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The adult’s burden

July 2, 2013

Take up the White Man’s burden—
 Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
 To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
 On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
 Half-devil and half-child.

There is not a single line in Kipling’s poem about how the inferior races of the world should be treated that is not equally applicable to the condition of children in present-day civilizations.  There is not one excuse that he makes for the dominance of the white man over all other men which adults cannot and do not use to justify their treatment of children in their societies.  There is not one implied criticism of the lesser races of the world that adults neglect to use to describe children.  Ungrateful.  Lazy.  Wasteful.  Prideful.  Foolish.  Unintelligent.  Resentful.  The comparison did not escape Kipling himself; in a poem of seven stanzas, he manages to equate childhood with racial inferiority in two of those.  The picture he paints is one of a long process of education, obligatory upon the educators no matter how tired they may be of it, and received only reluctantly by the educated, who would rather ignore it.  It is striking that he should so automatically, unquestioningly see children as the necessary subjects of this education in the same sense as the “savages” of the world, without abilities and apparently without rights.

But of course, children’s rights and human rights are two entirely different things.  Children need to be educated, socialized, protected.  They are incapable of making wise decisions.  They are weak and vulnerable.  They are ignorant, and so must be treated with both gentleness and firmness.  They are not equal to normal people in intelligence or ability.  They must be controlled, reminded of their subordinate place in the world.  The fact that they are human beings, the same as any other human beings, is irrelevant.  They are not entitled to the same human rights as adults because they are superficially different from adults.  The age of majority may be anywhere from thirteen to twenty-one years of age, or it may not be firmly fixed at all, depending on what part of the world one resides in, but it is nevertheless conceptually absolute.  If a person is on the wrong side of that line, he is automatically denied rights – just as he may be denied rights by his fellow men if his skin is the wrong color or his religion the wrong one.

Which brings us to the hypocrisy of modern civil rights campaigners.  In public, they call for freedom and equality.  Then they go home and punish their children for failure to conform to the artificial standards they have set.  They cannot legitimately advocate for the rights of any minority group unless they also demand that children be recognized as having those same rights – those same equal rights.  The arguments against children’s rights are identical to the arguments against recognizing the rights of any other oppressed group: paternalism, condescension, a conviction of superiority, and the need to create an other, an inferior.

But then, children are everywhere.  They make a very convenient other for every society and culture, and given their usefulness as such, no one is likely to call for giving them treatment equal to that of the adult members of the human race anytime soon.  After all, they are not really human beings to begin with, since they are “different.”


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