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May 18, 2010


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You're constructing a rational argument against the emotions we feel when a child is killed. Aren't emotions by definition irrational? Heck, from a strictly rational standpoint the death of a hundred people is hardly more "tragic" (whatever that might mean to a rationalist) than the removal of a bucket of water from the sea.

True dat, Kent.

But I'm not telling people how to feel. Just wondering if as a society we could change the way this stuff is reported. If I ran the newsroom, we wouldn't specifically name the number of children killed. If people felt desperate to investigate the number of children in the mix, they could do it on their own time.

(I do like the logical extension of your argument, though. The TV reporter would intone, "The plane crash took 75 lives, or the equivalent of three quarters of a bucket of water from the sea.")

David, it's an outgrowth of religious concepts. Children are not responsible for their sins up until a certain age. Adults are responsible for their sins, therefore presumably died for their sins. Therefore, adults dying is cause and effect, children dying is without reason and a tragedy.

Never mind that this is a theological simplification that has myriad layers of complexity to it. The stark distinction was made, and our culture still derives that distinction from our religious history.

At best you might say theologically (and of course, only in Western religions) that children in the aggregate are considered pure, as their sinful acts reflect on the parents and are not on the child's account, while adults are possibly the cause of their own demise.

Yossi, you make a very important point about the source of these concepts. (Though I might guess that the religious concepts may have been originally created to explain the depth of the grief parents felt for the loss of their children; and a theologian might contradict me.)

Still, no matter the source of this child-as-innocent, adult-as-guilty concept, a secular media needn't indulge it.

"Twelve people were killed in the mudslide, four of them children and six of them regular church-goers."

Considering how integral these concepts of child-becoming-adult are to all Western religions, the better guess or assumption is that this concept came first, and then the stereotype. In reality, children grieve for the death of their parents as well.

You're also assuming a secular media questions the differentiation between child and adult, and makes a conscious choice to point it out. It's as built in to the discussion of accidents as the fact that we don't mention how many plane parts were destroyed, or how many animals died in the cargo hold. For better or worse, what items we acknowledge are societal norms - good for a bar-side beer battle, but not deep philosophical matters to consider indulging or not.

For completely factual reporting of the mudslide, it would be: "4000 tons of dirt, grass and tree were displaced by excess water. Oh, and by the way, 10 humans were displaced as well." Just doesn't click with how society thinks.

Yossi, I can't figure out what you're getting at. Do you find my questioning of this particular communication norm futile, boring, pedantic, naive, or all of the above?

Then say so! And if you do, I'll point out:

How society thinks about events is also influenced by the way people write about them; and that, we can change.

Futile? No, it can be changed.

Boring? No, it's a good question, with great theological roots (plus more that surely came out at the bar).

Pedantic? Yes, but pedantry is teaching, and the Socratic method works as well as any other.

Naive? No, there is no underlying assumption for why this is done that you missed.

Can we change it? Yes, but no reason to. There is nothing evil or damaging in considering children more pure than adults, and if this attitude encourages us to be more protective of children, then better to mention children. Children need protection by adults from adults and other children, that much is clear.

I guess I'm saying the discussion is fascinating, the implementation boring and useless.

Things that make you go "hmm..."

For now, agreeing with you. But that could change any moment!

Yossi, I believe in the necessity of myth as societal glue. But myth ALWAYS has a downside, and its upside is often overrated. You assume that if we don't believe children are saintly, we won't protect them.

When actually, all we have to know in order to find a moral obligation to protect them is that they are vulnerable. (Which is NOT a myth, but a plain fact.)

And what's the harm in considering children more pure than adults? What would be the harm in considering Croats more pure than Russians? Depends on whether you act on it or not, I guess. But any actions based on the notion will be fraught with danger, on account of the notion is false.

@Wah: I'll keep my helmet on.

I said it in the bar and I will say it here as well:

You, sir, are a monster.

Steve C.

And as at the bar, I admire your concision, sir.

You still celebrate Christmas, right? Take time off, drinks, whatever? You're observing a secular version of a religious observance because it is part of your history.

And that's done consciously. Listing children is done without thought.

My assumption is: This is how things are done, no downside to them, potential upside, leave it be. Let's go plug BP's backside instead. Or call for newsies to observe a moment of silence after announcing a tragedy before moving on to the latest banality.

I'm not sure it is the perceived purity or children that resonates as much as their vulnerability. They are, by their very nature, more socially, intellectually and physically vulnerable than adults (or at least most adults). And as adults - even those without kids - it's in our nature to want to protect them. We expect adults to take a certain amount of responsibility for our own safety and well-being (recognizing that we are all more vulnerable than we think), but we don't necessarily expect children to be able to protect themselves. Rather we expect ourselves as the community of adults to protect them.

So when somebody or some cruel act of fate in effect takes advantage of their vulnerability, there's a sense that we collectively failed in our own desire and responsibility to protect children. It's a sorrow born of guilt, and it's not always logical. If a child is gunned down, then maybe we could have done something. If a child is swept away by a landslide, we probably couldn't. But we still wish we could.

It's not necessarily that children are any more or less valuable to us as a society. It's more a recognition that life brings tragedy and loss and adversity and we all learn how deeply it can wound. And it seems all the more tragic when children fall victim to that harsh reality before they have even really begun to understand how to cope with it. If I'm right and it really is that the loss of a child reminds us of our shared responsibility to protect them, then I'm okay with focusing on that. Because I'd rather not live in a world in which we forget it.

Rueben, to your first point: It's a good distinction, and one I wish we would make. If we did, we'd certainly react more emotionally when a naive kid is lured into a dangerous situation (a swimming pool, a creep's van) than when everybody gets wiped out in a plane crash.

And I admire and agree with your desire to live in a world that agrees that children are dear. My father's declared motto was, "Protect the babies."

I think what I'm getting at isn't that kids should be less cared for, but that adults ought to be protected too: by our friends and lovers and society at large--from creeps and corporations, government goons and officious bastards everywhere.

Not only more vulnerable than we think, adults are more naive than we think, more innocent than we let on, more childlike than we even allow ourselves to know.

Maybe that's also part of it, David. Maybe such blatant reminders of their vulnerability also remind us of our own.

David - it's too easy to say it until you experience it with your own child. You know you can trust me on this. My feelings have changed considerably since Natty's ordeal.

P.S. Please don't ever say "True dat" ever again.


As I told Steve in the bar, I'd infect any dozen adults with cancer to save my own child. But this discussion is not that discussion.

Mass communicators shouldn't organize their stories based on the power of my feelings toward my child.

Can I get a 'true dat?

Around and about all this talk:


No you may not. Never:)

A child's death is perhaps sadder when it is a situation an adult might have avoided or survived, so that the child's helplessness or naivete were factors. I don't see how it is sadder when it's a group thing such as a plane crash.

But logic will never work here. There is no more powerful headline than "TOT SLAIN."

Maybe we can't explain it, but there it is.

Which reminds me of Hemingway's shortest short story:

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Hey, I was at the bar. There was no battle; there was merely unmitigated mockery. No one was trying to win any argument with you because we all think you're insane.

Again, my friend, your brevity impresses!

True dat, Suzanne. True dat!!!

Steve C.

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