“I also wanted to be powerful!”
“It's an amazing feeling to exert power over others!”
– young “offenders” before a juvenile court judge
This need, this motive, of wanting to wield power over others, is mean and absurd. It is the same meanness as the calculation behind other, unfortunately much too common forms of power wielded by adults: by exercising force, to break the will of the weaker side by physical injury or psychological damage. The absurdity of this need in young people is that they do not want to have power as a means to ruthlessly enforce a corresponding material interest – such as characterizes the power exercised by the state. They want to enjoy a “cool feeling” of power. Wielding power should give them pleasure per se. Young people want to enjoy the fact that they are capable of inflicting pain and psychological harm on others.
So a need to exercise power, as it drives kids, has only itself as its content. It reveals itself as a purposeless imitation of the power that young people are exposed to every day in the family, school and on the street. By means of power, they do not want to change something in the world around them in their favor, but only to wield something that they are excluded from as adolescents: power. This absurd pleasure wants to rectify an emotional state – call it the frustration of being a loser or the feeling of powerlessness. They hang on suddenly positively to the means under which they otherwise suffer due to the state-authorized power-holders high-handedly enforcing their purposes against their different interests as adolescents.
When some official upholders of law and order, teachers or fathers, get their children and teenagers in line with the use of their authorized power, force them to submit to discipline or punish them for violating the rules, then this is – generally – not for the sake of the pleasure of exercising power, but to get the children and adolescents to submit to the purpose of school, the rules of the road or family life, thus to the incontestable purposes which determine social life in this country. The exercise of power is in no way legitimized if it is applied purposefully, but refers solely to the fact that in this country objectives made valid by force can't be rejected by objections and arguments – no matter how reasonable they may be...
If children and young people imitate the exercise of power they learn from adults, they draw an absurd (false) conclusion from the powerlessness they criticize: they develop this raw need to exercise power precisely because they have no power. They want “to also sometimes be powerful,” even though they abhor the power to which they are subjected. Of all things, they want to do themselves what upsets them about the (instructive) force used against them by authorized adults, and it should even give them pleasure ...
This is a fallacy because this imitation of power, which inevitably always needs someone physically weaker as a victim, serves none of the young peoples' interests that go unmet because of the power of teachers, parents or the police. There are neither better grades nor more pocket money, neither free public transportation passes nor self-managed youth centers, if teenagers beat up younger classmates. In doing so, they no longer take seriously their essentially reasonable – not: authorized – anger about the effects of prohibitions and penalties on themselves: If a teacher gives a child a harsh punishment by making him stay after school or a father denies allowance money because of a bad grade, then what upsets this young person is suddenly less the lack of pocket money or the wasted afternoon than the fact that adults are authorized to wield power over him and that they use this authorization. His anger about a prohibited specific interest is transformed into a desire to act towards others “also sometimes” like someone authorized to wield power.
They know only too well that their brutality – in contrast to that of the power and force wielded legitimately by adults – is always unauthorized, leading to punishments. In the end, they then look doubly stupid: along with the experience that each of their desires always has to set itself in relation to the purposes made valid by adults with authorized power and that their interests are often completely prohibited, they get themselves into even more trouble with the absurd desire to exercise power. Not infrequently, this leads them to the juvenile court judge, who then restores the valid power – meaning: power relations – with a juvenile sentence. He may do what children and young people are prohibited from doing: exercise power – that is, judicial power.
Children and young people cannot escape the fact that they stage their brutal activities in places where they imagine they are by themselves: on the schoolyard, on the street before or after school, on the playground, on the internet, etc. The attempt by youths to forcibly establish their own separate “power relations” fails sooner or later because children and young people are never “by themselves.” They are always under supervision – in this, they are not unlike most adults – even if supervisors are not physically present. Children and adolescents are in fact defined by law: childhood and adolescence involves not the age of innocence, but a catalog of everything that such a little person may not yet do.
