What fascinates more: hate and the expulsion of the sexual deviant, or pedophilic genius

There is a process unfolding in England and America which demonstrates how willing we are to do things to each other that are both dark and crushing, at the same time choosing not to see what is actually happening.  It is that reaction of hate and crushing condemnation of those attracted to the young is what this post reflects on.

Public sex offender databases have been set up in both countries. In America, for example, there is what has become known as the Megan’s Law legislation, which was created in response to the murder of Megan Kanka.  The legislation requires law enforcement authorities to make information available to the public regarding registered sex offenders.  There are stories where young ‘perpetrators’ are punished repeatedly; unsurprisingly there are voices that cry out “stop this harm, now!”  England has its own version which it calls Sarah’s Law, which enables a member of the public to ask the police whether an individual (e.g. a neighbour or family friend) is a convicted sex offender.

Jones on Megan's law resized

Megan’s Law is Going After the Youth’s of America! (Anthony Young)

It is important to recognise that a shift has begun to happen – a move away from punishing  offenders who are young.  Anthony Jones, a maker of documentaries and films who has moved into the field of forensic research, writes on the issue of Sex Offender Registries in America. His LinkedIn profile offers glimpses of his work. His latest post, “Megan’s Law is going after the youths of America”. Jones joins the voices of others:  “US: Raised on the Sex Offender Registry”.  The central message is the call to stop being inhuman to the young, and it is a call that may well move American society to change.

Will this call to be humane lead to the same call regarding the adult? I for one hope it does. It may well be a case of one step at a time.

Labels can have power. Stanley Cohen, in “Folk Devils and Moral Panics”, which first hit the bookshops in the 1970s wrote about biker groups and young males who were seen as socially disruptive and dangerous.  Today the label pedophile is out there on its own, it can’t be trumped as far as what it can do to the person who has this label put on them.  I ask myself why, and read widely to gain a handle on this question.

sex panic resized

Image sourced from Amazon.com.

Roger N. Lancaster wrote Sex Panic and the Punitive State in 2011 and it was reviewed by Judith Levine – “First, They Came for the Sex Offenders”.  She views Lancaster’s text as “a riveting history and virtuosic analysis of the way America’s thirty-year panic about child sexual abuse has fuelled an ever-increasing appetite to ‘protect, punish, and pre-empt’ crime and has served as the model for the creation of ‘something resembling a police state in the United States.”

This week – May 15, 2015 – Stephen Kershnar is publishing his latest book, “Pedophilia and Adult-Child Sex: A Philosophical Analysis“.  He makes the comment our views of adult-child sex should be based on the “outcome of the empirical investigation of its degree of harmfulness”.  I read Kershnar’s words and put them with what is offered by Judith Levine in her book, “Harmful To Minors: The Perils Of Protecting Children From Sex”.  The negative impact on children – the harm done – where we see this happening may well speak most to what is done by those who seem so deep in the grip of a will to punish and exclude, rather than in the actions of the adult who is labelled sex abuser and pedophile.

We find ourselves, three years after Levine’s review, four years after Lancaster’s book, thirteen years after Levine’s own book, and thirty three years after Cohen’s, and things seem to be even worse.

Usually when I write my style resists being overly direct or harsh.  My background as a Family Therapist, my efforts to look at texts offered by sociologists, and my philosophical preferences, all influence how I put words on the page.  At this point allow me to move into another style.

The most convincing explanation for the hate and malice is remarkably simple – the label pedophile is the ‘pissing-pot’ of the 21st century.  It carries all the shit, hate, and malice, modern society feels about itself.  Gone are the days when one can talk in derisory ways about a person of colour.  You can’t talk about marginalised groups as freely as one might have in the past. The United Nations and other international bodies are letting you know: do that and we will take you down.  In this modern life of political correctness the label pedophile remains the one label you can use to destroy a person utterly, and odds on you won’t be attacked when you use it.

jesus 2

Image sourced from Amazon.com

This comment seems harsh, but an overview may well put what is argued inside a context that gives it credibility.  The path into this situation where one is blocked from attacking and dehumanising individuals and groups has a long history. Western culture has been shaped by many factors and one of them is religion.  Both the Ancient East and Christianity have played a role in how Western cultures deal with sin. Walter Kasper in his 1976 text on Christology,  Jesus The Christ, explains how this idea of atonement worked in the East.

“The individual is deeply involved in the community by reason of a common origin and a common destiny.  His evil deed is always a burden on the whole people.  A sinner was regarded as a common danger in a very direct and realistic sense.  Therefore the worshiping community had to dissociate itself from him solemnly and demonstratively and break off solidarity with the wrongdoer. That was done by excommunication and cursing.  Only by that kind of atonement could the people be reconciled with God. Atonement however was also possible through vicarious actions.  The best known atonement ritual was the transmissions of the sins of the people by imposing hands on a goat and driving it into the desert thus burdened with the sins of all (Lev. 16.20ff).” (Kasper, p.215)

For Christians Jesus was considered to be part of an atonement process that was exhaustive – he stood in for others.  That one action – a life and its death – made any further acts of solidarity with the sinner superfluous.  No one else need die on a cross.  Jesus was more than a person, he was a life-process.  All people’s wrongdoing was taken upon him – a laying on of hands linked to a wrongful execution – in this case one did not have a goat but a person – in this way Christians argued things were put right, and it happens only once.  No other individual need ever do this again.  It is not an alibi – it requires the person walk the Christian path, but it is not magic, and nor does the individual make it happen. This is seen as God doing what humanity on its own could not.  A second image was the idea the person was walking into the tomb of Jesus (Paul in his Letter to the Romans).  The individual is still required to commit to this new self but the atonement aspect is achieved via what can be called ‘the Jesus narrative”.

It is useful to unpack this Christian view not to argue a Christian account is superior to other religious narratives; it is rather that people need, just as we do now, to deal with this issue of keeping communities connected while at the same time addressing wrongdoing and harm done by one to another.  The point here is that we can and do find a way – many ways, different ways – to manage what seems irresolvable.  There are secular versions of just this issue in literature if we go looking.

The pedophile is considered a sinner if he has done wrong – sexual abuse of a child. There is a second view, even more punitive, where the person’s sexual orientation is viewed as ‘inclined towards evil’.  Take note, the official Catholic commentary on the homosexual man uses just such language.  In both cases the pedophile benefits from this theological repositioning.  The individual as a sinner is reconnected to the community via this atonement relationship.

Sadly that theological view all too often did not inform what happened for homosexual man in Western culture.  Between the close of the Second World War, moving through Stonewall, and all the way to the decriminalising of their consensual sexual relationships, many gay men – perhaps most – did not receive that message of connection to the worshiping community.  Catholicism has a‘message of ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’.  It was not a convincing message and many homosexual men realised most Christians did not live as if they understood Walter Kasper’s emancipatory message of atonement for everyone.

I do not see Christianity boldly saying how the pedophile has real solidarity with the worshiping community today either.  I dare say the minor attracted person sees Christian communities as no different from wider society with its talk of exclusion and punishment – ‘pissing on him in public’ with no fear of criticism.  In media items Catholicism finds itself accused of having pedophiles in its ranks – inside its very highest levels.  The Catholic movement keeps saying this cannot and must not be.  Like everyone else down through the ages Catholic priests have committed sins.  Graham Green’s novels about priests who love but remain heroes of his books are something I would want to promote.  Modern accounts of ‘pedophile priests’ are seriously at odds with what Green offers.  Unlike any other accusation the label pedophile is certain to lead to the revoking of his status as an ordained Christian leader. It seems unlikely these men could slip quietly into the pew beside other members of the congregations they once led.

I keep plugging the idea that we can make a better world, that humanity can move forward. The riddle for me is not the issue of how we can make the world better; it is more about why we don’t.  I look at this label issue and ask how can we address not only the person of colour, the migrant, the marginalised groups in whichever society we live in; I also believe this process of making a better society and a better planet needs to include the minor attracted person.  Whatever the psychological and sociological ‘usefulness’ of a pissing pot, I want it gone. In this post I write about one way that might help that happen – via art, what we admire, human creativity.

Consider what happens inside the experience of a parent who gazes on their child’s crayon drawing, or the person who listens to a Tchaikovsky piece being played by their local orchestra to celebrate Christmas. We are looking at human creativity.

What is valued here is not merely the object the individual makes – the child’s drawing may end up on the fridge door; and Tchaikovsky’s music for the serious listener is more than some tune one hums in an elevator. In addition to the object itself what is valued is the person who creates the item.  A circle is closed as we move from the art object to its maker and finally we come to acknowledge what is valued include us – we who watch and listen.

Recently I wrote a piece about Alan Turing.  In the recent film about him can trigger in gay and homosexual men a deep sense of pride; his creativity and his stature are experienced by many gays as more than an affirmation of his code breaking skill; it is a valuing of the man who acted, and ultimately a valuing of all gay men.  Of course I am going to argue we all benefit, gay and non-gay alike – humanity moves up a notch.

Not all homosexuals are code breakers, not all gay men are geniuses.

A person who I have never written about but has been celebrated and discussed a great deal recently is Lewis Carroll (real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson).  On his website, Tom O’Carroll offers a very interesting text:  “Which is to be master – that’s all”.  It looks at how Lewis Carroll is positioned today, and yes some see him as a pedophile; some do not. Lewis Carroll, Tchaikovsky, and Turing are people who can be labelled genius.

biosexual resized

John Money, in Ch. 17 of Pedophilia: Biosocial Dimensions, Jay R Feierman, ed. discusses his term pedophilic genius.

John Money, a New Zealand sexologist, coined the term pedophilic genius. He argued some individuals who display genius do so in a way that is driven by and intimately linked to their experience of themselves as sexual beings. One man who I think shows this kind of giftedness is Michael Jackson. Recently I was offered a link to a BBC documentary that discusses another man who was unmistakably a genius and who like Jackson has been linked to a deep personal love of boys.  It is the story of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek and his work with the disease Kuru, gaining a Nobel Prize in 1976.  The media piece by the BBC is titled “Storyville The Genius And The Boys”. Gajdusek’s life began to be rewritten following a claim in 1996 by one of his adopted sons that he had had oral sex with him.

Recently I learned from more than one source that Alan Turing’s sexual interest was not as ‘orthodox’ as  “The Imitation Game” portrays, nor is he as good a fit for the modern gay man as some would wish.  Comments made by people who worked with Turning and knew him well suggest he may have been minor attracted.

