This morning, as I rode the bus to school, a perfectly ordinary event occurred – an idiotic driver swerved rapidly back and forth between lanes, cutting off the bus I was on and causing it to have to stop short. This is the way Georgian people drive – it’s like an entire country of New York City taxi drivers – and I normally just tune it out. This time, however, I happened to notice that the driver in question – not a cab driver – had a woman and three children in the car with him. I made the snap assumption that this was his family, and I immediately thought to myself, “Wow, you drive like that with your kids in the car? You should have them taken away.”
I want to examine that. It’s a very Western response. First of all, in America we have this thing that some have called the cult of childhood – the idea that children are the most precious things in the world and need to be kept completely safe and insulated from all possible danger. We have a cottage industry of lawsuits and sanitary products and parenting magazines devoted to making sure the little ones make it to 30 without ever seeing the world. We have child protective services that can take children away from their parents if the parents are judged by the state to be unfit. But are these things actually characteristics of a healthy society? Is it actually a good idea to spread the cultural idea that some parents just aren’t qualified to raise children and that their children should be taken from them as a result?
Also, philosophically speaking, why should children’s lives be considered more valuable or precious than adults’ lives? We’re all people, right? What makes one person more worthy of life than another?
(As an aside, I was talking to a Georgian friend about the police officer who died during the Independence Day protest – he was run down by a reckless driver (enough said) – and she said to me that she thought his death should be viewed as a tragedy regardless of what you think about the role that the police played in the events of that night and whether and to what extent their actions were justified. In the end, she said, police officer or civilian, every person’s death is a tragedy because people all have families that will mourn them. My first thought was, “that’s an assumption that you can’t really justify” and my second was “well actually maybe in Georgia maybe it is jusfied.”
The point: Georgia has so much more emphasis on family than I’m used to, and I’m always needing to remind myself of this.)
So really, why should I view this driver as more morally culpable for driving badly with kids in the car than I would if he were driving with adult passengers? Why are his children’s lives more important to me than his adult passengers’ lives, or his own life, for that matter?
I mean, I guess the answer is that we irrationally and somewhat arbitrarily assign value to human life, and assign different values to different lives based on what class of people they belong to. We assign more value to children than to adults, more to women than to men, more to people in our own personal in-groups (country, religion, ethnicity, tribe, family) than to people in out-groups. I know that’s a normal human tendency (although I suspect there are cultures or societies that could provide counter-examples), but what I wonder is, does it make any sense to try to translate those values into real-world policies? In other words, for instance, does it make sense to, as we do in the US, create a special set of laws for child endangerment over and above normal laws against putting other people in danger? Should a reckless driver be fined more for driving recklessly with child passengers than with adult passengers, or no passengers?
So when I try to think about the issue from a culturally nuetral, objective viewpoint, I guess that protecting children is something that I value without having a rational reason to do so, and so when I try to be an objective observer of Georgian culture I have to try to suspend that value and the emotions attached to it in order to avoid a judgmental or culturally insensitive response.
It’s not just the driving, either. Georgian fathers do tons of things that potentially or actually shorten their children’s lives, and every time I witness one of these events there’s some part of me that recoils in horror even as my intellectual side tries to process it into a framework of cultural relativism. I’m still shocked whenever I see a father smoking a cigarette around his children – I think to myself, “doesn’t this person know that he’s literally shaving years off his kids’ lives by exposing them to second-hand smoke?” – even though there are obviously also some parents in America who smoke around their children. And then there’s the wider social millieu – the pressure for children themselves to take up smoking and the absence of non-smoking role models contributes to Georgia having one of the highest smoking rates in the world. (Edit: this should say “one of the highest male smoking rates in the world” – of course I should have pointed out that social pressure to smoke is gender-graded just like everything else here. Social pressure on women is not to smoke, at least not in public, and accordingly Georgian women have a very low reported smoking rate.) And then there’s the prostitution culture – and I know I keep beating this drum, but I think it needs to be said, loudly and often – which encourages young men to visit prostitutes but keeps sex ed out of schools (thanks to the Patriarch, which of course literally means “father-ruler”), contributing to a growing STD problem in which men are getting infected from prostitutes and then going on to infect their wives or girlfriends, and all the while social stigma contribute to a common misconception in Georgia that only gays and prostitutes are even capable of getting STDs.
