Thursday, January 6, 2011

On the Regulation of Young People

Recent news (or wait, maybe it was charming and numbingly intriguing landscape of my cube...) has me curious about the framework and discourse associated with what's necessary for the "greater good."  Whether it's local politicians, literary critics, or Christine O'Donnell, every one seems have an enforceable (via witchcraft, or not) idea of what betters society at its moral core. Moral regulation at the lowest, most intimate levels of education and development, however, are troublesome (of course, I embrace the irony of this statement given my political views) at best.

Huckleberry Finn comes to mind. A Twain academic is working on a new edition, one that removes the 219 uses of the n-word and replaces it with "slave". Indeed, the historical associations of the word are reminiscent of an untenable and morally distorted period of our history which inevitably force us to writhe in the miscalculations of the Americans before us. 

The intent is understandable - protecting the future from the bleakness of the past is human nature. But Twain's narrative was not an accident, nor was it reflective of his personal views. The word is supposed to be graphic; the reader is supposed to feel the acidity, the dry and cruel pungency of the sound resonating in their mind and brave up to the historical malfeasances that inevitably contributed to their society. By censoring the words out of the book, the publisher threatens to create a generation of cultural cowards, young people who are taught to be afraid of their mistakes and who choose not to err for fear of failure. In reality, mistakes, miscalculations, even failure; these factors are a necessary part of the analysis and differentiation of what is good and what is not. 

More importantly, it takes a patronizing approach to young people; dismissing their ability to discern and assigning moral ambiguity to developing minds denies them not only equal access to their history, but also solidifies an unwavering power structure which defines in absolutes and silences the questioning. It is imperative for young people to know the facts, be curious, and to develop their own values. 

Similarly, although with a slightly different justification, lies San Francisco Supervisor Mar's ordinance that functionally bans McDonald's Happy Meals by disallowing toys to be given with the meals unless they meet nutritional guidelines determined as appropriate for children (as Jon Stewart puts it, he creates the "Crappy Meal"). 

Again, Mar's intent is genuine, even admirable. The Board of Supervisors seemed to agree; in a 8-3, veto-proof vote, they supported him and endorsed the proposal. The ramifications are extensive, but unlike the Twain scenario, in an socio-economic sense. Mar makes way for a slippery slope that gives increasing legislative authority over matters that are more likely than not, out of their area of expertise. Of course, all corporations are subject to rules and limitations - but this ordinance is unique in the moral stance it takes, and the extension of that singular belief into binding legislation. How much of this is patriarchal, and how much of this is tactical? How will this hurt McDonald's business and will it really change the lifestyle or consciousness of the consumer? Is it unfairly targeting the Happy Meal when competitor chains have similar toy options? And most importantly, is it Mar's job to peg obesity as a necessary evil that must be battled at the corporate level? 

In my personal opinion, Mar's ordinance has potential to benefit San Francisco, despite the not-so-happy meals (and kids). Maybe even make an ounce of difference in America's obesity stats. But is it fair for Mar to invade the most intimate and physical part of my being, to tell me or San Franciscan children that the shape of my body is his legislative prerogative? 

I'm not sure what the answers to those questions are...nor do I know what the implications of their existence is. 

I'm just bored, sitting in a corner coffee shop on Polk Street, and avoiding the inevitable powerpoint deck that promises to keep me awake tonight. 

ps: An article about the Mar legislation; be sure to watch the Daily Show video in the left corner; it's hilarious :