Blame the goats, pigs, caterpillars, slugs…

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In the wake of the great Jimmy Savile so-called child sexual abuse scandal of 2012, there has been a whole series of prosecutions of similarly high-profile figures in the UK for alleged sex offences. Interestingly, these are now producing a crop of acquittals as juries refuse to take the word of those claiming to be victims.

Most recent of them was that of Nigel Evans, a former deputy speaker of the House of Commons, hence quite a lynchpin of the country’s democratic governance. He was cleared of all charges this month, having been accused by seven men of offences ranging from molestation to rape. This followed the earlier acquittals of Michael Le Vell and Bill Roache, stars of Coronation Street, the world’s longest-running TV soap opera, and Dave Lee Travis, a DJ whose radio show emerged as a surprise favourite of Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader.

These cases were driven by a bandwagon factor. The Savile saga started a fashion for previously silent “victims” to come forward “bravely” with allegations of “historic abuse” from years earlier. A feature of most of these manifestations of victim culture was multiple accusers: it looks as though police and prosecutors were hoping to find strength in numbers: never mind the quality of the evidence, feel the quantity.

Now that these tactics have failed, mercifully, a backlash against prosecutorial zealotry has already started. This has to be a good thing, but it leaves open a question that has been with us since the Savile bandwagon began to roll. In that case, the “perpetrator” died before he could be brought to trial. But, as was noted by sceptics at the time, that did not stop the police pouring vast resources into gathering more and more Savile abuse yarns. Why?

There is an admirable BBC radio series called The Long View, which offers a historical perspective on current issues. I think it is time for us to follow that example:

In June 1494, a piglet was taken into custody in Clermont, France, for having “strangled and defaced a young child in its cradle”. It seems that the suspect would have been confined in the same cell and treated in much the same way as a human prisoner, before being tried in front of a court “as justice and reason would desire and require”. Witnesses were summoned and cross-examined, and once satisfied of the defendant’s guilt, the court held that the pig be “strangled on a gibbet of wood” so that “an example may be made and justice maintained”. (Grayshott, 2013)

The above is from a review of Animal Trials by Edward Payson Evans, first published in 1906 and reissued last year. According to Evans, such trials were commonplace, forming part of the fabric of medieval European justice. It wasn’t just pigs in the pillory or dogs in the dock. The courts put on trial an entire Noah’s Ark of criminal creatures including “caterpillars, flies, locusts, leeches, snails, slugs, worms, weevils, rats, mice, moles, turtle doves, pigs, bulls, cows, cocks, dogs, asses, mules, mares and goats”.

Great care was taken to observe due process and ensure a fair trial. In 1314, a bull was taken into custody by the officers of the Comte de Valois, after it escaped onto a road and killed someone. The death sentence was passed and carried out, but an appeal court later ruled that the bull had been wrongfully arrested, thus overturning the verdict on a technicality. In the case of a condemned French donkey, an appeal and retrial resulted in a sentence of hanging being commuted to being “simply knocked on the head”. Sometimes, the accused would be acquitted.

Some animals were accused along with their owners. In cases of bestiality, both parties were usually burned at the stake. In one case, from Vanves in 1750, an entire community formally swore to the good character of a female ass. The beast, their statement read, “had always shown herself to be virtuous and well behaved both at home and abroad and had never given occasion of scandal to anyone”.

We started with a question. What was the point of the police throwing resources into the Savile case, an apparently irrational exercise because you cannot bring a dead man to justice? These animal trials invite a very similar question. What was the purpose of all this elaborate ritual invested in the criminalization of beasts who knew nothing of the law or of any obligation to obey it? Punishing one animal would not deter another from similar transgressions.

Evans demonstrated that these trials were not meant as an exercise in preventive justice. The owners of the guilty animals were not generally held responsible, and were sometimes even compensated for the loss occasioned by the execution of their animals. The trials were actually part of an even longer tradition, going back to ancient times, in which inanimate objects were “punished”. In Athens, there were laws which required weapons that had killed people to be publicly condemned before being thrown beyond the boundaries of the city state. A statue of the athlete Nikon which had been pushed from its pedestal, crushing one of its assailants to death, was brought before a tribunal and sentenced to be cast into the sea.