I don’t mean to pick on Georgia. The world is not a healthy place to live – I know that – and I know that we have our share of problems in America. The obesity epidemic in America probably kills at a higher rate than all of Georgia’s lung disease, STD, and automobile accident rates put together, and yet American parents keep feeding their children Coca Cola and Big Macs. (Not to mention that US citizens have no problem supporting regimes that deliberately starve foreign children as a political tactic – it’s like I said, we value the lives of our own countrymen more than the lives of foreigners.) It’s just really shocking for me to witness a different paradigm on child protection than the one I’m used to.
When it comes to adults, I like the fact that some of the safeguards that I found irritating in America are absent in Georgia. In Georgia you can walk through an active construction site and if something falls on your head, it’s your own damn fault for assuming the risk. In America, sites have to be closed off and guarded and even if someone breaks in and gets hurt they can still bring a lawsuit and it still has a chance of winning. America has really done a good job of eroding people’s sense of personal responsibility and Americans tend to walk around in an oblivious cloud assuming that nothing can hurt them because everything in their environment has been nerfed by an unending process of litigation – and if you do happen to trip on a crack in the sidewalk and break something, there’s a big payoff waiting for you.
But the thing about children that distinguishes them from adults, in my opinion, is that children can’t really make the choice to assume risks like getting in the car with a drunk or incompetent driver – children basically have to get in whatever car they’re told to get into, regardless of circumstances – and they can’t choose not to be in a house with smokers when the smokers are their parents. When I was a kid, my father – who had limited resources – had to rely on his relatives to watch us while he was at work and we were out of school for the summer. One summer, this duty fell to my dad’s twin sister – a woman who smoked, and still smokes, incessantly. As an asthmatic kid, I found the time with my aunt to be a living nightmare (I also didn’t get along with her anyway due to certain personality conflicts) because she would always smoke around my sister and I regardless of our complaints, unlike most of my smoker relatives who tried their best to smoke somewhere away from the kids.
To this day, I have never really forgiven my aunt for smoking around me when I was too young to stick up for myself (and I probably never will), and I actually spent several months of my adult life angry with my father for failing to stick up for me when my health was at stake, although eventually we talked it out and I decided that what’s done is done and in this case holding a grudge wasn’t going to accomplish anything, especially since my father himself quit smoking when my mom got pregnant with me, something that I appreciate greatly and understand was probably quite difficult for him since cigarettes are full of addictive chemical additives.
So I don’t know. I have these visceral emotional reactions towards issues involving children – everything from children’s safety in cars to raising children with a sufficient education to survive in today’s world (especially regarding things like avoidance of contagious fatal diseases) – and I have a personal stake in issues like exposing kids to second-hand smoke and other airborne pollutants (burning plastic!) – and so I often snap to judgment about parental fitness especially when I see a particularly flagrant violation like I did this morning.
But in response to that, I have to tell myself – the Georgians are still around after all these years, so they must be doing something right. I mean, if you view it as social Darwinism, every culture that’s still here on the planet now can be considered to have won the fitness battle with the cultures that aren’t here anymore, and Georgians seem to be reproducing and living long enough to perpetuate their DNA with no help from me and my overprivileged American ideas about child-rearing (whereas reproductive rates in America seem to be falling, and evidence is mounting that keeping children too isolated may lead to a host of unexpected health and other problems later in life.)
Anthropological evidence shows that the way a culture treats its children can be affected by a sort of economic outlook or calculation – in other words, people tend to treat children like any other resource. Often things like the supply of children correlate roughly with things like how much care is taken of children. In places like the US, where there is little cultural pressure to have children and most people emphasize individual pursuits over group pursuits like family, birth rates are lower and, since children are thus relatively scarce, each child is protected more. In places with very high infant mortality, parents delay the formation of attachment and can be shockingly blase about the death of a child, but there are many more pregnancies per capita, on the theory that if you have enough children, at least one will survive to carry on your genes. Georgia is mostly like the US – health care is relatively good, infant mortality is relatively low, parents seem to form what we would consider normal attachments to their children – but there is still a greater social pressure to have children and (in my estimation – feel free to disagree if you have evidence and an argument based on reason) lower social pressure to protect children. This balance, ideally, helps to maintain a stable population.
In practice, though, it’s hard to maintain a fully intellectual and objective-observer attitude towards stuff like this. I’m still going to have that emotional, judgmental reaction when I see a guy with his kids in the car pull out in front of several tons of steel death barrelling towards him on Chavchavadze Avenue, or when a cloud of smoke wafts from a father’s cigarette into his child’s lungs. I’m only human – so call me a cultural imperialist or an Ugly American, if you must – but that’s just not a judgment that I can suspend.