Daring to Diverge: the othering of deviant discourse

Following an earlier blog a few months ago, on the emerging story and furore around the posthumous exposure of Jimmy Savile as a serial abuser, who for decades managed to hide in full sight, this is a kind of follow up. Following extensive media coverage, a series of inquiries have been or are being conducted by/into the circumstances and organisations which (to varying degrees unwittingly) facilitated or masked his activities. Some have been rapid and self-lacerating (eg the BBC), while others appear suspiciously slow and private (eg the health service and prisons). Now we will begin to see a trickle, probably growing to a torrent, of books describing and discussing what happened and what the story supposedly tells us about our society, our culture, and the evils of paedophilia and sexual abuse.

An early tributary has just been published by Frank Furedi (read here), which is less concerned with the detail of Savile’s nefarious exploits than with the way in which our society conceives of and deals with the idea and reality of childhood risk and abuse. In a sense, the Savile case is adopted as a model upon which an argument can be usefully hung or developed: one which will hold few surprises for those who have read Furedi’s earlier work around fear, risk, and childhood. An early (and pretty hostile) review, is careless in suggesting that Furedi understands the Savile case in particular, or our approach to child abuse in general, as a moral panic. On the contrary, the distinction is made that once the terms of a moral panic have become normalised and taken for granted, achieving the status of a dominant discourse, the concept of panic is no longer adequate or applicable. Beyond this, it is not my purpose to defend Furedi’s rapid-response book in detail or in general, but to note what this review tells us about the difficulty and challenge of making any contribution to public discussion which deviates from the extremely powerful mainstream discourse around abuse and risk.

Beyond focussing less on what he (more or less clearly) says, and more on particular aspects of who and what he (more or less apparently) is, in terms which could almost themselves be construed as moral panic, Furedi is castigated for having the temerity to write about the Savile case without placing the horror of Savile’s acts, and the experience of his victims, at the very heart of the discussion. The fact that almost every other commentary has done and will do so is no excuse; there is only one way to understand and discuss these issues, there is no other legitimate priority, and anyone who diverges from the true path must expect to be dismissed and vilified, their motives called into question. Any number of unreflective and simplistic pieces will be published, based on dodgy assumptions, dubious evidence and naive arguments, in accordance with the blinkered discourse of child abuse and protection promulgated by the NSPCC and similar crusaders, but their authors will not be attacked McCarthy-style, in personal terms. When the powerful organisations which seek to control this discourse can apparently rely on independent and normally reflective and critical commentators to do their job for them and jump on transgressors, the task of conducting careful research, seeking real understanding, asking critical questions, suggesting alternative solutions, and seeking to contribute to positive practice around abuse and protection, is shown to have become extremely challenging.

Heather Piper

This was first posted on the blog for the ESRC Seminar Series on Moral Panics. To learn more about the series follow this link.

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