I was asked to speak to our board tonight with the title: what does Europe mean for young people? This is what I said.
During my summer holiday I read a great book by a Finnish young philosopher called Tommi Uschanov. The pamphlet by this quite peculiar character is called What is the matter with the Left. In this book that he had apparently been working on for more than six years he wondered why the European left is doing so badly when most of us buy their values of solidarity and compassion nearly to the full. What Uschanov wrote about the Left’s thinking I feel links well to the subject of this intervention. Uschanov claimed that an overall problem of European social democracy has been to tell people that their understanding of themselves and their priorities is wrong and that only if they would understand that they live on false premises, the society would function better. This was very visible in the 1970s idea in the Nordic countries that there is a Social Democrat in all of us.
In my work with young people – once again I wish to stress that I am not part of this group – I meet engaged and worried young people. These people are busy with a million things at the same time on a personal and local scale. The young video makers and fashion designers I meet also seem to be extremely allergic to fake things. If I was asked to describe the generation just shortly, I would dare to state that their jargon tolerance is the lowest of all generations I know. I see people driven by real emotions, real actions and real skills, not by big ideas, great achievements and global movements.
I think this is where it somewhat goes wrong for Europe. When a generation of personal action is coupled with ambitious ideologies, they detach from each other quickly like oil and water. The message being pushed is about big things such as peace and prosperity where people want a role, they want a genuine feeling and they want an emotion. The question I hear is: what should I do with Europe and what does Europe expect me to do? I really don’t have a compelling answer based on the current paradigms.
In the videos I see online on our projects but also on platforms like YouTube, the majority of the videos are not making explicit statements about the state of the world. They are more saying “this is how I think I am feeling today” or “this is what I think matters to me today”. As a research commissioned by the ECF around the StrangerFestival points out, young people use video for deliberation and they very seldom make their work for a specific audience. Video is in most cases a public tool for self exploration.
A superstructure like Europe is not an issue tackled often when it is nothing you can touch, nothing you can strive for and nothing you can influence in your daily practice. Just as an example we can take last year when the European Union celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. The message put forward was 50 years of peace. A lot of references were made also to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the progress Europe have made since then. I could not help wondering what this all should mean for an 18-year-old today who was minus 32 when the treaty of Rome was signed and just about born when the wall was hammered down. 50 years of peace and now what? When Europe seems to be a deteriorating mega project, it is very difficult to get excited.
Coming back to Uschanov, I feel we need a switch in our thinking. Young people are not stupid and don’t buy Europe when you attach a popstar to it. Europe needs to be demystified and it needs to start from people’s realities. What this video culture offers us, is this pool of deliberations for us to dive into. Now what we are mostly doing is asking them to adjust their reality to a supersystem without no practical implications.
So what could be done? I would have two suggestions:
1. Provide access for more young people. If we want to see a Europe that goes to the skin and feels like something, we need to make sure that more people are involved. With this I mean work that we do for instance with theoneminutesjr by providing access to culture, supporting self-esteem to enter the public sphere and in that sense tackling the symbolic inequality in the public sphere created mostly by white heterosexual men. But we need to allow people to decide what matters to them, which brings me to my second point.
2. And this is more difficult: We need to support connections and curation and help people – both young and old – to make sense and find their place. We need to build links between strangers but on matters that matter to them. This does not mean that people need to agree but we need to work towards exposing commonalities in interest. We need to allow people – young and old - to test, modify and attach rather than buy a message about a superproject. When you start from something that matters to the people, you are already more than half way there. And when these millions of expressive people with millions of aspirations happen to be in Lisbon, Pieksämäki and Cluj, I bet there is a feeling of being part of something bigger than our own village. I really think free self-expression is the key: if I matter to Europe, Europe could matter to me.
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