The politicisation of your children

Power, political promises and your children.

 

We are in the midst of an election campaign.

Thanks dipshit, because weeks of newspaper headlines hadn’t already taught me that.

Fair point. The purpose of this observation though is a little more significant than noting something that anyone with half a brain and enough passing curiosity to glance at an old newspaper could figure out.

I want to talk about children. Not the quirky shit they do (which I couldn’t care less about, sorry). Rather, I want to discuss the way in which politicians in this election will try to exploit our desire to look out for the interests of children to manipulate us into voting for them.

Why?

Across the board, politicians understand that the average person is absolutely apathetic about day-to-day politics. Very few people are interested in the intrinsic elements of fiscal policy (how the government spends its money) or the regulatory issues in delivering a promised outcome. Can’t say I blame them – it is boring! However, the deeper consequence of this generalised apathy is that it renders rational argument largely irrelevant in political discourse. For better or worse, you cannot win an election in a democracy without getting people to vote for you. Subsequently, the content of an argument is only relevant if people are willing to listen to it in the first place.

Politics, therefore, becomes a contest of getting people to listen at all.

Put simply, elections are contests of emotion, not rationality.

Let’s not kid ourselves – public policy formation is grotesquely boring, yet it competes for ‘oxygen’ in a bloated and overloaded 24/7 media cycle. Rapid advancements in technology have radically disrupted how we view, share and disseminate information. On one side of the equation this has been incredibly liberating, because we have the potential to emancipate ourselves from the subjective perspectives of the people who traditionally ‘controlled’ the flow of information (news agencies and their editors).  Now, though, we have to control this flow of information for ourselves – sorting out the proverbial wheat from the chaff.

Some people love news, others don’t.

I’m not here to make judgements about how much time you decide to dedicate to understanding contemporary politics – that is a personal choice. Rather, this an observation that, left to our own devices, some people engage with politics because they find it inherently interesting. Other people, however, find this process of sorting completely nauseating. This level of interest exists on a spectrum from the unhealthily obsessed to myopically disengaged. I’m not convinced that intellect plays much of a role, either. More and more I am convinced it is a result of a person’s psychology.

If people won’t listen to your argument, then your opponent wins by default. Accepting that a significant proportion of people will not be highly engaged with the details of a specific policy, a politician has to focus more on the marketing than the actual product. Overload your argument positions and policies with unengaging, technically-correct jargon and watch your campaign flail like a rich kid on Everest. To keep enough of us engaged, our politicians jettison content and policy detail overboard and replace it with appeals to emotion until we start to listen.

It is why politicians thrive in times of social tragedy, like terrorist attacks or natural disasters. Think John Howard after the Port Arthur Massacre, think Rudy Giuliani after 9/11, think Anna Bligh after the Queensland floods in 2011. People are listening because they are emotionally engaged.

How does this relate to children?

The last paragraph above gives us a clue about why this process is so relevant to children that it warrants an entire article.

Natural disasters and other horrifying events are of enormous currency to politicians, especially those who are actually in power. The spike in emotions from the electorate translates into a willingness to devote more attention to the political process and, consequently, allows a politician to promote policy in far more detail than normal conditions would allow. John Howard and Australia’s gun reforms after Port Arthur are poignant reminders of this power.

But natural disasters don’t occur every day, neither do terrorist attacks; and the spikes from such events are short-lived. Over time, normalcy returns, and politicians again find themselves fighting for space in the information market. Sure, you can invent emotional events- exaggerating national security threats and flirting with the dangerous succubus that is xenophobic populism will help there, but it rarely helps you sell policy beyond the realms of defence and immigration. How do you sell other policies – welfare, education, health, taxation, foreign trade?

Simple, you appeal to the powerful emotional forces of people’s hardwired biology and psychology, and there is no more powerful emotional force than ‘thinking of the children’.

Won’t somebody think of the children?!?

Let’s start with a quote.

“The state must declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people. As long as the government is perceived as working for the benefit of the children, the people will happily endure almost any curtailment of liberty and almost any deprivation.”

Who wrote this? Don’t Google it, I will return to it later.

We often view the child as the personification of innocence – that sin is taught and a child is corrupted by the excesses of the world. Left alone in a vacuum, unmolested by the dark realities of a society caught up in apparent hedonism and materialistic self-satisfaction, a child develops no vices, no immorality. Hear no evil, see no evil, do no evil. We are often dogmatic about the notion that immorality is a learned behaviour; that evil adults were once children who were taught immorality by the world.

A child cannot be corrupt. Therefore, the adult can only ‘learn’ to be corrupt.

