The Political Rhetor and the Future. 6.2.b. Children.

Preparing for the future must begin, as always, with our children.

Ronald Wilson Regan, State of the Union [USA] 1987, 27 January 1987.

Children have little to no political voice. They can neither vote nor hold public office. But think of the children appeals add a good deal of emotional oomph! — what Aristotle calls pathos — to political speeches. Some children are held up as future leaders. Some of their clout comes from the ambiguous status of youth as no longer a child but not quite an adult. To play on this ambiguity, the orator characterizes the youth as a precocious child rather than an undeveloped adult, as in she is but a child or she is wise beyond her years.

My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 16 years old. I come from Sweden. And I speak on behalf of future generations.

I know many of you don’t want to listen to us – you say we are just children. But we’re only repeating the message of the united climate science….

We children are not sacrificing our education and our childhood for you to tell us what you consider is politically possible in the society that you have created. We have not taken to the streets for you to take selfies with us, and tell us that you really admire what we do. We children are doing this to wake the adults up. We children are doing this for you to put your differences aside and start acting as you would in a crisis. We children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back.

Greta Thunberg, ‘You did not act in time: Greta Thunberg’s Full Speech to MPs, The Guardian, April 23, 2019. (UK)

The passage from childhood to adulthood is gradual and not uniform. Social and physical maturity don’t always develop coincidentally in the same child, and especially not between children. However somewhere around twelve something has shifted. Tea sets and Tonka trucks give way to sanitary napkins, birth control pills, and condoms. “A dragon lives forever, but no so little boys. Painted wings and giant’s rings make way for other toys” (Puff the Magic Dragon, 1965, Peter, Paul and Mary). Many fourteen-year olds hold jobs. Some hold car keys as the first stage of a learner’s permit. Some become mothers, others pay child support. Some hold mortgages, others enlist. All before some can vote.

Austria and Malta have lowered the voting age to sixteen. It remains to be seen how many other countries will follow suit, and how far they will lower the voting age. One possible determinant of enfranchisement is personhood. But, cf the suffragettes, at what age are children to be recognized as persons? This age varies according to the purpose of this recognition. In Thunberg’s home, Sweden, as in many polities, 15 year olds are persons for the purpose of criminal responsibility.

From the age of 15 years the minor is in principle treated in the same way as an adult… A minor is a person who has not attained the age of 18 (the age of majority). A young minor is a person who has not attained the age of 15.

Jareborg, Nils. « Sweden / Criminal responsibility of minors », Revue internationale de droit pénal, vol. vol. 75, no. 1, 2004, pp. 511-525.

Another purpose for recognizing children as persons is mandatory education. The government of the UK defines a young person as anyone under the age of 18 and a child is defined as anyone who has not reached the minimum school leaving age, which is the year she turns 16. And so all children are young persons, but not all young persons are children.

The definitions of a child are neither universal nor consistent. Within a single polity there are many words for many other purposes that augment or substitute for these definitions. The UN has attempted some consistent use of the word ‘child’ for the purposes of assigning universal rights to children. Article (1) of the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child defines a child as a human being under the age of 18, unless the laws of a particular country set a younger legal age for adulthood (Rights of Children).” But as the European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights (FRA) notes, this definition is confounded by the legislation of individual member states. You’ll note that the incoherence of statements such as “no international law defines ‘youth’ and various definitions exist” adds to the confusion,

However, for other terms there is no definition. For example, no international law defines ‘youth’ and various definitions exist. In addition, most Member States do not define the terms ‘child’, ‘minor’, ‘youth’ and ‘adolescents’ universally. The application of the terms varies depending on the regulatory context. Often the terms are not defined explicitly but are used in different provisions that add a specific age limit.

In line with the definition of the CRC, FRA does not use the term ‘minors’ or ‘adolescents’, instead using ‘children’ for all persons below 18 years. The term ‘child’ is widely used in all forms of legislation, ranging from children acts, criminal codes, welfare acts, child protection laws, labour laws, etc. In most legislation, it refers to all children below 18 years of age. However, it may also be used to distinguish younger children from adolescents, as in some criminal laws.

