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:

 

 

 

 

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Do Sally and James have your support?

 

Sally and James are asking for social and community support (Parents Forever logo).

Sally and James are asking for social and community support (Parents Forever logo).

Recently a media item on NZTV2 20/20 caught my attention – The Silent Victim. The programme’s focus was on the families and partners of child sex offenders. In the media piece two women were interviewed: first a woman who, after her male partner was convicted of sexually abusing a girl, made the decision to remain with him and speak about what that process and situation were like for her; the second person interviewed was Shelly Lomas, a psychologist with Wellstop.

The first woman and her husband were given fictitious names – Sally and James. The way the media piece was put together Sally was presented as a brave woman – a person deserving not only a listening ear, but also admiration. That message of respect for Sally is strongly positive and gains my whole hearted support.

There were two occasions during the interview when this position of admiration for her was put in question. The first was in how Sally’s situation was framed. Her story was offered as a very unusual love story, one where if it were us the love would have stopped long ago. The second occasion was when Sally stated unequivocally that she loved James, he was in her words “an intelligent and genuinely nice guy”. The interviewer repositioned what Sally was saying by adding, “Yes, but do you trust him?”

Sally and James had been married about a decade prior to his sexual offending. She viewed her husband positively, and when asked, judged the sex life for them as a couple, before the offending, as average. The offending happened when a young female guest came into the family home.

Sally offered a number of personal insights that came out of her experience. Two of these were really significant. First the girl who was involved with James – and we know nothing about details – was experienced by Sally as a competitor for James’ affections, and in the competition Sally believed she had lost. She offered what is typical for a woman lensing news of a sexual affair through the model of sexual monogamy – the belief that for a second person to be loved by their current partner, and for that person to become sexually involved with one’s partner, is to have failed as a lover. With this as her belief Sally was drawn into entertaining self-destructive behaviours, although it seems from what is offered inside the 20/20 program, she never acted on those feelings. One could again blame James for all this, but I don’t think Sally did. The ‘monogamy model’ positions a woman, or any person in a relationship who finds out their sexual partner has sexual links to someone else, in a potentially harmful way. It is a particular way of interpreting sexual desire and its place inside a life that can be very unhelpful. Sally appears to have seen past this limitation. Her talk about herself and how she felt suggests she decided that fidelity, faithfulness amid change, is the better aspect to stress inside a committed relationship that sees itself as shaped by love.

Sally did more than offer self-reflections, she challenged the viewer. She offered an outsider a riddle inside a question – what if someone you admire deeply sexually offends, what would you do, how would you feel? It is easy to see why this woman was viewed inside the 20/20 programme as brave.

Sally also talked of the issue of shame. Unsurprisingly Sally experienced shame when news of her husband’s offending became public. Out of that sprang a question, would it change for her if she left him? Her answer was no, the shame would remain. It was her view the message “leave him” is the message of society and the wider community. At the same time she understood that message can be resisted, her personal experience told her that the wider community may be wrong.

This idea the community and wider society can get things wrong about how to manage the sex offender came through the interview with the second woman as well. Shelly Lomas of Wellstop saw the modern response to sex offender as blocking the possibility of things getting better. It is her view all the mechanisms and strategies for helping the sex offender deal better with life are dismantled by punitive attitudes and social isolation; the sex offender is denied the capacity or even the possibility of hope. Shelly expressed strongly the belief this approach was for her counterintuitive – “How do people expect to make change when you shut down all the processes that you and I would ordinarily use to evolve and move to a better place?”

The final insight Sally referenced was the role of human doubt inside what it means to be in love with a person. She was asked, as one might expect, “What if James sexually abused a second time, would you leave him then?” Her answer was “I don’t know.” In 2008 John Patrick Shanley directed a movie in which Meryl Streep played the part of a religious woman in the employ of the Catholic Church – Sister Aloysius Beauvier. Eventually it became clear Beauvier was on the war path to push a priest out of the parish where she worked. The character of the priest – Father Brendan Flynn, was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The movie was called Doubt and it was about sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church. At the end of the movie Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the character Streep gave life to, cupped her face in her hands following her success at getting the man moved on and said, loudly crying, “But I have such doubts.”

Father Flynn early in the movie gave a well thought through homily to the local Catholic community, pointing out that doubt is a position from inside which interpersonal and even political relationships can grow and deepen – he was referencing the period following the assassination of President JF Kennedy. He was, of course, arguing how certitude can be a deeply problematic model on which to forge a life, or the path for whole communities as well. The various versions of fundamentalist worldviews that surround us today, ranging from fundamentalist Islam to strident statements by Richard Dawkins, serve to reinforce the view offered in Father Flynn’s homily.