In a sense, we transform the child into Jesus. Their imagined perfection absolves our own temptations. An omnipresent transcendental presence, we construct around them an edifice of ‘innocence’, reminding us of a more simple time where we were unchallenged by the complexity of world that, it turns out, is bigger than our tangible experiences. Child life is simple, adult life is hard – perhaps we are so scared by the daunting reality ahead of us that we flee the terrifying beauty of complexity for the bland safety of simplicity. I wonder if the idolisation of childhood innocence is not a manifestation of the regrets we have in our lives; the roads not taken; opportunities lost; lives unlived.

This is not intended to be a criticism of children, nor of parents. The whole ‘child as proto-Jesus’ thing is entirely understandable from an evolutionary perspective. A parent who inherently believes their child to be the bastion of good and innocence will be highly protective of said child. A child who is highly protected and nurtured by his or her parents is more likely to survive and thrive, increasing their propensity to reproduce. Subsequently, there is an evolutionary incentive to view children as innocent.

This is wrong for one reason, and dangerous for another.

 

There are two problems with this ‘the child is born completely innocent’ position:

Children are not innocent, they are human.

The first problem with this notion of innate ‘innocence’ is that this is not reflective of human behaviour.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a 1971 observational study into the psychological effects of power on human behaviour. The study took student volunteers and divided them into prisoners and guards, and briefed the guards that the prisoners were not to be physically harmed, nor deprived of food or water, but that they were to create a sense of control over the prisoners. The prisoners were forced to stay, whereas the guards could leave once their ‘shift’ was complete.

By conducting the experiment, what they were hoping to demonstrate was the hypothesis that inherent personal attributes of the individual lead to abuse of authority and power. By observing the behaviour of guards, they were expecting to see how individual guards followed the strong rules about roles and treatment of prisoners, and what individual characteristics might predispose a guard to break these rules.

How is this relevant to children, corruption and self-interest?

If you believe that children are inherently innocent, and that corruption (as self-interest) is a taught behaviour, then what the Stanford Prison Experiment should demonstrate is that, entrusted with newfound power, some individuals would abuse their position, whilst others would simply obey the rules of the experiment, and the virtuous would refuse to obey the rules and instead treat the prisoners with complete respect and dignity.

In terms of the hypothesis it was supposed to support, the experiment was a complete and unmitigated disaster. Put into a position where they had complete power over the prisoners, the guards quickly abused their positions and subjected their fellow students to degrading treatment, unnecessarily asserting their dominance. Ultimately, the behaviour of the guards and the treatment of the prisoners was so extreme that the experiment had to be called off after only 6 days (it was originally slated for between 7 and 14 days). What is genuinely scary is that the guards knew they were being observed. If anything, this should have had a moderating effect on their treatment of prisoners.

What did we learn from it? Well, contrary to the hypothesis that the behaviour of the guards would be determined by the characteristics of the individual, it became apparent that behaviour was situational as opposed to dispositional (i.e. determined by circumstances rather than the psychology of the individual participant). Put into a position of power, the guards were corrupted by the situation rather than any internal characteristics.

The Stanford Prison Experiment raises a plethora of ethical issues about the methodologies employed to test hypotheses in scientific research and there will, thankfully, never be a similar experiment conducted on children. Nevertheless, I imagine that if a study were ever to be conducted, the most apt comparison in literature would William Goldberg’s 1954 novel The Lord of the Flies.

Enter self-interest.

If our tendency towards abuse of power is situational as opposed to dispositional, then what inherent characteristic creates the impetus to act corruptly? Coming from a purely philosophical perspective, the proposition that all individuals act in their own self-interest is a strong one.

Self-interest is not inherently a bad thing – it is a biological behaviour which drives individuals to both survival and prosperity. It is absolutely amendable to society and laws restricting liberty – because individual self-interest is served by social stability and the protection of the individual from the actions of other individuals. For instance, stealing might be in the immediate self-interest of one individual, but restraining the ability of people to interfere with the private property of others promotes the aggregated self-interest of the majority of individuals in society because they can focus on activities other than the protection of their property. If stealing is the result of individual desperation, then restraining individuals from stealing reduces said desperation because people can focus on economic development rather than vigilance and vengeance.

But children don’t always act in their self-interest?

This is an understandable criticism, but it is important to distinguish between acting in self-interest and acting in best interest. One is subjective, the other is objective. The difference is most effectively explained through a hypothetical.

A father is cooking custard on the stove. The phone rings and he turns away to answer it. Jack, 4 years old, reaches up and grabs the handle of the pot, pulling it down off the stove and spilling its scalding contents all over himself. It can be said that he was acting in his own self-interest because Jack really liked custard and hence decided to get some. It was not in his best interests though, because he got injured instead of the expected pay-off. The critical issue here is vulnerability – children can quite effectively act in self-interested ways, but self-interest and best interests rarely align in children because they are yet to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to delay gratification.

