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Colour Me Adult

By Sheila Rampersad

Dr Robert Epstein is a distinguished American scientist; he is a psychology researcher and professor, a former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, founder and Director Emeritus of the Cambridge Centre for Behavioural Studies in Massachusetts, and author of 15 or so books. One of his radical studies is The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen (2007), in which he argues basically that adolescence is an unnecessary period of life that people are better off without.

Addressing the case of American teenagers, he reasons that it is likely that the turmoil we see among teens today (high rates of suicide, depression, crime, pregnancy, substance abuse) is the unintended result of the artificial extension of childhood.

Adolescence, he continues, is a recent category/phase; through much of human history, young people were integrated into adult society early on but beginning in the late 1800s, new laws and cultural practices isolated teens from adults, imposing on them a large set of restrictions and artificially extending childhood well past puberty. Adulthood today, he shows, is delayed well into the 20s and sometimes 30s.

The infantilisation of groups of people is not new. We habitually infantilise the elderly (once a man, twice a child), the infantilisation of women is well documented, and perhaps the most dominant form of infantilisation is the State's relationship with citizens.

Sheldon Richman, senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation, observed in 1998 the various ways in which the modern state treats adults like children. "The parallels are striking. Parents typically don't let their children use medicine without close supervision. The government doesn't let adults use many medicines without the permission of a doctor licensed by its authority. Parents don't let their children use non-medical drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine. The government doesn't let adults use those drugs.

"Parents don't let their children view pornographic or obscene material. In many places, the government forbids adults to view such material or restricts their viewing it. Parents don't let their children gamble. Governments in many locations forbid adults to gamble or restrict their gambling.

"Parents make provision for their children's future until adulthood. The government makes provision for adults' futures by taxing them... Parents provide medical care for their children. The government provides it for poor and elderly adults... Parents educate their children, sometimes requiring them to do things they would rather not do. The government requires adults to send their children to school—if not a government-run school, then an institution that satisfies the government's definition of school."

In Trinidad and Tobago, former prime minister Patrick Manning arrogated to himself the title of Father of the Nation; logically citizens were to be his children. In this Government, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan and National Security Minister John Sandy, during the State of Emergency, assumed the roles of strict disciplinarian fathers who know what is best for us children, telling us how to manage our social lives, when to come and go, what to say, what to do within curfew hours (spend time with family, sit around a dinner table, pray, etc).

Interestingly, although this manner of governance is described as paternal—ie, fatherly—our first woman Prime Minister perpetuates this strategy even more. Women leaders are generally considered, inter alia, more compassionate, consultative, and nurturing. Two-time Liberian President and joint Nobel Laureate 2011 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told the BBC she wanted to become President in order "to bring motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency".

Kamla Persad-Bissessar frequently represents herself as "a mother and a grandmother". It is a short, sometimes indiscernible, step between establishing oneself as Mother Leader and treating all the governed as children. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was accused of just that by columnist Andrew Bolt after her address to the nation on the carbon tax recently imposed. Her tone was described as patronising, her smile painted, and her advice elementary.

But do citizens themselves want to be treated like adults or do they want governments to make the big decisions for them? A study last year by the University of Bristol found that modern life has created a generation of Brits incapable of making decisions. Labelled "indeciders", almost half of those questioned by Prof Harriet Bradley said they felt unable to make decisions about everyday life, while politics baffled 65 per cent of people, and 69 per cent struggled to understand bankers' bonuses and interest rates.

Epstein has developed an adultness test that assesses 14 major aspects of human life such as: the difference between sex and love, knowledge of contraception and homosexuality, respect as a trait of good leadership, independent thinking, basic civility, the ability to find and keep jobs, getting to work on time, basic hygiene, and how to be good citizens. He has also developed an infantilisation test to determine the level of control to which individuals are subjected.

The tests are developed in the United States for Americans, but much of it is relevant to us. I wonder how many Trinidad and Tobago citizens would qualify as adults who demonstrate adult behaviour and adult knowledge of major concepts, and how our national leadership would rate in the infantilisation of citizens for it is this interaction of leaders treating citizens like children and citizens not assuming their roles as adults in the society that led to that bizarre and infantile "Hands up! Hands out!" moment at the Colour Me Orange launch at the Hilton.

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