What you start as may matter to you; what you become matters more.

resilienceWhat does it mean to be a good person? Or more to the point, what does it take to be seen as a good person? Here in New Zealand in 2014, these are vital questions and they relate to so many current issues – politics, the economy, inequality, child abuse. The list goes on.

The behaviours of our social and political leaders are at times ethically bankrupt. There is growing inequality between rich and poor, and between the diverse cultures that make us up as a nation. Child poverty and child abuse are crucial problems, and they justify the attention they receive in the media and in public forums. At the same time as all this is happening for us as a wider society, the minor attracted person is being sent the very clear message that nothing they do can be viewed as constructive or worthwhile, ethical or good.

In modern Western culture and society the pedophile (minor attracted person) is dehumanised. The message to such a person is he/she may as well as give up. (See Dunham’s media piece, details below.) In a conversation I had with a man who is minor attracted – he is not living in New Zealand – he made the following point: “This is the message some send the pedophile – Why do anything to help others, as a pedophile society sends the pedophile the message, you can do no good. If there is a burning building with people in danger, don’t bother saving anyone, if you do anything good, the credit you gain will be short-lived. When people know what you are, that good you did will evaporate.” The people you help in that burning house may be lucky because you helped them but you will gain no thanks. This chap does not see himself this way – he is certainly not going to harm anyone – but his words are a wake-up call. He was telling me how things are; this is the thinking of so many about the pedophile, and in saying this I am challenged to include those nice educated types.

You might think things are different in an academic context. After all, these people are educated; they don’t consume media pieces in an unthinking way. The language people use in academic settings may well be different, and the arrogant and hostile attitudes are less likely to be expressed there, but these spaces are no more optimistic. It is this lesson that I think was handed to me recently at a talk I attended here in Wellington. On an internal level I have taken this on board. I find myself changing, not because things are better – more humane; no I am changing because I find myself more able to acknowledge the way things are.

The talk was part of a sociology conference – titled Competing Responsibilities: The politics and ethics of responsibility in contemporary life. I want to be very honest and careful in what I offer here. No one was nasty, no words spoken were like those of some blogger or media person slagging off at “those pedophile bastards”. However beneath the text of what was said and done the mood really was ‘just give up’. Leaving the conference venue, I realized how disappointed I am with the academic community here in New Zealand.

In his keynote address (Making us resilient: responsible citizens for uncertain times) Prof. Nikolas Rose discussed what I considered to be a good idea – he said that notions of risk management can be more positively reframed inside the idea of resilience. Modern life is full of talk of risk management – and this blogsite is named with that in mind – but the problem is that such ideas imply anxiety. With the social construct ‘pedophile’ anxiety blossoms into moral panic. Professor Rose’s words seemed very wise indeed.

Resilience is a term used when talking about helping victims of sexual abuse. Prof. Rose’s talk offered an archeology of the term resilience, together with a critical analysis. He even went on to ask, Where to next? It was in the spirit of this approach that I asked my question: When looking for a less anxiety driven and more positive view of our world can we use resilience in relation to the minor attracted person? After all, that person is required to manage a life in a very hostile society.

Prof. Rose’s response to my question was disappointing. To express an optimism where a minor attracted person can be invited to become more resilient to what is currently happening both for them and for those they are connected to – friends, family – is a non-starter, even in the academic world.

Prof. Rose’s response to my question had three steps. First he wanted to set aside the reference to pedophilia – ‘after all it is a bit of a bombshell topic’. He commented next that it would be problematic to take a soldier about to go into battle and kill people – to become the cause of considerable suffering to others – and attempt to use the term ‘resilient’ when talking about that soldier. Of course I and those in the lecture hall understood what he was saying: This is how people fear a pedophile would behave. So for Prof. Rose, and others, the pedophile is primarily a dangerous person. Rose spoke of the concern he had the pedophile might develop a suit of body armour that made them less likely to see or acknowledge the harm they do. Clearly my proposition that a pedophile be even considered to be involved in a life where being an ethical subject is central is out of the question.

