Babies in Boats, Babies in Cages

Babies in Boats, Babies in Cages

Susan Honeyman 

Through analysis of twentieth-century comic strips, adventure stories, youth- authored memoir, and children’s fiction, Susan Honeyman’s forthcoming Perils of Protection: Shipwreck, Orphans, and Children’s Rights highlights protectionist rhetoric, the islanding and “containerizing” of children, and the demand for participatory rights to balance imposed protections. You can pre-order her book on Amazon. It will be available to purchase in January from Barnes & and, independent booksellers, or directly from the University Press of Mississippi.


If the past few years have taught those of us in the profession of language and literary study anything, it is that rhetoric can be wielded just as powerfully, if not more so, than evidence. Memes with the viral photo of dead refugee toddler Alan Kurdi and, more recently, the phrase "babies in cages," reduce complicated issues down to simple but affective responses that entirely circumvent reason. A positive is how they communicate across differences. But by drawing from the common pool of strong emotions, they also inadvertently reinforce unfair assumptions. Like “alternative facts,” sentimemes get their power through words and image, not meaning; affect, not logic; sentimentality, not caring.

Children have long served in such reductions as rhetorical trump cards, lobbing over levelheaded argument to get right to our deepest fears, by-passing democratic disagreement straight to unquestioning acceptance. Some credit the Alan Kurdi meme with changing the tide of international sympathy towards migrants as asylum-seeking refugees. By casting humanitarian issues through images of child innocence and/or victimization, political actors not only avoid the apathy that can come from ethical abstraction—they can also personalize such issues, appealing to individualistic views of political agency, not in terms of what is best for the whole, but according to how voters think politics will affect themselves (taxes, jobs, etc.).

Often the skillful use of child images results in genuine political mobilization. Photographs of Emmett Till’s brutalized corpse once helped to increase membership and action in the civil rights movement. However, communicating through sentimemes can have negative consequences, not just for notions of accuracy and fairness, but also for real persons legally defined as minors. Just as Alan Kurdi became the urchild, an everychild representing all refugees fleeing political violence in Syria, "babies in cages" came to represent immigrant children (mostly older) separated from parents in U.S. detention. Endless variations on the phrase operate as ideological shortkeys to establish a liberal’s identity or a right-winger’s insistence that "I don’t hate brown people (I just don’t want them in my country)." But more consequentially, sentimemes can lock political discussion into a specific emotive groove—in this case provoking familial protectiveness. Many journalists have reported thinking of their own children, when this mass child incarceration should have them thinking about other children as a protected class of people with their own inalienable rights. Instead, everyone simply pats themselves on the back for at least wanting innocent children out of cages.

Some critics point directly to the incarceration of the youngest detainees, but usually the logic embedded emphasizes similar elements of the story as most shocking: "children ripped from their mothers," who remained unaware of their “little one’s” whereabouts, as if the worst of the violations are those threatening parental authority. These are, necessarily, appeals to adult emotion and action, not a child’s. Such moments are likely to be met with universal empathy, but the invisible cost of this rhetoric is focusing too narrowly on parental rights, not children’s. When a child’s rights depend upon the autonomy of the family and solely upon the authority of parents, they are not protective rights at all but simply good intentions. And like truth, in our current political habitus, good intentions are dissolvable as the words we use to express them.