Evans concluded that such acts should be seen as solemn acts of expiation by which the community could cleanse itself of things that had offended against the natural order, irrespective of the notional guilt of an animal or a thing. We will do well to note that astute observation carefully: there are times when innocence and guilt are not really the issue, even though the formal apparatus of justice proceeds as if it were. Far more important may be the perceived enormity of what has happened, an enormity which demands an equally great ritual response, no matter how preposterous the Theatre of Absurdity generated thereby.

Note, too, that what counts is perceived enormity. If your crops and vines are utterly laid waste by a plague of locusts, or if someone has been killed by an animal, the enormity of the event is obviously very real, and the psychological need for an act of expiation is easily understood. But not all such psychological need is so grounded in tangible ills. In more religious times than our own, transgressions against sexual mores would have been seen as putting oneself in dire peril of everlasting suffering in Hell. The fact that this peril is all in the mind does not make it any the less horrible, or real as a crippling fear.

In our own times, there is less fretting over Hell but perhaps much more anxiety over missing out in the here and now. Modern advertising relentlessly pushes a sense of entitlement (“because you’re worth it!”), but what happens when people find they are not actually worth it? What is to be done when their shitty zero hours “job” is screaming at them, you’re worth fuck all, mate? Whether it’s material insecurity and failure in a relentlessly changing and competitive global economy, or personal relationship calamities in the fragile nuclear family, millions find that life has failed to live up to its billing in the glossy lifestyle mags.

But, never mind, capitalism is on hand to sell them other dodgy goods. The first task of the advertisers is to take the toxic brand called “personal failure” and repackage it as something more appealing and saleable, namely “victimhood”. Personal failure is a tough sell because our egos won’t let us think ill of ourselves if we can find a more palatable solution. As victims, though, we can be sold all sorts of stuff acceptably, from anti-depressants to therapy, on the basis that someone else is to blame for our troubles. Party politics gets in on the act by competitively pandering to the victim vote. A sign of the times is that former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, who led the charge to reverse the “innocent until proven guilty” principle in the case of Jimmy Savile, is now rumoured to be seeking a political career on the back of this all-too-successful populist campaign.

For a bid to restore some balance and sanity to our view of Savile see the excellent blog by “rabbitaway”, including (but not only) the 18 April piece, “When Irish eyes are smiling!”

 

Grayshott, M., “The Pig Walked Free”, review in the London Review of Books, Vol. 35 No. 23, pages 37-38 (5 December 2013)

An open letter to Frank Furedi

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Many heretics, including myself, have been impressed by the online magazine Spiked on account of its vociferous support for free speech, distaste for state oppression, and its robust backing of civil rights, including for paedophiles.

So when one of its leading contributors, sociologist Frank Furedi, recently joined the media chorus of those attacking paedophilia, the virulent hostility of his diatribe came as a shocking disappointment. The context was an article, “What PIE and the NSPCC have in common”, which was fine up to a point. Its central theme was actually a rather interesting argument in defence of parents against the concept of “children’s rights”. Bizarrely – but, as I say, to interesting effect, Furedi presented the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) back in the 1970s and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) as improbable ideological allies. Both organisations, he said, claimed to speak on behalf of children but neither was as benignly disposed or as well placed to secure their best interests as parents.

My reaction was to fire off a counterblast. I submitted an article to Spiked that focused on defending children’s rights – not the right to be protected from various ills, real or imaginary, which is the NSPCC’s stock in trade, but the right to exercise real autonomy and to experience real freedom. Editor Brendan O’Neill emailed me on 25 March to say he was travelling in Europe and Australia and “I will be in touch very soon, I promise”. That sounded, well, promising, but over two weeks have passed since then and despite me sending a reminder I haven’t heard from him again.

