In addition to being evil, bigotry also tends to be repetitive. For example, racists and xenophobes have relentlessly claimed that migrants are diseased job stealing criminals. This has gone on so long in the United States that descendants of migrants who were subject to these bigoted attacks are now using them against the latest wave of migrants. Another classic is the “what about the children!” tactic.
The gist of the “what about the children” tactic is to claim, that allowing something will harm children in some manner. Therefore, this should not be allowed. Since people tend to care about children, this tactic has considerable emotional power. After all, only a terrible person would favor allowing something that would harm children. While the emotional power of this tactic comes from the very human concern for children, it also draws from good moral reasoning. After all, if allowing something would harm the children, then this would generally be morally wrong on a broad range of moral theories. While using this tactic in good faith is reasonable, it has been weaponized for bad faith use by bigots over the years.
The bad faith use involves asserting, without evidence, that allowing something would harm the children. In many cases, there is more than just a lack of evidence for the alleged potential harm—the claims about the harms are false. Naturally, people can make good faith arguments out of concern for children and be in error; but that is another matter entirely. The bad faith “what about the children!” arguments are commonly used to “argue” against expanding civil and political rights.
In the United States, some arguments advanced against women’s suffrage focused on how voting would harm reproduction and harm the children. One rather odd claim seems to be that women would ignore their children to vote, thus doing terrible harm. What helps make this an absurd claim is that elections do not happen very often, and voting does not take very long. Obviously enough, women being able to vote did not have a harmful effect on children.
During desegregation, school segregationists advanced arguments that allowing black girls into the same bathrooms as white girls would expose the white girls to venereal diseases. This was seen as of special concern because venereal diseases were said to be especially harmful to children. This was an absurd argument for many reasons that were known at the time. One rather important fact is that venereal diseases are not transmitted through restrooms; so such fears were and are unfounded. Bathrooms have been desegregated for quite some time now and thus the claims about the dangers posed by desegregation have been thoroughly disproven. Although, once again, people knew that these claims were untrue when they were made.
Not surprising, the “what about the children!” was also aimed at gay men. My adopted state of Florida was a “leader” in this, and the impacts are still felt today in the state. While gay men were presented as a general threat to children, the narrative was that they prowled bathrooms looking for their victims. I remember adults warning me about this when I was a kid and when I moved to Florida as an adult, people still warned me about the bathrooms and told me to be careful if I used a park bathroom on a run. But, of course, this was fear mongering. Eventually the idea of the gay male bathroom predator faded a bit, and the new focus was on how same-sex marriage would harm the children. These claims were unfounded and there is some evidence that children raised by same-sex couples do better in school.
A more recent version of “what about the children!” is aimed at trans people. Not surprisingly, the focus was initially on bathrooms: the new imaginary predator of the restroom was the trans person. This was used to “argue” for a slew of bathroom bills. Somewhat ironically, the focus on the alleged dangers of the bathroom seems to have reduced the effectiveness of this fear mongering: the prophecies of danger did not come to pass. So, the bigots have started to move on: the new focus is on trans people who are athletes. Those pushing the new anti-trans bills profess they just care about fairness and are worried about the children. But, as I have argued elsewhere, they are not concerned about fairness—otherwise they would also be passing bills addressing actual unfairness, such as in wages. They are also not very concerned about the children. If they were, they would be passing bills addressing such matters as child poverty, inequality in public education, and children’s health. They would also be addressing the leading preventable causes of death among children. Not surprisingly, the states that are most anti-abortion and anti-trans also have higher infant mortality rates; yet they do not seem to think about this.
The bad faith “what about the children!” argument of the bigots keeps getting reused, often with a special focus on bathrooms. Even worse, while they push bad faith arguments and bills, they do little or nothing to address the very real dangers and problems children face. In some cases, they pass laws and implement policies that are actively harmful to children, as exemplified by Flint, Michigan. I am certainly not claiming that the bigots do not care about their children; but they do not seem to care about the children.