My point here is not to say, look, some of our great men and women were sexual deviants, let’s trash their art and what they have done.  Nor am I inspired to drive a stake into the hearts of those who admire Michael Jackson, Lewis Carroll, Alan Turing, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, or Tchaikovsky for that matter – he to had sexual affairs with boys.  At the centre of what I offer here is the existence of these men’s work, the experience of our admiration for them as people.  Both the objects of art and the men themselves help us stay away from a descent into rage and hate when we look at the minor attracted person.  Moral outrage sometimes resembles self destructiveness more than an appreciation of what matters in life.

Note I am not arguing for a notion of privilege to operate – I am not saying let the gifted individual be abusive and harmful in their relationships with others because their talent lets them do what others must not.  Alibis are just that – distractions, deflections.  My point rests in considering what we can do that is of lasting value and affirms that every person matters. I am not talking of rape, non-consenting sexual encounters, or the simple satisfaction of one person’s desire to gain what they want for themselves.

What I have offered resembles a discussion of ‘virtue ethics’ and ‘traditional ethics’. Post-modern discussions tend to not look like either. A postmodern discussion is more likely to look at how celebrity works. Michael Jackson had his music fans, Lewis Carroll has those who read his stories such as Alice in Wonderland, Gajdusek as a Nobel Prize winner and much respected researcher had a fan club that included both the subjects he studied – the people he studies and helped, as well as large numbers of scientific colleagues who valued what he did. Celebrity seems very central to our modern life.

I could point backwards to the last post about what is known by us but offered up as unknown. Many fans of Michael Jackson will let you know they don’t want to know. There is a lot that can be said on this point.

The experience of great art and objects brought into existence by gifted people makes us connect with a part of who we are that can help us be our best selves.  We have the capacity to be destructive in way that matches what we find in the art and genius provided to us by individuals. For me the riddle is not can gifted person be a pedophile, my mind is locked onto the deep puzzle of how people can be so destructive and so damaging when they encounter this sexual orientation.

Peter Ellis resized

Image of Peter Ellis sourced from NZ Herald.

This feature of our societies and cultures looms large in my mind. The list of cases that speak to what I refer to is long:  Sandusky, Rolf Harris, New Zealand’s Peter Ellis (who has just had yet another request for the legal case against him reopened turn down by the New Zealand Justice Minister), Michael Jackson (whose legal success is not seen by all as a convincing message “this man is not a pedophile”), Arthur C Clarke (again positioned a pedophile despite no legal outcome establishing grounds for this view). You can decide that what makes these men’s lives compelling was that they were drawn to the young; you can just as easily say what makes these lives scary was our management of those men’s lives.

I want to believe, perhaps despite what I see, that what we can do that is good and noble is going to help us turn our societies away from our dark side and motivate us to bring us back to a point where human solidarity and our best selves wins out in the end.

When one realises that more and more adults fill our prisons, live under bridges in the ‘wealthy’ spaces of America, are under the expanding threat of civil commitment and life-long social exclusion, all seems lost.  Will we really change and make the turn from our efforts to exclude and punish because a truth about ourselves becomes visible to us via narratives that have at their centre a child – the young sex offender?

DETAILS:

  • Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Third Edition). London and New York: Routledge.
  • Money, J. (1990). Pedophilia: A Specific Instance of New Phylism Theory as Applied to Paraphilic Lovemaps. In J. R. Feierman (Ed.), Pedophilia: Biosexual Dimensions (pp. 446-463). New York: Springer-Verlag.

What Do You Mean, You Don’t Know?

At this point in Western history, an adult who recognises they are attracted to the young is positioned inside their society negatively, especially those societies shaped by Anglophile traditions. The challenge is how to move beyond a negatively framed way of seeing oneself and the desires that are at the core of who one is.

An earlier post on this site argued minor attracted persons (MAP) can look to how others  talk about how they see themselves. Navigating life often involves learning from others – so the idea that the group you belong to needs to reinvent the wheel and solve all problems from within seems to me an unhelpful expectation.

Competing Responsibilities Sociology Conference, 2014

Competing Responsibilities Sociology Conference, 2014

The post I  refer to had a context – a talk by Prof. Nikolas Rose titled “Making us resilient: responsible citizens for uncertain times”, which was the keynote address at a sociology seminar titled Competing Responsibilities: The politics and ethics of responsibility in contemporary life.  His talk did not reference the life situation of the MAP. Rose encouraged people to look for more positive ways of framing talk of the self. A key term he used for that process was the word resilience which he used inside the title of his talk. I argue MAPs need to look at this concept as part of crafting a responsible and ethical way to live their life in 2015. I know Prof. Rose does not agree with this idea because I asked him. His message was directed at people who are not minor attracted; he wanted them to focus on developing resilience, as a positive response to modern life. The ‘resilience’ message is a valuable one for everybody – including those who are minor attracted.

Behaviourist models of human sexuality centre on risk and risk management; prison based programs for those convicted of child sexual abuse and community based versions of the same programs are often informed by behaviouristic models. I argue these programs restrict how individuals see themselves. I need to be very clear here and assure the reader my objective is to promote a process where a person sees it as their responsibility to live and craft an ethical life. It goes without saying MAPs, whether they have convictions for sexual abuse or not, are not asked to contribute to how they manage their lives – they are told how to live, how they must live.

That call for all of us to live ethically – if one is informed by Western philosophical ideas – reaches all the way back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. According to that tradition what I am talking about is how to live a good life. Despite the long time-lapse between those philosophers and where we find ourselves, that challenge has not gone away.

Not limiting itself to commending Prof. Rose’s call to resilience, my post also hinted that valuable insights may be gleaned from writers who comment from within diverse worlds: psychoanalysis, Marxism, philosophy, history, critical theory, etc.

My reading in recent years has included a number of writers and social theorists: Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Elizabeth Roundinesco, Slavoj Zizek, and Alain Badiou – a predominantly French group of intellectuals who published and debated their ideas of freedom, ideology, knowledge, emancipation, health, and sexuality.  What makes this group especially interesting is the way they bring together disparate disciplines in crafting their texts and their ideas.

The major voice informing this post is Slavoj Zizek. Of particular interest is his talk of knowledge, in particular his recommendation that we look into what he calls the science of not knowing as a part of a general theory of epistemology.  What is striking is the paradoxical way Zizek talks, and it is perhaps this feature that draws his audience  into what he has to offer.

Slavoj Zizek's talk on "Not Knowing" (YouTube)

Slavoj Zizek’s talk on “Not Knowing” (YouTube)

In his video clip, “Ideology and Modalities of Not Knowing. 2014”, Zizek explains “Ideology is not only what it says, it is also the complex network of solicited transgressions”. He offers an example from his army training.  There were things that were prohibited and there were accompanying messages about those prohibitions: if you did not transgress those prohibitions, then you would be viewed as an idiot.  He offered the example of how a soldier would be told, Don’t get drunk.  That soldier, if he did not go drinking with his comrades on a regular basis, would be viewed as failing his fellow officers and even as being unpatriotic.

Zizek argues all human communities have rules.  Accompanying those rules are what could loosely be called meta-rules – a guide to how the rules can be broken and under what conditions.  He takes a special interest in these meta-rules – and so do I.  Zizek begins by asking how the rules help reveal how ideological systems work, then via a question from his audience he explains how this rules/meta-rule idea can be seen when talking about knowledge.

In this post I am taking a further step – how might one talk about the rules/meta-rules relationship when looking at human sexuality.  I see here an opportunity to use Zizek’s thinking as a tool box rather than simply quoting what he says about sex.

The behaviourist will tell you that the key issue is: for the pedophile to not have sex with children.  A behaviourist perspective will focus on the management of sexual arousal and the management of risk.

Zizek’s argues there is a crisis that needs responding to – but it is not the crisis we read in the media. My interest is to ask the question, using Zizek’s toolbox, if we have a crisis for human sexuality – one of the issues being sexual contacts across generations – then how would it be talked about? My rendering of this issue does differ from how the behaviourists frame the discussion.

Zizek offers his view on the question of rules with the added point that the ‘not knowing’ feature of his epistemology includes modalities. The first one involves these rules paired with other rules – usually unspoken and unacknowledged – telling us how rules can be broken and in what circumstances. A second modality, another version of the same thing, is where you are offered an opportunity but the unspoken rule is you must not take it. Now let’s  unpack how this modality runs when talking about sex.

Zizek gave an example from his days in the army. At the beginning of their training a soldier is taught various things and after a short period of time there might be a public ceremony where they would make a public statement about becoming a member of the army.  They would also be offered the chance to sign the book stating their commitment. Of course the signing is positioned as a moment of free choice. This opportunity includes the ability to say no, I won’t sign.  Zizek recounts an army cadet who asked was he free when signing and was told yes. He then said “I don’t sign”. The trainers were angry; they felt the cadet had ‘broken a central rule’. They issued a written order – sign the book freely. The situation looks absurd, even humorous, but the important point is the army officials were very serious. For them it was no joke!

The behaviourist approach regarding minor attraction is to focus on a prohibition – you must not have sex with children; and more than this, in your thinking about them, you must not explore that idea as positive. For the behaviourist – and others, I suspect – this is how they would frame today’s crisis: don’t have sex across generations. Using Zizek’s talk of rules we can frame the situation differently. Yes, there is a crisis but it is not this one. The real crisis is the possibility that people might be given the choice – that you actually are free to decide, and it is this, I argue, that frightens people. This is our current crisis; you have an opportunity, you are expected to say no, freely, but now it becomes necessary for us to acknowledge some may say yes.

This post is not offering is a full history of all human choices regarding this matter; that would be bold and an unfair request for a reader to make. What is offered is a way of seeing how this practice of not knowing has been brought into the light.

Zizek mentions how the issue of not knowing has been highlighted by the Wikileaks situation and the disclosures by Edward Snowden.  Zizek argues that while some detail is being made available to us, it has not been a process where at one time we knew nothing and now we know it all.  He argues the crisis for democracy is the cessation of the ability to say we don’t know.  Zizek puts it to us we always suspected our leaders acted the way Julian Assange and Edward Snowden position them.  The crisis is now we can’t say we don’t know.  To cement his argument Zizek links this situation of the crisis to Jacques Lacan’s view that most of us ‘don’t want to know’.  Lacan questions the assumption that  we are all curious animals who, at our core, desperately want to know things.  Lacan argues, in some areas of life and in certain situations we desperately want to send the message, “I don’t know” or “I did not know this”.  This is, in Lacan’s view, a crisis situation for many.

