One clever little specialty of adult humans works like this: You very carefully (and, if you’re smart, very subtly) instruct children in the moral stances you’d like them to hold. Then, when they start to repeat what you’ve taught them, you cry “Out of the mouths of babes! And a little child shall lead them!” And you very delicately maneuver the children to the front of your procession, so that they appear to be leading it — but of course you make sure all along that you’re steering them in the way that they should go. It’s a social strategy with a very long history.
So, for instance, when you hear this:
“It’s the children who are now leading us,” said Diane Ehrensaft, the director of mental health for the clinic. “They’re coming in and telling us, ‘I’m no gender.’ Or they’re saying, ‘I identify as gender nonbinary.’ Or ‘I’m a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I’m a unique gender, I’m transgender. I’m a rainbow kid, I’m boy-girl, I’m everything.'”
— certain alarms should ring. No child came up with the phrase “I identify as gender nonbinary.” It is a faithful echo of an adult’s words.
Now, maybe you think it’s great that these children can begin to transition from one sex to another at an early age. I don’t, but I’m not going to argue that point now. My point is simply that if you say “It’s the children who are now leading us,” you’re lying — perhaps not consciously or intentionally, but it’s lying all the same because the truth is so easy to discern if you wish to do so. (As Yeats wrote, “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbors, / The sentimentalist himself.”)
This is why I think one of the most important books you could possibly read right now, if you care about these matters, is Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. Beck is anything but a conservative — he’s an editor for n+1 — and his book is highly critical of traditionalist beliefs about families. And a “moral panic” might seem to be the opposite of the celebration of new openness to gender expressions and sexualities. But if you read Beck’s book you will see precisely the same cultural logic at work as we see in today’s children’s crusades.
In this “moral panic” of thirty years ago, social workers and, later, prosecutors elicited from children horrific tales of Satan-worship, sexual abuse, and murder — and then, when anyone expressed skepticism, cried “We believe the children!” But every single one of the stories was false. The lives of many innocent people, people who cared for children rather than exploiting or abusing them, were destroyed. And — this may be the worst of all the many terrifying elements of Beck’s story — those who, through subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, extracted false testimonies from children have suffered virtually no repercussions for what they did.
Moreover — and this is the point that I can’t stop thinking about — the entire episode has been erased from our cultural memory. Though it was headline news every day for years, virtually no one talks about it, virtually no one remembers it. Beck might as well be writing about something that happened five hundred years ago. And I think it has been suppressed so completely because no one wants to think that our good intentions can go so far astray. And if forced to comment, what would the guilty parties say? “We only did what we thought was best. We only believed the children.”
So if you want to celebrate the courage of trans tweens, or for that matter high-schoolers speaking out for gun control, please do. But can you please stop the pretense that “the children are leading us”? What you are praising them for is not courage but rather docility, for learning their lessons well. And perhaps you might also hope that, if things go badly for the kids whose gender transitions you are cheering for, your role will be as completely forgotten as those who, thirty years ago, sent innocent people to prison by doing only what they thought was best.