It is symptomatic of the extent to which child abuse and child protection have become, in turn, the dominant narrative and cohesive ideology in our society that it was hardly surprising at all to learn that a 51 year-old father, during a hike with his 11 year-old son, had been stopped by police, backed up by a child support officer, and required to demonstrate that he was not a paedophile. Clearly, for a father and son to take a holiday based on daily walking a long way, while carrying rucksacks and all the normal kit, is inherently suspicious. Soon it may be risky for a (male?) adult to be seen pushing a child along in a pram or push chair, both of which could be regarded as devices for quietly stealing children away, for nefarious purposes.
Happily for those who care for sense and justice, if less happily for him, the father in this case was Will Self, the novelist. Unlike many who may find themselves on the wrong end of ill-judged and excessive suspicion, Mr Self had the wherewithal to complain loudly and contemptuously, and to have his unpleasant experience and his response to it widely reported (read here, here and here) Self has made some timely and significant points, including that the unwarranted actions taken in the name of child protection were not just abusive to him; they constituted abuse of his son, who had to watch his dad being treated as a suspect and rounded up by police officers in a number of cars. As he says, what happened to him and his son only makes sense as the product of an unrealistic and obsessive public and professional fixation on child abuse. Reading his story, the possibility arises that the police had been called as an act of malice by a security guard with whom the novelist, who perhaps does not suffer fools gladly, had earlier experienced a verbal confrontation. Just as, in even less enlightened times, women perceived to be annoying or inconvenient could find themselves accused of being witches, the dominant discourse around child protection and ‘safeguarding’ has created a big and very damaging stick which is available for use by anyone who thinks they have a score to settle. For organisations like the NSPCC, the response to a story like this one may be that Mr and Master Self’s nasty experience is a price worth paying for keeping children safe. However, the truth is that the idea that you can stop bad people doing bad things by treating good people as if they are bad, thus destroying trust and fostering suspicion and intolerance (and actually making children less safe), is simple minded and socially corrosive.
It seems too neutral to describe events like this as evidence of moral panic. In fact, they are the purposeful products of a moral crusade which has been going on for decades, the morality of which should be increasingly questioned. It is not just that the prescribed response to the risk of abuse is disproportionate and ill-judged, leading to the travesty experienced by Mr Self and Son, it is actually harmful. This story, however, indicates how accurate was an aside by Howard Becker, 50 years ago, when he noted that the ‘final outcome of the moral crusade is a police force’ (1963, p156). But now it is not just the real police, anyone can join in, anyone with an unwarranted suspicion or an axe to grind.
On a different topic, a similar issue was highlighted by another news story this weekend. After decades in which the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury has traditionally accepted a senior role in the hierarchy of the RSPCA, the recently appointed Archbishop Welby has declined to accept such a position (read here). Commentators have suggested that this break with tradition reflects well-publicised concerns that the RSPCA has become over-keen on aggressive prosecutions, and that the charity’s aggressive tactics are driven by politics (for detail listen to Radio 4 Face the Facts). It has been said that the organisation’s narrow focus on animal protection may blind it to issues of balance and social justice, as reflected in some embarrassing reversals in the courtroom wasting many thousands of pounds of donators money. Again, this story exemplifies the truth of Becker’s insight. It also relates to points I have made previously (see references below) about the dangers of applying loose criteria for determining abuse, and accepting deterministic so called ‘links’ between those who harmed an animal as a child and their likelihood of becoming a serious child abuser in later life. The outcome is unfair accusations and prosecutions, justified by the overwhelming moral certainty which is the crusader’s default weapon.
So these two news stories tell us some important things about how our society is being affected by allowing single issue organisations (ultimately not without their own self-interest) to dominate the agenda and in effect bully everyone else into doing what they say.
Heather Piper, 20th August 2013
Becker, H. S. (1963) Outsiders. Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, New York: The Free Press.
Piper, H. (2003) ‘The Linkage of Animal Abuse with Interpersonal Violence: A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing?’ Journal of Social Work 3 (2): 161-177 doi: 10.1177/14680173030032003 (http://jsw.sagepub.com/content/3/2/161
Kane, E. and Piper, H. (2012) Animal Abuse and Cruelty, in T.K. Shackelford and V.A. Weekes-Shackelford (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Violence, Homicide, and War, Oxford, OUP.