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Thursday, 3 January 2013

Bent Sticks

The trouble with children is that they grow up to be adults.

The trouble with adults is that too many are worried about everyone else's children and use them as an excuse to change other adults' behaviour.

Continuing on my theme of not giving a shit about anyone's children this year, I feel obligated to advise the world that your kids are no more special than anyone else, and as an added bonus I'd like to let everyone know that there is no such thing as the perfect childhood. Don't be angry with me. It's true. There are millions and millions of kids just like yours, most of them have parents who feel precisely about them as you do about yours. That is a lot of special. Certainly, most parents believe their children are the most important creatures in the world, which is how it should be if you are a parent. It is, after all, your job to look after your kids. This should be an instinctual act. For most of you, it is.  And so you dote on them, and armed with an iPhone you take 400 practically-identical photos of your child's first birthday, or video the first time your child uses the toilet on its own, or when its taking a bath, or riding a bicycle, or just being annoying.  Hell, some of you don't even wait until your child is out of the womb and you're endlessly snapping pictures of your swollen bellies, or videoing the little parasite thrashing about inside of you.  It's all very sweet.

And often nauseating when you decide to share it with the rest of the world on Facebook or Twitter, or badger your colleagues at work with e-mails of your spawn doing nothing more than looking gormless with spittle and chocolate Ready Brek dribbling down its pudgy chin.  Thanks for showing us the ultrasound scans, too.  No, I couldn't make out that the hideous, distorted, blob-like mass inside of you was giving a thumbs-up (how wonderful for you!), it looked like a tumour to me, but I'll nod my head just the same if it means you'll take that horror show away from my desk and leave me a-fucking-lone so I can work in relative peace.  (Don't even get me started on the inappropriateness of bringing your screaming anklebiters into the office during working hours -- there really oughtta be a law to put a stop to that practice.)

Because from my perspective, your children (and especially your foetuses) are not special to me, as they are only pint-sized human beings that will more than likely grow up into adults who may or may not be a good, decent people.  Pretty much the same as anyone else, save for minor cosmetic differences.  Virtually indistinguishable from everyone else's kids. No more special than my elderly neighbours, or the postman.

Somebody once said to my wife that "children are like bent sticks, that need to be straightened out."  The first time you hear or read that, you think, "Hmm, that seems a bit harsh. Really? Bent sticks? Oh, I dunno about that."  But, when you really think about it, straightening them out is precisely what parents and society do to children -- mould the little dumplings into whatever shape they will take on as adults, for better or worse.  And so little bent sticks are precisely what they are, or wads of clay if you will. Sometimes, despite everyone's best efforts, they stay bent.  It may not be a nice thing to say, you don't have to like it, but that doesn't make it any less true. 

Of course adults do not agree on what is best for the children. That's a given, and it's more or less where all of the trouble really starts.  "Spare the rod, spoil the child!" some say.  Others cry, "That's horrible child abuse!"  Regardless of anyone's view on that, one thing that they can all pretty much agree on is that "something must be done!"  Whatever that something is, it too often becomes an unnecessary law that impinges upon liberties that adults might have enjoyed, a law drafted and voted on by those pretending to give a shit about your children in order to curry favour with you and other special interest groups, and possibly to feel like they have achieved something important and noble whilst they continue to rob you blind.

In this day and age, we seem to have exalted children to a god-like status.  No sacrifice too great for the children, and anything that could theoretically harm our ability to worship the children and this notion of an ideal childhood must be wiped off the face of the planet. It doesn't matter what that anything is.  Our society has transmogrified into a fearful, risk-averse, protect-the-children-at-any-cost offshoot of a bizarre cult where everyone could live forever if they do exactly as they're told. It doesn't matter that this anything might employ thousands of people, jobs which help parents feed other children for a greater net gain of survival overall. If obliterating that anything means potentially saving just one child, then screw the adults who work for the anything and their families too.  Those families don't matter, they don't need to survive; it's the theoretical child that matters, the child who cannot actually be counted, but would exist and be grossly harmed if only you had faith enough to believe.

