The Larger Lure: on the decoy effect of latter day ‘child-saving movements’
There is such a surfeit of public service articles regarding the dangers young persons face in the world that it behooves the reflective person to take a step back for a moment and examine, not so much their claims, but the manner in which they are presented. A typical piece, in slide lecture format, begins here:
Like any Decalogue, the practical advice on how to educate one’s child to become more savvy to strange adults – and this in a world where over 95% of violence against children is perpetrated by intimates; those who children know and trust implicitly – contains a kind of Mosaic dictum: ‘Do this and avoid that’. As well, this list of ruses apparent child absconders use would at first seem to fool no one but very young children, though I may be naïve. We are also told that the lures differ according to age and gender, yet we are never quite told what the purpose of such behavior is. There is an elliptical character to all such pieces, as if the very thought of child molestation should remain unsaid, even unthought. No doubt there are varieties of villains ‘out there’, some of whom would merely profit from children displaying themselves in some lurid context without themselves affording any personal pleasure to the prurient marketeer, for instance, but no matter. The key to this kind of piece is that it hides its propaganda beneath its public service, not unlike the State itself.
In other kinds of media, more reportage-oriented journalism tells us of the trials faced by those who track and prosecute child abusers. These are noble officers of the law who are nevertheless aware of the temptations such cases present. At one time, hanging above the Toronto office for the investigation of pedophiles hung a small placard with the incompletely quoted epigram ‘Those who fight with monsters must take care not to become a monster’. Nietzsche immediately adds ‘And those who stare into the abyss will find that the abyss also stares into them.’ In other words, one cannot entirely remain aloof to the darkness if one elects to tread its succubic sanctuary. Misquoting philosophers is a commonplace event – and one that in a perverse manner I sometimes envy; at least it shows you that you’re famous! – but it too hides something of interest. In this specific case, the officer, embarking on what is in fact a dangerous mission, is only told to beware of becoming like the person he or she is after, but not that in fact he or she will become at least a little like them after all is said and done. The amount of stress leave granted to these special unit officers is testament to this other truth.
And ‘mission’ is a term one can use advisedly for such a caseload. It represents the most official guise of the latter day child-saving movement which has once again appeared on our domestic landscape. One must question ‘why so?’ at this juncture, but I will put that off for just a moment. Another word must be confronted first, and that is ‘monsters’. Nietzsche is usually understood as speaking about the urges that lie within ourselves, and not some other actual physical person, but presumably the Toronto police force must indeed confront both kinds on a regular basis. At the same time we are told, and by the same agency, that people who lure children are ‘like us’; fellow police officers, teachers, members of the military, coaches, parents et al. Given that all of us must work to live, is the resemblance to the rest of us built only along those lines or is there something more profound, and more uncomfortable, once again beneath the surface, lurking like the aviator-glasses-wearing-child-molester-van-driving-older-overweight-male, cliché ridden as he is?
I would argue yes, there is more to ‘like’ than meets the eye. Indeed, I would suggest that these persons are not so much like us but rather are us. They have exceeded their capacity to restrain their local desires – opportunism of all kinds breeds contempt; for norms, laws, one’s own conscience, philosophical ethics and so on – in this one specific arena. The case of the pediatrician in Alberta is an example of someone who, otherwise greatly respected in society both professional and community, nevertheless sought to fulfill his desires at others’ expense.
Note now that we come face to face with the larger lure on the adult end of things – more about that facing children in a moment. We are on a mission to avoid confronting the facts of our geo-political world. Though it may be reasonable to suggest that each adult has, globally speaking, a local duty to protect their own children, should it be the case that we are only so responsible? The internecine dangers – in the case of pedophiles and the usual like suspects, mostly fictitious; their presence in media coverage far outweighs their actual presence in our community – our own society presents us with has the effect of turning us inward, as does most media. Sports and entertainment coverage construct a fantasy environment, we follow only the politics of our own nations and that sporadically, and ‘personal’ stories of self-help or heroism are of interest insofar as they prevaricate the new mythology that our culture celebrates the dark horse, the underdog, the one who suffers. Celebrates perhaps, but only to a point supports. This trope is borrowed directly from Western religion but today is used on the surface mainly to sell commodities and more deeply, in its own monstrous abyss, to sell our society itself.
And this is now the moment when we come face to face with the larger lure that decoys our children away from both reality and human freedom. We are told that those who lure children have one paramount thing in common: they are ‘master manipulators’. Surely not. Given the ten ‘most common lures piece’ above, any doorknob would have thought of these, and they are transparently ridiculous besides. Surely the true masters of manipulation are those who work in advertising firms, the spin-doctors contracted to political regimes, the people who write curricula for our schools, and the parents who lie, day in and day out, to their children about where the real risk is. Statistically at least, it is overwhelmingly in the home and as such, pieces about child predators and those who fight with them have the deeper purpose of allaying suspicion regarding what is going on behind those suburban doors, gaily painted on the outer frames, perhaps often casting a darker hue once one has had the misfortune of stepping over their thresholds.
But we must return to the question breaking in earlier, the ‘why’ regarding the presence of more of these decoy articles appearing now than in previous decades. What is their wider meaning, and what are their wider effects? The ‘moral panic’ serves the advertiser and retailer well. Shilling risk allows one to shill security in that consuming – and less so, but also present, producing – goods feels more like a sure thing. Not merely products that make households ‘safer’ – the software that disallows young internet acolytes access to ‘mature’ content (now there’s a misused term if ever there was one) and contrasting, perhaps, with the fact that there are plenty of everyday objects sold that could be used to beat one’s kids (and indeed are so used in countries like the USA where the laws regarding assault against children are soft) – but also the idea of contract itself is shilled. There are terms and conditions to all social dynamics, and it is precisely the lack thereof within the underside of sociality that is most radical to us. The villain eschews any contractual language once you are in his or her thrall. While any upstanding citizen decries this moment, when will we begin to apply the same standards to our own behaviors, behaviors which result in the world being precisely as it is today? In my latest non-fiction work, due out this summer, I write:
“The general bad conscience of living in wealth and freedom when most do not has this effect as well. It might lead to a critical anxiety if it were not covered over and distracted, entangled by all of the web of consumer society which in part gives us the appearance of both wealth and freedom alike. It is a hard slogan – ‘third world blood fuels your lifestyle’ or the like – but it is yet not an entirely accurate one. It is, in effect, not hard enough, for what that blood actually fuels is our notion of freedom and even relative health. But one cannot, by definition, attain freedom based on unfreedom. One cannot be free on the back of the one who is unfree. Every historical human ethics acknowledges this moral fact. Therefore we allay our anxieties with the appearance of freedom, which would have to include such characteristics as some social mobility and physical movement, consumer choice without regard for either season or more glaringly, climate, and even serial monogamy or its guises. What we other aristocrats actually possess is not human freedom but the velvet unfreedom and supple unthought of those who are idle in the face of collective responsibility and thus ill-suited to explain to the rest of ‘them’ why and how this is going to continue to work as it does.”
The parent who loses their child to disease or yet hunger in some marginal place might well call me a child predator. A most powerful one who can kill at a distance and remain unseen and untouched. Is the collective revenge of the developing world coming down the pipes as we speak? We might just be at the cusp of adding to our list of anxieties and even neuroses – a list whose numbered items far exceed any latter day Decalogue – the nascent realization that the villains are, after all, simply and slyly, ourselves.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty-five books on ethics, education, art, health and religion, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.