For Western cultures in the period before the 1970s the situation ran along these lines: a person is offered opportunities where they could have sex with children, but these are opportunities to which the person must always say no.  In this period there were people who said yes.  The meta-rule required that this be part of what is not known.

At that time there was no imagined future where one might be offered a real choice in this matter; nor was it perceived there was a new wave of social optimism unfolding where such choice could be publicly acknowledged.  Furthermore, before the 1970s this view was the preferred understanding of how everything worked.  There was an overarching set of rules, one where you were told what you could and couldn’t do.  Interestingly we felt free, but it was deemed a freedom we must not act on.  We were free, as long as we never said no to the prohibition.  Just like Zizek’s cadet who was ordered to freely sign the book, this was all done freely.

With the 1960s and 1970s I argue freedom and our general social fabric experienced a jolt – we asked in a very broad way, are we really free?  The disruption of two world wars, shifts in bodies of knowledge about sexuality, gay liberation, the rise of equal rights for women – the mix is complex.  We had preferred not to know we were being told what to do, we considered ourselves free and indeed expressed strong political, philosophical and even religious ideas about why this mattered.  But with the 1970s, to keep that old view about ourselves became harder to sustain.  It was this that defined the crisis for Western societies and Western cultures.

"... very few victims reported any fear, shock, force or violence at the time the abuse occurred." p.22

“… very few victims reported any fear, shock, force or violence at the time the abuse occurred.” p.22

I argue intergenerational sexually-expressed friendships were impacted by those shifts.  Along with the narratives of sexual emancipation came narratives of abuse and exploitation.  Those stories have multiplied greatly, and have become increasingly valued narratives inside our culture.

The prominence given to the ‘sex abuse industry’ tells us that it is more than merely one discourse among many; it behaves as if it is the benchmark against which all narratives of this sort are measured.  In terms of what this post argues our current position is not one of “now we know all”; what persists, in fact, is our version of not knowing.

We have always known, or at least suspected, that some of those relationships between the young and the older involved consent, friendship and reciprocity.  To this knowledge we say “I don’t know.”

My text speaks to the narratives which, for a short time, emerged but seem to have subsequently been shut down. There were friendships in which rules were broken.  We knew some adults had sex with children.  Public accounts of allegations of sex with children in day care centres multiplied.  Groups were formed – like the Pedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in England.  It became increasingly difficult to hold to the view, “We don’t know”.  By the 1990s, with the help of the media, we were telling ourselves our eyes were opened, and now we knew better.  The knowing, however, focuses on abuse narratives.  The knowing, I argue, still retains a piece of the earlier modality.  To this day, in public discourse, we act as if we don’t know about the non-abusive and non-exploitative intergenerational exchanges.

The sexual profile of the pedophile has never been so much a part of media talk and most recently there seems to be a desperate desire to explain the origins of the pedophile sexual orientation just as there were similar efforts to explain the homosexual male in the 1990s.

The ideological grip of heterosexism has been dislodged.  Sexual variety is experienced as part of the way things are.  The idea of ‘what is normal’ functions to limit what we say yes to, but we can’t say that variety and complexity experienced at the level of the individual as desire, is unknown to us.

The real root of our crisis I argue is the possibility of a different life, a different set of choices.  A minor attracted person can and even should be encouraged to make a life; that life can and should be ethically crafted; that life can and should be seen as free.  It is not about permission to have sex with children.  We have always known for some the choice might well be to say yes to opportunities to form friendships and be ‘all that one can be’ and respond to that call to ‘be one’s best self’.  This aspirational view ultimately doesn’t tell us what to do.  As societies and cultures we are confronted with people who on the face of it are not like us – but they are in fact just like us – the gay male, the lesbian, the minor attracted, the diversity is striking.

We can’t say we don’t know any more.  Everyone is in fact called to be ethical, free, responsible members of our societies and cultures.  Our understanding of sex, sex roles, gender and gender identity offers a more detailed picture of sexuality.  Human desire is part of an ethical journey for same-sex couples, for heterosexual couples – these are our new version of normal.  But for  the individuals inside our societies for whom age is a component of how desire functions, for this group we must now wrestle with how to manage this also.

"Future can be a reference to the one who comes, whose  arrival is totally unexpected. For me that is the real future."

“Future can be a reference to the one who comes, whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me that is the real future.”

I am not arguing all this is settled, or that it is straightforward.  What is interesting and challenging is that here one can take the notions of rule and knowing used by Slavoj Zizek and attempt a process that could be called a type of unmasking.  Zizek argues that in politics we can’t go back, we can’t really say we do not know our leaders spy on us and tell us lies.  I don’t think that situation is quite the same in the area of sexuality.  The preference to not know something – all the while of course we do actual know – can be very strong.  For quite some time we might choose to tell ourselves that minor attraction is beyond our understanding; that, I think, has to be left to what is our future.  My preference is for an an inclusiveness; that preference is a possible future.  That comment offered by Jacques Derrida seems worth citing: our real future, the one that matters, remains what is likely to be unexpected and unplanned

Further Reading:

  • Clancy, S. A. (2009). The trauma myth and the truth about the sexual abuse of children – and its aftermath. New York: Basic Books.
  • Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Third Edition). London and New York: Routledge.
  • Ditum, S. (2015, 13 April). Why are we so desperate to find a genetic explanation for sex offenders? [Newspaper article]. New Statesman (United Kingdom), Online Magazine ed.
  • Dunham, A. (2014, 18 August). ‘Paedophiles should commit suicide’: Expert. The Local: Spains News in English (Spain), Online Newspaper ed., sec. Society. Retrieved from http://www.thelocal.es/20140818/paedophiles-should-commit-suicide-official
  • Hunter, J. (2008). The Political Use and Abuse of the “Pedophile.” Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 55(No. 3), 350-387. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00918360802345073
  • Rose, N. (2014, 15th to 17th August). Making us resilient: Responsible citizens for uncertain times. [One of two keynote talks.]. In Keynote Talk. Competing Responsibilities Conference, Rutherford House, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Seto, M. C. (2012, Feb). Is pedophilia a sexual orientation? Arch Sex Behav, 41(1), 231-6.
  • Sharpe, M. Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). In J. D. Fieser, Bradley (Ed.), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource.
  • Sonenschein, D. (1998). Pedophiles on Parade: Volume 1 & 2, ‘The Monster in The Media’ and ‘The Popular Imagery of Moral Histeria’. San Antonio, USA: Sonenscheirn, David.
  • Zizek, S. Ideology and Modalities of Not Knowing. 2014 [You Tube item]. In European Graduate School Video Lectures. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBa-pCmuBHU#t=15

Historic sex abuse cases

Taken from piece in MailOnline (See below for details).

Taken from piece in MailOnline, Source details/link given below.

Recently the British media offered yet another example of how things work for them and for us when telling a story. The news item was about Chris Denning and how he has been put in prison, again, for sexual abuse of the young. In this blog piece I am not writing about how they got it right or got it wrong; what interests me is the experience of the processes that typically shapes a historic sex assault case in countries like England, America, and yes New Zealand 2014/15. People may find these historic sex cases difficult and ‘annoying’ but in a way they are very much how we are as a society.

What are often referred to as historic sex charges involve allegations an adult has broken laws when the actions taken are very much in the past; in Chris Denning’s case the period was some thirty years ago – during the 1970s and 1980s. When events are located in the past they are rendered via our gaze, our looking back. How that rendering is done is what this post will seek to discuss.

Many fail to understand this process which generates feelings of betrayal and anger. This experience is not only possible for those who believe a child or youth has been sexually abused, it can also be how those who identify with the accused can experience the process.

Working with accounts of past events is hardly a new riddle to unpack. In my past professional life working with religious texts was central to what I did and through this work I have become familiar with how language and interpretation of items which sit in our past has been at the centre of fierce social debates. Religious texts are a central part of society, and have been so for our culture for as long as we have records.  In my lifetime I can see how working with texts has been shaped by discussions inside literary studies, philosophy, psychology, put briefly all the knowledge fields have had a say about how such texts can be rendered – the process is on-going. What I argue here first came into view for me because these ways of thinking were deployed when discussing accounts of early Christianity, and now I can see the very same ideas impact on how one does history and how one constructs a text for a law court – text is everywhere; in a radical sense, all texts are shaped by the same processes – they are made, read, and rendered.

For a time there was a belief we could, with discipline, retrieve an account of the past that was freed of our prejudices and such accounts could be seen as stable. I recall reading Michel Foucault argue such a discipline sits at the heart of what an intellectual and the academic world is tasked to do. In Religion this discipline was discussed under the headings of hermeneutics and exegesis. In our current time one of the interesting differences between the Muslim and Christian traditions  is how Christianity has found a new sense of itself by allowing these literary tools to help the reader discuss and access the texts Christians see as important to them. Muslims see their texts – often shared texts with the Christians – as important to them as well; however they have so far resisted bringing together the discussions that live inside secular discussions of literature, history, and philosophy and their readings of the Koran. From where I am now I see both what Foucault was arguing for – a disciplined accessing of the past and a rendering of that as an object of study – and a different set of readings shaped by postmodernism. Simply put we understand that we are continuing to tell ourselves stories and that this is just what we do.

For those readers who are unfamiliar with religious texts or just prefer a secular example for a discussion of how to write and how to read let’s look at modern literature. Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell is a tale many of us are familiar with and it provides an interesting way of pointing to some of the debates focused on what is history and how to approach accounts offered to us about the past. The novel by Orwell is clearly a caricature and through the story we are offered pointers about ‘truth-telling’. I argue here that to point to an object is to imply its opposite. Orwell’s novel offers, along with it’s fictional tale, a belief we can do history. He shows us as a reader there are ways we use to decide how and if an account offered to us is legitimate. Orwell’s novel refers to institutions, social practices, and a view of knowledge where the reader can see these accounts of the past are reworked and rejigged – the principles of newspeak. At the very same time as this is offered to the reader its opposite sits silently in the background; accounts of the past can be rendered that are trustworthy.

