When the Suffering of Children is “Cute”
July 22, 2013
Children, we would all agree, are cute. We may not be able to define what cute is, but, like pornography, we know it when we see it. This is why it’s particularly problematic when people, apparently normal people who aren’t at all deranged, have intuitions about what constitute cuteness that seem to contradict the most basic moral framework that they themselves claim to hold.
It’s a phenomena that I’ve noticed whenever I show Kramer vs. Kramer to students in video classes. Parts of the movie where the boy-child cries in agony are almost always met with chuckles– bizarre chuckles that really make no sense at all. It’s not a new phenomena by any means, this chuckling at the cute suffering of children. Once you notice it, you might see it everywhere in interactions with children. In the video you are about to see, Jimmy Kimmel’s “I Told My Kids I Ate All the Halloween Candy”, the cuteness of the suffering of children is portrayed in a characteristic comedic form:
Of course, parents, and those who possess what they consider vast experience with children, will probably consider me a judgmental nihilistic forgoer of joy for not understanding this ritual of torment, broadcast around the world. Naturally, I do want to enjoy all the suffering I can. That is, after all, what we have to work with. Peak-oil, stomach cancer, and present-day Liberia walked into a bar. Nor can I say for certain that I have never appreciated the purported cuteness of child suffering: the boy at 1:28 can be amusing. But before we indulge in all-out schadenfreude, shouldn’t we ask why this is amusing?
First, it seems that the actions portrayed here go against the prohibition our society has created against intentional infliction of emotional distress. Consider the elements of the tort:
- Defendant acted intentionally or recklessly; and
- Defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous; and
- Defendant’s act is the cause of the distress; and
- Plaintiff suffers severe emotional distress as a result of defendant’s conduct.
Ignoring the fact of parent-child immunity, which exists in some, but not all, jurisdictions, which element is missing here? What explains why this case is not considered wrong, or at least, why does it not feel like a tort, and instead feels like something “cute”?
Could it be that we just don’t care about “distress” in children, perhaps because they are different? In the West at least, the experiential component of suffering is a relatively recent moral consideration. Sin was long thought the relevant category. So this is one explanation– the concept of experiential suffering having weight has simply not permeated into considerations of childhood.
There are a number of things that could explain such insulation from moral concern. Perhaps one reason for this is the tendency to interpret suffering as serving a communicative function. In a power relationship as with parents and children, almost all expressions of suffering will be intended to get something from the more powerful party. This is why even though a child cries at the very moment of birth, its suffering seems of no moral relevance. To natalists, the call is to provide, not to avoid this suffering. But this communicative function may also be exploited. Cuteness is of course an exploit by small mammals against large ones– as my cat is aware. If it is intended to get something, suffering can’t be as authentic as it would be if someone were crying in their closet, or so the reasoning goes. True suffering must not be aimed at attaining anything from another person. All the suffering of children is therefore subject to being bounded and legitimized by the possibility that it as a hack of the adult brain, a manipulation.
This logic however does not quite hold up. How would we know when exploit suffering is being communicated, as opposed to real suffering? What is the evidence– a facial tic? Perhaps exploit suffering is more transient. But the mutability of childhood experience has been canonized in Alice in Wonderland, and all the children’s entertainment that has followed. And for it to be effective, exploit suffering must look exactly the same as authentic suffering. How different would it feel, then, if it must produce the same response? Is it not more likely that the infliction of cute suffering is a counter-communication, a performative command whereby adults disclaim the power of children and assert that they are in fact in control?
It also seems unlikely that childhood has remained completely insulated from considerations of authentic suffering. Consider the abolition of child labor. For all that we know, child labor, pursued without health risks, might make children better adjusted to our society. Nevertheless, responsible adults seem to have decided that there is some intrinsic in value to positive childhood experience, from which we might assume they care something about suffering as well, qua suffering. A Child Called It no doubt cried, and people tend to legitimize that suffering.
So it can’t be that children are simply disclaimed as being morally irrelevant. Perhaps then it is number (2) that is missing from the tort. Telling the children that they have eaten all their candy may not suffice as “extreme and outrageous”, either to these parents, or to the viewer, and thus no moral outrage follows. Instead, what we perceive is something ironic, the child’s overreaction to the absence of the candy.
I would suggest that the basis of cute suffering is neither irony nor suffering alone, but must also include this negative overreaction. The boy at 1:28 is indeed overreacting, and the basis of judging his overreaction is what we know of the adult world, where Halloween candy is not so important. But it seems incumbent upon adults to explain how negative overreaction comes to be, and what about it constitutes cute suffering.
The first question is basic. We’ve already established the suffering could be, and probably is, authentic, despite its function. What then outweighs its significance in this case? In judging a reaction as an overreaction, how can we be sure that the experiential element of the suffering is outweighed by the purported illusion contained in its assumptions of significance? Another question is psychological: if the Halloween candy is not so important, why bring it up at all? What purpose does cute suffering serve for parents, and society?