So I have decided to answer Furedi here instead, in what amounts to an open letter. The text is a slightly edited version of my original draft article for Spiked.

WHY CHILDREN REALLY DO NEED RIGHTS

As a champion of parents over the years against “experts”, and the insolent intrusions of a busybody state, Frank Furedi is to be admired. He is right to castigate the NSPCC, too, for going far beyond its legitimate brief.

But when he says children are not moral agents, and on that basis attacks the concept of children’s rights, he is just plain wrong. Children become moral agents during childhood, not at its end; and even before that stage they may have non-trivial wishes and interests that require independent representation through robust rights-based action. Proper rights, that is: rights to real liberty of personal choice, not just protection from harm.

To begin with moral agency, has Furedi never heard of Gillick competence? In 1986 the House of Lords rightly accepted that “the authority of parents to make decisions for their minor children is not absolute, but diminishes with the child’s evolving maturity”. The highest court in the land in the case of Gillick v. West Norfolk & Wisbech Area Health Authority ruled that those under 16 could consent to medical treatment as long as they had sufficient understanding and intelligence to appreciate what was proposed and to express their own wishes. The context was the child’s right to advice on contraception for sexually active youngsters, a right which, were it more widely known and supported through sex education, would do more to bring down Britain’s high rate of teenage pregnancy than ineffectual attempts to suppress youthful sexuality.

For present purposes, though, the salient feature of the Gillick ruling is not the sexual aspect but rather the judgement’s recognition of an important reality: adult competences do not suddenly begin at an arbitrary age of majority; they grow over time. Good parents know this and allow their children to “spread their wings” as they grow older, and even take off: they understand that the occasional crash landing is a possibility and can be a valuable learning experience. It is all part of an apprenticeship in life.

Like Furedi, I believe that in general no one is better placed than parents to make judgements as to what their own children are ready for; no one knows them so well, nor will anyone else be more strongly disposed to secure their best interests. I have never been hostile to parents, either when I was Chair of the much traduced Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) long ago, or since. At the risk of setting off a fresh spate of tabloid excitement, I can honestly say some of my best friends have been parents.

That does not mean, though, that I would defend particular family structures to the last ditch, especially the all-too-explosive nuclear family, forged in relatively recent historical times not out of high purpose and dignity – an Englishman’s home is his castle, and all that – but from the grim necessity for a mobile labour force, detached from wider family and community, as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

Indeed, the tensions inside the nuclear family, and its frequent breakdown, constitute a fair proportion of the need for children to have rights. Parents do not all have their children’s best interests at heart. Step-parents, especially, who now make up such a substantial proportion of the whole, have much to answer for. The “wicked” step-parent is no myth. Frequently they resent their newly acquired brood; their hatred may even be murderous. Stepchildren are 60 times more likely to be killed than genetically related offspring [Daly & Wilson, 1994]. Not that this lets biological parents off the hook: taking parents as a whole, the latest figures show they kill on average over one child per fortnight in the UK, often in the context of a relationship breaking up, when one of the adult partners (usually a father) murders his children to spite his former partner [Office for National Statistics, 2013].

It is an ugly reality, so grim we cannot bear to face it; which is probably why these horrible cases tend to be dismissed in a paragraph or two in the media and described as a domestic “tragedy”, rather than in the more floridly anathematising terms (“evil”, “vile”, etc.) reserved for even the most mild and non-coerced paedophilic encounters. I recall one case somewhere in the West Country a couple of decades ago in which the father impaled the decapitated heads of his three children on spikes, leaving them for his ex to see. Even that spectacularly ghastly case disappeared from the news after a day or two. The vanishingly rare murder of a child in a sexual context, by contrast, is kept alive for a decade or more, such is the public’s need to project its own darkest feelings onto a monstrous Other.

Of course, the criminal law applies in the case of murder. Children do not need any rights in this regard beyond the human right to life. But there are many circumstances in which distinct rights for children would help enormously, both as regards invoking Gillick competence and, for children who are not yet competent to assert their own just claims, rights which can nevertheless be enforced in law on their behalf. These rights should take account of their wishes, not just their (adult defined) “best interests”. This, too, already has some standing in law. The 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child acknowledged the right of children to be heard. This principle was incorporated into the Children Act of the same year, which said that while the children’s welfare should be paramount, courts should take into account “the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned”.