Orwell and Foucault are not the only names to throw into the ring when discussing how accounts can be assessed. Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard spring to mind, and whole groups as well, Marxists, the French Nouveau Philosophies of the 1970s, Feminists, religious factions, pop and media culture, the list is extensive. The point is not so much who is right in some absolute sense, the issue is how accounts are made, read, the rules that govern discourse. We have in such a short space of time shifted how we decide what can be trusted when making judgements about any account we view inside Western culture.

In the mid-1970s television became a new way authors could access their readers. The old pathways of legitimation were pushed to one side as a TV interview with an author was capable of moving a book from obscurity to being a best seller. Now, 2015, it can be argued this is what is happening with the Internet, and why the media cultures which have become so central to how we live have become so powerful. Engage a person or a group in a debate inside these spaces and one has the sense one has lost control of what might happen. The rule has become ‘enter these spaces at your own risk’. It is my view those in the academic world, and in the legal spaces as well, share a common failing. The features of pop-culture and the world of media are often under-estimated in how these spaces gives expression and direction to both who we are and who we are becoming.

Our legal courtrooms are no exception to what is being argued here. A court of law may well task itself with the business of finding out what happened in the past, involving the competing claims made by prosecution and defence. In fact two things are happening, we can see how we both want to believe we can get to the truth – that the past can be a rendered as an object we can view and make judgements about – and we are aware of how constructed our accounts of life are. The picture is, for all this complexity, still incomplete.

Michel Foucault has argued discourses have rules. You cannot say just anything, not just anyone can speak. Where one is looking at a case like that of Chris Denning the rules in play block the very possibility of speaking inside the legal spaces as if he is ‘just like us’ – at the heart of the profile of the sex offender is how his humanity is not to be ‘believed’, any more than one would be free to construct an account of Osama Ben Laden as ‘just like us’.

Where an adult has had sexual relations with the young, and those relationships violate our laws about sex with the young, efforts to reconstruct the past as it may be understood by the adult involved are unlikely to succeed. Notions of friendship, consent, love, they are all blocked. Because of the rules that govern current discourse – to use Foucault’s way of viewing this process – one is not able to speak and in a sense that past the accused has in their head never happened. The rules Foucault speaks of are fluid, ever changing, and some spaces operate differently than others. The law court, the media spaces, blog sites, a discussion at a pub, a talk in our homes with friends, all offer different rules, but there are patterns, blockages – ‘you can’t say that …’, templates.

In a way analogous to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four what we have that guides our lives is both a textual process governed by rules, and its opposite. It is not as if, in an objectively real sense, what Chris Denning as an convicted sex offender has had as a set of experiences has been made to disappear.  With discipline one might well reconstruct an account Denning could look at and say, yes, that is what happened. However the tale we tell ourselves about those who have sexual contact with the young has a template that is dark, condemnatory and punitive. Yes, sexual assault does happen in the sense that unwanted sexual encounters take place, exploitation is a component of our social relations as people. My point is many do find the historic sex case difficult to experience because of all of what I am unpacking here, especially the person standing in the dock. (What contributes to this experience is far more than the simplistic question ‘Did you do it?’; to pose the question ‘What happened? is more open.)

As a closing remark let me say the blog discussion offered by Tom O’Carroll about the Chris Denning case is an interesting rendering of the past. It includes many bits that are unlikely to ever find themselves living inside the courtroom. Hopefully someone will find a way to allow Denning to view that discussion, he might enjoy the read.

DETAILS:

What are we running from?

stifled - peanuts 02

Cartoon taken from a site on Peanuts. (click image to access)

My last post on this blog was dated August 2014.  It is now the first week of December, so why the long gap?  There have been a number of drafts on various topics, none of which made it to the Internet.  Was it just that life got busy?  Two things shaped my activities: first an effort to read material that takes time to process, and second the current sociopolitical climate − characterised by hegemonic ideology − affords little opportunity for contributions from writers on issues relating to the minor attracted person.

A mood can develop that tells the author this process is blocked − social, cultural and political spaces become increasingly rigid and a single view of things dominates.  In such a climate the writing process is gradually stifled.  An earlier post dealt with the topic of hegemony; here, the concept informs this idea of closed spaces.

The question, Why write? can be answered a number of ways; here are two possible responses.  One can write for oneself, quietly putting the assembled text away in one’s desk drawer with no intention to share it − ‘private writing’, a form of art for art’s sake.  Another answer to the question − another style of writing, and it is this one that shapes this blog − is a belief in the value of ongoing public exchange.  There is no attempt here to argue any way of writing is more important; what is rejected is any suggestion of a hierarchy inside writing.  George Orwell’s Winston Smith, hiding in the corner of his room, writing in his notebook, is every bit as powerful as the ubiquitous Stephen Fry.

We can use terms like author, reader, content, narrative about all kinds of writing.  We can even talk of multiple authors and multiple readers − Roland Barthes’ essay on the death of the author vigorously argues that texts are more than mere record-keeping.

So what is Take a Risk NZ seeking to achieve?

When working as a family therapist a method that was both intelligent and helpful was known as the Milan School approach.  Its strength is a commitment to what would be labelled today as a postmodern understanding of how things are.  The kind of question you ended up asking a client might be, Did you say that because you should, because you must, or because you could?  The dialogue this blog engages in links with all three possible responses to that question.  There should be, must be, and can be an exchange of ideas and views in order for the world we live inside of, and create, to have the chance of getting better and, in fact, being better. This view is bold and it does have risks.

The perspective this blog site promotes is being stifled right now. This site is a voice that wants to say a minor attracted person is genuinely an equal member inside his or her society, that sexual orientation for this individual, indeed for the social group such a social profile establishes, requires they be part of how a life is made.

Considering this experience of low oxygen levels there have been some reflections. First there is this idea of what defines one’s understanding of the notion, ‘future’. Inside public discussions about minor attracted persons this idea often involves a discussion of safety, desire that must be resisted, and is framed as dangerous – at the core of child sexual abuse.  It might involve the accusing voice of the probation officer when an inmate is negotiating life after release from prison. Here, ‘future’ is about tomorrow, what may happen; threat and blame are in the air; the focus is on the programmed, the scheduled, the foreseeable.

In an earlier post that discussed a seminar on inmates who are re-entering the community two kinds of approaches surfaced. One management style was to put all the emphasis on warning the individual that they must keep the rules, any mistakes will be met with punishment, and a return to the prison was an ever-present threat.  Another style was to stress human connection, support from others, a need to build bonds between the inmate − now outside the prison − and the wider community.  It was this second view that gained my support and now, again, a non-punitive and less violent approach is favoured.

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida offers a view of future that is ‘l’avenir (to come)’, the arrival of a person or an event which is totally unexpected, unforeseen.  For Derrida that is the real future.  So it is the unpredictable which needs to be our focus; when that thing or that person you did not foresee comes into your life, the issue becomes our response. This is a process guided by openness and tolerance, not fear and danger. In my previous post the topic was resilience.  Traditions like those of psychoanalysis, philosophy, and critical theory may have more to offer the minor attracted person than the voices coming out of such fields as behavioural psychology and criminology.

Cool at 13

Image used in the media piece by Jan Hofffman.

A different issue surfaced inside my abandoned attempt to respond to a media piece by Jan Hofffman, a New York Times blog writer.  Her piece titled “Cool at 13, Adrift at 23” positioned the young who find themselves befriending those who are older than themselves as pseudomature.  Hofffman took work done by a group of psychologists and repositioned their message to suit her target audiences. First she wanted to encourage those who remember admiring that cool youth with dark sunglasses and gelled hair to drop any feelings of admiration and see this youth as flawed.  Second, she wanted to congratulate the parents who observed how their kids were a bit dull and stayed home watching DVDs on doing a great job and tell them they shouldn’t worry.  I read Hoffman’s piece as further evidence of just how conservative our society and culture was becoming.

Among recent items to grab my attention are two television documentaries. One is about a child sex abuser treatment unit in New Zealand, and the second a documentary, ‘The Paedophile Next Door’, aired on Channel 4.

Kia Marama Unit 02

Kia Marama Rehabilitation Unit

The New Zealand documentary (a repeat screening) focused on the Kia Marama Rehabilitation Unit, in which actor Colin Moynihan took on the task of performing a role – to live inside the psyche of a child sex offender.  The viewer was offered clips of interviews with staff at the unit – trainers and administrators guided by a behavioural psychology model; various men who were clients of the unit – men with convictions for sex abuse of children; Colin’s wife, who expressed concern about what taking on such a task might do to him;  and finally clips where Colin spoke about his experience of the role.

A number of years ago I spend an entire year attending each new show at Wellington’s Circa Theatre.  After one particular performance a group of us were invited to interview the actors.  One of my questions seems relevant to what Colin Moynihan had elected to do: Does adopting a character in a play change you; are you shaped by what the character offers such that when the play ends you are not the same?  The group explained that was not how it was for them.  Circa offers world class theatre; what they deliver is of a very high standard.  For an actor there is nothing particularly unusual about playing a strong character.  Colin, his wife, and the staff at the Kia Marama Rehabilitation Unit all believed Colin faced a risk which the Circa actors would not have considered real.  It might be interesting to ask Colin Moynihan to sit down with other actors and discuss my question.

As one might have expected the words the ‘clients’ are made to speak are highly scripted, and a viewer could easily ask, Is what these men are saying here really how things are for them?  I have worked as a Family Therapist; my assessment is this was not therapy.  Issues relating to personal integrity and damage to the clients remain unanswered.  The real clients here were clearly not the men who had been in prison; the clients here are the wider society.  It was their problems and anxieties which were being dealt with in the Kia Marama Rehabilitation Unit.

Eddie, a minor attracted person with no sexual contacts with any child, is committed to keeping this profile. (Interviewed inside The Paedophile Next Door.)

The second television documentary went to air on Channel 4 and was titled “The Paedophile Next Door”.  Tom O’Carroll discusses the item in his latest blog post, titled “Inadmissible Testimony”.  The item’s makers interviewed O’Carroll but did not use any of the resulting material.  What the group was looking for was a voice that is not Tom O’Carroll.  This Channel 4 piece is more complex than the New Zealand documentary.  Viewers discussing the programme – in social media spaces like Twitter and in the more select group who visit Tom O’Carroll’s blog – match that complexity with large numbers of responses.  The comments on Tom’s post extend into the hundreds.

