If The Simpsons has taught us anything, it’s not to trust anyone who uses the corruptibility of children to win a political argument.
Did you see last week’s Beer Store commercial warning of the dangers of ending its Ontario retail monopoly by allowing alcohol sales in corner stores? “Of course they’re good kids—but they are still kids,” the voiceover says, as we see teenagers picking up booze, encouraged by a smirking shopkeeper. The vantage point shifts to security-camera footage, alerting us that we’re witnessing a crime. “Have fun tonight, boys,” the clerk says, as one of the kids freezes in the black-and-white frame, his eyes glowing menacingly red. A loud chord strikes, and then the narrator spells it out: “Alcohol in convenience stores? It’s just not right for our kids.”
It’s a nakedly stupid piece of fear-mongering propaganda from the Beer Store’s owners (three multinational brewing corporations). After all, their products are already sold by private operators in bars across Ontario, as well as in convenience and grocery stores in other provinces and countries. Not to mention the fact that we already buy other dangerous, addictive vices—tobacco and lottery tickets—at convenience stores. Really, there’s no good reason the brewers should continue to reap the profits of a government-enforced monopoly on retail sales. So instead of trying to make their case, they’ve just screamed, like Helen Lovejoy on The Simpsons, “Won’t somebody please think of the children!”
That’s the first argumentative refuge of scoundrels, cheats, and liars, and despite being satirized fairly comprehensively by Lovejoy’s character for well over a decade, it’s still a surprisingly common—and depressingly effective—tactic.
We’ve seen it during the federal government’s current term, when public safety minister Vic Toews introduced a broad internet-espionage bill that would give the police powers to invade the privacy of Canadians. Cynically, he titled it the “Protecting Children From Internet Predators Act,” and suggested critics of the bill were siding with child pornographers.
More recently, and closer to home, we’ve seen both Councillor Doug Ford and school-board trustee Sam Sotiropoulos try to dodge accusations of homophobia by raising the spectre of nude men at Pride parades exposing themselves to children.
Just this month, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti successfully invoked the need to protect children from drugs and pedophiles by banning electronic music dance (EDM) parties on city land at Exhibition Place. “My concern has always been about the children,” he said, though his—and the city’s—worry was prompted by complaints from the owner of Muzik nightclub (a friend and donor of the mayor’s), who said the events on city land were offering unfair competition to his own EDM parties.
And, of course, Olivia Chow has made “putting children and families at the heart of our city” one of the planks of her mayoral campaign. In practice, that policy (so far) consists only of a proposal to expand after-school programs, but she’s mentioned her emphasis on the good of the children as one of her core attributes in virtually every speech, pointing the finger at crack mayor Rob Ford as setting a bad example for her grandkids.
I’m a father of three who is almost always thinking of my own children’s interests. But reminding me to be scared or indignant on their behalf in the middle of a debate is empty and manipulative. In all of the above cases, with the possible exception of Chow, the good of the kids is raised as a desperate attempt to distract from a more pressing concern: the interests of consumers, the perception of intolerance, an attempt to weaken civil liberties, or the simple act of scratching an influential businessman’s back. Sadly, the ploy often manages to at least derail the conversation—so we wind up debating who is or is not sufficiently concerned about the welfare of the young.
You could call it Lovejoy’s Law: If, during an argument, someone begs you to “please think of the children,” they’re probably either lying, trying to screw you over, or hoping to distract you from the worthlessness of their position. Because when we really care about the children, we don’t let people use them to manipulate us into accepting their politics. Instead, we engage in real debate.