The New Statesman Essay - What are we doing to our children?

Parents dress as teenagers while pushing their toddlers into trashy adulthood, argues Bryan Appleyar

In the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, there was a baby in a buggy. About nine months old, she had a rounded, contented appearance of the kind that makes people smile. I was sitting nearby and I smiled, but then suddenly stopped. I had noticed a heavy gold bracelet on her fat wrist. The next thing I noticed was an earring in her pierced ear. The baby's charm had gone, to be replaced by my revulsion. It was a sense of prematurely and unnecessarily defiled nature. The baby had been pushed, before her time, into trashy adulthood. She had had no choice in the matter.

And then, on television, I saw footage of the anti-paedophile demonstrations in Portsmouth. A woman was asked why they were hounding these people.

"They are not people, they are animals," she replied. "And we put down animals normally."

There was a picture in the papers the next day of a small boy holding a sign. It read: "Don't house them, HANG THEM." Most of the women on these demonstrations seemed to have brought their children along. Some of the news footage showed impromptu classes forming in which the children were taught to chant anti-paedophile slogans. One little girl was listening while her mother was being interviewed. She was around nine or ten. She wore large, gold earrings, and her face was heavily made up.

These days, people don't like to be told what to do; they hate the idea of any imposed morality or agreed standard of behaviour. Yet they wish to retain the capacity for moral outrage. So they teach their children the language of hate and vengeance, they dress them like tarts and they take them out to hound paedophiles - sometimes to death. They also hound innocents whom they mistakenly take to be paedophiles. It does not seem to bother them.

This recent hysteria, prompted by the News of the World's campaign to name and shame paedophiles, is indistinguishable from a medieval witch-hunt. It is no good saying that paedophiles exist, whereas witches do not, because, to the medieval mind, witches certainly existed. They also represented a uniquely threatening incarnation of evil. So, if someone were a witch, normal restraints could - should - be removed. She should be killed.

Paedophiles are the new witches. Confronted with a paedophile, outraged citizens can abandon normal restraints. Demonstrations are organised, houses are attacked, cars are burned. Who can doubt that, if the NoW campaign had continued, one or more paedophiles would have been lynched by the mob?

Paedophilia as an inclination is a grave misfortune. As an action - child pornography, assault, abuse, abduction, murder - it is wicked. But it is not uniquely wicked. From Rwanda and Cambodia to the streets of London, terrible things are done by terrible people that do not attract the attention of the mob. Where were the demonstrations in Eltham against those who were known locally to have murdered Stephen Lawrence? But murderers, rapists, muggers, the agents of genocide and tyranny, are not hounded by the angered masses. Only paedophiles are hunted down. They are also, it is said, isolated in prisons because other prisoners hold them in particular contempt. Paedophiles are the outcasts among the outcasts, the untouchables.

Why should this be? What is it about paedophilia that can unite the mob and provide a focus for the desire for vengeance? The answer lies in our peculiarly exalted idea of childhood. And this, in turn, is the product of a depraved and deracinated culture.

People know there is no moral consensus, and they resent any suggestion that there should be one. In the present political climate, they know also that their passing moods - sometimes glorified as "the will of the people" - are of lasting political significance. This is a recipe for mob rule, and it is a direct product of new Labour's supine populism; government by focus group and by tabloid headlines is a not entirely polite way of describing mob rule.

In such a climate, where people feel they have power but lack any strong feelings about how it should be deployed, they will seize on the easiest and most vulnerable target. And what, in a fragmented society, is the one good on which we can all agree? Childhood. Childhood becomes the one communal good, and its abuse, therefore, is the one agreed evil.

In this, the anti-paedophile mob is encouraged by the infantilising effects of moronic mass entertainment, from soap operas to Arnold Schwarzenegger films. These serve to identify the easy excitements and unthinking wonder of childhood as some kind of human ideal. Equally, the sentimentalism of the mass media in an inanely populist political climate finds its quickest, simplest expression in the glorification of the child. All these media say the same thing - the child is the icon of virtue for a society that does not wish to grow up.