Now, I'm not suggesting for a moment that children should be left alone and unprotected, nor am I saying that we should go back to using the poor, skinny children as nimble chimney-sweeps (although this does sort of amuse me). Yes, your children are special to you, and they should be. But they aren't any more special than anyone else on this planet.  You see, at some point in our recent history we have confused the little tykes' naivety, their inability to understand the world and the consequences of their actions, with innocence. Naivety and innocence are not the same thing. I remember being a child.  I remember what kids of every age were like. I wouldn't class any of the kids I grew up with as "innocent." Some of them were vicious, horrible mini-tyrants from hell.  Selfish, devious, conniving, impudent, "special" monsters.  Not all kids, mind you, for some of them were kind. Still, even some of those waited until they grew up before becoming monsters.

We often hear about "a child's potential."  This is an abstraction. An immeasurable quantity with uncountable and contradictory variables that defy calculation. Although I imagine many have tried, there are no formulae to calculate the potential of any given child (notwithstanding pseudo-arbitrary legal calculations designed to compensate a family for the loss of a loved one, but those are intended to be punitive).  We cannot possibly know with any certainty how any child will turn out, what they will achieve, what they may become, which of course enhances the mystique of our collective child-worshipping habit. Every child therefore has unlimited potential to be anything we could imagine for them, superheroes and world-savers all of them. Conversely, every child could become a serial killer, a destroyer of worlds, villainous and evil.  Realistically, no one has unlimited potential, and the vast majority of people on this planet will not murder anyone in their lifetime.  It's not entirely left up to chance. Some kids are better off than others, surely, but even this is no guarantee or reaching one's unknown potential. We cannot even be certain that any child will reach adulthood or its third birthday or eighth or fifteenth.  But we persist with the abstraction of unlimited potential nevertheless and duly bestow this magical quantity to each and every child. Although incalculable, there is a word for doing this.  It's called hope.

Hope is but one of many things that defines the human condition. There's nothing wrong with hoping for something better for your children, hoping for a better future.  But when things go against the plan of hope, when a child dies, then that hope can be supplanted with overwhelming grief, blame, hatred, anger and bitterness, and usually followed up with "something must be done to prevent things like this from ever happening again!"  And you will then hear the grieving say, "I want to make sure that no parent should ever suffer what I've suffered ever again. No parent should ever lose a child."  Well, what to say to that?  Nothing. Because it's bad form to tell the grieving parents that parents have been losing children ever since people were making children and this will continue to happen for as long as humans exist, and whilst particularly tragic for each and every individual who loses a child, there is absolutely nothing any of us can do to change what happened, nor realistically prevent the death of other children from ever happening again. We would if we could, and some people actually believe that all deaths are preventable. That's what hope does to us.  We hope, beyond any sense of reason or rationality, that no one, but especially children, will ever die. 

But we're all going to die. Children will die every day. No matter what advances we make in medical technologies and cures, even if we banned everything that had the merest potential for harm, children are going to die. Some way or another. You don't have to like it (who does?) but it doesn't make it any less true. If there is any consolation against that certainty, it would be that most children will reach adulthood.

The BBC reports that at least 60,000 people have died in Syria.  Every single one of those deaths are devastating to someone. Bizarrely, not one mention of children in that article, but many children have been killed indeed.  But should we really be measuring tragedies based on how many years one has lived or the potential one has left to live?  Isn't everyone's life just as important as everyone else's?  Do adults have less of a right to survive than children?  Do women have more rights to survive than men?  How exactly do we value human life?  Which lives are more important?

Here's a dilemma. Let's say you are inside a burning house.  Inside the house are four adults trapped in one room, and one child trapped in a different room, and you are between the two. There's very little time, the fire is raging, and you can either save the four adults and forego rescuing the child, or you can save the child and let the four adults die.  In this example, you cannot save all five people -- it's not a possibility.  You have to make a choice.  What choice do you make?

What if you knew that one of the trapped adults was about to create a cure for cancer or do some other miraculous thing that could save millions of lives? Would that affect your decision?

Now if the child was your offspring, then that would certainly influence your choice, and I can only assume that most parents would try to save their offspring instead of the other adults, cancer cure or no.  But what if your child was already terminally-ill, or had some other severe disability that limited its potential life span?  Would you choose differently?  Perhaps not.

Of course there's another choice of not saving anyone but yourself.  Is there a right choice?   It's a stupid dilemma, really.  Or is it?  If the child isn't yours, then can you honestly say that its life more valuable than 4 adult lives?  And if you chose to save the child over the four adults, how did you justify that choice?  What's so special about the child?  Did you empathise with how its parents would feel? How you would feel if someone left your child to burn? And if not saved, those other four adults have family members who will grieve, too.  What about them?

