Using children as a moral shield

Officials and charities that use children to front their moralistic campaigns are trying to shut down criticism and opposition.

The new TV campaign by child-protection group the NSPCC, launched in the UK today, urges people to report any concern that they might have about a child. Its exhortation – ‘Don’t wait until you are certain’ – is premised on the conviction that mistrusting adults is a healthy and enlightened orientation towards the world. The incitement to act is justified on the grounds that ‘all the time’ people ‘spend procrastinating’ – others might call it reflecting – a ‘child could be in real danger’. Welcome to the NSPCC’s world, a place where it is okay to exploit our fears and natural anxiety about children’s safety in order to encourage a disposition towards suspicion and mistrust.

It is not just the NSPCC that uses children as a moral weapon to promote its cause. Mention the word ‘child’ and people will listen. Raise the moral stakes by claiming that a ‘child is at risk’ and people will not just listen but endorse your demand that ‘something must be done’. For instance, campaigners against poverty understand that they are far more likely to gain sympathy for their cause by focusing attention on what is now called ‘child poverty’. It is as if abstract socio-economic injustices are simply not compelling enough on their own terms: they have to be recast as something afflicting children. Or take campaigners on Third World issues: they know that the very mention of ‘child labour’ or the ‘exploitation of children’ or ‘child soldiers’ or ‘starving children’ is far more likely to resonate with a Western public than calls for economic assistance. Or in education, a call for ‘child centred’ teaching will win you a standing ovation. As an acquaintance working in the charity sector remarked, ‘mention the word children, and the money rolls in’.

Children serve as a moral resource with which to promote policies and causes. Time and again, discussions about catastrophic threats like climate change take the form of appeals to ‘our children’s future’. This is how it works: a Guardian supplement called ‘Risk and Realities’, sponsored by the insurance group Zurich, pointed out the ‘shortening of odds on catastrophic and expensive environmental crisis in the UK’ before reminding readers of the hazards associated with the sun. It cited Paul Bettison, the chair of the Local Government Association’s Environment Board, stating: ‘our traditional reaction to a hot day is to let children enjoy the sun – but of course there’s now a skin cancer risk’. So suddenly a leap is made from climate change to a hot sunny day and a major threat to children. But that is not all. It is not sufficient to link up two separate perils – climate change and skin cancer. Bettison also reminds us of another twenty-first century horror, namely that of adults touching children. ‘Apart from the practicalities of a teacher smearing 30 children with factor 20 before playtime, there’s the other issue that we actually don’t encourage teachers to touch children’, notes Bettison. This is joined-up scaremongering at its best. Not one, but three hazards to worry about! An apocalyptic anxiety about human survival is reinforced by the message that sun tanning is more hazardous now than ever before, and it’s complicated by acts of physical contact between adults and children.

When Bettison linked the impact of global warming to an alleged higher risk of skin cancer, he knew that his aside about not encouraging teachers to apply sun cream on pupils would resonate with the cultural anxieties of our times. Alarmist fantasies about the dangers of the sun have become seamlessly entwined with the current dread around adult-child relations.

The tendency on the part of moral entrepreneurs, be they child-poverty campaigners or environmental activists, to hide behind the child and frame their message through the narrative of child protection is motivated by the recognition that it is a uniquely effective communication strategy. The cause of child protection enjoys formidable cultural support.

Indeed, the child has emerged as a very rare focus for moral consensus. As I argue elsewhere, in a world of existential and moral disorientation, the child serves as the main focus for both emotional and moral investment (2). The sacralisiation of the child means that those who speak ‘in the name of the child’ can benefit from the moral resources associated with children. At a time when society finds it difficult to express itself through the grammar of morality, and where disputes rage over what is right and wrong, the child represents a singular exemplar of moral unity. People may argue about whether gay marriage is right or wrong. They may dispute the legitimacy of assisted suicide, the right to abortion or the desirability of sex education. But all sides of the debate are unequivocally for the sacred child. That is also why paedophilia has emerged as most powerful symbol of evil in the contemporary era: it allows for a rare moment of moral consensus in morally uncertain times.

Using children as moral shield is now widely practised by policymakers and fear entrepreneurs. They understand that most adults find it difficult to raise doubts about numerous policies if these policies are promoted in terms of protecting children. Hence civil-rights campaigners against identity cards and the numerous attempts to expand government surveillance tend to lose their voice when children are brought into the discussion. So there was virtually no criticism prompted by the recent announcement by the Lib-Con health services minister, Dan Poulter, that, starting in 2015, all children who visit an accident and emergency (A&E) department in a hospital will be logged on a new national database set up to identify potential victims of abuse. It appears that when the word ‘child’ is mentioned then increased surveillance and the loss of doctor and patient confidentiality is okay. Similarly, campaigners who are usually vigilant about encroachment on civil liberties when it comes to new anti-terrorism laws have appeared indifferent to the vetting of millions of adults under different schemes designed to police those who work or come into contact with children.

Against the interest of children

Moral crusaders advocating more child-protection initiatives are so absorbed in their dogma that they have become indifferent to the damaging consequences of their action. Their zealous advocacy of policing adult-children interaction has led them to overlook the destructive consequences of their campaigns. For example, one supporter of the current NSPCC campaign, ‘Don’t Wait Until You Are Certain’, encourages people to act on their slightest suspicion, arguing that ‘it’s important people understand that if they are wrong, a family will not be separated because of their mistake’. She probably believes this erroneous statement. Yet all too often families are separated. And even more often, families discover that a false allegation can blight their lives for a very long time. The cavalier dismissal of any concern about the effect allegations have on families is one of the hallmarks of a movement that is devoted to saving children from their parents and from other adults.

As someone devoted to the welfare and flourishing of children, I have drawn the conclusion that the child-protection movement has unintentionally helped create a cultural climate that actually contradicts its aims. The most regrettable outcome of child-protection policies is that the promotion of mistrust has fostered a climate that is inhospitable to intergenerational encounters. It is no exaggeration to state that a growing number of adults feel awkward and confused when they are in close physical proximity to children whom they don’t know. Nor is this sense of unease confined to intergenerational interactions between strangers. Many teachers and nursery staff confide that they often feel self-conscious in their relationships with children in their care. They understand that frequently an unintended remark or a physical gesture can be easily misinterpreted by others and that they will be judged guilty until they can prove their innocence.

In the present climate, adults often feel uneasy about acting intuitively and naturally with children. Instead, they feel forced to weigh up whether, and how, to interact with a child they may have just encountered. Such calculated behaviour alters the quality of that interaction. It no longer represents an act that is founded on doing what a man or woman feels is right; it is an act that is influenced by calculations about how it will be interpreted by others and by an anxiety that the interaction should not be misconstrued.

Worse still, many adults have now decided that the best policy to adopt is to keep their distance from other people’s children. Such a course of action is motivated by the conviction that they should avoid putting themselves in situations where their actions can be misinterpreted. Arguably, the disengagement of many adults from the world of children represents a far greater danger than the threat posed by a thankfully tiny group of predators. The best guarantee of children’s safety is the exercise of adult responsibility towards the younger generation. It is when adults take it upon themselves to keep an eye on children—and not just simply their own—that youngsters can learn to feel genuinely safe.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.


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Footnotes and references

(1) See Zurich’ s supplement ‘Risks and Realities’ published in the Guardian, 11 July 2007

(2) See Paranoid Parenting, Frank Furedi, Continuum Press, 2008