It is constantly amazing to me that journalists so seldom identify obvious and critical ethics issues in the topics and events they cover. The rest is mixed emotions: this absence of ethics awareness is a serious culture-wide problem; then again, were this not so, I’d probably be in a different, and less stimulating profession.
Today I sat down to lunch as CNN engaged in a breathless discussion of whether using leashes on toddlers and even older children was a good idea, as it is either a growing trend among parents, or CNN was having a slow news day. The phone lines were open, and many viewers weighed in, with the primary camps expressing the following positions:
1. “If it makes children safer, then there is no reason not to do it. Safety is everything. Kids have been killed running into the street. A leash will prevent that.”
2. “This shows the decline of child-rearing skills in the United States. If you can’t control your kid better than this, you are the problem.”
If the question of whether it was fair, kind, respectful or right to treat your child like a cocker spaniel occurred to anybody in this discussion (I know the CNN staff never considered it), I saw and heard no evidence of this. Yet that is the central question, and it is an interesting one to consider. The fact that matters of human dignity, responsibility, respect, fairness, autonomy, kindness, proportion and prudence need to be balanced to answer the question at hand never came into the discussion, and those debating the issue demonstrated neither awareness of the competing ethical values, nor the ability to know how to employ them.
This also showed the disturbing cultural tendency to make avoidance of risk the primary consideration in all balancing exercises, particular those involving children. Is it any wonder that college students are now demanding “trigger warnings” in literature, lest their delicate sensibilities be damaged by a surprise plot turn?
My view is this: it’s unethical. I’ll accept arguments that the “Ick Factor” may be in play, but I believe that treating a child in exactly the same manner as a dog on a walk crosses a critical line that, once crossed, allows other an more sinister indignities to be visited upon powerless children in the name of “safety.” Why not have the kids in restraints at home, so they can’t hurt themselves? Roll them around in public in mobile cages? I’m sure iot might save some lives and prevent some injuries to do this. Surely all kids should wear helmets inside and out, at all times. And knee pads. And elbow pads. Plastic face masks would also be a good idea. Muzzles too–kids can bite.
I have no expertise on the topic, so I won’t speculate what it does to a child’s self-esteem and self-perception to be treated like this, but I know I would have deeply resented it, and if I saw photos that proved I had appeared in public on a leash, my respect for my own parents would have dropped several notches. (As it happened, their opinion on the subject was exactly the same as mine.)
The definitive verdict on this ethical controversy (even if CNN and its viewers couldn’t recognize it was such), was delivered over a decade ago, on the Simpsons. The episode involved Homer’s brilliant but unlucky brother, who invented a “baby translator,’ which allowed parents to understand baby talk. (All the translations are rendered in the voice of Homer’s bother, played by Danny DeVito) One of the children who tests the device is the child on the leash pictured above. The Baby Translator reveals his opinion of the practice, and it is an ethical bullseye. He says:
“This leash demeans us both.”
[Further commentary, in part based on comments here, can be found in the next post.]