“Think of the children!” – A dangerous rhetorical strategy

By Jay Daniel Thompson
safe schools political rhetoric
Image: Mal Fairclough/AAP

In August 2017, mining magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest was riled by the Australian Greens’ opposition to the cashless debit card system that’s been proposed for remote Indigenous communities. Forrest was quoted as saying that the party’s stance on this issue made them the “party for paedophiles”.

Rewind twelve months. Throughout 2016, the Safe Schools Coalition Australia was subject to relentless and highly-publicised attacks from right-leaning politicians and News Corp columnists. This program has aimed to educate members of school communities about sexuality and gender-related issues; however, opponents to Safe Schools believe that it has been “sexualising” children and “grooming” them for sexual abuse.

The accusations of child sexual abuse (CSA) that we’re talking about, in both Forrest’s case and in relation to the Safe Schools program, have not been made on the basis of any real or rumoured instances of abuse. We’re not talking about the many accusations of CSA that have been levelled against Catholic priests. We’re not talking about public figures such as Robert Hughes, star of the 1980s sitcom Hey Dad!, who was actually convicted of child sexual offences (albeit many years after these offences were alleged to have taken place).

The accusations of CSA that we’re talking about here are those that are made with the apparent intention of persuading readers and listeners that one’s political opponents are unlikeable, unsavoury, and unworthy of engaging in debate with.

We’re talking about the use of CSA as a rhetorical strategy.

Is this rhetorical strategy helpful? Can it benefit our understanding of, and commitment to ending “actual” CSA?

The answer to those questions is “no”.

First, though, some facts. The sexual abuse of children is always an abuse of children’s human rights. Sexual abuse can lead to long-term physical and psychological problems, regardless of whether the victim is a child.

My concern is firstly that using CSA as a rhetorical strategy actually trivialises CSA. Traumatic acts of violence get transformed into devices that are used to win arguments.

Secondly, some commentators who have used CSA as a rhetorical strategy seem to suggest that any reference to sex, sexuality or gender is inherently abusive to children. This is because such references could tarnish a child’s supposed innocence. For example, on his Facebook page, the parliamentary secretary described Safe Schools as “a full-frontal assault on the innocence of children”.

Thirdly, while critics of Safe Schools might assume (or hope) that all children are asexual and cisgender, evidence suggests otherwise. An increasing number of children are identifying as gender and sexually diverse. Research has shown that for such children, school has historically been a site of bullying and exclusion. Safe Schools has at least aimed to help make schools safer for such students.

Or, worded another way, Safe Schools takes the human rights of gender and sexually diverse children seriously because the program recognises that these children are, you know, human.

On this topic: anecdotal evidence has suggested that Safe Schools has been beneficial to some students and educators. For example, Jo Hirst (author of The Gender Fairy) has credited this program with helping to provide a ‘safe and supportive [school] environment’ for her transgender son.

Finally, it seems that levelling accusations of CSA against their political opponents can enable commentators to avoid engaging on a meaningful level with their opponents’ arguments. For example, by accusing the Greens of supporting (or at least abetting) paedophilia, Tucker can avoid engaging with their critique of the cashless welfare card system. This critique is suggested in the following passage, which appears on the Greens’ website:

The evidence from the NT Intervention shows that paternalistic income management does not reduce disadvantage. This is another patronising, paternalistic and ideologically driven attempt to manage the lives – and money – of people living under the poverty line.
What it will do is take choice, control and dignity away from people trying to live off very little.

Instead we should be properly funding wrap around services and turning our attention to the underlying causes of alcohol and drug abuse which the Government claims these trials are about. Restricting someone’s cash is not an effective way to stop addiction to alcohol, drugs or gambling. We must have the courage to do better.

This statement echoes those community organisations (including Indigenous organisations) that have opposed the cashless welfare card system on the grounds that it is demeaning and invasive.

Also, Tucker’s advocation of the cashless debit card system seems to be premised on two deeply problematic assumptions about remote Indigenous communities. These are that (i) these communities are unable to manage their own affairs; and (ii) that the white man knows what’s best for remote Indigenous communities.

Disagreement is inevitable in social life. Nonetheless, disagreement shouldn’t entail using CSA as rhetorical strategy. At best, this comes across as a desperate attempt to besmirch those with whom one doesn’t see eye-to-eye. At worst, the use of CSA as a rhetorical strategy hampers our understanding of what this abuse involves, as well as how to end it.