This formulation was far too wishy washy: wishes can be heard, but may still be ignored. The move towards a more effective measure is inhibited by confusion. The law will be deficient as long as we remain in thrall to the classic, albeit weak, argument that rights imply responsibilities, and that young children, before they become Gillick competent, cannot have truly enforceable rights because they are incapable of discharging the responsibilities that go with them. But as philosophers, including, most famously, John Rawls, have acknowledged, this is misconceived. As human rights lawyer Paul Sieghart put it:

In all legal theory and practice, rights and duties are symmetrical. It is a popular fallacy to believe that this symmetry applies within the same individual: that if I have a right, I must also have a correlative duty. This is not so: if I have a right, someone else must have a correlative duty; if I have a duty, someone else must have a corresponding right [Sieghert, 1985].

Children “in care”, may have significant rights claims against a range of professionals who act in loco parentis as teachers, etc. Having said that, the family is the most obvious locus of children’s claims, just as Furedi asserts. This is because, famously, most abuse, whether in terms of outright neglect and cruelty, or unwanted sexual attention, takes place in the home. This is a robustly quantified reality, not a feminist myth: in the most authoritative study to date, regression analysis indicates that dysfunctional family background is nine times as predictive of adult psychological harm as “child sexual abuse” (CSA) [Rind et al., 1998]. Had it been possible to separate non-coercive so-called CSA in the figures from coercive molestation and rape, the ratio would probably have risen dramatically, to infinity, because CSA thus defined would emerge as, on average, not psychologically harmful at all.

As for what distinct children’s rights might be needed, probably the most compelling cases are those concerning the right of children (1) to make medical decisions on their own behalf, especially when the issue of life and death is engaged; (2) to decide on their own custody in the event of parental separation and divorce; (3) to “divorce parents in the event of incompatibility. In all three areas considerable progress has been made in this century: we are not talking about a dead 1970s concept.

In the United States, for instance, it is relatively routine now for older children to have access to the law and to divorce a parent in the event of serious incompatibility, as for instance in the case of a gay teenager subjected to constant disparagement by a disappointed and unsympathetic father. It happens. It’s serious. These kids die by their own hand way disproportionately to their peers when they cannot find a supportive environment. As for medical decisions, doctors are moving towards the view that even quite young children can make rational and (given professional advice) informed decisions in difficult cases, such as whether or not to accept dangerous kill-or-cure surgery, or whether they wish to accept therapy inevitably committing themselves to years of pain and distress. And who could doubt that parents who are Jehovah’s Witnesses act against their children’s best interests when they refuse to sanction blood transfusions for a child in an emergency? This cries out for a child’s right, if they wish, to override their parents’ views.

The case for children’s sexual rights is a more complex matter, so I’ll close with a brief response to Furedi’s flaying of PIE’s “self-interested” stance. I look forward to him now denouncing his own self-interested lack of credibility: he campaigns for the rights of parents rather than children. Well, he would, wouldn’t he: he’s a parent!

Seriously, Frank, this essentially ad hominem way of shutting us up is a cheap shot, and unworthy of you. It makes you look like the politicians and judges who have been in such a hurry lately to publicly renounce their previous support for the basic civil rights of paedophiles: with their careers under immediate threat they appear to have panicked. One reason this has happened in such a big way, incidentally, is the failure of Liberty to defend liberty. The former National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) did a better job. Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill is to be congratulated for his staunch and principled recent defence of the NCCL’s former affiliation with PIE.

Daly, M & Wilson, M; “Some differential attributes of lethal assaults on small children by stepfathers versus genetic fathers”, Ethology & Sociobiology, Vol 15(4), Jul 1994, 207-217.