The third step in Prof. Rose’s answer was to speak of his concern – and I would join him here – that some British celebrities have been made into demons and monsters, and how unfair this is. But notice what is central here is the idea that the wrong people are being made demons. It is really about the sights on your gun being out of whack; it is not about putting the gun down and nor is it an acknowledgement that dehumanizing people is a problem in its own right.

A sociologist is always going to resist being turned into a psychologist. In his talk Prof. Rose explained that resilience is more than a reference to an individual’s character or internal disposition. Resilience also involves a set of social relations that surround the individual and that this wider dimension, often a concern for a sociologist, was frequently underestimated in academic critiques of modern life. I found myself taking on board what he was arguing for.

When talk occurs in public spaces about pedophilia and sexual abuse of the young, one sometimes hears references to the need to promote resilience in the child. Listening to Prof. Rose I began to see how one could apply the concept of resilience to discuss the other party in such situations – How can the term resilience be used when talking of the adult who is minor attracted and is seeking to construct for themselves an ethic of conduct that wishes to act responsibly and also strives to own their self-making?

A second aspect is precisely what Prof. Rose was arguing for – how the social relations that surround the individual are as important as that person’s character. As things stand now the minor attracted person finds themselves stigmatised and excluded from society. How does the individual grappling with this process remain socially connected, a part of society? Resilience is sometimes referred to as a capacity to bounce back; it is here one can say the minor attracted person needs to push back against their social exclusion, to see it less as risk management and more as resilience.

My perspective and that of Prof. Rose were clearly very different. I see the minor attracted person experiencing suffering and isolation in modern life; the language of resilience might offer a more positive way to formulate a path forward. For Prof. Rose the minor attracted person simply has no permission to use ‘resilience’ in this way.

There is a set of rules at play here – including a rule about how to break the rules. (For further discussion of this point see Foucault’s text “Fearless Speech”, details offered below.) When it comes to talking about the minor attracted person, a speaker can find themselves saying something that draws a strong negative reaction. That response may well be an indicator a discursive rule has been broken. In theory my asking the question in the context of an academic conference was legitimate but the flaw in my thinking was soon apparent – in relation to the minor attracted person, talk in an academic forum is very similar to talk in a non-academic setting.

Prof. Rose did show a humanitarian feeling for certain individuals: he expressed concern about the allegations and media talk that surrounded Rolf Harris and others. Rose’s message clearly pointed to the poor use of the term ‘pedophile’ in the media coverage, but he seemed not to be showing any real insight or even interest in the life situation of the minor attracted person. He is one of many who I suspect see that beating up on old men (see Guardian article) is not the thing to do, but one would be unwise to see this humanitarian concern for the older person signals the arrival of that compassion I keep waiting for.

I have changed. My attendance at the lecture was not a mistake. I can see how things are, but I am not giving up.

As things stand, a valid question would be: Where can we source other perspectives that present as more open to what is at stake in these relationships and situations.

In this blog post the academic setting references have largely been those of sociology, psychology, linguistics and media studies. If we look at the disciplines of psychotherapy, literature, and critical theory, they include reference to the management of desire as part of managing a life. It is my view now that such ideas as these, alongisde those of Prof. Rose and his ideas of resilience, the minor attracted person, the young, and the rest of us can find a way forward.

Details:

  • Dunham A. ‘Paedophiles should commit suicide’: expert. The Local: Spains News in English. 2014, 18 August. Spain. Online Newspaper.
  • Foucault M. Fearless Speech. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), Distributed by MIT Press; 2001.
  • Harris gets jail sentence of five years nine months. The New Zealand Heald. 2014, 4 July. New Zealand. Online Newspaper. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11287931
  • Lawyer says age of consent should be lowered to end ‘persecution of old men’. (2013, Thursday 9 May 2013 12.22 BST). The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/may/09/lawyer-age-consent-persecution-men
  • Rose N. Making us resilient: responsible citizens for uncertain times. In: Keynote Talk. Rutherford House, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. 15th to 17th August; 2014. Competing Responsibilities Conference.
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