Finally, I’d like to address another facet of the reaction to (against) the Québec student protests: Childism.
It is a remarkable fact of life in modern North America that there exists in nearly every part of society a profound contempt for, and both fear and hatred of, children. This is a provocative statement, but I believe that the remarkable nature of prejudice against children in North America has a lot to do with the fact that so few people find it remarkable at all, in the sense that nobody remarks on it. In fact, I think most people would reject the idea, and feel genuinely shocked at the suggestion. But let’s look at the question objectively, if we can. This is difficult, since (as I posted elsewhere), one of the factors that interferes cognitively with objectivity most powerfully is the mention of children. But we’ll try.
One of the indicators that tell me that we deal with a prejudice is when someone uses the name of an identifiable group as a common pejorative. In many of the comments in English media concerning the student protests in Québec, the term ‘childish’ comes up. Imagine, for an instant, replacing the negative description of a protest for the rights of the disenfranchised with another group’s name. Imagine if the protests were being compared to, say, women. “Those protesters are just being womanly.” Or an ethnic group. “Don’t those protesters see how African-American they’re being?” Or a religion. “Why can’t they just stop being such Muslims about all this?” We’re shocked by those hypothetical statements (which only a generation ago wouldn’t have been hypothetical at all), but we take the ‘childish’ moniker in stride. After all, there are no children who object publicly to the term, so we can safely ignore them.
The assumption behind such name-calling is that children are selfish, Hobbes-ian creatures of pure ego, irrational and impulsive, incapable of reasoning or debate, or even of having real reasons for doing what they do. They are mindless. They act merely randomly out of intense self-interest, sucking resources from society and giving nothing in return. Their value, if they have any, is entirely passive, not active. They provide us with joy because we look at them and think they’re cute; they’re there for our aesthetic appreciation, like possessions or pets. Such a creature ought surely to be sequestered from society, have their rights limited or annulled, and in the best Victorian manner, speak only when spoken to, for the good of the social order.
Does this sound like your child? Of course not. Yours is the exception. Thanks to the cognitive biases known as the Self-Serving Bias , the Introspection Illusion, and the Attribution Bias, among others, we are quite willing to believe that our own (or our close peers’) motivations for particular beliefs or actions are rational, while those of our neighbours are emotional or irrational. This is true even when the action or belief is identical. A recent study found that people’s own belief in God, for example, was explained in purely logical, rational terms, while others’ belief in the same God was attributed to irrational motivations like upbringing, tradition, etc. In my own classroom, I do a twice-annual survey that asks students in their senior year of high school about their own motivations, as well as those of their peers. The numbers are too small to be scientific, but they pretty much exactly follow the trends mentioned in Michael Schermer’s article, in the link above. My students consistently claim (on anonymous surveys) that their peers are more biased than they are — and the fact that they are told that they are taking a survey on universal cognitive biases does not seem to influence their choices, or make them think about the possibility of their own prejudices at all!
Think for a moment about driving on the highway. Three situations present themselves:
A) You’re driving a little below the speed limit, enjoying your day, and someone in a faster car hugs your butt for a click or two, then zips past you at higher speed. This person is a jerk, you reason;what’s he trying to prove? I’m already going 90; is his manhood threatened or something? Why is everything such an emergency all the time for some people?
B) You’re driving a little above the speed limit, since you have to get somewhere in a hurry; and you come up behind someone going slower – maybe even a little under the limit. Come on, you think; let’s go! Can’t you at least go 100? Why does everyone have to be such sightseers?
C) You’re driving the speed limit, and there’s a car directly beside you, in the next lane, pacing you the whole time. Geez, you think, what is this creep’s problem? What happened to personal space? Does he have to take the speed limit so literally?
The interesting thing about these scenarios is that in every case, the other person is assumed to be irrational, whereas you have good reasons for being a little fast or a little slow on the highway. Those reasons are not typically attributed to other drivers; they do what they do because they are irrational — whereas you do the exact same thing for justifiable reasons. The other interesting thing is that there is no winning situation for the other driver: he has only three options: he can go faster than you, slower than you, or the same speed as you. In every one of those cases, he’s a jerk — not so easy, being someone other than you!! 🙂
We all do this. If you’re blushing right now, recognising your own behaviour, you’re just like the rest of us. The shocking part isn’t so much that we do this, but that we’re all so blind to it until it’s pointed out to us. That’s how prejudices work. Part of the self-serving bias tells us that, since we’re essentially good people, the things we do are essentially good, too. It is extremely difficult, without psychological damage, to perceive of ourselves as people who are not fundamentally good. This makes our prejudices hard to catch, hard to own up to, and hard to change. Ever have the kind of habit that people have to point out to you, or else you don’t even know you’re doing it? Chewing your nails, for example? Much of our own behaviour, even if it runs directly contrary to our conscious wishes and values, remains invisible to us. And so it is with attitudes.
If you were to ask someone, “If you were likely to take to the streets and protest against some government policy that directly affected you, what might be some of the reasons for doing so?”, they would likely be able to come up with several possibilities without much effort, all very noble and reasonable. But when presented with masses of students protesting something that they have not taken the time to understand, they are willing to assume that it is being done for irrational, selfish reasons, or even for reasons that are ‘essential’ to the group in question. “That’s just what they do,” they’ll tell you, referring to protesting students. “It’s in their nature. They hardly even understand the issues; they just like to protest. They’re just naturally contrary, I guess…maybe it’s hormones. It’s childish, really.”
These same arguments were used, one need hardly remind anyone, against Abolitionists and Suffragettes, in times past.