The documentary-makers’ decision not to include any material from their interview with Tom O’Carroll may be seen as a shift in how the discourse on paedophilia is moving in Britain.  The preoccupation with the 1970s and 1980s persists – people like Tom O’Carroll (or, more to the point, PIE) working for social change are still referenced inside media discussion – however, the next step involves a turn where that past is the past and things have moved on.  The discourse now revolves around two topics that often appear as a pair: brain architecture and the ‘virtuous paedophile’.

What is really at stake here is neither a call to virtue nor an absence of transgression – rather, it is a quest for a way the minor attracted person can minimize the risk of violence and death at the hands of others.  Of course this all hinges on the person acquiescing to society’s requirement that they be open to ‘treatment’.

I am not here making any attempt to look into a crystal ball and make predictions; the issue here is the persistence of a refusal to allow the sexuality of the minor attracted person to be explored.  The position being argued here is that treatment is not sexual understanding.

Hand in hand with this, the violence and hatred people are capable of directing towards others go unacknowledged as problematic in their own right.  Gays may well have successfully introduced the notion of ‘homophobia’ as a way of reframing an issue of moral righteousness.

For a moment we glimpsed how we are: we tell ourselves lies, claiming all that is dark and dangerous lives within those we, the righteous, seek to punish. All too often what gives us permission to do unspeakable harm to others involves various phobias and fears.  No sooner had this insight surfaced than violent behaviour and dangerous rage morphed into hatred of the paedophile, and societies (particularly in the West) found themselves back on track.  We may need to augment what we have learned with a new word – ‘paedophobia’.

So two aspects of what it means to be human are going unexplored – the sexuality of the minor attracted person and the self-righteous violent rage that can be performed in public.  The beheadings by Islamic extremists can’t be viewed as radically different from what the rest of us are capable of once this kind of insight is acknowledged.

Both the TV documentaries – the New Zealand piece on Kia Marama and Channel 4’s presentation on paedophilia in England – show a heavily scripted and tightly controlled public voice.  The social construction of ‘the paedophile/sex offender’ has found a place in modern discourse … and it appears the virtuous paedophile has been invited to the table.  The talk grows in volume month by month.  But there are other voices – some of them feeling stifled – who, rejecting those limited options, are determined to create their own speech and not merely mouth the scripts handed to them.

That paedophile profile offered to us in the media, those probation reports drafted by behavioural psychologists setting the conditions for ongoing supervision of released prison inmates, and the criminological discourse treating incarcerated sex offenders as if they represent all who are attracted to the young … none of these dominant and highly influential voices really resemble the varied and genuinely diverse voices of minor attracted people who live within our societies and cultures.

In the current environment, this blog has two interests: first, a concern about what is generated and what circulates inside our societies and cultures that links with the experience of the minor attracted person; second, an attentiveness to those voices that are original and that disrupt the socially constructed discourse.  In recent times, all the talk is about sex abuse and the dangerous person.  The emergent profile offered to us in media discussions – labelled paedophile or sex offender, and often a man – is sad, remorseful, guilt-ridden and contrite (even if he hasn’t done anything), pathetic and pitiable, but needing treatment.  This virtuous paedophile may well mark a new moment in the discourse but this is not really a marker of significant change – it does not ask, and nor will it be, a step towards an emergent sexuality for the minor attracted person in the way things happened for homosexual men in the 1960s and the 1970s.

So, with this post, has the block to dialogue been cleared?  The reader can decide that question.  But Jacques Derrida is right: we can best understand the term ‘future’ as pointing to the thing or person whose arrival is unexpected – in a real sense experienced as ‘other’.  Such a future is well worth valuing, and inside that unplanned-for and unexpected set of events, perhaps we will from time to time catch another glimpse of ourselves as we really are.

 

References:

 

 

 

 

Re-imagining the Modern Man

drunk-superman edited

… the good bloke is transformed into a “figure of dread and suspicion”

“I’m sorry for being a man, right now,” David Cunliffe told a Women’s Refuge Symposium recently. “Because family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children.”

David Cunliffe is the leader of the Labour Party, the largest opposition group in New Zealand’s parliament. His intended audience was clearly not only the women in the room, but it would be a mistake to argue his only target audience was NZ men, even when he said, “Wake up, stand up, man up and stop this bullshit.’’ Cunliffe’s words are cited on a blog called Bowalley Road, which reports that later, in a TV3 interview with Patrick Gower, the Labour leader remained staunch in his position, despite the criticism he had begun to attract.

It goes without saying that women need to be respected, protected and valued. In what is offered here, there is no effort to promote the idea that one section of society should benefit at the expense of any other part. Women, men, children, ethnic groups, sexual minorities, marginalised groups – and the criminal is included in this list – all these people are the beneficiaries of a better society and a future world worth building and fighting for.

When considering the roles men play in all this, an important distinction is necessary: one can speak of how men see themselves in general, or one can focus on how men view themselves in relation to the violence David Cunliffe was highlighting. Chris Trotter, the blogster behind Bowalley Road, sees matters of identity and human responsibility as linked to the issue of social benefit – who benefits from the way things are? He argues that all men benefit when they live inside societies and cultures that are patriarchal, even if they as individuals would see themselves as nice guys. So for him all men must own the negative outcomes of patriarchy. I can agree with him and yet it is actually the subtext of that ownership I want to look at. I don’t want men to say yes to a belief that they as individuals and as a group are somehow flawed – men bad/ women good.

It is a genuinely modern view that a text is no longer a sequence of words or marks on a page that are set in motion by the intentions of the writer. A modern reader appreciates that how a text is read is more important than how it was intended to be read. So a good author, that is a thoughtful and knowing author, actually looks at both the intended message and the many ways the text could be read. Viewed critically Chris Trotter’s position could be read as a little naïve. He certainly has the intention of addressing the issue of violence against women and children; some of the other possible readings of his text, however, carry the potential to misdirect New Zealand society and culture. Note what is being argued here: neither David Cunliffe nor Chris Trotter intends to let men off the hook; the danger nonetheless is that men might become less willing to own and explore who they are and short-circuit the kind of reflection that is needed if a way forward is to be found.

The reflection process for this blog piece actually began inside an Australian media item. What was offered there was, unlike the messages of Cunlilffe and Trotter, a wrong turn as far as leadership messages go.

The local call to regret being a man from David Cunliffe sadly sounds so similar to what the Australian piece delivered it seemed sensible to open with what happened for us as New Zealanders first and then use the Australian piece to shed light on where not to go.

Before getting into the detail, a few general points are pertinent. Leadership can involve sending messages to people about what a person should do, and that can get very tricky. Some situations are difficult to navigate; one such instance is to say something critical about a person who is a victim of social oppression. It is even harder to say it to them face to face, although that may have the best chance of being understood by others.

Having read some of the texts authored by Hannah Arendt – one of which was her book The Origins of Totalitarianism – I see her as an articulate intellectual of her day. She had to deal with just this kind of situation: she was critical of the Jewish leadership regarding how they managed their role in the period when the German political movement led by Hitler brought many of the Jewish population to their deaths. When she made those comments some of the Jewish community saw this as rubbing salt into an already deep wound. Despite the victim status of the Jewish community Arendt was, in my view, right in what she had to say. (A good account of this process is given in the 2012 movie about Hannah Arendt.)

Group-think – and that is how I will refer to it – is a process where people give away ownership of how they do their thinking, and (sadly) become easily manipulated by others. Arendt was speaking about how the Jewish group, en masse, just stopped being sufficiently critical and reflective to understand what was happening to them. This is precisely what I sometimes see men doing when they are required to deal with matters concerning the sexual abuse of women and children.

Women and children have certainly been victims of sexual abuse at the hands of men, and continue to suffer harm. Our social and cultural awareness of this issue is higher now than it was when I was a younger man. Given the importance of this issue and the need to take steps to stop the abuse some men are adopting a group-think approach that is deeply flawed. I saw this step being taken inside a piece published this week by the Australian media magazine, The Age. The item was authored by Sam de Brito and the title of the article was “Suffer the men, not the little children”.

De Brito points to an image of the past in which men saw themselves as good blokes – “part of the scenery at parks, beaches and playgrounds” – but then the image changes, and the good bloke is transformed into a “figure of dread and suspicion”. De Brito is offering the view that the change is best explained by the sexual abuse of women and children by some men. He says the good bloke image has been shattered by accounts of abusive men. But the ordinary man senses that this ‘self’ he is being offered today is not really him; his problem includes a generalised not-being-sure.

This is not how I read de Brito: his writing does sound like he understands the average bloke; he has been to a guru, to check that he’s right. But what he has been told by psychologist and author Steve Biddulph is what I choose to call a wrong turn – it was at this point the group-think error unpacked itself. (Biddulph’s book, Raising Boys, is a worthwhile read.)

Biddulph offered de Brito the view the current environment of mistrust towards males is simply “a correction”. “For decades, in fact centuries,” Biddulph explains, “people were in denial that such things could happen – priests sodomising little boys, TV stars molesting pre-teen girls, and so on. … So when it finally all came out, and we shifted to the vigilance we should have had all along, it became necessary to suspect everyone.”

De Brito argues the path that unfolds runs along these lines – “The resulting apprehension and scepticism about men and children is an undoubted inconvenience for guys today, however, we just have to accept it.” De Brito has Biddulph closing off his overview with the comment, “It’s tough, but like security at airports [and the presumption we all could be a terrorist] it is probably worth it.”

I view Biddulph as behaving in a very similar way to how Jewish leaders responded to the political moves by the German leadership under Adolf Hitler. There are some very powerful movers and shakers at work in our present, just as there were in 1940s Germany – and yes, one needs to assess what can and cannot be done; however, the level of capitulation imaged for us in Biddulph’s advice is frightening. It is vital that fathers and male caregivers love the children in their care; to let go of that is a serious wrong turn.

My somewhat utopic vision looks forward to societies and cultures where men respect, support and love the young; and equally, oppose and guard against all disrespect, abuse and indifference towards them.

Details:

Arendt, Hannah

1973    The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego; New York; London: Harcourt Press.

Biddulph, Steve

2014    Raising Boys: Why Boys Are Different – and How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men. New York: Ten Speed Press.

de Brito, Sam

2014    Suffer the Men, not the Little Children. Newspaper Comment. The Age [Australia], 24/June, Online Newspaper, Comment Section.

von Trotta, Margarethe

2012    Hannah Arendt (2012). Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer. Heimatfilm. 113 minutes.

 

 

Cultural hegemony: What’s that?