Voices of people who are not frequently offered the chance to speak are situations that grab my attention, plus there is a theme in this 20/20 media piece that seeks from wider society an extended hand of human compassion. In what is written here there is a separation between what is said by the women interviewed and how the item has been managed by those who put together this media item. To the two women who are interviewed I deliberately extend a message of respect, they deserve that in my view; the makers of the media piece are judged less positively.

You have heard the saying, “How did a nice woman like you get to be in a bad place like this?” The media piece gave an answer to this by stressing how all the women in the group being referenced in this story experience suffering because of their partners’ offending. The sub-text being offered in this media piece is negative in how men are referenced.

The 20/20 item gained a place on my Facebook wall and I chose to support the process where these voices are given space inside our public discussions. ‘The Silent Victim’ opened with the idea that people have experiences that need to be considered, but these people daren’t speak out for fear of persecution. Because ‘The Silent Victim’ showed it understood how some voices are blocked and suffer because of this, I was looking for more: just where will this compassion take us? Will we be asked to extend that empathetic skill set to the sexual offender? The answer seems to be a clear no.

That clear no for me was sad, but the programme’s shortcomings did not end there. Again I stress, a critical eye is focused on how the media item was assembled, not the women who were interviewed, or the views they offered. The profile of the sex offender was male; I saw no acknowledgement that sexual offending against children could be attached to the profile of a woman. And this piece was written as if same sex couples did not exist. Allowing for an untruth to be believed – that all sex offenders are men – the partner of the offender could also be male. Two important pieces of New Zealand legislation are crucial: the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 legalising consentual sex between men aged 16 and over, and the very recent law allowing same sex couples to marry – Marriage (Definition of Marraige) Amendment Act 2013. The media item’s ‘heterosexual normalism’ seems seriously out of step with what is happening in the real world.

It could be asked was this feature I am calling heterosexual normalism merely an oversight by those who put together this media item, a forgetfulness? Perhaps, but another explanation, one that is much more problematic, could be at play. The program is clearly wanting to show compassion and empathy towards the families and partners of sex offenders. It may also be inspired by a strongly feminist ideology that is zoological, by that I mean a form of feminism that is deterministic and is really only about women as opposed to a different kind of feminism where men are included in that better world one is working to create. If same sex male couples had been included then the empathy the program wants to push for would be directed to men as well as women, a position a zoological version of feminism would not want to engage.

The last element of one-sidedness and distortion that I found regrettable in this piece rests with the West’s newest social and cultural blind spot. There was no space offered to the idea that sexual contacts across generations could be positioned inside friendship, or how such encounters could be framed positively. I would not be at all surprised if a reader felt I had just taken a step too far, but take it I will.

In my view The Silent Victim is in fact the same old same old. I am disappointed because I view these moments as opportunities, chances to do some good. I am glad that Sally’s narrative has been given some public space, and the move to get New Zealand society to consider the situations of those impacted by sex abuse, NZ prisons, and what comes after the person is released. All this matters a great deal. But still the negative attitudes to the sex offender, the profiling of men as the real source of women’s personal suffering, these messages are not simply tedious – they’re dangerous.

________

Late post: This item in Salon was offered to me by a British friend after the above article was put on my blog site. On the page it had this publication information: .

Married to a Pedophile – Salon.com

The ethics of ‘pixie sex’

Looney_Toons_23637Last week our local media in New Zealand published an item under the banner, “Man sent to jail for watching ‘pixie sex’.” Friends made jokes about how this story might impact our local pixies, and yes, some stated quite simply, “Have the New Zealand police and our court system gone crazy?” Even Roger Bowden, the man’s lawyer, said the conviction for possessing objectionable material was “the law gone mad.”

If this wasn’t about real people, I too would laugh. But it is not the pixies who are at the centre of this story. Very serious events have unfolded for “an Auckland man“ – and it’s not over yet. Having been convicted of a crime, he has served his time in a New Zealand prison and has now been released, under the supervision of the Probation Service. Usually after such a supervision period ends the ex-inmate is expected to fit back into society – find a job, get himself a place to live. It is my expectation that this man’s future prospects look nothing like that.

What assumptions can we make regarding the man? On a personal level his psychological state/mood would be moving ever closer to snapping point. The public media tell him who and what he is – social messages that are reinforced in his interactions with others. Inside these images, narratives and exchanges, the social identity of the ‘pedophile’/sex abuser is constructed.

Not only do these imposed narratives make it virtually impossible for an individual to maintain an integrated sense of self, but they block all attempts at resistance, be it political struggle or romantic heroism. The very idea of ‘legitimate’ resistance for a sex offender is a no-no.

One form of resistance is available for the sex offender –  it has two modalities, and both involve lies and deceit. First, the sex offender is expected to tell lies: he’s a liar before he opens his mouth. But there is also the potential for such a person to tell themselves it is in their best interests to avoid telling the truth. Prisoners will often disclose, after their release, how crucial telling lies was to their survival. Sadly, this is likely to include the inmate failing to take responsibility for what they have done.

