Won’t somebody think of the children?
What do Avatar (2009) and Titanic (1997) have in common? Apart from being recognised as having superb cinematography (at the time) and having the same director, they seem to be mostly-forgotten movies that people rarely talk about these days, apart from a few meme references. Seemingly obscure to most, the two box office record breakers have another similarity – a line in each that subtly emphasises the weight of children’s lives.
In Avatar, when the relentless corporate figurehead, Parker Selfridge, pursues his assault on planet Pandora’s native inhabitants to mine their natural resources, scientist Dr Augustine urges him to think twice about the disastrous consequences that would ensue. Specifically, she brings up the point on how the destruction of the land could devastate the native’s livelihood: “There are children, babies. Are you gonna kill children?” Most notably, her emphasis on the killing of children was the precipitating moment that pressed Parker to think twice and ultimately cause him to make a compromise and grant a time-sensitive evacuation of the natives.
In parallel, during the mass evacuation scene in Titanic, officers on the sinking ship could be heard policing the lifeboats, asserting that only women and children get to evacuate first. In this example, adult men and women were differentiated, with women getting the priority of course, while children as an entire demographic were prioritised without any discrimination between their gender. It would have been bizarre to hear female children going first. So why are children generally seen as a special demographic, warranting special priorities and sometimes seemingly having somewhat of a “sacred” value?
As one may have realised, Titanic isn’t the only film to connote the idea of children (and women)’s lives taking precedence over men’s, but in fact this particular notion is actually a legitimate conduct coined the Birkenhead drill — where women and children are prioritised in an evacuation or rescue. **It is rife in pop culture survival scenes but rarely has any real-world basis (at least in the event of sinking ships). Of course, a fundamental principle behind this notion is that as members of a moral society, we ought to protect the weak and vulnerable – two characteristics that children happen to have. Additionally, children are also often coined as being the “purest” and “ most innocent” demographic so as a result they should be shielded from any form of atrocity, spared from injustice and have their sanctity protected at all costs. It even seems that children and innocence are two inextricably linked concepts. Children are generally more defenseless than most adults, so from a moralistic perspective they should be protected first. That makes sense, but what doesn’t is placing them on a pedestal above everyone else – as if somehow their lives have more intrinsic value than other groups of people. When people say, “spare a thought for the innocent children'' in a situation which equally affects the livelihood of other demographics like adults (such as in the aforementioned movies), the elevated importance of children’s well-being becomes even more prominent. Aren’t all lives supposed to be equally valuable?
If you were to ask me, I’d say the perception of a child’s innocence is a particularly curious phenomenon. Does this connote that because kids are younger and more ignorant of worldly matters, they are “less guilty” than adults? I believe there are several groups of adults that are more helpless, more vulnerable, and more virtuous than many children. Although not making up the majority of adults, quadriplegics, the mentally disabled, religious devotees (like nuns) or those who are immunocompromised, to some extent might be even more helpless or innocent than some children. You’ve never heard anyone exclaim, “would someone please think of the innocent monks!” Moreover, everyone knows that sometimes children can be brats, while some others can commit crimes far more heinous than any of us adults could ever imagine ourselves doing. But most of the time, adults just think, “they are just young so they don’t know what they’re doing” and so their actions are taken in stride. Undeniably, it just seems that most adults have a soft spot for kids – they just seem to be so natural at tugging at our heartstrings which few other demographics can achieve (except maybe pets).
There was once where I was waiting at my block’s lift lobby when I heard a cheerful sounding, “Hello!” from behind. As I turned, I was greeted by a boy, no older than four years of age with a wide toothless grin brighter than his yellow shirt. Initially, I just stared at him while trying to figure if that greeting was directed to me or not. Just as I ascertained that I was the only person waiting at the lift lobby, the boy exclaimed his greeting again, this time with even more zestfulness as he beamed with uncontained enthusiasm, fervently anticipating my response. Instinctively, I began to raise my hand as a first step in the multi-sequence process of a wave-and-greet-back. However, just at that point in time I caught myself and my mind reframed the situation in a more objective light: if it wasn’t a random kid, but instead some random old man, would I still wave back? My internal answer to that question was a no – because he was a stranger that I had no intention of getting acquainted with. By extension of that logic, I told myself this kid wasn't any different: a stranger is a stranger. And so, I didn't follow through with the greeting and I turned my back on him.
Needless to say, after telling various people about this tale, I was understandably called, “heartless”, “mean”, etc. Hypothetically, if it were a full-grown man (with intentions as pure as the boy’s) and I did the same thing, most people would probably say that’s fine, or even a wise thing to do. Factually speaking, as adults we get ignored all the time: an email to a prospective client or reaching out to a long-lost friend — both scenarios in which we end up getting ghosted on. And we learn to deal with it eventually, so at the very least, hopefully this boy had a head-start on learning to deal with rejection.
But ultimately, it’s probably a good thing that most people don’t think like I do in regards to children. Maybe the biased amount of love and care children get, be it deserved or undeserved, is what fuels children’s healthy development into adulthood. Perhaps putting their lives ahead of us adults in times of crisis was a naturally evolved tendency to ensure the survival of mankind, which resulted in the civilisation we live in today. It might not be completely objective in the spirit of “All lives matter”, but I guess sometimes we humans are willing to close an eye to fairness if an idea adequately appeals to us emotionally (i.e., soft spots). So with all things considered, I’d say those lines in Avatar and Titanic were perfectly reasonable after all.