The term ‘minor’ is mostly used in civil or criminal codes, describing all children below 18 years. Fourteen Member States define the term ‘minor’ in their civil code, with each referring to children aged from 0–18 years. In some Member States, the criminal code refers to an age range of 14–18 years. National criminal codes also use ‘youngster’, ‘young person’, and ‘juvenile’, sometimes referring to different age groups. In EU Member States, the term ‘youth’ is the only term used to describe an age group that goes beyond 18 years. It is often used when States want to include young adults as well, sometimes up to the age of 30 years. 

The UN’s definition on the term ‘youth’ includes all persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years; UNESCO uses a wider and more flexible definition depending on the context. In the EU Strategy for Youth, the term ‘youth’ refers to teenagers and young adults aged between 13 and 30 years. EUROSTAT statistics consider the youth population to be aged between 15 and 29 years.  The term ‘adolescent’ refers to the time when a child develops into an adult.

In General Comment No. 20 on adolescents, the CRC Committee recognises that children reach puberty at different ages and does not seek to give a clear definition, but instead focuses on the period of childhood from the age of 10 until the 18th birthday. The term is less defined in national legislation; only five Member States use it to describe children between the ages of 12/15/16 and 18 years.

Age of Majority, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights,(FRA), 2007-2020

Those who take liberties by tinkering with stipulative definitions further confound the concept of a child. The government of Canada ratified the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child in 1991. The Canadian government quotes the UN’s stipulative definition of a child on it’s webpage under the first subheading, ‘Rights of Children’. But under the second subheading, ‘Guiding Principles’, the Canadian government changes a word in Article 1 and defines a child as “a person below the age of 18…,” not a ‘human being’ as stipulated by the UN. ‘Human’ and ‘person’ are not synonymous and cannot be used interchangeably. It is bad form to change a word in a stipulative definition since one word can change the meaning entirely. This change not only creates conceptual confusion, but also may have legal ramifications.

Adulthood or the age of majority is one parameter placed on definitions of a child. Another is determining when a foetus becomes a child. Pregnant women are often described as being ‘with child’, not ‘with person’. Yet whether and at which point a foetus is considered either is central to abortion legislation. In drafting the Rights of the Child, the UN steps around this often contentious issue in its member states by being exceedingly vague.

Article 6 1. States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life. 2. States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.  Article 7 1. The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and. as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.

— UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

In article 7, the “child shall be registered immediately after birth” leaves uncertain if the foetus is a child before birth. If the foetus is a child and so recognized as having universal rights, then Article 6 can be used as a justification for both neonatal care and for the illegality of abortion. These aims are not mutually exclusive. Polities where abortion is illegal might not provide neonatal care. Canada provides both neonatal care and legalized abortion.

The legalization of abortion hangs on whether the foetus is a legal person and not whether the foetus is or is not a human. A sometimes heated abortion debate concerns puppies and kittens. I confine myself to humans here. Moral opposition to abortion does hang on whether the foetus is human and when its life begins. Some believe life begins at conception, some when the heart beats, others when the foetus is viable. Legal and moral considerations are often conflated, and then further conflated with theological and metaphysical commitments. This conceptual tangle tends to add a great deal of emotion — and vitriol — to political rhetoric concerning abortion.

As we pray for all who are sick, we know that America is constantly achieving new medical breakthroughs. In 2017, doctors at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City delivered one of the earliest premature babies ever to survive.  Born at just 21 weeks and 6 days, and weighing less than a pound, Ellie Schneider was a born fighter.  Through the skill of her doctors and the prayers of her parents, little Ellie kept on winning the battle of life.  Today, Ellie is a strong, healthy two-year-old girl sitting with her amazing mother Robin in the Gallery.  Ellie and Robin, we are glad to have you with us tonight.  (Applause.)

Ellie reminds us that every child is a miracle of life.  And thanks to modern medical wonders, 50 percent of very premature babies delivered at the hospital where Ellie was born now survive.  It’s an incredible thing.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

Our goal should be to ensure that every baby has the best chance to thrive and grow just like Ellie.  That is why I’m asking Congress to provide an additional $50 million to fund neonatal research for America’s youngest patients.  (Applause.)

That is why I’m also calling upon members of Congress here tonight to pass legislation finally banning the late-term abortion of babies.  (Applause.)

— Donald J. Trump, State of the Union Address, February 4, 2020.

Article 6  1. States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life. 2. States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.

— UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The word ‘babies’, like children, has great rhetorical effect by connoting innocence and helplessness. ‘Baby’ belongs to a set of terms that belong to the concept of children but which are not easily substituted by the words ‘child’ or ‘children’: foetus, premie, neonate, baby, newborn, and toddler. Try this. The child wouldn’t let go of his mother’s breast; the baby wouldn’t let go of his mother’s breast. You might think of a hand in the first case, a mouth in the second. Or, a toddler crossed the busy road; a child crossed the busy road. If you were making a report to the police, the word ‘child’ wouldn’t raise alarm the way ‘toddler’ would. Just as there is some grey area in not yet an adult but no longer a child, there is some grey area in no longer a baby but not yet a child.

Grey areas give rise to conflict. Conflict gives rise to political oratory.

Apart from their legal uses, person, persons, and people do not readily substitute for child and children. Even if a foetus is granted legal personhood, it would be strange to refer to it as “a person under the age of 18” or a “child under the age of 18.” If I was informed there are five people in my son’s kindergarten class, I would ask just who these people are and what they’re doing there. I wouldn’t take ‘five people’ to mean there are five kindergarten students. I would not suspect my toddler of being among the underage persons arrested for vandalism, although I might give her a time-out for covering the cat with catsup. The expression Some people’s kids! does not translate to Some people’s people! or Some children’s kids!

Note that people and persons are both plural for person. And both people and persons refer to a group of human beings. But persons also has a legal meaning which assigns rights to a group of people. Hence, the Persons Case (1928) in which women were recognized as persons eligible to sit in the Canadian Senate. And here’s where things get tricky. Women needn’t be considered human beings to be recognized as persons.

Personhood is a political designation which ascribes legal rights and responsibilities, protections and privileges, to particular entities — human or not. The government of India suggests dolphins ought to be recognized as non-human persons. In 2010, the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics drafted a Declaration of Cetacean Rights (dolphins and whales). In 2015, an orangutan named Sandra was granted non-human personhood. Environmental personhood is increasingly recognized. In 2014, New Zealand granted legal personhood to the Te Urawera forest. In 2008, Ecuador became the first to enshrine the Rights of Nature in its constitution. As an abstract legal concept, person can even be assigned to metaphysical entities and objects! Hence not only some deities but also some shrines are recognized as persons. In 19th century India, the British juridical system integrated with Hindu beliefs and practices. Since then, deities who have been publicly consecrated be recognized as legal persons. And in 2010, a High Court in India ruled that Ram Janmabhoomi, the birthplace of an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, is a juristic person.

A political community simultaneously recognizes some human and non-human entities as persons but not others. Corporations were recognized as persons even as women weren’t. And political communities do not bestow equal rights to everyone called a person therein. The three-fifths compromise of 1787 counted three out of every five slaves as persons for the purposes of taxation and representation of the southern slave states in America. But the compromise doesn’t mean John, Robert, and Harlan were persons while Michael and Seth weren’t. ‘Persons’ in this case was a numerical concept assigned to a collective, and that slaves were counted persons at all hinged on socioeconomic conditions. The ambiguous status relegated to slaves as being somewhere between humans and property factored into the kind and degree of politicolegal representations associated with their personhood. To the extent slaves were persons, they weren’t fully persons. Children also occupy this ambiguous hinterland comprised of degrees of personhood that can be dialled up or down according to age, attitudes, and material conditions. Let’s consider some examples.

Article 5 of the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child stipulates “persons legally responsible for the child” and not persons responsible for underage persons. By substituting the UN’s stipulative definition of a child, the quote reads, “persons legally responsible for the human under the age of 18 unless the laws of a particular country set a younger legal age for adulthood.”

Article 5 States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.

But things change further along in Articles 37 and 38 which deal with justice and war respectively. Recall the UN’s stipulative definition of children being “humans under the age of 18….” In Article 37, the language shifts from “no child shall be subjected” to “offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.” Offences are committed by persons and not humans. As Hobbes says, “The desires and passions of man are in themselves no sin. No more are the actions that proceed from those passions until they know a law that forbids them….” (Leviathan, Part I, Ch. XIII, para. X) Of course, this notion doesn’t prevent non-persons from getting beaten for perceived misbehaviour.

Article 37 States Parties shall ensure that: (a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age;

Note the shift in language from child to person again in Article 38. (1) and (4) refer to “the child” and “the protection and care of children” respectively. (2) and (3) refer to “persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years” and “those persons who have attainted the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years” respectively.

