Topic: Science & Technology

Lying to Kids For Their Own Good: "Goodnight Cigarette"
(11/19/2005)

A picture is worth a thousand words, 'tis said, and it follows that when the picture is altered to reflect something that didn't exist, those thousand words create a lie.

The publishers of the children's classic "Goodnight Moon" decided that the photograph of illustrator Edward Hurd that had graced the book jacket for decades "sent the wrong message" to its young fans. Mr. Hurd, you see, had a cigarette in his hand.

Horrors. Luckily, that could be remedied with an air brush, and was. Now Hurd appears to be holding his fingers together for no particular reason with his arm cocked, as if he were having an incipient heart attack. The publisher, HarperCollins, had only good intentions (mustn't show the kiddies a picture of a man smoking!) and had pointed out that Hurd's family approved, though they now say that they were pressured.

It doesn't matter. Altering the photograph was wrong. There is no difference between the ethics of HarperCollins airbrushing out a cigarette in a photo and the airbrushing away of liquidated former Politburo members in photographs by the old Soviet Union totalitarian regime. Both were done, to use HarperCollins' words, in order to avoid sending "a potentially harmful message." HarperCollins wanted to avoid saying "Nice men smoke cigarettes." The Communists wanted to avoid saying "Trotsky was a good guy before we killed him." But their methods are the same: use pictures to deceive.

Is deceiving kids less harmful than letting them see a picture of a man smoking? Is the message that lying is OK to suit one's needs something that should be embodied on a kid's book? The family approved; is it ever possible for someone to approve of you lying to someone else? Does that make the lie acceptable?

No, no, no, and no.

And where, exactly, does this well-meaning altering of reality to protect kids end?

Hey, that writer is awfully fat; we can't encourage kids to over-eat. Let's trim him down in the photo…Wow, that artist is such a WASP! Kids need to embrace multi-culturalism…hey! Let's darken his skin in the photo. Let's have him hold a recycling bag! Let's show him patting a baby seal! Wearing an AIDS ribbon! A "Bring Home the Troops" button!

How is any of this different from what HarperCollins did? It isn't. All of those messages are nice, well-intentioned and positive, and if added to a photograph that didn't contain them, lies.

Unethical practices become especially dangerous once they are used for noble causes. Then the cause gradually validates the practice, and what was once unethical becomes standard. It is always a bad trade: a good cause for a more unethical society. I guarantee that a world of non-smoking liars will be a far less pleasant place to live that the land of nicotine-addicted truth-tellers. Luckily, that isn't the choice we face, for in addition to being unethical, the alteration of the photo was really, really silly. Kids emulate parents, peers and role models, but there is a real dearth of research data showing a link between smoking and book jackets. And an ethical solution was readily available.

Use another photograph. A truthful one.





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