A Cartoonish Way to Prevent Cruelty

Philip Berne - Dec 6, 2010
A Cartoonish Way to Prevent Cruelty

In graduate school, I mostly studied –isms. Feminism. Marxism. Racism. I got a Master’s degree in Cultural Theory, which is sort of an intersection between philosophy and deep analysis of English literature. Mostly, I read philosophers who talked about literature and wanted to change the world. When I started my course of study, I thought I would get a PhD. I thought I would become a professor. But over the course of two years of graduate study, I realized that all we were doing was reading and talking. The authors we read were writing mostly in terms so abstract that you could hardly divine what they were talking about, let alone what they wanted to accomplish. It seemed a terrible way to change the world, talking but not doing anything. So, I left.

[Image via Cinematical]

There’s a fad going around Facebook this week that is bothering me. Lots of people I know are changing their avatars to cartoon characters. Apparently, a children’s rights organization called NSPCC, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, has inspired the campaign, which seeks to replace all of the faces on Facebook with childhood memories. Thus, people are changing their profile pictures to their favorite cartoon characters.

At first, I was ready to jump on board. I started looking for pictures of my favorite characters. I wanted to find a good picture of Sky Warp from the Transformers. He was a cool black and purple jet that transformed into an evil robot. I couldn’t find anything good, so I started browsing G.I. Joe cartoon images.

The irony didn’t escape me. As part of a campaign to promote awareness of cruelty, I was looking for pictures of villains and soldiers of war. Sure, nobody ever died in cartoons, but it still felt odd. But then something else occurred to me.

I do not support cruelty to children. I am a loving parent. I’ve been a caring high school teacher. I was a supportive camp counselor to kids ages 10 – 14. I still keep in touch with former students, former campers. I was a swimming instructor for kids, specializing in hydrophobes and other difficult cases. I taught infant swim classes, teaching parents how to teach their children to swim. I worked with special needs children at camp and in my schools.

Why do I need to do anything more to prove that I’m not in favor of cruelty to children? I like my Facebook avatar. It’s a cool, somewhat abstract self-portrait of my eye on a cracked phone screen. I put some thought into it, and I think it says something interesting about me. Know what doesn’t say anything interesting about me? Snake Eyes. Megatron.

The only people who see my Facebook avatar will be my friends and people who search Facebook for me. If any one of those people needs me to prove that I don’t support cruelty towards children, they shouldn’t be my friend, and I don’t care if they can find me in a search.

It seems like just a lot of talk with no action behind it. I don’t think that my Facebook friends are cruel towards children. I’m not friends with anyone who ever gave me the impression they were cruel, and I hope I’m right. But changing my Facebook profile picture seems like just about the weakest thing I could do to prevent cruelty to children. It seems like an easy, self-aggrandizing step, with no real muscle behind it.

When I was a teacher, I served on the school’s disciplinary committee. I gave the Principal advice on whether a student should be expelled, after a disciplinary hearing. Nine out of ten times, the Principal and I agreed, or I swayed her to my way of thinking. I helped kick out numerous bullies in my school. I helped set a tone for a school free from violence and cruelty.

Once, I encountered a case of a parent who was punishing a child in an especially cruel manner. I won’t go into details, except to say that I had to call child protective services and file a report. It was a difficult thing to do, because the end result might have been separating a child from her parent. But it was the right thing to do, because I have never believed in cruel punishment, and I will put my feelings and my reputation on the line to protect a child.

If you’re not on a front-line job with children, there are still many ways to prevent cruelty. You can offer your time to organizations that need help. If you don’t have free time, you can make a trade, instead. Give time to your job, which will in turn give you money, and then give some of that money to the NSPCC. That’s the way the world works, and I think we’re better off for it. There is nothing wrong with giving money instead of your free time or effort. Either way, you are giving support.

Enough with the empty gestures. If I change my Facebook avatar, I’m telling a bunch of people who already know me that I’m against cruelty towards children. Also, I like puppy dogs and enjoy chocolate, in case you didn’t know. If you want to raise awareness about cruelty towards children, do something real. Find a way to tell people who haven’t already gotten the message, or support groups that can get the message to the people who need to hear it.

Changing a profile picture, hitting the “Like” button on Facebook, slapping a bumper sticker on your car, these are the most insignificant and self-centered ways of making a statement. If you aren’t exposing yourself to people you don’t know, you aren’t spreading the message. If you think you can send a message by doing something effortlessly, you don’t know how real change is accomplished.

I know your heart is in the right place. I know you want to do something good, especially during this time of year. But helping to change the world takes more than abstract reading and talking. It takes real interaction with the world around you.

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