What is deeply wrong about this is that childhood is meaningless if it is not a preparation for adulthood. Childhood is wonderful not because it is a thing in itself, but precisely because it is a state of innocent wonder at the complex human and natural world into which the child is to be inducted. But if we find our only conception of virtue in the child, then there will be no adult world into which it can be inducted. Human life becomes a falling-off, a decline into the empty misery of adulthood. The child is effectively told that it is only worthwhile to remain a child. Growing up is pure loss.

But what of this other, apparently contradictory, phenomenon? That baby had been pushed into premature adulthood, and that girl on the Portsmouth demonstration was pierced and primped like a tart. Routinely, people comment that children these days are allowed or obliged to grow up too soon. Little girls, in particular, are arrayed in the sexually provocative paraphernalia of big girls - boob tubes, short skirts, bikinis, make-up. It is commonplace to see sub-teen girls dressed in mimicry of page-three models. They have been turned into shocking parodies of standardised objects of desire. The American pop idol Britney Spears dances in school uniform. With our sexualisation of children, we are creating a paedophile fantasy-land .

Meanwhile, from the other direction, adults are dressing younger. The basic style of the Hollywood hunk is that of the toddler - baggy pants, silly T-shirts. Ageing rock stars parade in the fashions of their Sixties and Seventies youth. And this, inevitably, spreads to the masses. Middle-aged men strut the streets in tight jeans and baseball jackets covered in logos. Old women grotesquely ape the sports styles of the young. There is now no way of dressing in a distinctively old manner, because it is unacceptable to be old. Oldness is not a condition that can be openly embraced, and dignity is a forgotten virtue.

Both impulses - sexualised children and the rejuvenated old - seem to be converging on some mid-point where childish sensation-seeking and adult sexuality can be merged. We want sex and we want childhood, and so we create the perpetually randy toddler. What we do not want are clear distinctions, rites of passage, a hierarchy of human development. We want everything to be the same. And yet, driven by some essential need for evil, we also want the paedophile as villain, so that we can pretend we really do think that childhood is different.

This is an aspect of a more general desire to eradicate boundaries. What follows, I warn you, may seem like a digression, but I don't think it is. The summer sales were still on when I was in the Bluewater shopping centre. In the House of Fraser men's department, all the sale goods had been hung on a long line of racks. This is the centre's upmarket store, so the usual suspects were listed on the labels - Versace, Armani, DKNY, Paul Smith, Nicole Farhi. It looked inviting, to a mild shopaholic like myself, and I began to struggle with the massed hangers. After a few moments, however, I gave up. All the clothes, whatever their label, were the same - the same baggy, long-sleeved T-shirts; the same tight, short-sleeved shirts; the same semi-transparent sweaters; the same khakis and jeans; the same short, zipper jackets.

Frances Cairncross wrote in these pages a few weeks ago of "the curse of the Chinese menu". Her point was that the contemporary proliferation of consumer choice is leading to a profoundly intensified form of the anxiety that we all feel when confronted with the vast menu in a Chinese restaurant. What should I have? Why should I have it? What possible criteria can apply? Personally, I always try to get somebody else to order, or I choose a set meal - A, B or C. Cairncross concluded that, enervating as this excess of choice may be, it is better than the alternative: "However intolerable a responsibility choice may be, the lack of choice is nearly always more intolerable still."

True, but on that clothes rail, there really was no choice. Fashion houses, in spite of the oddities we may see on the catwalks, cannot actually afford the risk of offering us genuine choices. They all sniff the same perfumed wind, and then they all produce the same kinds of things because that is what they think the market wants. Meanwhile, at the other end of the process, the consumer looks at the magazines and decides to buy those things. Any company that tried to do something radically different would be cutting itself off from the mass market. That is, after all, what fashion is - a kind of uniform. To be fashionable means to conform. That is why external labelling is so important. Identical T-shirts can only be distinguished by literal indicators of their provenance.