I certainly hope that no one ever has to face that kind of dilemma, but I suppose such things could happen. 

Back to the Syria thing.  60,000 deaths have been reported.  Hardly anybody pays attention to that, maybe because where you live it doesn't affect you, or maybe because it's difficult to envision the scale of it. There's barely a whimper of outrage outside of Syria in comparison to the worldwide outrage over what happened in Connecticut, USA, where 26 people died, 20 of them children.  Every single one of these deaths in both of these countries are tragic, but why so much emphasis on the American kids and almost none on the Syrian people?  Is it because deaths of men, women and children during a war in a foreign country far away from you are somehow different? Does it only matter if western schoolchildren are unexpectedly murdered as opposed to entire Syrian families killed whilst sleeping in their homes?  Are those schoolchildren's deaths any more or less heinous and deplorable than what's happening in Syria?  Is there really any difference between someone shooting kids at school and kids getting blown up by a tank or artillery shell?

On the one hand, we have the media and politicians clamouring for their governments to send in arms and munitions to support the Syrian rebels, and on the other we have the media and the same politicians clamouring for America to ban guns.  How exactly does that work again? Arm one population in support of a cause which has already seen the deaths of tens of thousands of people and will continue to see many more, disarm another in support of a cause for 20 children and 6 adults senselessly murdered so that you can hope it never happens again?

Part of the issue here is a lack of understanding.  What I mean is that we understand and expect that people will die during a war. As horrible as each Syrian death is, we gloss over it -- it barely fazes most of you.  It's not that we want anyone to die in Syria, but we know it will happen, which means that most individuals can cope with the deaths of thousands of kids and far more adults, especially since it's not happening anywhere near you. But nobody expects schoolchildren to get murdered in classrooms anywhere because it almost never happens.  That makes it enormously difficult if not impossible for people to comprehend. The perception of the event, the awfulness of it, is amplified exponentially by a lack of understanding.  "War is one thing," you might say, "but these were defenceless children with their whole lives ahead of them!"  I suppose the defenceless people who die in a war zone didn't have their whole lives ahead of them, then?  Of course they did, but it's different because you understand the tragedy of war. You cannot fully comprehend an event when it happens without any apparent reason, when you were not prepared for it, in a place you didn't expect for it to happen.  Our brains try to find reasons for the inexplicable, to impose order on chaos, but sometimes this is impossible.

And we further compound the impossible, our lack of comprehension with our subsequent actions because something involved children.  "What kind of monster would kill a child? Something must be done!" Suddenly there is a hysterical mob of frightened people everywhere, angry because they don't understand and cannot cope with it.  And when the media misreports the name of the man who shot up the school and instead gives his brother's name, who had nothing at all to do with it, in a flash there are hundreds of Facebook pages created with the wrong man's name and photo linking him to the crimes, many of them still there, calling him all sorts of terrible names and wishing all sorts of terrible things against him.  A lack of comprehension leads to feelings of helplessness and terror and fear, which makes people lash out irrationally and sometimes do equally terrible things themselves, or make rash decisions, especially when it involves the idols our species worships -- children.

Look, I am not saying that those kids' lives had no value (or that it's OK to kill). Of course they all had value, particularly to their families and friends. I am not saying you shouldn't feel horrified because someone killed them. Of course you should feel that way. I'd be concerned if you didn't.  But we seem to be extraordinarily accepting of some people's deaths over others. We tend to label some deaths as more horrific or tragic, when in reality they are all equally tragic.  Either all lives have equal value, or none have any value. When we carve out exceptions for death based on circumstances, age, race, nationality, gender, religious beliefs, class or anything at all, then I suppose we're saying that some lives are indeed more valued than others, that's it's OK to make decisions based on what happened to one group of people rather than another. It all depends on your perspective, how you choose to view the world.  And this allows people to justify (or ignore!) any act so long as it conforms with their views.

I know that it is our biological imperative to protect children in order to ensure the survival of our species.  Instinctively, we endow special importance to both children and women. This is how most of us view the world and our species' long term survival in it. We are programmed this way. It is not a bad thing; there is no shame in this (unless we choose to abuse it for personal gain). It is who we are. We tend to view women and children as particularly vulnerable creatures, but the truth is we are all equally vulnerable to death, however and whenever it comes.

The problem is when people deliberately exploit your instincts and fears to further any agenda, political or otherwise. To them we are all bent sticks who need to be straightened out.

The trouble with adults is that we let them do it.