Every time there is a social problem, it is blamed on children playing Dungeons and Dragons
Philosopher Joanne Faulkner discusses how she got into studying childhood innocence and whether parents really can "manage" their children. Faulkner began researching the idea of innocence after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City in 2001.
At that point, I was interested in the idea of what calling a group of people 'innocent' does for our understanding of them and their right to be protected. Why were some victims of political violence seen to be innocent while others are no?. What does that mean for the way we understand those people's rights and security?
Innocent is a really loaded term. If you look at the etymology of it, it means a lack of knowledge, a kind of ignorance – colloquially you think of innocence in terms of blamelessness, in terms of not having sinned.
Is there also a charm to the word innocence?
Especially when it attaches to children. I was inevitably lead to children and innocence and how they really embody innocence for us. When you think of innocence, the innocent child isn't far away in your imagination. Then I got interested in what sort of social and cultural function does the understanding of children as innocent perform? Why do we need that understanding of childhood? And what lends to children being thought of as innocent, as blameless, to have a privileged moral position?
I went through that interest in political rhetoric especially around the victims of terror and the way in which citizens of the West, who live relatively free of care and conflict, and are situated more easily as innocent than citizens of a war-torn country where they actually experience violence and fear more in their daily lives. What makes them less innocent than people who don't have that experience?
The notion of childhood is in itself relatively new.
There's a whole field on the history of childhood which puts childhood as a discrete stage of life as opposed to adulthood. It emerged around the 17th century. It's only then that they are seen as having a different character and a different quality as opposed to adults. They also became a special locus of concern and care and study and scholarship and intervention.
From this period, childhood is starting to be seen as a stage of life you can control and manage in order to produce better adults and a better society, and because of this understanding of children, they are associated as being innocent, free of responsibility and free of a kind of a character that is stamped on them. They are seen as 'in potential' still – they do not yet have a character of their own, you can make them into an experimental field.
Do you have philosophical parenting tips?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a book called Emile, which is about how to create the perfect citizen. Basically you have to go back to infancy. You don't swaddle them, they have to be free. It's a very tightly controlled and regulated childhood that introduces the child to certain experiences and materials at a particular stage. Otherwise, they might get damaged by too early exposure. This is an idea that persists today in relation to adult content. When Rousseau was writing this book, it was a very new understanding of childhood — especially vulnerable and impressionable — that has been extremely influential.
Every parenting book takes Rousseau as a model in a way — the idea that a childhood can be shaped and managed. In particular, there seems to be an anxiety around children's exposure to ideas, films and games. Every time there is a social problem, it is blamed on children playing Dungeons and Dragons, watching too much junk food or watching things that aren't appropriately categorised for their consumption. It's a powerful idea. I'm agnostic about how much they can be controlled.
I'm kind of interested more in what it means about our own identity to think about this notional child that has to be protected and that we can manage, and what degree of projection is going on there. There is an element of ourselves that we're trying to manage at a distance through this idea of the child that can be controlled and managed and perhaps hope to be better than ourselves.
What has been the process for you coming up with these ideas?
I do have a dynamic. It is between the thunderbolt moments that happen but usually on the back of reading and pondering and kind of mulling over other people's ideas, things that I'm thinking about, thinking about questions I want to address. There might be kind of a moment like a thunderbolt moment, like a lightning moment where my mind puts everything together.
It's funny you don't know really know how it happens. Part of it is, your unconscious is working on things and then it just emerges at a moment that seems fortuitous, like it's coming from another world. That's why it's called a lightning-bolt moment because you feel like it's coming from the heavens. I remember years ago realising how I was going to structure my thesis as a graduate student. That came to me in one moment. It all got put together. I remember watching a particular light-ray come through the window and I was focusing on that, and the dancing of the dust particles in the light and it crystallised for me how I needed to structure that.
I think lighting-bolt moments come from within and not without, even though it feels like they come from without because there is all this thinking going on beneath the surface that you are not aware of. It somehow gets channeled together and it gives you a direction to put your thoughts in.