of education, i.e., find the political solution at the source and the rest will follow all by itself. But many have behaved like “philosopher-kings,” the Adult par excellence—and even typography has got involved with that obsession of slapping CAPitals on concepts.
The political figure of the person who infantilizes is quite similar to that of the “enlightened” despot—that figure full of arrogance who believes they have the right to order others around because the latter are unable to do so themselves. The drama of speaking “in someone’s stead”! Many nasty things have been done by starting off an argument in favor of one thing or another with “It’s for their own good.”
Children of the world unite: “Those who act for us, but without us, act against us.”
The original question for democracy is this, do I love someone enough to consider them my equal? That means, do I have the strength to consider the other as sufficiently interesting to want to hear them?
A short exercise in broadened thinking. When addressing a child, imagine that you are talking to a rich white university-educated man in the prime of his life and power (let’s say in his fifties) and ask yourself if you would talk to him in the same way. Would the words be the same? Would you employ the same tone or the same gestures? And if not, why not?
Those who never meet humans powerful enough to listen and want to learn are infantilized. But how do we become actors of a condition that is caused by the other?
When you speak to a child, observe yourself as an anthropologist would. Count the number of orders you give them and the number of compliments you pay them or reproaches you level at them. Compare that with the number of descriptive phrases you uttered during the same span of time of this little experiment in self-observation. In other words, in your exchanges with a child what part is neither imperative nor normative? Speaking without demanding or judging is a political revolution. It amounts quite simply to regarding no one as a child.
Sébastien Charbonnier (2020)
Invitation made on the occasion of the season Esthetics of use, uses of esthetics: second movement, mutations