Antonio Gramsci (Italian: 22 January 1891 – 27 April 1937) Sourced from Wikipedia.org

In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant wrestled with precisely what it was that defined the times in which he lived. Two hundred years later, Michel Foucault, recognising the importance of what Kant had been trying to do, challenged his readers to notice how different the situation was. Both Kant and Foucault offered texts they titled “What is Enlightenment?”  In its non-technical form it is perhaps one of those questions that needs to be asked again and again.

Foucault made the observation that in Kant’s time questions were often put up for readership with the assumption the reader did not know the answer. By the time Foucault came to write his material readers could be assumed to have a set of answers to the questions he set about discussing. The issue Foucault faced was could what he wrote influence his reader? My position and Foucault’s are quite similar in this way, mind you he has a track record regarding an impact that I wouldn’t even begin to come near!

For today’s reader a piece of writing titled What is Enlightenment? might not catch their eye, but I do think threats to what the Enlightenment brought for Western society and culture are very much front and centre for many. Put simply our ideas about freedom, democracy, and critical thought owe a great deal to what the Enlightenment was all about, and currently societal fears about these issues are referenced every day in media items and pop culture. In this regard a person cited in other posts on this blog is Frank Furedi and he is well worth listening to.

What is noteworthy is how freedom, democracy and critical thought are not top of the list; what we are afraid of is. Social fears about the loss of freedom, democracy and the lack of critical thought are considered to be real concerns. The American leadership talks of the War Against Terror and the threat of Al-Qaeda and locally we encounter media items about drugs, alcohol use, threats embedded in how youth behave, and sex abuse of children. Currently the major threat coming to us via the media are economic concerns and the ever increasing cost of houses.

Al-Qaeda is regarded as a threat because it is seen as a group pushing for a return to a time and a way of life that is organized using a pre-Enlightenment way of seeing things. In an interesting twist local groups in our setting, such as government agencies who would see themselves as fighting against Al-Qaeda, are also being positioned as a threat to the ideas of the Enlightenment as well. Democracy and freedom are seen by some in the West as very much at risk from the very groups that govern the country.

Here in New Zealand the government defends a need for surveillance both to fight threats from outside the country but they are also seen as willing to spy on its own citizens.  This blog item is not written with the intention of feeding the reader’s fears, but it is valid to say there are things to take note of. This blog does not join the populist cries for increased surveillance and ever stronger punishment for those labelled bad and dangerous.

When I look out my apartment window I don’t see people running down the street in a state of panic, nor do I see images of this on my TV screen, and yet there is this feel that change is happening. In New Zealand it is that odd combination of apparent quiet and fear that is striking. It is a calm that has me worried. It is not that calm one links to personal or social balance, nor is it a calm that suggests peace is here amongst us, it is the calm of cultural hegemony.

It might help to offer some examples. I will offer three.

A couple of days ago the NZ Prime Minister, John Key was interviewed on Radio New Zealand National about a report where NZ homes are described as the most overvalued in the developed world relative to rents and incomes. He expressed the view this is not an indicator of a problem for housing in NZ.  The issue here is not the absence of any debate, it is the confidence John Key has that in the face of such a report he can say what he says.

A second example is a plan for Auckland city to have a CCTV city-wide surveillance network which incorporates facial recognition software (this ability applies to vehicle licence plates as well).  Again it is not the absence of a counter view, but rather the positing of the plan as if any other view is of no value – of course we should do this … it is what any reasonable society has to do, there is no other choice.

The third example is an update from Corrections Minister Anne Tolley that NZ is to have a sex register: “We want a register with everyone on it.” This includes those with name suppression. What is interesting here is how the only apparent counter point to this plan is the question can a database of this kind be secure, especially when NZ’s recent reputation for unsecure data on NZ citizens is well known. The NZ Privacy Commissioner’s Annual Report 2013 acknowledged a number of high-profile data breaches and security failures involving various government agencies including the Ministry of Social Development, EQC, and our GCSB was accused of spying illegally on NZ citizens. The issue of the civil and human rights of sex offenders is not even brought up by the most radial of social voices. The perspective is deemed not exist.

Of the three examples offered here – the housing crisis for New Zealand; city-wide surveillance systems for our largest city; or a sex register for those seen as the country’s most dangerous sex predators, the hegemonic calm is most evident in talk of a sex register. The mood in the country runs along these lines, ‘well of course we need one’ and ‘any sensible, caring person would want this.’ Information coming from other countries about how such strategies not only don’t deliver, they also bring new social problems and push social stigma even further for sex offenders, seems to have no impact on how views are shaped and sustained.

This term cultural hegemony links back to the Italian Communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci. Writing near the turn of the last century he used words like domination, class (as a real social grouping), a ruling class, ideology, power, and invasion. To us now, 2014, it may appear hard to connect with what he was making reference to. That is one of the difficulties when working with classical Communism, it seems another world, not our own. There are writers in our time who would say Communism is not dead, that the Spectre of Marx still walks amongst us. That argument can be left to another post, but what is central here is how Gramsci is right. There are groups inside our society who seek to dominate. Our beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores are not merely the outcome of our individual free choices. There is a dominant ideology at work, and in our own way – yes, different from Gramsci’s day – we have our ruling class.

The telltale signs of what is argued here is the way power becomes invisible, how talk of dominant ideology is denied strongly, how what is put forward is the view that our modern day dominant views are in fact merely ‘natural’, these are the views any reasonable, caring person would hold. Lastly I argue it is the presence of the threat of violence – if you should question this naturalness of these modern dominant views, and note how there is an ongoing claim of an absence of any power at play, then you will be crushed.

A prediction about New Zealand’s social and cultural future for the next year is not that it will fall apart because of deep social divisions, nor is it likely that there will be some large scale turn where the mistakes we make now will be abandoned. The image I have is of a country that is marching into the future, confident, quietly sure of what it wants, but what is most telling about that quiet is how the marching is being done – lock-stepped (imagine the marching done by a group of soldiers celebrating some event inside a fascist setting like Mussolini’s Italy 1943 or closer to our own time a military parade in North Korea 2014). In New Zealand 2014 ideology lives, power is very much part of what can happen and must not happen inside our media and popular culture, but there is no boy to say the Emperor has no clothes (here what is being pointed to is that well known children’s story of The Emperor’s New Clothes), for if any such voice emerges, there is a very good chance that voice won’t live long.

Notes:

Derrida, J. (2006) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. First published by Routledge in English in 1994. New York and UK: Routledge Classic.

Foucault, M. (1984). What is Enlightenment? In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader (pp. 32-50). New York: Pantheon Books.

Furedi, F. (2006) Culture of Fear Revisited. New York: Continuum.

Morton, A. (2007) Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Economy. Ann Arbor: Pluto Press

Destroy the Point – a piece by Helen Razer

Three wise womenAre women better media leaders? Is it better to be a woman because you think men are no good? In the media what do you see about gender and how do you respond? That’s the kind of thinking that caught my eye the other day, a recent version of this idea being would things have been different had the three wise men of the Christmas story been three wise women?

Helen Razer’s writing was drawn to my attention by a friend who wrote about the three wise women version of the Christmas story. Razer makes references to sexual acts and imagery more than I do when I write but what she points to at the core of her argument is worth considering. I’d put her in the same box as Camille Paglia in her straight talk about feminist texts.

In her piece “Destroy the Point” she defines feminism as “the struggle against masculinized violence and feminised poverty”, and notice the use of language here, she avoids the crude idea that to be violent is to be male; to be poor is to be female.

Another link with her I find myself making are her brief references to Judith Butler, Freud, and Marx. I would add Slavoj Zizeg and Michel Foucualt of course. I like the way this woman puts together her ideas and the way she deploys them when talking about social issues and events.

Use the link below to Razer’s blog piece, I think it is worth a read.

Destroy the Point.

Openness, record-keeping, the trace, and modern life.

In this post I will outline some objects I want to position so as to highlight their connectedness. They are the issues of being remembered, or what Derrida has referred to as ‘leaving a trace’; political caution regarding keeping a record of one’s life, and here I point to the life story of Samuel Pepys; the modern shape of how one writes a biography, here I use Erving Goffman; and finally the very recent disclosure in New Zealand of how the Government of the day has been spying on its citizens, and New Zealand is not alone in this, America has also been in the lime light over how it too has been spying on American citizens. I will lens these three objects of the trace, the biography, and the gaze of the modern state, through the window of sexual identity, in particular the sexual identity that is marginal, and for some completely other.

What launched me into this line of thought was a friend giving me a birthday present (it came early as my birthday is in August)  – a biography of Jacques Derrida by Benoit Peeters. I admire Derrida and perhaps understand his texts better now than I used to. Derrida offers texts that are sometimes difficult to enter.

Some time ago, when in Bangkok, I read a comment about him that I found noteworthy, and again that same point is offered in the opening pages of Benoit’s book. It concerns record keeping and my mind draws links to different people and different texts.

I begin my reflections with Derrida and how he kept everything he ever wrote. Peeters lets us know Derrida was “obsessed by the structure of survival [la structure survivante] of each of these bits of paper, these traces.” It is my view Derrida was doing what he has always argued for, giving people the chance to be unsure, wanting to show just how certitude about life, about anything, is likely to be the wrong way to grasp life. By leaving all these life fragments, by keeping endless traces of what he wrote down, he has setup a situation where any biographer is likely to find his or her view of Derrida at some time challenged by another person who says, look you say one thing about Derrida and this thought, but actually I have other things he wrote that argue for something else, perhaps even the opposite of what you argue for.

Next I consider how, on my return to New Zealand, one of the first books I read was “Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self “ by Clair Tomalin. Pepys, like Derrida, wrestled with note-taking. He kept a diary of his life and thoughts. Pepys was deeply concerned by the issue of where to keep his diary, and who should and who should not have access to it. Samuel Pepys saw it as a matter of survival that access to his diary had to be restricted.

Finally my mind considers Erving Goffman’s book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. He offers the observation that modern societies seek out those bits of our past that are difficult as part of drafting a biographical image of who we are. Western society and culture, reflecting a shift in our concerns, insists on knowing the difficult bits, and that where we seek to mask or hide those difficult bits, such behaviour is viewed as a reason for suspicion. In my lifetime I feel a greater push in the direction of Samuel Pypes than a push to follow Derrida.