Office for National Statistics (2013); Focus on: violent crime and sexual offences, 2011/12 http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_298904.pdf

Rind, B, Tromovitch P Bauserman R (1998); “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples”. Psychological Bulletin 124 (1): 22–53.

Sieghert, P; The Lawful Rights of Mankind, OUP, 1985, p.94

Should Cinderella Law go to the ball?

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The heart sinks at news this week of a government initiative to expand yet further the already vast empire of victimhood.

In Britain we have been told to expect a new law that will combat child abuse from a different angle, raising the spectre of yet another bunch of compo-seeking losers leaping at the chance to escape any degree of personal responsibility for their adult descent into drug addiction, gambling, dog-shagging, morris dancing, baking off, and suchlike depravities – who will inevitably be lauded for their “courage” by legions of counsellors, whose job it will be to keep these weaklings wallowing permanently in their victim status instead of getting over it.

Well, that was my reflexively splenetic reaction to the proposed new “Cinderella Law”, taken up by government following a campaign by the charity Action for Children. The loud-mouthed Pub Bore in me, the Grumpy Old Man who would have a knee-jerk response if only his knees would still respond, did not like the idea at all. Like it or not, though, I was forced, after an appropriate Consultation Period with myself, to admit the possibility that it might not be an entirely bad idea.

So, what is it, this idea?

The Cinderella Law would be a new offence of emotional cruelty to children. A BBC report said the proposed change to the law in England and Wales on neglect “would see parents who deny their children affection face prosecution for the first time”. On the face of it this seems crazy because love cannot be commanded, except perhaps by God: “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. The heart can be exhorted and inspired, but not compelled on pain of criminal sanctions. Imagine the Custody Sergeant reading out the offence: “You are hereby charged that between the dates specified, in the County of Bullshitshire, you did knowingly and wilfully fail to love your twin sons, Darth Vader and Voldermort…”

Nevertheless, although we may question whether the criminal law is the right tool for the job – a question to which I will return – what now seems beyond doubt in the face of a mountain of evidence, is that child abuse including neglect, emotional cruelty, physical and sexual abuse (when the latter is truly abusive i.e. coerced) can be extremely damaging and often is.

The BBC story cites “Collette”, whose father is black. She was frequently told by her white mother and stepfather that she had been “a mistake” and that she was “in the way”.

“My stepfather was racist and she had no excuse for having a mixed-raced child. The result was me being treated like Cinderella but without the ball and happy ending. I felt like I shouldn’t have been born, I’d been told often enough.”

This constant denigration unsurprisingly got her down and led to mental health problems, including diagnoses of severe depression, post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder and anxiety.

In another account, from an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, “Susan” said she was physically and sexually abused by her foster family but the emotional cruelty she suffered caused the most long-term damage:

“They never once cuddled me, they never once told me they loved me… that has been by far the worst abuse that I suffered.”

There is powerful evidence of a strong association between emotional abuse and truly heavy duty mental illness going way beyond mild depression or anxiety. A meta-analysis by Varese et al. of 41 studies into the impact of childhood adversity on the risk of psychosis (mostly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) was published in 2012. As a brief review in This Week put it:

The findings were staggering: Children who were emotionally abused were 12 times more likely to develop schizophrenia than other children. The survey also found that 90% of children who had suffered emotional maltreatment early in life went on to develop some form of mental illness, such as depression or bipolar disorder.

Nor is the available evidence merely an association. There is now an extensive body of neurological evidence showing that stressful early experiences including emotional upset, especially of a chronic nature, causes damaging changes in the brain.

Coming back to the law, the Children and Young Persons Act of 1933 provides for the punishment of a person who treats a child “in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health (including injury to or loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body, and any mental derangement)”. The Cinderella Law would add a further category of harm for which the perpetrator could be punished: impairment of “physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development”.

Child neglect was made a punishable offence by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1868. Neglect is defined as the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs. It includes forcing a child to witness domestic violence, scapegoating them, humiliation and degrading punishments. Currently, civil law recognises emotional abuse of children. Social workers, as the BBC account says, are able to use guidelines based on this law. So they are not entirely lacking in the wherewithal to deal with “emotional cruelty”: they make reports to the courts after all, which decide whether children need to be taken away from their parents.

