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The problem with demonising others…

May 6, 2013

This week saw the dramatic fall from grace of yet another TV celebrity, this time Stuart Hall, former radio and television presenter best known for ‘It’s a Knock Out’ and ‘A Question of Sport’. There was a strong sense of glee in much of the press and social media coverage of the story; Stuart Hall was portrayed as yet another ‘predatory sexual abuser’ who deserved to be punished for his evil past. I don’t know the full background to Hall’s crimes – none of us do – but the reaction to this case has been renewed vilification of the BBC and a number of attacks on Hall’s contemporaries who, it is claimed, ‘knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it’.

So why does this matter? In my view, it matters greatly, because media coverage of the story (and the resultant attention in government etc.) encourages a climate of fear and suspicion that we all have much to lose from.  It may also lead to further calls for restrictive measures in the name of protection of women and children, who are increasingly presented as ‘vulnerable’ and as ‘victims’ who are ‘lacking in agency’.  Of course, issues of power should not be minimised; ‘agency’ is not an absolute concept, and there are many ways in which women and children continue to face systematic individual and structural discrimination and inequality.  But, I do not believe that this is the same as suggesting that they/we have no agency, or that we need yet more regulations and systems to protect us.  As a young person, I chose not to accept invitations to dinner by a local TV personality in his 30’s that I met through my voluntary work; I did, however, choose to go one evening to the flat of a French ‘assistant’ (exchange student) when I was in 5th year at high school.  Both of these situations could have got me, and the man concerned, in very hot water. Both could have been described as abusive, but I didn’t see myself as a victim in either situation.  And I don’t now. Instead, I see these things as part of life, as opportunities to make choices, yes, and make mistakes sometimes too. I would hate to think that life was so constrained and rule-bound that such opportunities for growth and learning were not available to young people any more.

I am aware that to express such sentiments might suggest that I am minimising the harm that abuse – and sexual abuse in particular – can do.  Not so. I will never wish to deny the damaging impact of sexual abuse on people’s physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.  But, as I have said in a previous blog, I believe that there is a continuum of abuse, from the very mundane (which many of us have experienced) to the utterly despicable (which, thankfully, is rare) and the impact of both is not the same.  As a children and families’ social worker for many years, I am aware of the difference. I am also aware that, contrary to all our expectations, some women and children still love their abusers, with all the confusion and depression that can accompany such a reality; treating them as ‘victims’ and demanding that they have nothing more to do with their abusers/fathers/boyfriends may not be a realistic option for some.

So where does this take us? For me, the simple answer is that it’s complicated. I don’t want to live in a society that allows male privilege and abuse of power to go unchecked. But neither do I want my sons to live in a world where they are always viewed suspiciously, as potential abusers and rapists, rather than friends, fathers and lovers. Neither do I want it to be assumed that women and children are always vulnerable, powerless and in need of protection.  Surely that was one of the things that feminism fought against in the 1970’s?? So I am looking for ways of acknowledging our shared vulnerability as human beings; our capacity to negotiate power; to have agency; to care and be cared for, as women and men, adults and children.  This is a very different agenda to the one that is currently raging in public and private life in the UK today.

Viviene E. Cree

6th May 2013

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