Learning Bans Don’t Work
Terry H. Schwadron
March 27, 2023
Apparently, we’re hoping that hiding all the spinning wheels in the kingdom will keep our youth from pricking themselves.
Of course, that’s not how Sleeping Beauty turned out, as my partner reminds me, and neither is it likely that trying to put everything shiny about gender and identity questions, art, music and cultural experimentation or the lure of social media will prove more effective.
Yet, that is exactly what is at the core of our deepening politics led by right-leaning powers over bans and limits of books, apps, and even classical art seemingly to keep young hearts from doing what young hearts do.
Without dismissing all parental concern and societal concern about a range of issues ranging from mental health to predatory worries, we’re watching our leaders turning law, nature, curiosity, self-exploration, and history itself on its head in pursuit of some dreamed protective purity.
If we don’t see it, they believe, we won’t try it. Strangely or not, the youthful concern is about sex, race, and identity and not about, say, guns, drinking and driving, or rising teenage pregnancies and poverty.
Who’s kidding whom here?
Have parental controls and state laws fixed drug abuse, opioid addiction, mass shootings or sneaked late-night teenage romances since Romeo and Juliet? Has Prohibition as a tactic ever proved effective in a democracy? Isn’t the “rebellion” part of teenage coming of age always been a way to work around the rules towards exploration?
Why, in short, is it so much easier to blame China for producing fentanyl and Mexican cartels for distributing it than Americans for continuing to seek out drugs?
Hide the Apps
On Friday, the House voted along party lines for a resolution ostensibly backing parental rights to govern activities in schools, but the debate was about approving banning of books that conservatives find objectionable. The number of list of banned books in American libraries now has set a new record.
In the same week, Utah passed a sweeping law requiring social media companies to get parental consent for minors using their services, Florida moved to extend provisions of parental rights “Don’t Say Gay” laws to all students through high school, Congress was considering a national ban on TikTok to keep our youth free of any cultural clutches of the Chinese state we assume is tracking phones, and in one Florida school, a principal was fired after sixth graders were shown a picture of Michelangelo’s “David” sculpture without first gathering parental consent forms.
Setting aside constitutionality issues about freedom of speech or questions of enforceability of any of these efforts, what ties them together is the unstated goal here of putting the taboo beyond the reach of young people — as if that will somehow protect them fig-leaf-like from any forbidden knowledge.
It was just a week ago that the ever-vocal Rep. Lauren Boebert, (R-Colo), an outspoken right-winger who bemoans critical thinking in all matters, was bragging about how her 16-year-old son is making her a grandmother at age 36. Without judging the specific individuals, so much for hiding cultural temptation.
Just as in Sleeping Beauty, the young take about 10 minutes to get beyond how to come up with parental forms or elude detection when they want. That single spinning wheel in the tower will lure the curious no matter what the rules are.
The idea that barring young people from their phone apps or from teacher mentions about race and sex will effectively limit their knowledge about such matters is ludicrous.
By contrast, guiding the young to explore difference, opening the discussion about questions about history, race, and identity, can cultivate exactly the kind of critical thinking that might help develop individual decision-making about life questions and just might allow for better understanding of someone coming to a different decision.
We say we are taking actions for the protection of the young, but the closer truth is that we are busy trying to ensure that we indoctrinate the next generation with an imprint of our own adult values, the same values that don’t allow for considering news unless it is presented by a network that admits in court it regularly shades truth for politics.
What About Judgment?
What gives rise to the questions about social media are voluminous reports of increasing mental health issues arising from poor behavior on the apps. So, our inclination is to tell the social media companies to do a better job of removing the addicting software.
The new rules in Utah require that social media companies verify the age of any resident who makes a social media profile and get parental consent for any minor who wishes to make a profile. They also force social media companies to allow parents to access posts and messages from their child’s account, forbid ads to minors, show minor accounts in search results, and set nighttime curfew hours for use of social media.
Exactly how that is supposed to happen or how to enforce rules for multi-national companies in a single state is not examined. Essentially, Utah wants to close much of the internet — unless it is used for daytime business purposes, I suppose.
The possibility of a TikTok ban arises for a good reason as well — fear that the Chinese owners will mine personal phone information for Chinese spy efforts. But the same congress members proposing to hide the app don’t do so about U.S. owners, whose apps also reflect misinformation and enable suicide advice to flourish.
The idea that 12-year-old who view a photo of a Renaissance-era marble statue need formal protection from “pornography” belies the idea that young people don’t think about their body parts unless they are in art class. Firing a principal for failing to send home a consent form seems disproportionately cruel and misplaced.
It feels as if fear of learning goes back to Adam and Eve. How about we try something else?