There is something profoundly ironic happening here. Sex abuse narratives have truth telling as a central issue, but that process is a bit more complex than may at first appear. It is my belief the stigma of the sex offender and the pedophile is so powerful it feeds invitations to tell lies and do whatever it takes to keep out of harm’s way.

Telling the truth seems almost foreign for modern-day narratives of the sex offender – most see the offender as the one who misleads; I would argue speaking the truth is indeed a great need inside this situation, but lying is endemic, and the act of truth telling far from straightforward.

What sex offenders tell others, and what they tell themselves, constitutes a very deep problem. My decision to write seems infected by this problem of speaking the truth – how will my writing impact others?

In a fundamental sense, each of us owns our own story. That ‘truth’ is as valid for members of sexual minorities as it is for the rest of us. When writing any piece for this blog the author is challenged to take into account how the person or group being discussed might be impacted by what is offered. Anyone who has studied in the area of the social sciences will be aware that ethics and methodology are crucial aspects of how serious research ought to be undertaken these days.

Recent posts on this site can be lensed through such questions. The piece about prisons, for example: How might that piece impact on inmates, their friends and families, the victims of the crimes linked to why a person is in prison?

The more recent post –  which discussed children in art –  considered how those children would be impacted by public discussion of Graham Ovenden’s work? At first, British society viewed his works as positive, placing them in such prestigious art spaces as The Tate Gallery. When those images were recently taken down, and this move written about in the public media, how were the children in those art works impacted?

A number of items on this website have discussed the social profile of the pedophile. The intent of these texts was to urge the reader to consider the profile of ‘the pedophile’ and ‘the sex offender’ in terms of how they are currently positioned in New Zealand society and culture. How would minor attracted people (a term I use in place of pedophile and sex abuser) view my text? How does the talk I invite impact on them?

A pattern is emerging in New Zealand: men socially profiled as sex abusers and pedophiles are increasingly placed under extended supervision for periods of up to ten years, with a range of special conditions imposed. I know of a person who has been through this situation; his experience gave me a window into how this works. In such a situation as this the probation service will make specific recommendations. The person will often be blocked from owning or having access to any device that links to the internet. Ask people these days to do without such items as our computers, tablet devices or smart-phones for a week and watch panic set in.

I argue that when a person is ‘managed’ by the state it is difficult for them to be open about how that process happens. What choices do they have when telling the story? The biblical account of David and Goliath is not usually applied to the situation of a pedophile facing a courtroom. Perhaps that is the point: culture restricts the narratives we can choose when creating our personal stories – and not every story is offered to every person.

The David and Goliath image is something I have used; I argue the sex offender is prevented from doing so – his every attempt to characterise himself as another David battling Goliath is blocked and discounted.

There is the issue of power here – how can the story be told, and by whom? We are not him; what questions are we free to ask? Is it okay for us to focus on the process unfolding for the man in Auckland, and not limit our questions to issues of guilt or innocence?

Is the Probation Service being over-zealous? Is the state exercising ‘prosecutorial overreach’? Returning to our earlier question, how do our comments impact on this man? If we inquire into what the authorities are doing, the man is likely to become concerned about how they are going to react, and more to the point, what they will do to him.

There is a lobby group in New Zealand that seeks ever increased punishment of those who come before our courts. One can also speculate government staff who see themselves as ‘doing a job’ can become nervous – they fear being viewed as sloppy or lax. Another group in play here are professionals called on by courts to offer opinions – psychologists for example. They are not exempt from these power dynamics. If a psych report is asked for, and I dare say it already has been, how will it be written? It will take up a position, and it will be very likely ideologically driven.

My prediction: an escalation of this case is likely.

As things currently stand this man’s life is in public space, albeit a highly stigmatized version of his life. Media items that point to the pixie story extend beyond New Zealand. Having been to court and spent time in prison, he is already a person deeply affected by what has unfolded. I argue he continues to be at risk.

For some, this pixie story seems like a joke. It is far from funny. In addition to having served a prison term, the man may well have to endure extended supervision for as many as ten years.

Early on, this post pointed out each person owns the narrative that is their life story. Again I feel compelled to stress not only that this matters, but also for some, it is very difficult and complex.

Some are arguing this is a reasoned accusation and a punitive response with a feel-good factor. The view being put forward is this man’s sexual orientation – that of being a pedophile – means that having viewed this pixie material he may then go on to carry out acts that harm children.

It is an argument that turns on the notion of child protection. What it fails to show is any in-depth understanding of what having a sexual orientation means. Even if we have an adult who is not a pedophile, sexual assault of a child, I argue, demonstrates the sexuality of the person acting requires analysis. It is my intention to write on both sexual orientation and the presence of adults inside that group who sexually abuse children and are not pedophiles.

