The Present Is Another Country

To-day in the bistro, an unfamiliar girl perhaps six years old sat near me on the same bench. She was joined after a few minutes by a woman, probably her mother, who sat on the other side of their table. The little girl was interested in me and in my attention. Years ago, the drill for me would have been to engage her in brief conversation, asking her name and so forth, and probably answering questions about what I were doing. To-day, it was to turn briefly to give a friendly smile to her, and then turn quickly back to my business, all without pause.

Our notions of proper behavior have changed because Americans are generally far more concerned and otherwise anxious about threats to children, especially sexual threats from adult men. I share that concern and anxiety. I don't know whether things have become more or less dangerous than once they were, but honestly I think that question is secondary. Even if our world is less dangerous for children than in the past, I want us to be concerned; if it was once less perilous, none-the-less I wish that we'd even then been more vigilant.

(The Economist used to make a practice of mocking Americans for our fear for children. Perhaps they still do. I don't expect that it has occurred to them, in the wake of the various scandals concerning the sexual exploitation of children in the UK, that perhaps they have once again been mistaken in their presumptions of superiority.)

Yes, I'm saddened that I couldn't have had that short conversation. But I don't live in the world that ought to be, and in this case I cannot make ours a better world by acting as I would if it were. Had I interacted with the child in a more inviting way, I would have helped to foster norms and expectations that are exploited by predators. She didn't much need to talk to me. She does need to be spared some of the awful possible outcomes of the world in which we live.

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