Since when has age disqualified issue activism?

Whatever you think of Greta Thunberg and school students around the world marching to protest about climate change, there is an important underlying question: Do young people have a valid voice in important issues of the day?

There were plenty of politicians and others who argued that Thunberg and her followers should be in school. But ‘time off school’ didn’t get mentioned when 15-year-old Coco Gauff was beating Venus Williams at Wimbledon, and only by grinches when 16-year-old Jessica Watson sailed solo around the world.

Apart from her thousands of supporters, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist came in for a barrage of personal abuse, not only for her views and medical condition, but for her temerity at speaking out so young. The message was very clear – what would she know at her age, wait till she grows up and understands the real world, she’s a puppet of agenda-driven adults, and so on.

The tone grew even nastier after she was invited to speak at the United Nations and delivered a scathing and possibly unwise lecture to the adults in the room. Thunberg herself described her approach as “too loud for people to handle.”

However, the strength of reaction from her critics was remarkable. Sky News Commentator Andrew Bolt called it child abuse and wrote: “I hope all those activists, those reckless politicians, who treated this chronically anxious and disturbed 16-year-old as the new Messiah are now shocked into some sense . . . she is not the Messiah, she is just a depressed, extremely anxious and very unhappy girl.”

And his Sky stablemate Chris Kenny piled on criticism of the messenger rather than the message, saying the UN had handed the floor over to a hysterical teenager. “This ought to be pretty hilarious stuff. We ought to be able to giggle and scoff at it . . . We all know about the emotional roller-coaster ride that teenagers go through, which is why we tend to encourage and nurture them without taking their obsessions too seriously. But this girl seems overwrought, and instead of caring for her there seems to be a movement taking advantage of her.”

It’s worth remembering another 16-year-old addressing the United Nations – Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out on the issue of education for girls. She went on to become the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel peace prize in 2014, and I don’t recall anyone saying: “She’s only a teenager, what would she know?” Or that she should be in school. Or that adults were taking advantage of her.

So when did age become a barrier to having an opinion on the important issues of the day and being willing to say it out loud? Clearly, the different challenge represented by Greta Thunberg and her young supporters is not really their age but the political sensitivity of the issue.

Even the usually moderate Network Ten commentator Joe Hildebrand fell into the “uninformed youth and why aren’t they at school” trap. He wrote: “Older and wiser heads have been working on these questions for years, sensible scientists and pragmatic policymakers who are constantly racking their brains to come up with workable solutions . . . And they are probably the sort of people who stayed in school.”

Certainly a clever line, but Hildebrand went on to tell us he was “not sure if any of the millions of kids on the streets came up with a fix” for climate change.

Like the right-wingers with their personal abuse, Hildebrand seemed to misunderstand how issue management works. The role of street protesters in issue activism – regardless of their age and regardless of the issue – is typically not to propose solutions or come up with a fix. It’s to forcibly bring attention to a problem and to urge action by those who have the power to drive change.


About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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