With the above laws in place, then, we are left to ask what value is added by another? For many parents, having their child taken away from them would be more than punishment enough. Parents who impair their child’s development as a result of incompetence due to drug or alcohol dependency, or couples who are constantly having violent rows with each other, do not necessarily lack affection for their children. In those cases losing a child who is “taken into care” may be heartbreaking. If that prospect fails to make them mend their ways it is not going to happen through the remote possibility of facing a prison sentence – remote because gathering sufficient evidence to meet the criminal standard of proof would be very difficult.

But what of those parents who really do lack affection, or even hate a child? There are many of these too. Step-parents, especially, who now make up such a substantial proportion of the whole, have much to answer for. The “wicked” step-parent is no myth. Frequently they resent their newly acquired brood; their hatred may even be murderous. Stepchildren are 60 times more likely to be killed than genetically related offspring. Not that this lets biological parents off the hook: taking parents as a whole, the latest figures show they kill on average over one child per fortnight in the UK, often in the context of a relationship breaking up, when one of the adult partners (usually a father) murders his children to spite his former partner.

Only a small proportion of hatred ever expresses itself in murder, of course. Elsewhere it comes out either in terms of physical violence and neglect or poisonous verbal aggression and disparagement, which certainly amounts to emotional cruelty. The proposed Cinderella Law carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison: very severe, although not necessarily excessive in relation to the damage caused by the behaviour leading to it. But it is doubtful whether even the most draconian maximum theoretical sentence is likely to have even the slightest effect in deterring bad parental behaviour if cases rarely come to court, as seems likely.

So again, what if anything could the Cinderella Law be expected to achieve? It is often said, and rightly, that the criminal law is a blunt instrument and should be extended only when strictly necessary to combat a tightly defined evil; also it must be capable of enforcement, otherwise the law will be a dead letter littering the statute book; respect for the criminal law more generally will be undermined. Sometimes, though, a new criminal law can usefully “send a message” that may help put everyone on their best behaviour, even though prosecutions are rare. Such, for instance, was Sweden’s outlawing in 1979 of the physical punishment of children, including by parents in the family home. This measure has widely been hailed a great success in raising parental standards and discouraging the old belief that violence in the home is ever justifiable. It has inspired over thirty other countries, mainly European, to follow suit.

The message sent by the Swedish law was simple, as such messages need to be in order to gain traction. It was just “hitting kids is wrong”. The Cinderella Law goes further, but the message is still clear: “harming kids is wrong”. Yes, there is plenty to argue about regarding what causes harm, as we know all too well from the debate, such as it is, over “child sexual abuse”. But, as we have seen, the evidence clearly shows that emotional cruelty is desperately harmful. As a society, it is right we should do all in our power to tackle it. Non-criminal measures are arguably the best course: a big nudge in the direction of establishing that hitting kids is wrong was taken in Britain and most of the states in the United States (mainly the northern ones) when they banned corporal punishment in schools. And of course education is vital.

However, there is one great strength that the criminal law has which is not available to other measures, and I do not mean the power of the big stick. I mean symbolic power. The law of the land, especially the criminal law, is a solemn declaration of a country’s priorities. It says Listen up: This Shit Really Matters! It would be great, wouldn’t it, if a measure such as the Cinderella Law were to play a part in the shifting of those priorities towards forms of child abuse that really are abusive and harmful. This might at last mean a reassessment of whether repressive resources should be focused almost entirely, as they are now, on aiming at the wrong target i.e. non-coercive adult-child sexual contacts.

 

Daly, Martin; Wilson, Margo I., “Some differential attributes of lethal assaults on small children by stepfathers versus genetic fathers”, Ethology & Sociobiology, Vol 15(4), Jul 1994, 207-217.

Office for National Statistics (2013) Focus on: violent crime and sexual offences, 2011/12

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