The power of this conformity is unmissable. Cargo pants swept the world a couple of years ago. Boat shoes are still going strong, although they are now worn largely by older men. Jeans go through successive reincarnations, each of which becomes globally pervasive. Richard Dawkins and his followers might describe these phenomena as "memes" - cultural atoms that follow evolutionary processes. But I simply cannot see how that gets us anywhere. What does get us somewhere is the way these things seem to be embraced as an escape from the tyranny of choice. What kind of shoes should I buy? Why, boat shoes of course.

A statistician could probably produce a complex algorithm to explain this process. Expansion of apparent choice leads directly to diminution of real choice. The internet would be the best exemplar. In theory, it represents an infinity of choice.

"Where do you want to go today?" asks the Microsoft advertisement, flagrantly concealing from you the reality that you will not, in reality, "go" anywhere. But the truth is that such an excess of possibility neutralises itself. Like me choosing meal A from the Chinese menu, you fall back on what you are given, or what is most familiar. AOL is the dominant online and internet service provider precisely because it offers the possibility of not choosing - 85 per cent of the online time of AOL customers is spent within the "walled garden" of its cosy services, not on the internet at all.

But the psychological dimension is more interesting than the arithmetical or the corporate. There are two questions. First, why do people choose from such a narrow range of clothes? Second, why do they attempt to erase the passages of their lives by making the young old and the old young?

Well, in both cases, they are eliminating distinctions. And, in both cases, they are afraid. Fashion, obviously, is a crude kind of language. One's clothes send messages. Usually, they say: "I am your kind of person." To be completely outside fashion is to send the message: "I am nothing like any of you." To send that message is dangerous: it courts loneliness, an especially frightening prospect. If your clothes don't make sense to people, then they proclaim that you are beyond sense: you are illegible. And that means no sex, no friendship, nothing. Fear, therefore, drives us to various types of group conformity.

The elision of the ages, meanwhile, is also a response to the fear of difference. For the old, appearing young is a way of saying: "I am not a person who is nearer death." The young, who are still under parental influence, are prematurely aged to reinforce this tranquillising thought. The old make their children more like themselves - or their fantasy selves - to assert the illusion of a common condition, an equidistance from death. The older young, who aspire to make their own decisions, find that there are no decisions to be made. As soon as they think of a unique style, it is immediately embraced by their elders.

At this point, the connection with the paedophilia demonstrations should be clear. At the most obvious level, the cause - like the non-choice of clothes - provides a crude unity in the midst of incomprehensible diversity. But, at a deeper level, fashion is now an aspect of the excessive glorification of childhood. There is, in effect, only one fashion. It changes every season out of financial necessity, but only marginally. This one fashion is that of the early teen, and it is embraced from babyhood to senility. People want to become children precisely because of their glorification of childhood as the only virtuous state.

In a world in which there are, increasingly, no borders, frontiers, walls or restrictions, people will be driven to construct their own. They find themselves belonging nowhere, and so they invent forms of belonging. These forms are crude: rather than new hierarchies of age, everybody is made to belong to one age; rather than a multiplicity of consumption, everybody consumes the same. Crudest of all are the anti-paedophile demonstrations: acts of social unification based on persecution; mob politics that treats law and reason with contempt. These things are crude because they are sudden, contemporary inventions; they are not ancient habits modified by time.

People don't know they are doing this because they think they are free. They think they are free because they are told they are free, and their apparent choices are glorified as the will of the people. But the will of the people turns out to be either a dull uniformity or, in the case of the paedophilia hysteria, a vengeful, anarchic irrationality. A baby with an earring, a ten-year-old in a boob tube, a pensioner in a shell suit - it is the end of difference, the impossibility of imagination, the loss of sense, the abandonment of aspiration, the end, not the beginning, of choice and, worst of all, the abject failure to engage rationally with evil.

In 1984, O'Brien tells Winston Smith that, if he wants to imagine the future, he should picture a boot smashing forever into a face. I say: if you want to imagine the future, picture a gang of identically dressed toddlers baying for blood that is, quite possibly, yours.