BONUS FUN THOUGHT EXPERIMENT #1: Next time you are engaged in a disagreement with an adult woman, suggest to her that her inability to understand that your stance is the correct one is the result of hormones, perhaps because of her period. Then ask her why she’s so irrationally upset all of a sudden.
Economic ‘reality’ is frequently cited as a reason not to listen to the ideas or concerns of the under-classes; and it bears thinking about how much our economic ‘realities’ are predicated on the exploitation of under-classes, if every time they insist on fair or equal treatment it is seen as such a threat to our own material comfort. This stares us in the face every day, but we can’t seem to see ourselves in that light. The United States grew rich on the backs of African slaves, and their descendants were (and still are) discriminated against, from Jim Crow to the modern prison system. But the majority of people still see this as somehow part of the “natural order” or the “economic reality”, rather than the result of history and of choices made by those in power, from slaveowners to current governments.
BONUS FUN THOUGHT EXPERIMENT #2: Ask someone if free tuition nationwide would cripple the economy, or if honouring Native land claims would (substitute any enfranchisement of any minority group, really). If they say ‘yes’, then point out to them that we’ve just discovered that therefore, the economy not only tolerates, but actually relies on the disenfranchisement of minorities. Watch them squirm.
The comparison of children’s rights to slavery is not hyperbole, nor a random choice on my part. Universal human rights are either a universal concept, or else just another way to exploit people; that’s clear: if only certain people get rights, it’s not ‘rights’, but ‘privilege’, and a profound and ugly hypocrisy, using noble language for selfish purposes. Interestingly, on the subject of rights, the United Nations has a useful document detailing the universal rights of children everywhere: it is telling that alone on the planet, only Somalia (which has not had an effective government since the 1980s) and the United States have refused to sign it. Before we in Canada get too smug, though, it bears mentioning that we have been cited by the U.N. for our lack of enforcement of the document that we are signatories to, true to Canadian form, it seems.
The use of the word ‘childish’ as a pejorative really gets to the root of how we see children in Canada and much of the world. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in her posthumous work, Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, coins a term and exposes something that most people in our society would never admit exists, let alone admit to participation in it. A scholar of Prejudice Studies, Young-Bruehl explains that all prejudices share certain traits in common. At their core, they represent a kind of psychological defence mechanism similar to projection, and known in some academic circles as the process of ‘othering’. Prejudice arises against a “target group…one whose members share characteristics and conditions that those prejudiced against them seize on and distort for their own purposes” (p. 19). In the case of children, these characteristics include dependency, incapacity, irrationality, and selfishness. Rather than dealing with those traits in our own lives, they are projected onto children, and our attitudes towards them are modified in order to strengthen that notion of them being ‘different’ from us. This can take many forms, from simple condescension to overprotection to outright abuse. In fact, Young-Bruehl makes the point that childism might be at the root of many other forms of prejudice. I am inclined to agree, seeing how often the tactic of infantilisation is used against minority opinions. Women were kept in line in previous generations through a kind of semi-benign imposed childishness: they were kept from true agency in their own society under the self-fulfilling prophecy that they were incapable of mature, rational participation. The same ‘childish’ argument was used historically against Africans: both individually and as a class. Africa as a whole was seen as a kind of kid brother to Europe, needing colonial control to keep it out of trouble. And individual Africans were seen as impulsive, irrational, and potentially dangerous on some sort of OEdipal level.
The comments I have read on news websites advocating for the imposition of draconian force against the ‘spoiled brat’ students appal me, but I am reminded that in popular culture, the only class of person that it is still somewhat permissible to talk about beating in order to force compliance in them is children. “Spare the rod and spoil the child”, the saying goes, and I would urge those of you who assume that this is true to substitute another class of human being in that proverb: “Spare the rod and spoil the woman”, for example. Or what about disabled adults, based on their supposed developmental similarity to children? Obviously ugly. But with children, if we’re not actively spanking our own, we tacitly mostly agree with the right of parents to strike theirs, in the privacy of their own home. 72% of Canadians believe that spanking should remain a legal option for Canadian parents. This includes 57% of parents who say they never spank their children. More than 75% of Canadian adults report having been spanked as children. The right to strike children is enshrined in law. Any objective view of our attitudes and preoccupations with controlling our own children would have to conclude that it borders on the obsessive. Robert Epstein reports that the restrictions on adolescent behaviour in the U.S. match or exceed even those of convicted felons and members of the Marine Corps! Just saying that we’re doing it “for their own good” doesn’t excuse it, either, especially if the evidence does not support that statement. With the confinement and disempowerment of children at an all-time high, all in the name of their own good, it’s hardly a wonder that physical and mental health is at serious risk among the youth population. This is clear evidence to me that we are not only discriminating against our children, but that our discrimination is of a nature that does fundamental and real harm to them. The fact that we claim we’re doing it for good reasons does not pass the sniff test, sadly, any more than did Apartheid or Jim Crow.
The people participating in these protests are not children. They are not infants, and they are not any more irrational than you or I. Their reasons for protesting are specific to their own situation, obviously, but that does not mean that they are wrong. People who make this ‘argument’ (I can hardly call it that) are simply making an ad-hominem attack. They are unable to listen to the reasons why the students are doing what they are doing, or to make the effort to understand. Instead, they attack something personal and unchangeable about them: their age. They make the assumption that because they are ‘different’ , i.e., younger, they possess characteristics that make them impossible to be right, or taken seriously. And in doing so, they reveal the truth about how we see children in general in our society.