Young Berkeley students taking time out of their schooling to bear firearms and lead protests. Against fascism. In the name of Antifa. Militant sexuality and transgender rights activists shutting down naysayers on social media. Breitbart with its army of warriors and reporting that leaves no conspiracy theory left behind.
If you are puzzled by all of this, you are in good company.
A recent SurveyMonkey poll of U.S. adults showed that they are equally bewildered (46–40) by activism from both the left and right. Americans look at their country today and it’s easy to imagine that they are in an age of rage that is both abnormal and peculiar.
On abnormal they are right. But on peculiar, they are wrong.
The anger that threatens to cripple America’s social fabric is not solely an American phenomenon — it is a global reality. Only days ago we saw the arrests of almost 300 Russians calling for Vladmir Putin to resign.
It is easy to forget that it was only six years ago that Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building in Tunisia, protesting corruption and income inequality, leading to the much-talked-about Arab Spring. In the same period, an alarming 44 percent of 18 to 24-year-old French citizens came to back the flame-throwing, race-baiting Front National leader, Marine le Pen.
On my continent, in the same six-year period, not only have Libyan young people ousted Gaddafi, but young people have driven out their president from Ivory Coast; led historic protests that saw anti-Mandela chants in South Africa’s universities to denounce income inequality; unseated entrenched political establishments in Nigeria and Ghana; pulled down the 22-year strongman of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh and, just recently, frightened the Kenyan Supreme Court into overturning elections that foreign observers had declared free and fair. In South Africa alone, since 2008, more than 2 million people have taken to the streets in protest every year.
It’s simple really: Young people are tired of being lied to.
I know this from young people themselves. My organization, which helps build social movements in Africa, has reached out to thousands of youth across the continent. They are lashing out at institutions that have been lying to them as long as they have been alive.
They express themselves, mostly, through political action. But what gets expressed as political rage actually rises out of anger about social injustice.
Economic reforms and structural adjustments have promised that unbridled capitalism and globalized markets would deliver prosperity and growth. Political elite have promised that electoral democracy would deliver peace and stability. Faith institutions have promised that strict moral codes would usher in joy and good karma.
Instead, “ultra-high-net-worth individuals” hold a disproportionate 12.8 percent of total global wealth; in America, markets keep going up and down in response to political instability; and depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide. All this, disproportionately, affects young people across the world.
For example, one in seven young Australians has a mental health condition; over the past decade there has been a 37 percent jump in Americans aged 12 to 20 who have reported a major depressive episode and in the United Kingdom, the number of children and young people turning up emergency rooms with a psychiatric condition has more than doubled since 2009. 74 percent of people in South Africa’s youthful work force have reported the cognitive symptoms of depression.
In what universe would these kinds of scary numbers not lead to searing anger?
In channeling this anger, it is impossible to vote out your pastor, it is excruciatingly hard to get rid of oppressive sexual and gender orthodoxies and if the move to get companies to take responsibility for inequities might be slightly on the upswing in America, it’s not really happening anywhere else. But pushing back against politicians? Ah, there, young people — by virtue of their numbers — have a resolute advantage — and they are lashing out with protests, community organizing and their votes.
To whine about the anger from young people, even if some of it is misdirected, is to blame the victim. Society and its institutions must take responsibility for creating this mess.
So how about we start again, with some moral humility?
If young people have no more faith in institutions and other expressions of conventional authority, then it is time for those symbols of power and privilege to begin the hard work of regaining trust — through empathy, through listening, through a genuine attempt to understand.
That, as simple as it sounds, would be an excellent start.
Chude Jideonwo is a Maurice Greenberg World Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .