Emotional politics: suffer the little children?

Outrage over child abuse is no substitute for effective social policy.

Jo Warner
17 May 2017


Credit: Flickr/Need NOT Greed. Some rights reserved.

The contest for the leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party in July 2016 highlighted the enormous symbolic power of children in politics. When Andrea Leadsom attempted to define her opponent Theresa May as lacking something vital for leadership by virtue of her childlessness, she was attempting to tap into the deep emotions attached to children and parenting.

Politicians and the media frequently seek to exploit these emotions because, in political terms, children embody hope for an imagined future, and they symbolise social and cultural well-being. While Leadsom’s crude assertion that, “being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake” backfired badly, this is not usually the case when children are invoked.

Stories about children can serve particularly important functions, especially in terms of a politician’s need to be, or at least to appear to be, compassionate and empathic. Such stories attract wide attention in the media, especially when they concern children’s suffering.

In the competition for attention among news agencies, as media expert Susan Moeller puts it, “children are perceived to be one of the few sure-fire ways to attract eyeballs.” In the hierarchy of innocence, the face of a child has the capacity to transcend boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

Stories about children’s suffering can produce very strong and apparently shared emotional responses, reflecting people’s identification as parents in a universal sense, even if they don’t have children themselves. As academic Sara Ahmed observes in her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, “That child could be mine”.

When the body of three-year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi was washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, his death came to symbolise not only the desperate plight of refugees but also how ‘we’ might be defined in relation to his suffering. The expression of a shared emotional response to such a terrible event defines us as compassionate, providing us with a more positive image of ourselves.

Given the potential for stories about children to evoke such powerful emotions, it’s not surprising that politicians seek to mobilise them in support of their own agendas. The pressure on politicians to identify with the electorate in empathic terms as being 'just like us' means that a collective emotional response to children's suffering can become an important mechanism to garner more popular support. Nowhere is this seen more powerfully than in political and media reactions to the deaths of children from severe abuse or neglect.

The death of a child at the hands of their own parents or carers arouses deep cultural anxieties and moral disturbance. This is all the more so when childhood is idealised and children are the focus of adult anxieties in an increasingly precarious world, in need of protection from risks ranging from climate change to cyberbullying. The inability of a state or community to secure the welfare of its children renders our collective identity as a ‘good society’ fragile and questionable.

This imagined sense of who we are as a nation is of central importance in the political vocabulary of leaders. Social workers, as professionals to whom the state delegates responsibility for protecting children, become the target of particularly intense levels of anger and hostility when they are perceived to have failed in their duties.

In the UK, this hostility reached its zenith in late 2008 around the death of Peter Connelly (or ‘Baby P’), who died from extensive injuries aged 17 months in August 2007 in the London Borough of Haringey whilst the subject of a child protection plan. Connelly’s case continues to shape the British child protection system, not least through the so-called ‘Baby P effect:’ a dramatic and continuing rise in the numbers of children in care.

Yet it’s important to understand that the starting point for the Baby P story was not just the horrific nature of his death. The names of most children who die from similar forms of extreme abuse and neglect never make the national headlines. What characterised this case was the nature of the political, media and public response.

David Cameron’s reaction—at that time the leader of the Conservative Party in opposition—was immediate and visceral. In the London Evening Standard he wrote this: “Watching the news last night took my breath away. My wife Sam couldn’t watch and left the room...As a father of three small children who I would do anything to protect, I am sickened to the core by these crimes.”

This intensely personal account of his feelings as a parent quickly became a wider appeal to a distinctive national identity. In an article in The Sun newspaper published the next day (and no longer available online), Cameron asserted that “Britain’s sickened and we’re angry too—outraged at the failures that left a child to die.” His article formed part of the newspaper’s launch of a media campaign to punish the professionals involved in Connelly’s care.

The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, stood accused of failing to respond as a father: “He is a loving father himself, yet he seemed to be the only parent in Britain whose blood was not boiling at those who should have saved Baby P from the merciless savages who killed him…Heads must roll” said The Sun in a leader published on November 13 (also no longer available).

Next day, Ed Balls, then the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, mirrored this emotional language in a blogpost and a column for the Wakefield Express which ran as follows: “The details of how that little boy had been treated by his mum and step-father made my blood boil and my heart bleed.”

Balls eventually penned his own piece for The Sun on November 27 under the headline, “The power of your feeling is clear,” before sacking the Head of Children’s Services involved in the case on national television on December 1.

There can be little doubt that politicians have a moral mandate to respond to news stories about children’s suffering, especially when a child dies under conditions of extreme neglect or abuse. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild argues that political leaders have a key role to play as ‘feeling legislators’, particularly at times of national turmoil or crisis. They reflect collective emotions, but also and crucially, they have the capacity to mobilise and shape emotional responses to news events by creating rules about how we imagine we should feel.

How and why they do this are key questions that we have to explore and understand, because the consequences of the emotional politics involved in child protection are wide-ranging, long-lasting and profound. The culture of blame that continues to dominate children’s services is wholly counterproductive to the goal of protecting children and supporting their families. Just as crucially, these forms of politics are characterised by their selective inattention to other forms of children’s suffering.

In the account of Peter Connelly’s death, discourses on welfare were combined with a story of so-called ‘underclass’ parenting as evil. A story of evil acts became virtually synonymous with welfare dependency. In its editorial about the case on November 13 2008, for example, The Times asserted that “The welfare state has created some communities with no morality.”

In these ‘welfare ghettos’ of political and media discourse, living children are caught up along with their parents in an emotional politics that’s characterised by a fear of the supposedly expanding threat posed by a culture of dependency and moral degeneration. Far from being viewed as ‘innocents’ in a world of poverty and disadvantage, these children are often implicated as the future ‘dangerous other.’

The dead child is rescued in metaphorical terms from this discourse as a universal child that could be yours or mine. The attention of policy-makers is fixed on a perpetual cycle of inquiry into such deaths, followed by further reforms. By contrast, living children who might be the subject of compassion and political action remain ‘hidden in plain sight’ because the real world they occupy is marginalised, and largely viewed with contempt.

However, it is these children—and their families—whose suffering poses the most urgent and serious moral questions for political leaders. The growing numbers of families with children living in extreme poverty has produced a ‘life chances postcode lottery.’ High levels of deprivation are directly linked to an increase in rates of social work intervention. Social workers are overwhelmed by the levels of needs they see in families. Each step increase in deprivation is accompanied by an increase in the chances that children will end up in care or be subject to a child protection plan.

If political leaders want to exercise their moral mandate to act with compassion in response to children’s suffering, they must turn their attention to the structural problems that produce poverty and inequality and deliver the resources that local authorities need to enable social workers to support families who are coping with intolerable pressures.

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