May 18, 2022

During one of the morning assemblies at my convent school, our headmistress, a fearsome nun who beat me with a shoe for accidentally breaking a window, announced that there was to be an amnesty on “Garbage Pail Kids” trading stickers. She was convinced that these grotesque caricatures would have a corrupting influence on our impressionable minds. And so, one by one, we shuffled up to the stage, faces hot with humiliation, before ripping up our precious stickers and depositing the remains in a metallic bowl.

I was reminded of this curious ritual when I read recently of the “flame purification” ceremony conducted by the board in charge of elementary and secondary schools in southwestern Ontario. Almost 5,000 books judged to contain outdated racial stereotypes were removed from school libraries to be burnt or recycled. Some of the incinerated remains were used as a fertiliser to plant a tree — an uplifting, progressive and environmentally conscious gesture, if one ignores the overtones of Fahrenheit 451.

Yet perhaps it is unsurprising that activists who are convinced that language causes real-world “harm” should be troubled by the reading habits of children. After all, it’s hardly a fringe view: the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Cambridge this month suggested that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series ought to come with “content notes” (a substitute phrase for “trigger warnings” given that the word “trigger” connotes violence and might therefore induce trauma).

This fear that children might be morally corrupted by “problematic” literature might explain the sudden deluge of progressive children’s books on the market: just as children are deemed so malleable that they might transform into bigots if they read outdated work, it is assumed that they can be indoctrinated in the “correct” way if their reading materials are layered with messaging that reinforces the creed of social justice. As Schopenhauer put it, “there is no absurdity so palpable but that it may be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to inculcate it before the age of five”.

The rise of progressive children’s books arguably began in 2016, with Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. The idea was a charming one; it contained profiles of exceptional women throughout history offered up as role models for young readers. Examples included Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Yoko Ono, and even Coco Chanel, whose collaboration with the Nazis was tactfully omitted.

Thereafter, the tone of such books became more strident. There was Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz, Antiracist Baby by Ibram X Kendi, and The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks by Amy Kean. All of a sudden, highly dubious ideological positions were being represented as uncontested truth to very young children. Nor was this confined to America. Last summer, the National Education Union — the largest teaching union in the United Kingdom — claimed there was an “urgent” need to decolonise every subject and every stage of the school curricula and called for “activist training for teachers”.

But it’s not simply a matter of race; books aimed at toddlers which advance the idea that they each have a gendered soul are also being promoted by activist teachers and authors. For instance, Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide To Gender Identity by Brook Pessin-Whedbee is marketed for children as young as three, and introduces them to identity categories well beyond the comprehension of most adults, including “genderqueer, non-binary, bigender and two-spirit”.

Or consider the following claim from It Feels Good To Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn, next to an illustration of a newborn baby: “See, when you were born, you couldn’t tell people who you were or how you felt. They looked at you and made a guess. Maybe they got it right, maybe they got it wrong.” Thorn, it seems, wants children to believe that for years midwives and obstetricians have simply been flipping a coin and randomly assigning male or female on birth certificates.

That is, of course, palpably absurd. And yet it would be wrongheaded to call for such books to be censored or banned. The vast majority of educators understand how ridiculous it is to teach infants that they have a gendered soul, or that they are guilty of white privilege. Last year, the Arizona Department of Education released an “equity” toolkit which claimed that even babies as young as three-months old are capable of racial prejudice. I remain unconvinced that any of this has much of an effect. As one teacher recently said to me: “Teachers are more prone to fashionable nonsense than pupils. Trust the kids. They know bullshit when they see it.”

But what of the younger ones, those who tend to to accept and repeat the mantras of their elders? It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the emergence of such activism in the classroom has brought with it a sudden rise of young people identifying as non-binary or transgender. Some of these children will doubtless be suffering from a form of gender dysphoria, but most will find such confusions resolved through the natural process of puberty. When children as young as three and four are “coming out” as trans, are we not right to be suspicious that adult influence has played a role? As trans YouTuber Blaire White said: “A transgender three-year-old is like a vegan cat.  We all know who’s making the lifestyle choices.”

Few parents have grasped the significance of these developments, largely because these attempts at indoctrination have been couched in progressive terminology. One exception is in Wales, where the government is currently being sued by more than 5,000 parents and grandparents over their decision to make compulsory the teaching of gender identity and sexual attraction to children as young as three. The government has apparently adopted Stonewall’s misinterpretation of the Equality Act, and have accordingly substituted “gender identity” for “gender reassignment” in its Equality and Diversity Policy.

It may be that the Welsh government is breaking the law. Section 406 of the Education Act 1996 prohibits “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject”. This applies not only to political belief systems such as Marxism, but also ideological frameworks such as Critical Race Theory. In October 2020, the equalities minister Kemi Badenoch addressed Parliament to clarify the Government’s position. “We do not want to see teachers teaching their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt,” she said. “And let me be clear, any school which teaches these elements of Critical Race Theory as fact, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.” If she is right, it is difficult to see how the teaching of gender identity ideology as undisputed truth could be exempt from these legal requirements.

It remains to be seen whether current and future legal challenges make any difference. In the meantime, criticism and mockery are by far our best defence. Take the recent controversy surrounding the success of Matt Walsh’s new book Johnny the Walrus. It tells the story of Johnny, a boy who enjoys pretending to be a walrus by using spoons as tusks. The online community mobilises and tells him that he must either choose between being a walrus or being a human, and that he cannot be both. In response, hysterical staff at Amazon held a meeting to discuss the “trauma” the book had caused. Executives are even heard strategising about how to demote the title on their website to limit potential sales.

No books were burnt, but the underlying rationale was the same: namely, that indoctrination of the young is always a temptation for those whose ideas would not withstand adult scrutiny. But as Walsh’s book proves, the idea that small children are in any way interested in intersectional activism is inherently funny, and mockery is always the best way to expose the falsehoods of powerful elites. If there’s one thing that the high priests of this new religion cannot bear, it’s the sound of laughter.

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