Think of the children

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"Think of the children" argument used in the United States Congress

"Think of the children" (and similar variants including "What about the children") is a phrase whose use has been noted in scholarly and popular commentary as a rhetorical tactic.[1][2][3] When used in its literal sense, in reference to children's rights, it draws attention to the plight of youth, for instance, in advocacy against child labor.[4][5][6] When used in debate as a plea for pity, this appeal to emotion can constitute a logical fallacy.[1][2][3]

The 2002 book Art, Argument, and Advocacy wrote that the exhortation may be used to emotionally convince the listener to the arguer's point of view, instead of engaging in logical debate.[1] According to a 2005 article on ethics by Jack Marshall, it is a popular tactic because of its ability to stop debate based previously in rationality and reason.[2] Due to the expression's emotional impact, its use has the potential to override consideration of morals and cultural standards.[2] "Think of the children" was used by proponents of censorship under the auspices of protecting children from potential danger.[7][8] The 2009 book Community, Space and Online Censorship noted that classifying children in an infantile way as innocents in need of protection became a form of obsession over the concept of purity.[7] A 2011 article in the Journal for Cultural Research observed that the term grew out of an environment of moral panic.[9]

"Think of the children" was popularized through its repeated usage on the television program The Simpsons by character Helen Lovejoy,[10][11][12] who first used it on the show in 1996.[13][14] The character pleaded: "Won't somebody please think of the children!" in several episodes on the program.[10][15][16] Exclaimed by the Lovejoy character during a contentious debate by citizens of the fictional town of Springfield,[15][17] the supplication was utilized by The Simpsons writing staff as a form of satire of its actual use in culture.[12]

Law professor Charles J. Ten Brink wrote in the Georgia State University Law Review in 2012, that the Lovejoy character's use of "Think of the children" was a most successful form of parody by The Simpsons producers.[10] The appeal's subsequent use in society was often the subject of mockery.[8] After its popularization on The Simpsons, actual use of the entreaty in debate was referred to in 2014 as "Lovejoy's Law",[12] the "Helen Lovejoy defence", and the "Helen Lovejoy Syndrome".[18]

Background[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Children's rights.

Sociologist Joel Best wrote in 1993 that during the late 19th century, adults developed increased concern for the welfare of children.[19] He noted that societies post-industrialization saw decreasing birth rates, and parents focused more attention on fewer total children.[19] Best wrote that during the 19th century adults began to view childhood as a sacred period of time in human development, and children as invaluable, adorable, guiltless beings.[19] He explained that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, adults focused more on the mindset of children as victims and sought to eliminate potential threats.[19]

In the 1995 edited compilation book Children and the Politics of Culture, contributor Vivienne Wee analyzed the perception of children by adults and how this supported the notion of children's rights.[20] She wrote that in this model which she termed the European pattern, children were viewed as defenseless and unadulterated, and in need of safeguarding by authoritative adults.[20] Wee stated that this model of the perception of children led to the idea that they required the sanctuary of the United Nations Charter and consequently the Convention on the Rights of the Child.[20] She observed that this frame of thinking of youth as weak and innocent was focused on what might occur in the potential eventuality if children's rights were not shielded.[20]

Wee wrote that this mode of acting towards children was not entirely with positive intentions.[20] According to Wee, this thought pattern has the possibility of leading to hypocrisy by adults who act under the assumption that the entirety of their actions are carried out with the intent of protecting children.[20] Under this risk there was potential for adults to profess that their wielding of power was done "for the children's own good".[20] She noted that adult authority had the potential to be masked as empathy.[20] Wee concluded: "These alternative cultural interpretations of the vulnerability of children would thus generate their own respective political and psychological consequences."[20]

Use to advocate for children[edit]

"Think of the children ... freed of the crushing burden of dangerous and demeaning work"

 —Bill Clinton[21]

"Think of the children" has been used in its literal sense to advocate for the rights of children.[4][5][6] Early usage in this manner during the 20th century included writings in 1914 by the National Child Labor Committee to criticize child labor standards in the United States.[4] U.S. President Bill Clinton used the phrase in a speech about child labor in 1999 before the International Labour Organization: "I ask you to think what could be achieved by a full and focused international effort to eliminate the worst forms of child labour. Think of the children who would go to school, whose lives would open up, whose very health would flower, freed of the crushing burden of dangerous and demeaning work, given back those irreplaceable hours of childhood for learning and playing and living."[21]

Such use of the phrase extended into the 21st century; Sara Boyce of the Children's Law Centre in Northern Ireland drew upon the phrase to advocate for the legal rights of children in the region.[5] The 2008 book Child Labour in a Globalized World cited the phrase to bring attention to the problem of debt bondage in child labor.[22] Sara Dillon of Suffolk University Law School made use of the phrase "what about the children" in her 2009 book International Children's Rights to focus on the conditions of youth under child labor programs.[23] Conversely Benjamin Powell used the phrase in his book Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy and observed that in the absence of child labor unfortunately some youths faced starvation or prostitution.[24] In the 2010 book on human rights, Children's Rights and Human Development, child psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry utilized the phrase "think of the children" to urge clinicians to incorporate a process sensitive to transitional development stages when counseling youth.[6]

