Well Intentioned Hysteria
If I told you that hundreds of abducted, runaway or thrown-away children in the United States fall into prostitution annually, you’d probably respond with empathy for that issue. How awful that kids — just-pubescent or near-pubescent children — should be reduced to turning tricks on the street. What kind of monsters would pimp out children?
My strong suspicion is that, if you possess the emotional empathy and sense of justice that evolution has bestowed upon an armadillo, upon even a few moments’ consideration of what that situation must be like your emotional response will be a blend of sympathy and despair for the child victims, and anger and outrage at the pimps who exploit them.
But what if I told you that up to 300,000 children a year suffer this fate? That looks a little bit different than several hundred, doesn’t it? That’s what a series of poorly-concieved PSAs would have you believe. You would think that a problem like that, so big and so awful, would have attracted somewhat more coherent and compelling attention.
When the numbers change from several hundred children a year to hundreds of thousands of them, the emotional reaction becomes a very different cocktail of emotions. On the one hand, the realization that we’re talking about a massive epidemic of crime induces a sense of panic, particularly in parents, and on the other hand, it’s difficult not to fall victim to the Stalin Syndrome: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”* When confronted with a massive dose of awfulness, a part of you goes numb, maybe because we’re desensitized to hearing about these fantastic numbers of fantastically awful things, and in part becasue if it’s true, the scale and magnitude of the atrocity becomes too much to bear; one must distance oneself from so staggering a reality.
Well, the good news is, it’s almost certainly not a reality. The real number is likely to be much closer to the first one I mentioned, less than but approaching 1,000 a year rather than 300,000. Presumably, if the streets are filled with hundreds of thousands of child prostitutes, the cops would know about it and do something. There are maybe a thousand arrests of child prostitutes made nationwide every year.
Which is “maybe a thousand” too many, let’s be clear. Someone who abducts a child is scum. Someone who pimps out a child is even worse scum than that, which is an ambitious statement on my part. Nothing I say in this post is intended to minimize the awfulness of these kinds of crimes, the need to get help and support to the kids who fall into this situation, and my emphatic wish that the semi-human scum who exploit these children feel the full force of the criminal justice system when they are caught. But the awfulness of these crimes, and our social and legal responses to these crimes, isn’t what I’m writing about today. I’m writing about how we think about crimes, about how cultural elites try to mold our way of thinking about these crimes, and to point out that not looking at the world with an appropriate dose of skepticism can induce policy choices that are, to put it kindly, sub-optimal, if not actively harmful.
The 100,000 to 300,000 per-year number is based on some highly questionable research, some shamefully credulous and/or lazy journalists, earnest but uninquisitive celebrities, and highly-paid “charity consultants” whose commitment to truth takes a distant back seat to handsome commisions paid by those earnest but uninquisitive celebrities who believe what those shamefully credulous and/or lazy journalists have said bout the highly questionable research. Here’s the money quote from a consultant who regularly earns six-figure fees in exchange for advising celebrities on how to use their fame and wealth to guide philanthropy:
Versus most social issues I’ve worked on, there is actually a dearth of data—so it was absolutely cobbled together. … All of the core data we use gets attacked all the time … The challenge is, it’s that or nothing, right? And I don’t frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000—it needs to be addressed. While I absolutely agree there’s a need for better data, the people who want to spend all day bitching about the methodologies used I’m not very interested in.
But the truth of the matter is, only a small handful of children are abducted by strangers, and as the Village Voice points out, only a handful of children a year are picked up for prostitution (whereafter they receive special handling by the justice system, some of which is beneficent and some of which I fear is not). But our fear of having bad things happen to our children is very high. If it does happen to you, it would be awful. I can only imagine that a parent would prefer to personally suffer physical torture than to have her child abducted.