If it is recognized as an additional scandal that teenagers tormented a classmate and it went undiscovered for weeks – as reported recently on several occasions – then the outrage is only about the failure of a supervision that is thought to be quite total. This criticism is often dressed up in the shocked question: why didn't the tormented student turn confidingly to parents or teachers? That's just how it is with the supervision of adolescents: the best supervisors are ones who enforce supervisory responsibilities themselves.
Precisely for this reason, violence among children and young people is considered especially scandalous: the outrage is not that the exercise of power has not been done away with once and for all. Its not at all about that – new trainees for perpetrating legitimate violence, in or out of uniform, are always needed. Rather, it is the suspicion that children have still not learned to distinguish and to accept the who, when and why of authorized violence over other people. This is in fact the joke of growing up in this country: adolescents are fully developed and mature and discharged from compulsory education when they are ready to accept, out of their own free will, everything that adults may not do either, refraining because they understand so-called necessities and have learned to put up with unrealized interests without drawing attention to themselves. In order to grasp this, the young in this country are deemed immature for almost a quarter of their lives. Obviously, learning the desired “rationality” is a pretty difficult lesson. Or put another way: Obviously, adults in this society have to acquesce to quite a lot of things that they did not at all decide to forbid on their own; and heed quite a lot of advice they would never have dreamed up on their own.
It is now quite paradoxical that, on the one hand, public education indeed severely condemns “youth violence,” but on the other hand very much agrees with the function that these brutalities have for the inner psyche of the little delinquent. Namely, the pleasure of wielding “a little power” perpetuates a self-discovery about the excellence of his own self: the young person easily counts this as an award in front of and in comparison to others, e.g. to torture children, blackmail classmates, steal their jackets, etc. This is all good for raising self-esteem – a psychological mechanism that, appropriately, is pedagogically highly regarded and has even been made into a goal of education.
This goal is “appropriate” because self-esteem is needed by all those who – and this will be the majority – despite all the bad experiences held in store for them by the everyday life of school, work, family and leisure, want to concede that they still have it pretty good nevertheless and that they are, in the end, indestructible winner types. The more annoyances that “this life” brings people, the more useful self-esteem turns out to be; first, it completely separates the finding about their own personality from the situation in which they have been thrown and, second, serves them in that, by calling on self-esteem, they attempt to compensate for the annoying circumstances in which they really find themselves.
Above all, self-esteem stands in high regard because this type of psychological self-deception doesn't want to know anything about the social causes of what annoys and frustrates people. Why a juvenile ends up a chronic loser, why the immigrant is pushed around, why the gay student is teased, why interns are harassed, etc. is not explored, but coped with. Because everything that is considered annoying is less so if one torments a weaker young person or breaks a cell phone to compensate for such frustration. Someone who fails in the success that adolescents wish for must at least – educators today are in agreement about this – also be meted recognition in socially secondary arenas elsewhere. That a majority of the new generation will be made into losers at school, that they will not secure career training, that a job is almost a luxury and an income guaranteeing a reasonably decent life is no longer compatible with the criteria for making this country competitive – none of this is a scandal that has to be fought. Instead, all this is taken as an occasion for concern that the local youth deal with it in the right way, so that they do not desperately pursue some type of undesirable – political or criminal – career on their own.
If children and young people also want to exercise “power for once too” with all sorts of brutalities towards each other and sometimes even adults, then for them it is not about changing their real situation, but their salvation. For them it is only about fueling up on self-esteem and demanding recognition from victims or spectators. They follow a pedagogical concern, albeit with means not imagined by educators, but which – and that's the joke – coincide with the logic of this concern: where kids are taught from an early age that people need to get themselves some self esteem and simply can't do without recognition from their environment, the whole arsenal of permissible and impermissible means grants this a general endorsement. Yes, kids derive an extra kick from what they know about prohibited activities: Whoever attracts attention to himself, whoever in building self-esteem dares cross the border into forbidden activity – at least for kids in the same stupid situation – deserve special rations of recognition. How is kids' “self-esteem” improved? With self-esteem, cool, hella cool!
[Arguments taken from an essay by Freerk Huisken]