Debate tactic[edit]

Authors John Meany and Kate Shuster wrote in their 2002 book Art, Argument, and Advocacy: Mastering Parliamentary Debate that usage of the phrase "Think of the children" in debate was a type of logical fallacy.[1] They identified this as a form of an appeal to emotion.[1] The authors explained that the debater will utilize the phrase in an effort to emotionally sway members of the listening public instead of engaging in logical discussion.[1] Meany and Shuster gave as an example: "I know this national missile defense plan has its detractors, but won’t someone please think of the children?"[1] The assessment that use of the exhortation: "Think of the children" is a type of appeal to emotion was echoed by Margie Borschke in an article for the journal, Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy.[3] Borschke went on to call this methodology a tactic of rhetoric.[3]

Cory Doctorow wrote that use of the phrase "Won’t someone think of the children?!" was done with the intent of gagging additional discussion on the merits of the underlying issues and stopping rational analysis.[25]

Ethicist Jack Marshall described "Think of the children!" as a tactic used in an attempt to cease back-and-forth discussion by invoking a powerful argument.[2] According to Marshall, the strategy proved useful due to its success at stopping individuals from engaging in rationality and reason.[2] He called this plan an unethical manner of obfuscating debate by misdirecting empathy towards another source which may not have been the focus of the original argument.[2] He wrote that usage of the phrase had positive intent but had a tendency to become irrational when used repeatedly by both sides in a dispute.[2] Marshall concluded that referring to the phrase had the impact of manipulating a simple act of following regulations into a confusing ethical quandary.[2] He cautioned that society should not fall into the mindset that citing "Think of the children!" had the ability to upstage all other morals and standards in civilization.[2]

Laurie Penny wrote that the tactic was a form of political belief system which she called "think-of-the-children-ism".[26]

Scott Beattie wrote in his 2009 book Community, Space and Online Censorship that the exclamation: "Will no one think of the children?" was often invoked by individuals advocating censorship due to concerns for youths who might view material deemed inappropriate.[7] He opined that youngsters were cast as potential casualties of mythological sexual predators online, and were referred to in this fashion in order to increase regulation of the Internet.[7] Beattie explained that characterizing children in an infantile manner drew upon a concept of innocence which served as a form of obsession of the very notion of purity.[7]

Journal for Cultural Research published an article in 2010 by Debra Ferreday,[27] which was subsequently republished in the 2011 book Hope and Feminist Theory.[9] Ferreday wrote that use of the phrase "Won't someone think of the children!" in the media had become a common usage which evolved from a climate of moral panic.[9] She posited that the phrase was becoming so commonplace as to have the likely prospect of turning into an oft-cited idiom similar to Godwin's law.[9]

In a 2011 article for the journal Post Script, Andrew Scahill commented upon the power of using children in rhetoric, and wrote that it creates an untenable stance for the opposing party.[28] Scahill explained that an individual debating with "for the children" in their argument, makes it extremely difficult for someone to argue for the opposition position, as that would mean they would be supporting a "not for the children" perspective.[28] Cassandra Wilkinson discussed the impact of the "think of the children" rhetoric in a 2011 article for IPA Review.[29] Wilkinson cited research by No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society author Tim Gill that hypersensitivity to defense of children from potential harm carries adverse impact, by contributing to an inability of youth to satisfactorily own their choices and react to dangerous situations.[30] Writing for New Statesman, Laurie Penny characterized this tactic as a form of political belief system, and called it: "think-of-the-children-ism".[26]

Cory Doctorow wrote in a 2011 article for Make magazine that the phrase "Won’t someone think of the children?!" was used by irrational individuals to support arguments about the dangers to youth of four types of groups on the Internet.[25] These four groups, collectively referred to as "Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse" included: "pirates", terrorists, organized crime, and child pornographers.[25] He wrote that use of the phrase in such a manner was done with the intent of gagging additional discussion on the merits of the underlying issues and stopping rational analysis.[25] Doctorow observed that these tactics were often used during the burgeoning period when society was determining the proper approach to legal aspects of computing.[25]

In his 2013 book Fervid Filmmaking, Mike Watt discussed the history of censorship related to the Obscene Publications Act 1959 in the United Kingdom and noted how films that were banned during this time period became known in common parlance as "Video nasties".[31] Watt commented that a more current linguistic interpretation of such attempts at censorship could be referred to as the: "Think of the Children" characterization.[31] Brian M. Reed wrote in his book Nobody's Business published in the same year, that the phrase was essentially devoid of substance and could be replaced with: "How many kittens must die", and have an equally comedic effect.[32]

Popularized in media[edit]