One criteria for the illusion of the assumptions causing the overreaction might be that they are apparent to the reasonable person, perhaps even trivially apparent. The reasonable person is clearly aware that the Halloween candy is not so important. But one might argue that the illusion is not trivially apparent to the reasonable child of the same age and intelligence. So this argument will fail, at least if we care at all to justify the appropriation of cute suffering on moral grounds.
But just being wrong about something obvious will not be sufficient either. Suppose I told a child his mother had been abducted by aliens and taken to another planet, where her face has been boiled in stew and served to the feasting members of the Cthulu race, who are all nebulous balls of pure black horrifying tentacles. It seems that the resulting suffering would clearly not be quite as cute as the Halloween candy. There would be in it more gravamen, although it is trivially obvious to any reasonable person that Cthulu would not literally boil anyone in stew, but would rather do the unspeakable. Actual gravamen, such as the death of a parent, detracts from cute suffering of mistaken belief.
It seems then that cute suffering has not just to do with false assumptions of facts per se, but also with the significance of the issue. It is a mistake about the significance of some negative event, which provokes a negative reaction. Of course, no parent would contend that all such negative overreaction is cute suffering. Again, it could be an exploit. Adbusters famously runs culture jamming ads concerning the manipulativeness children exert on their parents in getting them to buy things for them. One of the obvious ways of getting things they want is by whining. Parents don’t generally consider this to be cute suffering, although a reaction to it might constitute some of the psychological appeal of this particular case of schadenfreude.
Instead, cute suffering seems to require irony: we know something the child does not, that the candy has not actually been eaten. If we wished to devise an alternative legal system that would impose, not justice, but suffering, we might come up with the following requirements for cute suffering:
- We know a situation is not the case
- A reasonable person would not believe it is important
- A child believes unreasonably that it is important, and true
- and suffers
Here then we have the requirements for causing cute suffering in all its glory. All the elements are necessary, as none of them can stand alone. If we don’t know the situation is not the case, they could just be whining. If a reasonable person would believe it is important, we have torture. If the child does not believe it is important, it is not cute. And if the child does not suffer, we are incompetent.
Most importantly, if we replace child with adult in the requirements, we do not get cute suffering. We simply get stealing a latte from a depressed person and then giving it back to them. It’s not cute…we don’t know what to call it. Why would someone do that? Whatever reason they would do it for, it would not be comical. If we look at the overall comic effect of cute suffering, the underlying idea seems to be that everything will be okay in the end. This defines comedy, as opposed to tragedy.
Why should everything turn out alright in the end? Obstensibly the reason is that we know children will grow up not to care about Halloween candy, but we don’t know anything about the depressed person.
Effectively, then, cute suffering seems only justified by positing not one, but two moral patients. The child at t1 can suffer because the adult at t2 will be reasonable, and not suffer. The adult may even derive pleasure from the past suffering, if they laugh at their previous suffering. Consider these two alternate theories as 1) The suffering doesn’t matter at t2, or 2) the suffering becomes enjoyable at t2.
Neither of these justifications is actually compatible with commonly held moral judgements. If they will merely not care about the suffering in the future, there seems no reason to prohibit other suffering-causing actions against adults, so long as there is a loss of memory. Most people would surely find this outcome counter-intuitive. If on the other hand they will enjoy the suffering in the future as entertainment, the results are equally unacceptable: what would prevent someone from hypothetically breaking a person’s arm, if would increase their intelligence? These sorts of trade-offs seem to be unjustified, and yet exceptions are created when applied to children. And no defense is even offered, because no indictment is even presented.
Perhaps the reason for these exceptions to go unquestioned is that cute suffering is part of a larger belief system. That belief system, natalism, is tied to the delusional belief that procreation can confer a positive benefit on the non-existent.
Cute suffering serves as a microcosm, or parable for the life journey under natalism. As children grow up, they will learn that what they thought was significant was not significant, and that their suffering was one of those insignificant things. Under natalism, suffering is not an ethical concern, only this perspective change. Consequently, suffering pursued for the sake of later enjoyment serves a didactic purpose of becoming an “adult”– a person who can repeat the cycle.
Not that all natalists support causing suffering on behalf of their children. The majority of cases are not as egregious as this video. Rather, they involve simply finding the existing suffering to be cute, i.e. aesthetically pleasing, and not directly causing it. To find suffering aesthetically pleasing, allowance must be made for the child’s future self, which must be indifferent or positive toward the suffering. The unstated implication is that, when the child is able to look with indifference on the suffering, it will be an “adult”, prepared to tackle with equal indifference the job of having children of their own.
Under natalism, all suffering, from the first cries at birth to the final agony of death, is ultimately a mere bauble, an Alice in Wonderland delusion, which an adult would never be concerned with. But this view must be taught and performatively sacralized through ritual. In some cases, adults are concerned about suffering, and so they too require a cosmic parent, a cosmic order, to justify how they are being unreasonable and the situation is not as bad as it seems. All suffering under religion is therefore also cute suffering.
In actuality, nothing has justified the suffering created at t1. Or for that matter, the creation of suffering inherent in procreation.