Article 38

1. States Parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for rules of international humanitarian law applicable to them in armed conflicts which are relevant to the child. 

2. States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities. 

3. States Parties shall refrain from recruiting any person who has not attained the age of fifteen years into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years, States Parties shall endeavour to give priority to those who are oldest. 

4. In accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population in armed conflicts, States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.

Two other concepts entwined with personhood that bear on my analysis are emancipation and enfranchisement. Historically, emancipation and enfranchisement both mean to free some from the power of others, such as freeing slaves from bondage. But these meanings have come apart such that emancipation still refers to being freed from the control of another but enfranchisement refers to the right to vote. There’s a lot of conceptual work to do with these terms that falls well beyond the scope of this paper. But let’s see if I can lay down a little foundation for that work here.

You might think emancipation leads to enfranchisement, but emancipation needn’t have anything to do with enfranchisement. And emancipation might even lead to disenfranchisement. A political refugee who lands in Canada is emancipated from her political antagonist. She may have been enfranchised in her own country, but is disenfranchised in Canada. She might have revoked her enfranchisement in the country she fled by her fleeing. She might never become a Canadian citizen and so might be permanently disenfranchised. But she leads a happy life and in every other way enjoys what other Canadians enjoy such as health care.

A US soldier who receives a dishonourable discharge (DD) can be disenfranchised. Given that the soldier is discharged from the power and control the military had over his life, I will leave you to stew about whether he has been emancipated from the military. Some vets describe the social ostracization and withdrawal of benefits that follow from a DD as worse than death. Discovering the difference between being made an outcast and being emancipated is a bit of that conceptual work I referred to in the last paragraph. One problem is is that ’emancipated’ requires an indexical; i.e. emancipated from what? And then further work is required to determine so what? How does this emancipation play out in one’s life prospects?

In some polities prisoners can vote, in others not. In some polities some children can vote. At least in some jurisdictions. Since both emancipation and enfranchisement are politicolegal concepts, they are candidates for assignment to personhood but these concepts are neither necessary nor sufficient for personhood. If children are both under the power and control of their parents or guardians and unable to vote, then they are neither emancipated nor enfranchised. And so children share these same complaints with feminists and suffragettes who seek, respectively, emancipation from patriarchy and the right to vote. Whether children are ever emancipated from their mothers, feminists and suffragettes, is another question I leave to your consideration. As a ninety-five year old woman worrying about her sixty-five year old son once told me, They’re always your babies, Pam. You’ll see. Now myself the mother of two adult sons, I concur.

Are children persons? Substitute ‘children’ in the following excerpt from Susan B. Anthony’s speech “Is It a Crime For a U.S. Citizen to Vote “, in which she asks, Are women persons?

Our democratic-republican government is based on the idea of the natural right of every individual member thereof to a voice and a vote in making an executing laws. We assert the province of government to be to secure the people in their enjoyment of their unalienable rights. We throw to the wind the dogma that governments can give rights….

Surely the right of the whole people to vote here is clearly implied. For however destructive in their happiness this government might become, a disenfranchised class could neither alter or abolish it, nor institute a new one, except by the old brute force method of insurrection and rebellion. One-half of the people of this nation today are utterly powerless to blot from the statute books an unjust law, or to write there a new and just one. The women, dissatisfied as they are with this form of government, that enforces taxation without representation — that compels them to obey laws to which they have never given their consent, that imprisons and hangs them without trial by jury of their peers, that robs them, in marriage, of the custody of their own persons, ages, and children — are this half of the people left wholly at the mercy of the other half, in direct violation of the spirit and the letter of the declaration of the framers of this government, that every one of which was based on the immutable principle of “equal rights to all.” By them kings, priests, popes, aristocrats were, all alike, dethroned and placed on a common level, politically, with the lowliest-born subject or serf. By them, too, men were deprived of their authority and placed on a political level with women. By their practice all class and caste distinction must be abolished, and slave, serf, plebeian, wife, woman, all alike, bound from their subject position to the proud platform of equality….

The only question left to be settled here is, are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not! Being persons, then women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any new law, or enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities. Hence every discrimination against women in constitutions and laws of the several states is to-day null and void-precisely as is every one against negros.

Susan B. Anthony, “Is It a Crime For a U.S. Citizen to Vote“, April 3, 1873, Archives of Women’s Political Communications, Iowa State University.

