Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Vagueness abuse

A Vermont legislator wants the state to criminalize “emotional abuse” of children. How does one define emotional abuse? This is what the bill proposes:

“Emotional abuse” means the willful infliction of mental or emotional anguish by threats, humiliation, intimidation, or other abusive conduct which is intended to demean, frighten, intimidate, or isolate.

This doesn’t exactly clarify matters. Indeed, this bill could easily be twisted to criminalize any conduct towards a child that the child simply finds unpleasant. Calling this proposal vague would be an understatement. One group opposing the bill, the Home School Legal Defense Association, correctly notes: “Under American law, people should be able to tell when they are breaking the law if they are to be punished by it.” Indeed, all states have ample laws prohibiting (and objectively defining) child abuse on the books already, so it’s hard to see any compelling need to expand the definition in such a conceptually imprecise way.

There’s also a gaping epistemological flaw with this bill’s definition of emotional abuse. Emotion, after all, is simply a reaction to one’s perceptions based on a given individual’s set of value judgments. Obviously, a child’s values tend to be less well defined than those of an adult, but most children over the age of three have a fairly well defined sense of self, not to mention the rudimentary ability to conceptualize. Since not every child acquires the same set of basic values, the definition of “emotional abuse” will vary from child-to-child, something which is not the case with physical abuse.

On the other hand, this bill’s vagueness could be used to the advantage of people trying to raise their children as rational individualists. After all, a child raised with a strong sense of self will likely consider attempts by government schools to “socialize” him to be a profound type of emotional abuse. In other words, coercing a selfish child into sacrificing himself to altruism could be considered a crime under a strict reading of the proposed Vermont bill. Somehow, though, I doubt that’s what this legislator had in mind.

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