The Simpsons writer Bill Oakley explained that "think of the children" was included on the show to emphasize its use in debate when it was irrelevant and sidetracked discussion.[14]

"Think of the children" was popularized in the media in large part due to its frequent use by character Helen Lovejoy, wife of Reverend Lovejoy, on the television program The Simpsons.[10][11][12] Lovejoy's character repeatedly exclaimed: "Think of the children!" in several episodes of The Simpsons.[12][33][34] The character first appeared on the program in 1990.[35][36] Lovejoy first used the phrase in the episode: "Much Apu About Nothing" written by David X. Cohen, which aired in 1996.[13][14] The Simpsons writer Bill Oakley stated on the 2005 DVD commentary for the episode that the motivation of placing the phrase on the show was to emphasize how "think of the children" was used in debate at times when it was irrelevant and sidetracked discussion from the original issues.[14] Lovejoy used variants of the phrase including: "Oh, won't somebody please think of the children",[13][15] and "What about the children?".[10][16] She most often shrieked the phrase when members of the fictional town of Springfield were in the midst of debating a contentious problem or an argument about politics.[15][17] She utilized the phrase when others had not succeeded using logical debate.[18] The depiction of the character's usage of the phrase on The Simpsons was done in a manner with comedic effect,[15] which satirized its actual use in public discourse.[12]

After its popularization on The Simpsons, the phrase's subsequent use in society was often the subject of mockery.[8] In his 2006 book The Myth of Evil, author Phillip A. Cole observed that Helen Lovejoy's rejoinder assumed all children were pure, unadulterated potential casualties that required constant defense from danger.[37] Cole contrasted this notion with The Simpsons character Bart Simpson who eschews conforming and regulations in favor of creating disorder.[37] He cited this as an example of the duality of perceptions of children by society: as both guiltless potential prey, and malevolent entities to be distrusted.[37] Cole commented that the child was perceived throughout time as simultaneously representing the savage history of humanity and an optimistic future.[37]

In an article published in the Georgia State University Law Review, Michigan State University College of Law professor Charles J. Ten Brink wrote that Helen Lovejoy's signature phrase was a most adept and effective form of parody.[10] The Canberra Times criticized use of the phrase to support Internet censorship by the Department of Communications of the Government of Australia in 2009, commenting that it was evocative of Helen Lovejoy.[16] Writing for The Toronto Star, journalist Edward Keenan referred to use of the phrase as: "Lovejoy's Law".[12] Keenan defined "Lovejoy's Law" as a warning that when an individual in a debate uses the phrase, it is likely a diversion from a weak logical stance.[12] He advised that true empathy toward children involved rational argumentation rather than usage of the phrase as a form of manipulation of the debate.[12] In an article for Ireland's Sunday Independent, Carol Hunt referred to the tactic of usage of the phrase during political debate as the "Helen Lovejoy defence", and noted it had also been called the "Helen Lovejoy Syndrome".[18] She wrote that it was often invoked in reference to hypothetical children and not children actually impacted by a problem.[18]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Meany 2002, p. 65.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Marshall 2005
  3. ^ a b c d Borschke 2011, p. 17.
  4. ^ a b c National Child Labor Committee 1914, pp. 39, 73.
  5. ^ a b c Boyce 2003
  6. ^ a b c Perry 2010, p. 498.
  7. ^ a b c d e Beattie 2009, pp. 165–167.
  8. ^ a b c Keenan (October 1, 2014), p. GT4.
  9. ^ a b c d Coleman 2011, p. 99.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Ten Brink 2012, p. 789.
  11. ^ a b Shotwell 2012, p. 141.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i Keenan (April 26, 2014), p. IN2.
  13. ^ a b c Cohen 1996
  14. ^ a b c d Cohen 2005
  15. ^ a b c d e Patrick 2000, p. B5.
  16. ^ a b c McLennan 2009, p. A15.
  17. ^ a b Kitrosser 2011, p. 2395.
  18. ^ a b c d Hunt 2014, p. 27.
  19. ^ a b c d Best 1993, pp. 3-6.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i Wee 1995, p. 188.
  21. ^ a b Clinton 1999
  22. ^ Nesi 2008, p. 7.
  23. ^ Dillon 2009, p. 117.
  24. ^ Powell 2014, p. 5.
  25. ^ a b c d e Doctorow 2011, p. 31.
  26. ^ a b Penny 2011
  27. ^ Ferreday 2010, pp. 409–429.
  28. ^ a b Scahill 2011, pp. 69-81.
  29. ^ Berg 2011
  30. ^ Wilkinson 2011
  31. ^ a b Watt 2013, p. 233.
  32. ^ Reed 2013, p. 110.
  33. ^ Sagers 2009
  34. ^ TelevisionWeek 2008, p. 4.
  35. ^ Groening 1997, p. 25.
  36. ^ Martyn 2000
  37. ^ a b c d Cole 2006, p. 122.

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

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