*In some jurisdictions, such as Alberta, children can legally work as young as 12 (with some restrictions). And they do pay taxes. Hence, taxation without representation.

In 1916, the first Canadian women, those in the three prairie provinces, were enfranchised. But they weren’t recognized as full persons until 1928. Until women became full persons, they were “prevented … from participating fully in politics or affairs of state.” What it means to be a full participant in politics or affairs of state is another matter for analysis. One might hold a formal political position — a title, office, and a paycheque — and be so constrained by that office and its formal procedures as to be entirely ineffectual. Free from these constraints, one might spearhead massive changes in a polity as did Martin Luther King, Jr.

A public office is malleable and, hammered hard enough, bends to the power of the people. It was five Canadian women, aka the Famous Five, who successfully petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada to recognize women as persons eligible to serve on the Senate. But although the Famous Five spearheaded this court action, they did not act alone. They rode a tidal wave of public and political support. The suffragette movement had been going strong for decades, and many politicians were apt to support it because politicians have wives. A political orator tests the way the winds are blowing and adjusts his rhetoric accordingly.

Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind, as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or quicker in mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. For as to the strength of the body, the weakest has the strength to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger as himself.

Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, Chapter 13, 1.

By confederacy with others, Hobbes means coalitions. Strength in numbers. The civil rights movements that came to a head in the Sixties were a coalition of groups such as blacks, women, and homosexuals who were not only denied civil rights and liberties but also subject to myriad abuses. Some members of these marginalized groups are also poor. But so are underclass members of historically privileged groups such as poor white trash. A coalition of the poor underclass, or those who think themselves the poor underclass, is something governments have reason to fear; e.g. the French Revolution and the French Yellow Vest Movement of today. This fear is one reason the poor are a common subject of political oratory (see 6.2).

Recall that the poor tend not to be politically active. Oftentimes, the poor are not prohibited from voting, i.e. formally disenfranchised, but rather are effectively disenfranchised by barriers to their political participation. One barrier shared by both the poor and children is their status as wards of the state. The moment one is under another’s care and protection, her actions are constrained by the conditions the protector imposes. Some might not think of others as desiring emancipation from care and protection, but the power and control carers hold over their wards can at times be stifling. A carer keeps cigarettes both out of the hands of a child and out of the hands of a senior in a care home. The child at least has means for rebellion, the senior has next to none. But unlike the child, she can vote.

Children, even very young children, are adept at finding ways around constraints on their desires. The easiest way around constraints are lies and deceit. Some skip out of school, climb out a bedroom window, or say they are staying over at a friend’s to go to a party. Teens, who are still children on the UN definition, fake or steal ID to buy alcohol and cigarettes. Or they recruit someone who looks old enough not to get ID’d to buy contraband for them. Those who look older than their years might lie to have sex or even to go to war.

Sometimes boys as young as 13 would lie about their age and attempt to enlist in the military. The underage volunteers who looked old enough were often accepted while many of those who were rejected ended up serving in the Merchant Navy, where they supported the war effort in a different way, transporting troops and materials overseas.

Add citation Canada

As much as children rebel against constraints, most are mostly compliant most of the time, especially where they have little or no choice to do otherwise. If the law prohibits an employer from hiring a twelve year old and a twelve year old from quitting school, the twelve year old is more likely to get an education. And education probably leads to a healthier life and more opportunities. But not always. My eldest uncle quit school at age eleven to go to work to support his siblings. After years of tragedy, hardships, and backbreaking labour, Uncle Jim is now in his mid-eighties and still living on the land he loves. His dream from childhood was to be a farmer, and to that end he’s been very successful. If he’d been forced to go to school, well, we’ll never know what would have become of his family and his dreams.

We children are doing this to wake the adults up. We children are doing this for you to put your differences aside and start acting as you would in a crisis. We children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back.

Greta Thunberg, ‘You did not act in time’: Greta Thunberg’s Full Speech to MPs, The Guardian, April 23, 2019. (UK)

The lesson here is that laws, rules, regulations, and policies can be good for some, even for many, but not for all. Of course we need some account of what good-for means and who decides. And it wouldn’t hurt to remember the significant roles luck and chance play in our lives.

