In a few hundred years, when we talk about the past it’ll be this reflection that will inhabit the social consciousness: how did we ever think it was normal to treat people as slaves just because of their age?
We will look back and disapprove of anyone who forced people do things they didn’t want to, just because—at that point—these people were alive for less than 18 years. What we think of slave masters now, we’ll think of “adults” then. Because, just like with slaves, there are exactly zero good reasons to force another consciousness do something they don’t want to do.
By pouring their derision
Upon anything we did
Exposing every weakness
However carefully hidden by the kids
But in the town, it was well known
When they got home at night, their fat and
Psychopathic wives would thrash them
Within inches of their lives
— Pink Floyd, The Happiest Days of our Lives, 1979
Just like with slave owners, there were some nasty ones but there were also humane ones. The same parallel difference exists between strict parents and teachers and more lenient and sympathetic ones.
Just like the first people who opposed slavery were considered amusing or funny, most of the readers of this text will smile in response, speculating I must be exaggerating.
But the grim reality of our present era is that there is yet one more, very deeply entrenched, hierarchy inside our by-other-metrics progressive Western societies. Some humans among us are second rate. They are considered of inferior intellect. Just like slaves were considered the same. They are not equal citizens. They cannot vote, the fundamental—however pretentious—right of democracy has been subtracted from them. Let’s take a moment to really grasp that. Remember when women could not vote? We consider that an era of inadequate democracy, an era where only half the population was able to take part in defining how we live. Well, let’s realise now that we disregard this class of humans in such a high degree that we do not even consider them as part of the two halves that could potentially vote.
In the future, history books will be rewritten and what they will say about women’s suffrage is not that the other half of the population was finally allowed to vote in the 20th century. Instead, history books will say that in the 20th century the second third of the population was allowed to vote. It took hundreds of years more for the final third of the population to be considered equal.
It feels like the obsolescence of adulthood is so radical that it will take centuries. Consider the case of slaves. From the beginning of the first human civilisation—across the globe—in one form or another, all peoples had an implementation of the notion of slavery. The worldwide abolition of slavery (which is not complete but at least on a very significant degree done) is a victory of gigantic proportions for humanity. One of similar proportions will be needed for the abolition of adulthood.
I don’t know how. Comparing with the abolitionist movement and the women’s right to vote, we should start talking and writing about it. This can only be regarded as a first step, though. Maybe we’ll never consider new humans equal. Maybe we’ll go the opposite direction and limit their freedom even more. Neither is the future of humanity predetermined nor the arrow of progress singular. What will be considered ethical and progressive in a hundred years is at play right now. In other words, if we don’t change our definition of fairness—ourselves—to include new humans’ opinions as a must-have, then the future world will still be fair—just with a different definition of fairness.
All these lead to an argument I keep making: we—collectively—are the masters of our own fate whether we know it or not. We decide what is fair. Not: “we can decide what’s fair”. We decide it whether we do it consciously or not.
Let’s own it, then. Let’s think about it really hard and let’s define fairness consciously.
Think we must. Let us think in offices; in omnibuses; while we are standing in the crowd watching Coronations and Lord Mayor’s Shows; let us think as we pass the Cenotaph; and in Whitehall; in the gallery of the House of Commons; in the Law Courts; let us think at baptisms and marriages and funerals. Let us never cease from thinking–what is this “civilization” in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them?
— Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, 1938 (brought to my attention by Dr Kay)