So we have these actors. I’m not saying they’re dim even if they don’t have a lot of education under their belts. Not by any means: many actors are quite smart, and many of them go out of their way to become educated (both formally and informally) on a variety of things both for pursuit of their own interests and to advance professionally. Others, well, they do not do those things. But consider this: in terms of what happens inside an actor’s mind, the capacity for critical thought is not nearly as important as the ability to engage emotions. But they’re basically good people and since the thing that makes an actor good is the ability to engage emotions, these tend to be people who emote strongly. From time to time, we all respond emotionally rather than critically to a given piece of information, and allow me to suggest that successful actors, who routinely engage emotions to work their craft, may be a degree more susceptible to that sort of thing than other sorts of folk.
Where was I? Actors, predisposed to respond emotionally to things. They know they have some degree of fame, and they know they have some disposable income. And they’re basically good people, who recognize that they have been given much and they want to give back and do good things. Commendable, sincerely commendable. They see ill-constructed numbers arising from poorly-reviewed social science research repeated as though they were gospel by lazy, sensationalistic reporters, and they suffer the emotional response I described above — they go into a simultaneous panic and numbness. Being the good people they are, they undertake an effort to shake off the numbness, to say “Look, we’re going to do something about this, we can’t just treat this like a statistic in a newspaper. Let’s do something about it!”
And they go and make PSA’s, using their capital of charisma, and they donate some of their excess money, and they urge people to give money to charities aimed at helping this problem. Which, when compared to other sorts of problems we face, is not that much of a problem at all.
Ashton and Demi taking on the relatively minor problem of child prostitution is not the only example of misguided celebrity philanthropy. Jenny McCarthy was heartbroken to have an autistic child and, acting no doubt out of love and sincere compassion for others, launched a personal crusade against what she quite mistakenly came to believe was the cause of autism — the MMR vaccine. There are other examples out there, and the fact of the matter is that it’s easy for celebrity charity to go wrong.
The harm is twofold. First, misguided celebrity philanthropy diverts resources that otherwise would go to more effective solutions to more pressing problems. Again, I’m trying to domesticate child prostitution. But children are at much greater danger of abuse, whether sexual or physical, originating from within their own families and other trusted adults than they are at the hands of strangers. Money and publicity directed at that problem will help more kids than money and publicity directed at a relatively rarer problem.
But the more subtle danger is the one arising out of the way that publicity affects everyone else. Celebrities are our heroes, they give us models of behavior to follow. How many kids did not get vaccinated for measles, mumps, and rubella because the lovely and famous Jenny McCarthy (perhaps inadvertently, more likely negligently) spread false information about highly questionable and now-disproven research linking MMR vaccine to autism? How much legislative and law enforcement effort goes in to things like Amber Alerts and Megan’s Law — well-intentioned laws of questionable efficacy and bizarre, harmful unintended consequences?
Celebrities have more than the usual amount of power to shift the culture. When they give in to the hysteria and panic induced by false information, they guide the culture towards making decisions based on incorrect information. Had Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher activated the skeptical part of their minds rather than the emotional part, they might have realized that something was not right with a claim that there are a hundred thousand or more children abducted into prostitution every year.
They could have diverted their charitable and financial energies elsewhere as well as those of their fans, they could have avoided making themselves and their fellow Hollywood types look a little bit foolish doing some ill-concieved PSA’s, and they could have not added to a culture that will follow any suggestion offered with a confident tone of voice and the assurance that “it’s for the children.” Down the road of credulously submitting to ideas purportedly motivated by a desire to protect children, without at least pausing for critical thought, lies great danger indeed, as the Supreme Court reminded us earlier this week. It’s hard for me to wag a finger and say “Shame on you for falling for it” since I recongize that the emotional and moral impulses underlying that cultural nudge are good and noble. But nevertheless, I can urge that people pause for breath when confronted with new information, and make decisions with their minds and not just their hearts.
* The quote probably was not Stalin’s, at least not orginally. Wikiquote attributes it to a line from a novel by Kurt Tuchlosky, a Weimar-era German novelist. In Tuchlosky’s novel, the line is uttered by a French diplomat.