“Think of the Children!”: dangerous speech that suggests children are in danger

Whether they know it or not, contemporary political figures often use versions of dangerous speech that go back centuries, and none is more pervasive or powerful than telling people that someone is threatening their children. That idea has recently blossomed again in the United States.  On March 28th Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill outlawing any discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade classrooms, ostensibly because such discussion would hurt children by making them susceptible to sexual abuse. In the weeks since, the bill, which has become commonly know as the “don’t say gay” bill,[1] has  been panned by Democrats, LGBTQ rights groups, and even Disney. In turn, those critics have quickly become targets of conservative vitriol. Gov. DeSantis’s press secretary Christina Pushaw tweeted that anyone who criticizes the bill “is probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.”[2] The term “groomer” – someone who tries to brainwash kids to make them vulnerable to sexual abuse – harkens back to an age-old trope of characterizing the “other” as a threat to children’s lives or innocence. In this case, the rhetoric is meant to mobilize a moral panic among the bill’s supporters, but it does much more than that. It demonizes its detractors, characterizing them as a direct threat to children – a claim so frightening that it can incite violence against them

Throughout history, accusations of threats against children have been used repeatedly against minority groups, many times leading to violence. One of the most well-known examples is the false allegation known as “blood libel,” that claims Jewish people murder Christian children to use their blood for religious rituals. These claims apparently first emerged in Norwich, England in the 12th century following the murder of a young boy (a crime falsely blamed on the town’s Jewish residents),[3] and have sparked violence against Jewish communities on many occasions over the centuries.[4] For example, 15 Jews were executed in 1475 after a two-year-old Italian boy disappeared, and his father claimed he had been murdered by members of the local Jewish community in order to use his blood to make matzah for Passover.[5]

Similarly, in Europe, Roma people have often been falsely accused of kidnapping non-Roma children, at least since the 19th century. This idea has resurfaced frequently in modern Europe, and spreads widely online.   In one instance in France in 2019, rumors swirled on social media about men in a white van driving around and kidnapping children.[6] Most of the rumors blamed the Roma. The rumors were completely false – there had been no missing children reported –  and the Paris Police Department tweeted, denouncing the rumors as false and instructing people “Do not share this false information, do not incite violence.”[7] Unfortunately, the rumors did just that – groups of vigilantes wielding knives and sticks attacked Roma communities in the Paris suburbs, burning vans and sending at least two Roma men to the hospital.[8]

Sometimes, the accusations go beyond suggestions that they (an out-group) are a threat to our children, instead demonizing another group by suggesting that they abuse their own children with actions and/or beliefs. In Israel, for example, the notion “we shield our children while they [Palestinians] use their children as shields” appears in a variety of forms, including images such as one depicting two men with guns pointed at each other: the one under the Israeli flag shields a stroller with his body, while the man under the Palestinian flag has the stroller positioned between himself and the Israeli gunman.[9] Speech such as this conveys that members of the other group are bad, evil, or deserving of violence because they are so immoral that they don’t protect children – a very widespread cultural imperative.

When politicians and pundits deride their opponents  as “groomers” they are similarly claiming that they’re evil, immoral, and dangerous to all children, and therefore to society. And this language has already come with calls to violence, like other rumors that someone is harming children, centuries ago.  For example, conservative podcast host Jack Posobiec tweeted to his 1.7k followers a picture of a blue t-shirt with the words “boycott groomers. Bring ammo,” the words incorporated into the Disney logo.[10]

Assertions of threats to children have been linked to incidents of intergroup violence countless times before. The use of language like “groomer” to solidify support for a political position is careless and  dangerous and it must stop. In an effort to score a political win by playing up parental fears that their vulnerable children might be under threat, politicians and political pundits run the risk of inciting physical violence. In 2016, inspired by false rumors of a child sex trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton,[11] a man walked into a Washington, DC pizza restaurant and started firing his AR-15 rifle, thinking he was going to free the children. But of course there were no children. Then-Federal District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson who sentenced the shooter said that it was “sheer luck” that no one was injured.[12] If the false accusations about “groomers” continue to be bandied about, the next time we may not be so lucky.




Image source: Creative Commons, https://www.trustedreviews.com/news/will-the-metaverse-be-safe-for-kids-4197575

[1] Diaz, Jaclyn. 2022. “Florida’s governor signs controversial law opponents dubbed ‘Don’t Say Gay’” NPR.


[2] https://twitter.com/ChristinaPushaw/status/1499890719691051008?s=20&t=Air8ETLHcP6GxFamBdKkYA

[3]  Facing History and Ourselves. 2022. “The Power of a Lie: The History of the Blood Libel.” Facing History and Ourselves.


[4] ADL. 2012. “Blood Libel: A False, Incendiary Claim Against Jews.” ADL.


[5] Ain, Stewart. 2021. “Blood Libel: Inside the antisemitic myth that won’t die.” eJewish Philanthropy.


[6] BBC. 2019. French Roma attacked over false ‘man in van’ kidnap rumours.” BBC.


[7] https://twitter.com/prefpolice/status/1110518853879193600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1110518853879193600%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.com%2Fnews%2Fworld-europe-47719257

[8] Breeden, Aurelien. 2019. “Child Abduction Rumors Lead to Violence Against Roma in France.” New York Times.


[9] https://twitter.com/ShimmyFootball/status/1392299782350180357?s=20. In some images, the Palestinian flag is replaced with the flag of Saudi Arabia, as was the case in this headline image run by The Jerusalem Post https://www.jpost.com/magazine/opinion/of-course-hamas-killed-the-baby

[10] The tweet has since been deleted. https://web.archive.org/web/20220407061756/https:/twitter.com/JackPosobiec/status/1511703824863354885

[11] Robb, Amanda. 2017. ”Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal.” Rolling Stone.


[12] Cherelus, Gina. 2017. ” Gunman gets four years in prison for storming D.C. pizzeria.” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-washingtondc-gunman/gunman-gets-four-years-in-prison-for-storming-d-c-pizzeria-idUSKBN19D2K6