Whenever anyone of us is under the auspices of a protector, we’ve relinquished the freedom to do as we will. Most of us willingly accept some constraints on our actions as a condition of living in a civil society. Others refuse these constraints to the extent that a polity tolerates their dissent. Hence the justice system and enforcement agencies. We pay our taxes and stop at the traffic lights purchased by our taxes. We fund the police force that tickets us if we don’t stop, we pay the fine on the ticket, and we pay into the court system that allows us to dispute it if we desire. Children are a special case in that they not only fall under the jurisdiction of the broader polity, but also under the jurisdiction of guardians — most often parents. One jurisdiction might grant a child freedom the other prohibits. What it means to the state to protect a child can mean a very different thing to parents or guardians, and each might view the other as dangerous. A child caught in the middle might view both as dangerous.

Article 3 

1. In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. 

2. States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her, and, to this end, shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures. 

3. States Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health, in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision.

Article 5 

States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.

— UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Infants are completely dependent, with total constraints to their freedoms, whatever freedom might mean to a neonate. Infants and very young children require a parent or guardian to survive. And many polities ensure that if a parent doesn’t fulfil this role, someone else will. But as children grow, the extent that she requires a guardian to survive retracts. Quite early, children begin to dissent from the authority of their guardians. NO! is not only one of a child’s first words but also the first line drawn in a years-long battle of wills.

Some parents eschew corporal punishment, others take the spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child approach. Proponents of each camp believe their methods to be in the best interest of the child and can readily list the harms that emerge from the opposing approach. The former is thought by some too lenient, others think the latter too harsh. Yet each believes her methods to be in the best interest of the child and that her child will grow up to be a good person who contributes to a ‘better world’. But what is a better world?

Article 18

1. States Parties shall use their best efforts to ensure recognition of the principle that both parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child. Parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern. 

Article 29 

1. States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to: 

(a) The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;

(b) The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations; 

(c) The development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own; 

(d) The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin; 

(e) The development of respect for the natural environment.

— UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Most parents desire the same basic things for their children — health, safety, love — even as they disagree about their raisin’. However, battle grounds emerge not only between parents, and grandparents, but also between others with a stake in how children are raised. These points of contention include when and to what extent the authority of the guardian is handed over to the state.

Educators, social workers, nurses, doctors, psychologists, coaches, counsellors, police officers, lawyers, wardens, and judges — even lovers! — are among those who battle with parents and with each other over the status of growing children. Some are concerned with the rights of a child, others with the responsibility of a child. Some are concerned with her protection, others with her accountability. A social worker might argue for leniency toward a child-murderer, a prosecutor for her trial as an adult. In Canada, the 14 year-old who kills her 21 year-old lover can be tried as an adult. But the 21 year-old who has sex with his 14 year-old lover can be tried for rape. The same 14 year-old can be found competent to stand trial for murder but not to consent to having sex.

In Nigeria, the age of consent is 11 years old.

Nigeria does not have a close-in-age exemption.

Close in age exemptions, commonly known as “Romeo and Juliet laws” in the United States, are put in place to prevent the prosecution of individuals who engage in consensual sexual activity when both participants are significantly close in age to each other, and one or both partners are below the age of consent.

Because there is no close-in-age exemption in Nigeria, it is possible for two individuals both under the age of 11 who willingly engage in intercourse to both be prosecuted for statutory rape, although this is rare. Similarly, no protections are reserved for sexual relations in which one participant is a 10 year old and the second is a 11 or 12 year old.

Age of Consent in Nigeria. 2020.

Sometimes we’re concerned with protection for children, other times protection from children. If protection from children seems odd, consider the escalating conflicts that can arise as the child gradually separates from her mother through to the time she leaves the nest.

In the condition of mere nature [without the rule of a sovereign], where there are no matrimonial laws, it cannot be known who is the father unless it be declared by the mother; and therefore the right to dominion over the child dependeth on her will, and is consequently hers. Again, seeing the infant is first in the power of the mother, so as she may either nourish it or expose it, if she nourish it, it oweth its life to the mother, and is therefore obliged to obey her rather than any other; and by consequence, the dominion over it is hers. But if she expose it, and another findeth and nourish it, dominion is in him the nourisheth it. For it ought to obey him by whom it is preserved, because preservation of life being the end for which one man becomes subject to another, every man is supposed to promise obedience to him in whose power it is to save or destroy him.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part II, Chapter XX, 5.

