Laissez-faire morality

Just returning briefly to the topic of the Playboy products for kids – there have been some interesting responses which I want to make a couple of points about.

I deliberately didn’t frame the debate in terms of a ban on such products because (from experience) I knew that would bring out the libertarians and we would end up with the same old debate about the issue of the state intervening, the effectiveness of prohibition etc. There are of course other ways to stop things we, as a community or society, don’t like other than getting the state to legislate or act. But that wasn’t the debate I was really interested in having.

The response from one or two libertarians in the comments does however raise a broader issue. “It’s up to parents” it was suggested, implying that good parents will either ensure that Playboy Pencil Cases do not have any negative impact on the development of their kids or (I imagine) that a good parent would be capable of stopping their kids from buying the product in the first place.

We had a similiar discussion some time ago about the issue of banning the advertising of unhealthy products, such as fast food, to kids. Without trawling through the archives I remember the point being made (by Jackie D if I am not mistaken) that a good parent would be able to counter the impact of the advertising, neutralise the desire to follow the marketing message and in the end just tell their kid, if they wished “Nope, no Big Mac for you young man.”

My response then was ‘Well, yes, but why should I have to do that?’. As a father I often tell my kid that she isn’t going to get what the television or the magazine just told her she ‘needs’ or should desire. I can do that with Big Macs and I could do that with Playboy Pencil cases or Hustler satchels or whatever else is going to be pushed at our kids next. But I could also, as a citizen, argue that neither I nor my daughter need to be put in that position.

Advertising and marketing create an environment within which kids and parents interact and I think it is perfectly legitimate (and democratic) for parents to decide that if we don’t like that environment that has been created we are going to do something about it.

If I’m driving down the motorway I know that at some stage I’m going to have the McDonalds or Burger King request and have to deal with it. Fine – we can’t really ban these places from existing and its hardly a tricky area of discussion to have with a kid. But when I walk into WH Smith’s I don’t want to have to face a discussion about soft porn with my seven-year-old.

I don’t want to have discussions about Islamist terrorism with my daughter either which is why for the past three years I’ve ensured that newspapers aren’t lying around the house and that Sky News isn’t left running in the front room. Someone might suggest that I have therefore denied a child access to vital information about the modern world. Well yes, I have – for now. I didn’t want my kid to know about the Beslan school massacres or the Lonbon bombs and so I created an environment where those atrocities weren’t reported or discussed in earshot of the kid.

Of course there is a limit to what you can do. I wouldn’t suggest, for example, that newspapers should not have had pictures of Beslan on the front page because a child might have been disturbed by it. I would expect the newspaper to be sensitive in its choice of images but there is always the risk on entering WH Smith that a child might be exposed to such a horrific scene.

It comes down to an issue of evaluating the public worth. It is obviously necessary in a democracy that we are given full information about terrorism, war and other horrors and that package of information includes images. Therefore I would say that it is in the public interest that we create that sort of environment and leave it to parents to make the decision about how to handle the question of exposure. To do otherwise would involve an unacceptable level of censorship and harm to the public good.

But returning to the issue at hand – how can anyone seriously argue that the Playboy product range for kids provides anything of public import? Nothing of any value would be lost if those products vanished from the shelves of WH Smith. The only thing that would be harmed would be the profit margins of those trading in these highly dubious products and I’m not going to lose any sleep over that.

In practice though, there isn’t likely to be a ban on these products. Britain is too lost to the laissez-faire attitude of not being ‘judgemental’ to actually take any steps to deal with the sexualisation of children’s products or the broader issue of the marketing industry’s explotation of the ‘spending money market’.

Personally I would ban all advertising aimed at children but I know that is a lost cause- for all the posing of the left in relation to ‘neo-liberalism’ and global capitalism there is no mood to actually do anything about the blatant explotation through advertising that happens in front of our eyes every day. And for all the right preaches about morality it is infamously unwilling to intervene to challenge those who profit from morally dubious activities.