Sexuality and sexual identities have in my lifetime come to play a significant role in many people’s lives. The two identities of the homosexual man and the pedophile show an interesting set of social and cultural changes.  In the beginning of my life, 1950s New Zealand, homosexual identity was deeply problematic. Now in 2013 that identity is positioned very differently. New Zealand attitudes are inspired by a tolerance to gay marriage and the adoption of children, a point of view that is seen as confirmation of a post-Enlightment understanding of the individual. To be prejudiced against the gay man in 2013 is a measure of how a person might fail to fit in regarding social norms. One observes that what the homosexual man used to be positioned as in the 1950s is now the lot of the pedophile – the pervert, the dangerous individual, the incurable social threat.

When I read recent New Zealand media articles about proposed new legislation of our GCSB, America’s NSA and projects like PRISM are distant images of what we are in the process of becoming. Our modern governments are reading our emails, listening in on our phone conversations, spying on us and making no apologies for doing so. Some people here in New Zealand are concerned but if public reaction is anything to go by the message seems to be ‘get over it and move on.’

I admire Derrida, and I want to be influenced by what he has done. I read, I write, but I do not dare to keep everything I write for others to view. That move to keep everything I write, given local and international politics, would seem plain foolish. A part of me wants to believe that to do as Derrida has done is the ethically noble way to live, and so I ask myself, maybe I have misread him.

Other people’s texts can be plain seductive. As if to offer me a link to Derrida that reaches across this riddle about record keeping, a quote Peeters offers maybe a point to a compromise. When discussing the fragile divide between the public and the private Derrida is sighted as saying:

At a certain moment in the life and career of a public man, of what is called – following pretty hazy criteria – a public man, any private archive, supposing that this isn’t a contradiction in terms, is destined to become a public archive if it isn’t immediately burned (and even then, on condition that, once burned it does not leave behind it the speaking and burning ash of various symptoms archivable by interpretation or public rumour).

As well as Derrida’s obsession with the structure of his survival, his willingness to allow people to look over all his notes and thoughts, perhaps he does understand that this process is far from straight forward. For myself and for Derrida the notion ‘private’ can and does play a role.

Those who inhabit the profiles of sexual minorities know all too well the political and social potency of the trace and the biography. Our modernity, with its post-modern philosophies, is being shaped and defined by governments spying on their citizens, there is much reflection to be done as to how to live one’s life. Keep this thought in your mind: there is no them; there is only us.

Viruses feel like unwelcome visitors, but sometimes they are much more.

Director of Strategy and Policy for the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

Sean Faircloth, Director of Strategy and Policy for the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

I am a twin so you might have thought that what life is teaching me now is a lesson I should already know – two things that look the same may be quite different from each other. This week I have viewed a video clip that could be described as New Age in style and a group of talks which had as their goal the promotion of secular society in New Zealand. The common thread, the thing that made these items initially appear the same, was science. Both were proud to lay claim to scientific word-views. Both claimed scientific methodology sits at the core of what they are about. None the less, there were differences, quite significant ones, and I argue in this blog-piece that they provide a similarity that is worth taking note of.

The video clip was titled, “What the bleep do we know!?” In it the film’s main fictional character, a female photographer, faces personal life questions that allow the issues of ideas about quantum physics and human consciousness to be highlighted and explored. The film incorporates documentary styled interviews with individuals involved in the fields of quantum physics, psychology and spirituality.

The evening of talks, titled “Moving Toward a Secular Society”, had as its guest speaker Sean Faircloth of the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. The evening was sponsored by the New Zealand Society of Humanists and Rationalists, and held at the Pipitea Campus of Victoria University, Wellington.

The first step for this blog-piece is to see how these ‘scientific’ based presentations were in fact very different from each other.

“What the bleep do we know!?” has as its thesis the view that there is a connection between quantum physics and human consciousness. The film does have a background and seeks to promote a message. Its authors are students of Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. John Gorenfeld, writing in Salon – “‘Bleep’ of faith”, stresses this point because he sees this group as a cult. There are voices who express strong  caution when assessing this film. “What the bleep we know!?” according to these voices is pure junk, pseudo-science and new age psycho-babble.

I am going to make a move that I will call bracketing – put the issue of truth-claims on hold while I focus on other points. It is not about ignoring what is true; sometimes in order to see something we can choose to suspend doubt in order to let an idea be explored. It allows for that idea to be discussed, an idea we might otherwise never allow ourselves to consider.

What the film points to – a shift in how we understand the real – is an observation I can nod my head to. The older view that defines what is real says what sits outside of us is solid, substantial and entirely independent of us – the buildings that surround us, the chair we sit in, the cup of coffee we hold in our hands. The other world, the one we experience as internal, made of perceptions, is fleeting and insubstantial. The new view, the one the film explores, argues how we see and experience things is the really real. It is the contribution the viewer makes that is highly significant. For this perspective the world we see as outside us is linked to our being there in ways that are complex and noteworthy. The makers of “What the bleep do we know!?” argue this marks out and defines the gaze of quantum physics. I nod my head regarding the film’s claims because the older models of the real are limping – they fail to satisfy – there is evidence people are looking for other ways of seeing things.

Schrödinger's cat

Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other. (Sourced from Wikipedia.)

Years ago, as a young man, I was introduced to the paradoxical thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat (devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935). I found it a stimulating riddle. Quantum mechanics has this notion of simultaneously occurring events that collapse into one outcome at the point where an observer looks or views how things are. “What the bleep do we know!?” communicates this message,  using the image of simultaneously bouncing basket balls that become one ball at the point when the ball is observed. The riddle or thought experiment’s significance rests for me in how it impacts on how one understands the real. I now see that neither Bohr’s model of the atom nor Newton’s notion of matter satisfies the question “How do things work?” Via the perspectives of quantum physics I am willing to consider as valid models of the real that are experienced by me as counter-intuitive.

“What the bleep do we know!?” does have this interesting turn, it asserts a new and important place for religion and spirituality. The film is not saying traditional science is wrong because of quantum physics – rather it argues the models for science have shifted. The film also argues this is true for religion.  The model for spirituality the film offers is seen as an update, guided by what is said in modern day discussions of quantum physics.

Religion and science are no longer at odds with each other, in a discussion of what we see as real. If a reader wants to follow their nose regarding this question of bringing the worlds of science and religion into one unified space I suggest the philosophical writings of Alfred North Whitehead. His book Process and Reality is a good start. I have read a few of his books and sat in post-graduate classes discussing his ideas. It is a rabbit hole worth going down, if the interest takes you.

The significant difference between this film – “What the bleep do we know!?” and the talk offered by the speakers at the talks “Moving Toward a Secular Society” rests with how religion is viewed. The speakers were not anti-religion; what concerned them were the dangers of indoctrination. The film promoted the message spirituality should be viewed as positive, that it is part of a new way of seeing what is real; the talks “Moving Toward a Secular Society” were a lot less buoyant about the on-going role of religion in society.

It is at this point that my bracketing may need to close, the talkers promoting the move towards a secular society saw ‘being right’ as central, they were very sure they understand sound methodology. They held the view the social and political moves of some religious groups are not just wrong, they are dangerous. They expressed concern at how talks in state schools, promoted and guided by religious groups under the heading of ‘values programs’, are being held after hours when the final bell has gone at the close of a school day. Concern was also expressed about the current New Zealand government’s proposed model for charter schools. Both these examples were presented as threats to a well-functioning secular society.

It is at this point I wish to discuss step two, that is how the film “What the bleep do we know!?” and the talks “Moving Toward a Secular Society” are the same.

The view I offer here owes its epistemological base to sociology. We live inside a post-enlightenment world. Sociology is very much a discipline or body of knowledge that exists because of this feature of modern Western societies and cultures. Capitalism and fundamentalism are both symptoms and defining features of our social fabric. I think, at least for now, we can’t imagine ourselves living inside a social and political space that is not informed by capitalism. Non-capitalist economies are seen as failures. There was a time before capitalism; now that past seems deeply foreign. In a similar way I argue that fundamentalism can’t be banished either, it has become part of who we are as post-enlightenment societies.

We criticize fundamentalism and those who promote it, we plan for its banishment, secular theorists view fundamentalism as a throw-back, a lingering pre-enlightenment world-view, and yet I think these theorists may suffer from a blind-spot.  At this point in time I can’t imagine being in a non-capitalist society, not because I love and support capitalism (it is for me a virus), I just can’t imagine what a society organized differently would look like. In a similar way I think fundamentalism in all sorts of areas of life is very much with us, again not because I support its style and outlook (as with capitalism, for me it is a virus), but I just don’t easily see how it can be banished.

What forms the basis for my claim? Why do I think it has begun to infect the secular movement? Being right, or absolutism, is for me the tell-tale sign one stands before fundamentalism. When we encounter it, that is when a part of who we are is looking back at us.

At the talks “Moving Toward a Secular Society” I asked the question – “I know, in the world of politics, what fundamentalist politics looks like; I know, in the world of religion, what fundamentalist religion looks like; so, if I am to see fundamentalist secularism, what would it look like? Sean Faircloth answered the question saying fundamentalist secularism is an oxymoron – it just can’t happen.

I am not firmly wedded to my current view, but Sean Faircloth’s answer, and indeed the Richard Dawkins Foundation, points to how fundamentalist secularism is not an oxymoron nor is it an impossibility. It is not about who is right; rather it is about watching, listening, paying attention to what is said and done.

Political groups and religious movements see fundamentalism as a threat. They tell themselves, inside their localized discourses, fundamentalism can be resisted and removed. I speculate they are puzzled as why this approach to life – fundamentalism, ever arrived inside our modernity anyway. Fundamentalism does seem to be new and not the continuation of an older view. This bewilderment about fundamentalism’s arrival is a clue to why it has been able to expand. Confusion and the belief this is about them and not about us has allowed this outlook to grow.  Fundamentalism is a window into us, our philosophies, our world views, and our arguments. I am not saying fundamentalism is right; I am saying to gaze into what it claims is to experience ourselves looking back at ourselves.