The exercise of this power is another matter. If someone attempts to kill you, then self-defence trumps obedience. “A covenant not to defend myself from force, by force, is always void.” Leviathan, Part I, Chapter XIV, 29. An infant is completely helpless, but a child who stands eye to eye with a parent is not. At some point, a child has the power to save or destroy his parent. And this power is certainly tested, as when one’s bouncing baby boy, at 6’4″, calls the old man out. At which point the strapping lad is liable to be bounced right out of the house. The parent of a three year old in the throes of a tantrum might humorously threaten to find her a new home, but by sixteen that threat is credible.

Many polities make provisions for the emancipation of minors. A minor can apply to be emancipated from the control of her parents or guardians, who are in turn legally absolved from their obligations to her. Hence an emancipated minor can take on adult responsibilities such as marriage and military service. But she still might not have all the rights of majority, such as to buy alcohol or vote. There are no socially independent facts of the matter about when a child becomes an adult or when various rights and responsibilities are conferred. These decisions are political, and subject to change along with the material conditions under which they’re made.

The Temperance Movement agitated against alcohol consumption which eventually led to Prohibition (1920-33). The economic repercussions and the rise in crime led to the end of Prohibition, which led, in turn, to minimum legal drinking ages. During WWII, requiring extra bodies in uniform, Franklin D. Roosevelt lowered the age of conscription from twenty-one to eighteen. However, the voting age remained twenty-one in most American states until the Vietnam war. Young soldiers who had no voice in selecting the commander-in-chief who sent them to war agitated to have the voting age lowered to eighteen, “Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote.” In some armed conflicts today, an eight year old with a gun kills a man as readily as an eighteen year old with a gun. But I doubt anyone will lower the voting age that far. Although, without a stable governance, a vote just is the business end of a gun. Ironically, sometimes it takes a bullet to move people to a ballot.

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without security that what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such a condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge on the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, Chapter XIII, 9.

As noted, enfranchisement is a political decision, and not one underage people get to vote on. In the formal sense. Many youths are politically active. Some at great personal cost. Malala Yousafazi founded the Malala Fund in 2014 at age 17, the year she became the youngest ever recipient of Nobel Peace prize. In 2009, at the age of 11, Malala began speaking out about her life as a girl living under the Taliban. In October of 2012, then 15, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. She recovered and continues her activism for the right to education. Malala is now a student at Oxford in the UK.

Over the years — I won’t count if you don’t nothing has been so heartwarming to me as speaking to America’s young. And the little ones especially so fresh-faced and so eager to know. Well, from time to time I’ve been with them — they will ask about our Constitution, and I hope you Members of Congress will not deem this a breach of protocol if you’ll permit me to share these thoughts again with the young people who might be listening or watching this evening…

You young people out there, don’t ever forget that. Some day, you could be in this room — but wherever you are, America is depending on you to reach your highest and be your best because here, in America, we the people are in charge.

Just three words. We the people. Those are the kids on Christmas Day looking out from a frozen sentry post on the 38th Parallel in Korea, or aboard an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. A million miles from home. But doing their duty.

Ronald Wilson Reagan, State of the Union Address, January 27, 1987.

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.

Excerpts from: Transcript: Greta Thunberg’s Speech At The U.N. Climate Action Summit, NPR,September 23, 2019.

I’ve covered a lot of conceptual territory by analyzing ‘children’, yet barely scratched the surface. The political orator prefers that you skate on that surface, holding on to his coat tails as he pulls you along. The problem is, he is liable to drag you unwittingly across conceptual thin ice. And if you fall through and are swept into the currents of those roiling waters, it can be really hard to get back out. And he knows it.

Caution. Whenever a political orator deploys the word ‘children’, substitute the words ‘thin ice’. Think, slowly and carefully.

The word ‘children’ is a cognitive hook. It fastens in our brains and anchors surrounding information to its barbs. Once deployed, it’s hard not to think of the children and hard to think of anything other than the children. There are evolutionary reasons for this hook, e.g. protecting our young.

Let’s consider an example of how the political orator uses the think of the children hook to leverage its perlocutionary force and stifle critical thought.

Our fifth challenge: to leave our environment safe and clean for the next generation. Because of a generation of bipartisan effort we do have cleaner water and air, lead levels in children’s blood has been cut by 70 percent, toxic emissions from factories cut in half. Lake Erie was dead, and now it’s a thriving resource. But 10 million children under 12 still live within four miles of a toxic waste dump. A third of us breathe air that endangers our health. And in too many communities, the water is not safe to drink. We still have much to do.

