An incident on a chat show prompts us to ask a serious question.
I’d like to pose a question this week. Why do we applaud people just for having children?
On July 10, during the relentless publicity tour for his film about the lankiest building on Earth, The Rock parachuted into the Good Morning America studio to talk about childhood nicknames, wrestling, and his own children.
In the course of the conversation, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson said, “We have a 16-year-old daughter Simone; let’s see, a two-and-a-half-year-old Jazzy; and a four-month-old – almost four – baby Tia, yes.” And, as the audience applauded this statement of fact and the camera panned around the room, ensuring that the viewers saw how overjoyed people were at the reminder that The Rock’s sperm works, The Rock said, “Thank you” to them as though their clapping was the only sensible response.
This is an interesting phenomenon and one that has always made me uncomfortable. Like crowds cheering when someone says that they are a member of a specific religion, it seems self-evidently absurd. “I spent some time successfully having sex.” Applause. “I didn’t do any of the pushing, but I did produce the sperm without which the childbirth would have been impossible!” Whoops and cheering. “My penis works.” Rabid cheers of deafening intensity.
The comedian Paul Foot has a fantastic routine that addresses a similar topic – the gratuitous ‘Baby on Board’ signs that people affix to their cars, seemingly in the hope that people will prioritise their lives over the worthless lives of people in baby-less vehicles. To redress the balance, Foot says that he wishes to design his own sign bearing the words, “This car contains between one and five people, each of whom is aged somewhere between nought and 115. Some of the people in the car may be heterosexual; some of them may be homosexual; some may be fertile, others sterile; one or two of the people in the car, for all I know, may possibly be undergoing IVF fertility treatment. But they are all equally deserving of not having a car driven into the back of them.”
This is an arrow to the heart of the argument: when an audience applauds sentences like The Rock’s, the implication is that people able to have children – without any of the messy difficulties or decisions with which many people struggle – are in some way more deserving of praise than those who are unable to have children. This is a reactionary insinuation, especially in a world so overpopulated that it scarcely needs to contain any more human beings. Arguably, we should be applauding those who decide not to have children for the sake of the planet.
But this is a difficult, muddy area. Look at weddings. Even if you object to weddings for being anachronistic or superfluous relics of an era even more mired in misogyny than our own, it would be difficult to stand as a silent bystander, sullenly refusing to applaud the union of your close friends. A wedding day is one of celebration, and you would look like the strangest of ghouls if you openly shook your head and folded your arms as two people in love kissed each other. “Some people don’t believe in the institution of marriage,” you’d say, as you furiously chewed your tempura prawn.
But weddings, in contrast to simple announcements like “We have a 16-year-old daughter”, are occasions, of course. To the people at their epicentre, they are unusual if not unique. It seems rational to expect that the guests will get their clap on, especially if they are there in some number. But a wedding and a simple statement of fact aren’t the same thing. People applauding at a wedding is actually akin to them applauding at the live birth of a baby. People applauding at someone saying, “I have three children” is akin to them applauding whenever someone says, “Hello. I once got married.”
A relatively good rule when taking a moral stance on something is to check where the Catholic Church stands, and then assume the opposite position. Pope Francis feels, of course, that if you don’t have children you are selfish. I don’t think that many people truly feel as avidly as this about other people’s genitals (the Catholic Church worries about people’s genitals on behalf of the general population), but the problem is that as soon as you applaud someone for telling you that they have managed to produce offspring, you realise that you would not have reacted the same way if they had told you they never wanted to have children.
It’s a tricky subject, and it’s uncomfortable to confront habits as ingrained as this. But confronting this particular instinct is worthwhile, not least because it acknowledges those who are unable or unwilling to have children. Having children should be its own reward, not an easy excuse to elicit applause from roomfuls of people.
Stay hungry, stay humble.
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