Fundamentalism has the feature of being confident in its core beliefs: it ‘knows it is right’. Dogma is central to the ‘style’ that is fundamentalism. The speakers at the talks on “Moving Toward a Secular Society” were very concerned about the indoctrination of the young, as well as the way religion and religious groups promote this ‘being sure we are right’. What I did not hear was the insight that such certitude inside the ranks of the secular movement should ring warning bells for those interested in the promotion of secular thought.

I choose to be very careful in what is being claimed here, I am not antisecular, far from it. I value a great deal what it offers, but recent modelling of secular debate suggests fundamentalist secularism is operating. The talks offered by Sean Faircloth and others are worth thinking about.

REFERENCES:

Arntz, W., Chasse, B., & Vicente, M. (2004). What the Bleep Do We Know!? [Marlee Matlin as Amanda; Elaine Hendrix as Jennifer; Barry Newman as Frank; Robert Bailey, Jr. as Reggie; John Ross Bowie as Elliot; Armin Shimerman as Man; Robert Blanche as Bob]. Roadside Attractions (109 minutes).

Faircloth, S., Harrison, P., & Armstrong, D. (2013, 12/04). Moving Toward a Secular Society. In Sean Faircloth Tour [Guest speaker: Sean Faircloth, Director of Strategy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science]. Government Building Lecture Theatre, Pipitea Campus, Victoria University of Wellington: New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists.

Gorenfeld, J. (2004, 17/09). “Bleep” of faith [Film review]. In http://www.salon.com. Salon(Online Story). Retrieved 13 April, 2013, from http://www.salon.com/2004/09/16/bleep_2/

Whitehead, A. N. (1929). Process and reality: An essay in cosmology [A revision of the Gifford Lectures he gave in 1927-28.]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Children in art, have they become one of today’s problems?

ovenden paintingThree pieces from the Guardian caught my eye this week. All were about Graham Ovenden.  Jonathan Jones fronts the Guardian’s view with theory, we are then offered an update by Charlotte Higgins letting us know the Tate Gallery was removing some of Ovenden’s work from public view and adding that his conviction involving  underage girls cast his work in a new light. A couple of days later the Guardian asked us to vote.

On the 2nd of April Jonathan Jones (writes on art for the Guardian) discussed how the Ovenden case related to art – “Graham Ovenden: artist thrived among 1970s self-conscious decadence.” A day later Charlotte Higgins (chief arts writer for the Guardian) notified readers that the Tate had removed a number of Ovenden’s pieces from public view – “Tate removes Graham Ovenden prints after indecency conviction offering as an explanation.” Higgins’ text offered up the following comment: Ovenden’s conviction  “‘shone a new light’ on his work.” On the 5th of April the Guardian invited readers to vote  – “Should the Tate have removed Graham Ovenden’s prints?” At the time this page was viewed the vote had just closed (11.00am, Monday 8 April, 2013). Reader opinion had the spread, 55% (yes) and 45% (no). This outcome offers up the view the Tate’s decision to remove Ovenden’s work is a highly contested move.

As a New Zealander, reading these pieces has been to experience déjà vu. In July 2012 a local artist, Brendan Nolan, with a profile considerably smaller than that of Ovenden, had his work treated the same way by the authorities – three artworks ‘taken down’. One was a set of gates he made for Paekakariki School; the second was a tui sculpture at Paraparaumu Beach (a tui is a species of bird native to New Zealand); the third was a painting on public display at the local library. It is unclear whether the painting was removed by the council, or by the library. The  New Zealand Herald did not make this clear. The news story does state the school gates and the scupture were removed by the Kapiti Coast District Council.

Both in the Ovenden case and the Nolan case, explanations were given why their art was taken out of public spaces. In New Zealand Councilor Tony Lester said, “The decision to take the sculpture down was not a hard one to make.” Since the art items Nolan had created were not of children I read Lester’s message as ‘this action to remove this man’s art from a position of social prominence is because he is a sex offender/pedophile. That point of view deserves critical thought.

There is a point of difference between the New Zealand case and Ovenden’s. Higgins’ Guardian piece refers of images of children – artworks removed from public view included “a screen-print that features an image of a young naked child.” She argues Ovenden is positioned differently because of how he exploited the girls whom he had made of his work. I am not blocking the idea that Ovenden will move to the position Nolan finds himself in, that his social stigma as a pedophile will finally be the explanation offered for why his art is no longer of value.  At this point in time The Guardian pieces seem to offer a message slightly different from the one that lives inside media reports of the New Zealand case of Brendan Nolan.

Jonathan Jones’ Guardian story was the first comment on the Ovenden case that caught my eye. It appeared to be talking about art, but my view is this is illusory. What is offered is a view that attempts to say we are modern and new in our views; older views are suspect. What Jones does in how he writes is to allow morality to be central to his view without acknowledging that this is the case.

Jonathan Jones is attempting to do something very much in step with our time – he wants to stand just outside the modern, that period in our recent past that is in his words “dead”. Philosophical commentary refers to that earlier way of thinking as a ‘grand narrative’ style. An important issue here is how modernism offers up its notion of authority. Its narrative was more than just any old story, it offered up an account that was used as a benchmark. The school of thought next to emerge in Western thought takes issue precisely with this point of authority. This ‘post-modern’ view is not a single view, it is more a collection of views which together question issues like those of authority and explain why we are comfortable with changes in opinion and fashion. Ideas now can come and go, be different from each other, and that mix is not necessarily a problem for us.

Jones further points to this past dead item as the artistic perspective of the Victorian era. He links the term ‘Victorian’ to the notion of decadence (a term he no doubt sees as negative for both him and his reader). He makes these moves in his opening sentences  – “Tastes change. In art as in clothes, the cool new thing of today may look repellent and absurd in the future.” Right from the start Jones positions us, with himself, as inside the post-modern. Our cultures and our views (including those of art) are fluid and changeable; they are not the grand narrative of the past, which saw itself as stable and unchanging.

It is here that I suggest caution – there is a twist.  Jones is saying, to be us is to have a ‘more advanced sensibility’. But here is his twist: our ability to see the dark side. Jones suggests, but does not state openly, for him there is a moral absolute. It is hinted at, its existence disclosed, via child nudity and the pedophile (the term pedophile is not stated, none the lesss it is an identity offered up as Ovenden’s real self that Jones’ text depends on). It is this philosophical position that images are not dark in and of themselves. It is in  the linkage between an image and its viewer that this darkness becomes palpable. I do not see Jones arguing here that Ovenden alone is his concern. For Jones the concern is that linkage of Ovenden to his images of girls. Jonathan Jones’ article is not, in my view, merely about Ovenden’s identity and profile. No it’s about a perspective, a way of seeing.

In addition to how Jones wants to position Ovenden’s art, he also offers an unacknowledged blending of the post-modern and the modern. He wants a dollar each way. Why, you might ask. My guess is he wants to lay claim to that quality of authority – this view is more than mere opinion, this is the view, this is how it is, this is how it is for all of us, this is how it is for all time. It is this situation where an argument appears to offer up openness, an acknowledgement that past claims of authority are now invalid, to suggest we are more open, and less controlled by others … And yet  that new argument shuts the door to future debate.

Notice, I am not swayed by the inclusion of a simple yes/no vote that has been offered by the Guardian.  If anything that kind of vote is more an invitation for prejudice and emotion to control debate, rather than some idea of democracy. What I look for is the exposure of the structure of people’s thinking, to lay it bare and then reflect.

The structure of Jones’ thinking can also be read in his links to other texts. He does not say why Charles Dodgson, author of Alice in Wonderland; Nabokov, author of the novel Lolita; and select characters in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, are scary and dark. No, he anticipates the reader will nod in agreement that these figures are scary and dark. And leaves it there – they are for him his fixed points – they are not free to be moved or viewed differently by some future age or from within the diversity of a post-modern universe. It is significant he argues simply that they are dark and scary. It is just an act of pointing, and a seeking support from the reader.

Ovenden, we learn from Higgins’ piece in the Guardian, will be treated in the same way as his images. Both will not to be before our eyes and amongst us – Ovenden’s art has been taken down; he will disappear into prison spaces. One notes the images taken down by the Tate played no role in Ovenden’s conviction.

No doubt other people too are uneasy about the Tate’s decision to take down some of Ovenden’s work. Some, like me, will have questions both about what is art and what is just. Jones rather cleverly acknowledges this by using the term hero when referring to Ovenden. Inside the art community, Jones tells us Ovenden is “a star of the dawning post-modern age”, but  he immediately knocks this down because he tells his readers Ovenden is also a person who takes pictures of naked girls, a man whose internal life is “deeply worrying and bizarre”.

I am not convinced by the contributions of Jones or Higgins, nor do I trust the Guardian’s yes/no vote will put my sceptical soul to sleep. I live in New Zealand. The morality of our culture and the stigma of pedophilia are in some sense closer to the surface. Councilor Tony Lester’s words can be paraphrased this way, “The decision to take down artwork of a sex offender/pedophile is not a hard one to make.” That is most definitely a cultural perspective – a deeply felt one for some – but remember we have come to see the post-modern perspective may indeed be right – nothing is absolute, authority is more complex than the words “I told you so, therefore it must be true.”

References:

Blundell, K. (2012, 27/06). School gates created by sex offender removed [Newspaper]. In Stuff.co.nz (News/Kapiti). The Dominion Post(Online Story). Retrieved 7 April, 2013, from http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/kapiti/7181199/School-gates-created-by-sex-offender-removed

Higgins, C. (2013, 03/04). Tate removes Graham Ovenden prints after indecency conviction. In http://www.guardian.co.uk (Tate Britain). The Guardian(Online Story). Retrieved 3 April, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2013/apr/03/tate-removes-graham-ovenden-prints

Jones, J. (2013, 2/04). Graham Ovenden: Artist thrived among 1970s self-conscious decadence [Newspaper]. In http://www.guardian.co.uk (Crime). The Guardian(Online Story). Retrieved 2 April, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/apr/02/graham-ovenden-artist-1970s-decadence

Communities tear down sex offender’s artwork [Newspaper]. (2012, 02/07). In http://www.nzherald.co.nz (National). The New Zealand Herald(Online Story). Retrieved 05/04, from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10816808

Should the Tate have removed Graham Ovenden’s prints? [Online Newspaper]. (2013, 05/04). In http://www.guardian.co.uk (Comment is free). The Guardian(Online Story). Retrieved 7 April, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/poll/2013/apr/05/tate-removed-graham-ovenden-prints-conviction