William Jefferson Clinton, State of the Union Address, U.S. Capitol, January 23, 1996.

I won’t worry here about whether lead levels in adult’s blood have also been cut by 70 percent, how these blood levels are measured and what they mean, and so on. Instead let’s consider the claim that “10 million children under 12 still live within four miles of a toxic waste dump.” What work is the phrase “10 million children under 12” doing here? If we assume each of these children lives with two parents, then 30 million people might live within four miles of a toxic waste dump. Even allowing for a number of single parents, and that of those 10 million children some will be siblings in the same household, there are still 20 to 30 million living within four miles of a toxic waste site.

Adjusting for the demographics within a four-mile radius of a toxic waste dump, let’s say there are 40-50 million people of all ages. 40-50 is a significantly greater number than 10 and should be a greater worry than 10. So why foreground only those under the age of 12? The reason is the audience. It’s the task of the speech writer to cite the figure apt to have the most impact on the target audience. When the audience is diverse, think of the children arguments reach across ideological lines. Left, right, rich, poor. Most of us love our children.

Left out of the excerpt from Clinton’s speech is the significance of living near a toxic waste dump. If the dump is under strict regulatory control, and is using the latest technologies, it might be a cleaner place to live than some polluted inner city. Hence some children might be better off living near the toxic waste dump. Also missing is how many live near naturally occurring toxic sites, such as deposits of asbestos and uranium. But once the word children has been deployed, it hooks in our brains. Once hooked, it can become inflamed, as with the fear-inducing word danger. In this case the danger is toxic, and we’re always quick to keep poisons out of the reach of children — as warned on every household cleaner. When children are in danger, our brains gear up to save the children mode. This mode requires a rapid response, and consequently one is more likely to form a belief quickly and emotionally than to engage in critical thinking. And adding to one’s inability to think critically is a worry she’ll be judged for doing so. To say she needs more information to ascertain that children are in danger is to meet with disdain because, What kind of a mother would hesitate to be outraged that ten million children are exposed to toxic waste dumps?!

Rhetorical devices like think of the children work by leveraging the feelings we’ve associated with particular concepts. Hence, one is well-advised to not only to consider her own emotional buttons but to slow down and consider the assumptions these buttons rest on.

How does it feel to think about the following? Fill in the blank: [Blank] is in danger from toxic things. Save [blank!]. Here are some suggestions: It is I who; Trump; Gore; a politician; a pedophile; a chemist; a dog; a cat; a rat; a mother; a father; a soldier; a nurse; an oil worker; a smoker; an accountant; a serial killer; a rapist; a fireman; a friend. You’ve probably got a narrative for each of these such as : all/ some/no life matters; innocence or guilt ; a chemist just is exposed to toxins, i.e. assumes an occupational risk; etc. 

My mother still worries about my health and well-being, just as I worry about my burly adult sons. When, and in whose eyes, is one no longer a child?

Alexander became King of Macedonia at the age of 20, as did Horatio Nelson became a Captain in the British Navy. Alexander studied with Aristotle at the age of 13, Nelson joined the navy at the age of 12. A person must be 35 years of age to become President of the United States, a Canadian can become Prime Minister if he is 18 on the day of election. But a Canadian senator must be 30 years of age and possess $4,000 worth of real property.

The 17-year old child of today becomes the 18-year old voter of tomorrow. Some politicians actively encourage her rite of passage to the polls, just as they encourage her to remember their names on the ballot. But does this rite of passage make her an adult? Age is one eligibility criteria to vote in an election, citizenship another. And in some polities prisoners can’t vote. Age, like all criteria used to determine enfranchisement, is a political decision. As 18-year old Canadians drop their ballots in the box, do they wonder why Austria allows 16-year old children to vote? Does the 18-year old think his 16-year old girlfriend a child? When politicians deploy think of the children speeches, do they have in mind Johnny and Sally learning how to tie their shoe laces? Or do they have in mind Linda and Louis planning on tying the knot after high-school graduation? If both, do Linda and Louis see themselves in the same category as Johnny and Sally? Not likely, though the pair may well be planning on having their own Johnny and Sally in the not too distant future.

Next, Future Generations…

Categories: Political Rhetoric

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