Children’s self-interest should also not be mischaracterised as selfishness, either. Raised in the right environment, a child quickly learns that sharing and basic notions of ‘fairness’ are actually in its self-interest. This is because it experiences reward and punishment according to these principles, and these lessons are simultaneously reinforced by the similar treatment of those around them.

It makes you susceptible to being exploited

I said before that there were two problems with use of children to appeal to our innate emotional irrationality. The first is that their ‘innocence’ is a construct our sentimentality – and hence a child’s self-interest is a biological characteristic fundamental to the very notion of being human. The second is the way in which people can exploit such sentimentalities for their own political gain.

Some people are apt at identifying and appealing to the innate desires of people, and they know that they can manipulate these beliefs for their own advancement. Identifying these beliefs and appealing to them is the very essence of populism. A person who has the intrinsic ability to sense, manipulate and exploit these feelings axiomatically holds enormous power over those who they are trying to control. Our sentimentality about children is one of the most powerful sources for generating populist appeal.

Don’t kid yourself – elections and politics are all about control. Politics is merely the way in which power is held, used and appropriated. Subsequently, a politician seeking to gain traction in the information market will couch their position or argument in such language to appeal to your emotional sentiments, hoping to gain your attention for long enough to win your support. This is bipartisan – from Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten to Richard De Natalie and Clive Palmer; what they understand is that you will be more likely to support a policy which you understand to be in the interests of your child.

You may not be interested in listening to the macro-economic benefits of fiscal policy reform, but a tax decrease giving your family an extra $20 a week will cut right through the congested media landscape and implant itself in your brain. We aren’t stupid, we are just biologically inclined to get more for our children.

So politicians sell us policy by appealing to our sentimentalities, how is that a bad thing?

The problem with emotion as a driver of electoral decision making is that a message couched in emotion is understood by the receiver within the realm of their sentimentality. Put simply, if you only accept a proposition because of its emotional value, then there is a decent chance you are not evaluating its merits critically. The implications of a particular policy are wider than your children. Indeed, they be so extensive so as to actually negatively affect your children.

Take the $20 tax concession – let’s imagine that you vote for a party because they promise to decrease your tax. You vote for them because that gives you more money to feed and clothe your family which, understandably, is your immediate concern. You get that extra $20 a week, yet that tax concession, amplified across the entire economy, decreases revenue which can be used for government spending. Consequently, the amount of funding to your local police station is cut and its duty hours are reduced. There is a general increase in crime and anti-social behaviour in your neighbourhood, driving down property prices. Suddenly, that $20 a week has cost you $20,000 in equity in your home.*

By selling you policy through your children, politicians are getting you to narrow your focus and ground your decision making in emotion rather than critical engagement and rationality. The problem, however, is that the ramifications of policy changes are never narrow. You end up with more than you bargained for. If this was the extent of the damage making political decisions on an emotion, though, then I wouldn’t be that concerned.

Policies sold on the imagery of your children can hide much more dangerous consequences.

Never underestimate the horrifying potential of a politician’s unbridled ambition – lying under a person’s seemingly appealing sentiments can lurk ideals which change the course of human history. Not in a good way either.

Next time a politician sells you a policy on the basis of how much it will help you and your children think about this:

“The state must declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people. As long as the government is perceived as working for the benefit of the children, the people will happily endure almost any curtailment of liberty and almost any deprivation.”

The person who said this understood that people care for children to such an extent that they will sacrifice personal satisfaction and enjoyment if they believe it will result in a better future for their children. Taken to a malevolent extreme, he understood that people will trade liberty and security for the vague promise of a future that advances their child’s best interests. For all of our technology and progress, human emotions are still grounded in our most primitive functions. Strike a nerve of raw emotion, and suddenly you can manufacture enough fear and outrage to drown out any rational argument to the contrary. A populace caught up in the politics of fear will give everything for the safety of the ones they love, a populist just has to make them believe he has a solution.

The problem with this is that populism is rhetoric, not substance, and a promise is only as valuable as the integrity of the promisor. Case in point – who made the above statement? It was a former soldier who, at the time, was spending his time writing a book whilst in Landsberg prison during the early Weimar Republic.

 

You probably know him as Adolf Hitler. The book was Mein Kampf.

The rest, as they say, was history.

 

* For those of you about to chirp in that income tax is a Commonwealth responsibility and policing is a state issue – thank you, but I am merely simplifying the grant process under s96 of the Constitution. A reduction in Commonwealth revenue decreases the grants made to the States.

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Fascinated by philosophy and history, this blog is an outlet for my frustrations of living in a world seemingly dominated by accepted ignorance on one side, and entangled in the intellectual atrophy of post-modernity on the other.

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