What we can’t think about: we use fantasies about endangered children to work off fears we can’t handle.
Why it matters: It doesn’t work.
Yes, children can be victims. Headlines shudder when a parent or a psychopath maims or kills an infant. Kids die in sensational and trivial accidents–just as adults do. Still, this isn’t the early modern period, when as many as two-thirds of children bit the dust before age ten, and newborns were often named for a dead sibling they were replacing. We furnish car seats, helmets, vaccinations, consumer regulations, and long prison sentences for child pornography.
Don’t get me wrong. Concern for the young matters: for their own sake, but also because they stand between us and extinction. Yet there is something disproportionate and unrealistic about that concern nowadays. The 1980s and 90s saw hysteria about child sexual abuse falsely imprison nursery school providers. Like 1980s feminism, which stressed the helplessness of victims, fantasies about satanic cults focused on childhood, as did the ads on milk cartons seeking children who turned out not to be abducted after all. For good reasons, today’s feminism emphasizes the need to resist convictions of futility. But victimization fantasies have not quit the field.
I was reminded of this recently when a friend who is researching early childhood development reported that the regulations surrounding work with children these days are paralyzing. He and his students are designing simple exercise equipment for kids, so there are predictable legal hassles: fears of accidents, with lawsuits, medical bills, and parental harassment. The number of consent forms required even to photograph a child opens up suspicions of some darker purpose.
The exercise project grew out of a Head Start program that found some minority kids in a nearby city are developmentally lagging because with parents working and fears that it’s too dangerous to play outside, the kids end up inert in front of a television set. If the fears are realistic, then why isn’t the community aroused to create safe play spaces?
If we really believe that kids are endangered, why aren’t we acting to solve the problem? The contradiction is grotesque. A third or more of American kids grow up in poverty. What could be more dangerous than that?
You can think of all sorts of plausible explanations for this bizarre disconnection. Though overpopulation may be the gravest threat to humankind, and too many kids grow up in squalor, people have bombed abortion clinics and murdered doctors. Presumably they identify with unborn fetuses, or to put it another way, fetuses function as markers for fears of terrible vulnerability. They allow us to think about things in ourselves otherwise kept in denial.
The rage to protect also offers a heroic role as St George rescuing the princess–and fertile posterity–from the dragon of death. That need for heroic mastery of death is of course nothing new, alas. Consider the paranoid urban legend that grew up around Simon of Trent (c. 1475) and other toddlers supposedly ritually murdered by Jews, not to mention the epidemic witchcraft hysteria that imagined neighbors cannibalizing infants. Heroism amok leads to the fantasy of tyrannical supremacy that exterminates children, as in Herod’s massacre of the innocents in the Christian story.
The rage to punish such scapegoats is the evil that Ernest Becker saw triggered by fears of vulnerability–and above all, death. What makes the obsession with childhood victimization worth our attention now is that the victimization–and the aggressive response–are not always as obligingly transparent as a dragon or crones stirring a stewpot. Death-anxiety is especially poisonous because it’s so often disguised.
As with the harmless common cold virus, which triggers miserable bodily overreaction, defenses against anxiety can make things worse. Some doctors suspect that an aggressively hygienic environment may be contributing to the sudden epidemic of allergies to things like peanuts. For children who are never permitted to show or experience it, anger can seem paralyzingly dangerous.
If I had to sketch a context for such inflammatory responses to life, I’d wonder about the insane cult of competition in American life–insane because the working poor and the powerless are continually bullied by Social Darwinist demands to be more competitive and to “suck it up,” while Wall Street, the military, and politics (think gerrymandering and Citizens United election money) all strive mightily to create monopolies. They love Soviet-style central planning and loathe competition.
As the nation declines from the affluence of the postwar years, the deep force at work is triage. Power hogs resources at the top as it does among our primate cousins. Jobs and unions suffer, families need two parents in the workforce, basic rights such as retirement and medical insurance remain starved, education shrinks. The pressure is on to find polite ways of starving and disposing of the unemployed and unfit. Listen to faux conservatives and you hear eugenics flourishing in sinister euphemisms. The same righteous fist that would defend the fetus hands out shovels to bury children of the living poor.
So who can be surprised that when power and money are monopolized, people feel like victimized children? If the historically unprecedented bounty of electronic communication is used not for problem-solving but for unreal “reality” shows and, as Neil Postman says, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” who wouldn’t identify with the bewildered child, at risk from predators that can’t reliably be seen, let alone vanquished?
Children are not simply diminutive adults. But they’re also not lifelike dolls who mimic speech when you pull a string. If they’re not, why should we be?