Related articles

  •  Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Third Edition). London and New York: Routledge.
  • Farrar, D. (2013, 21/04). A yucky but interesting issue [Blogsite]. In Kiwiblog (Blogrole). Retrieved 28 April, 2013, from http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2013/04/a_yucky_but_interesting_issue.html
  • Foucault, M. (2001). Fearless Speech. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), Distributed by MIT Press.
  • Goffman, E. (1986). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.
  • Steward, I. (2013, 21/04). Man sent to jail for watching ‘pixie sex’ [Newspaper] [Electronic version]. In Stuff.co.nz (National). Stuff.co.nz(Online Story).

Are we about to turn the corner with regard to how people leave our prisons?

Halden, the most humane prison in the world (Norway) / Shipping Container prison cells (New Zealand)

Halden, the most humane prison in the world (Norway) / Shipping Container prison cells (New Zealand)
This idea of comparison between Anglophone and Nordic cultural mindsets via images such as these is sourced from Pratt and Ericksson’s book discussed in this blog-piece.

I am sitting down to write, having gathered together all the things I have been reading and thinking about, with the intention of slowly unpacking them thoughtfully for the reader. But that noble plan is not going to work. So much has been going on in my world of books, news, and current affairs.

Of particular interest to me have been discussions about criminology and sociology, with a special interest in what happens when individuals are released from prison back into the community.

The gods were at play here. This week a friend was released from a New Zealand prison, and another person recalled to prison for allegedly breaking the conditions of his parole. Apparently he had not managed his release well.  The question in my mind is what we could have done to enable a better outcome. When a person is returned to prison, it is tempting to say the individual failed, it is their fault. But what role did we play in how things unfolded?

Why I go out of my way to disclose my friendships with these two men is because part of how crime and punishment works is the effort to discount the offender. This can be very subtle, and is always about how to encourage us to see such people as ‘them and not us’. One way of achieving this is to omit them from our personal narrative. We might even tell ourselves that if we do not mention where they have been, it will make it easier for them to fit in. All too often this silence has nothing to do with empathy. The keeping silent is really all about helping us manage our lives.

Last week I made two trips to Victoria University of Wellington. The first event centred on an academic from Vermont, USA; the second event was the launch of a book discussing two cultural cluster groupings – the Nordic group, and the Anglophone group which includes New Zealand. The book discusses  how these two groups manage crime and punishment. What struck me was how these two items – the seminar and the book launch – were linked.  I am talking about a growing disquiet about the expansion of prison populations, increased penalties, and strategies of exclusion.

The seminar was offered by Victoria University’s School of Social and Cultural Studies as part of its SACS Seminar Series. The presenter was Kathy Fox, Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Vermont (USA), currently a Fulbright Core Scholar. Kathy was hosted by the School of Social and Cultural Studies, and a New Zealand group called Rethinking Crime and Punishment. I had been alerted of her talk by the Howard League for Penal Reform. I am a member of its Wellington chapter.

The seminar topic, entitled “Offender Re-entry in the U.S.—Re-integrating communities to the process”, looked at the practice of mass incarceration in the U.S.  There has been rethinking regarding strategies around release.

Three models of the management of prisoner release were outlined: first was a Panel model (the one used most often in New Zealand, with the Probation Service offering oversight); second was the Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) model (explained in detail at the seminar); the third is a Mentor model (which offers broadly what the label suggests – use of a mentoring process for those re-entering the community).  These models can be compared using three issues – the support they offer the individual inmate; the kinds of civil engagement the model promotes; and the kind of social distance they give rise to.

When looking at support for the person being released the Panel model can be described as formal and concrete. In New Zealand that is one of the drawbacks of making the Probation Service  the overlord of the release process. It tends to put all the responsibility on the inmate and presents a very formal approach to how things are done. COSA is both more informal and social. Mentor  models tend to include features found in both the Panel and COSA models.

Civic engagement is important because it is this issue that the American experience has come to appreciate more fully. With the explosion of incarceration in the past decade, a question left open is “what role does society play?” Simply stated, it is society that puts people in prison (a process of removing them from society) and it needs to be that same society who is central to their re-entry.  For countries like NZ, it is the offender who must cooperate with a highly prescribed process – you do what we tell you to do. The COSA model offers messages to the offender; in this approach however, they are mediated by a process of demonstration by community members. The inmate is invited to join others rather than just perform prescribed actions. The Mentor model tends combines aspects of both the Panel and the COSA models.

Social distance is much different when looking at each of these three models. The greatest distance between the inmate and the society he or she is re-entering is found in the Panel model, the least distance is offered by the COSA model. The Mentor model can be described as moderate in this aspect. What was interesting at the discussion phase of the seminar was how all the people in the room were in agreement for a cultural shift to take place regarding punishment and re-entry into society there is a need to close this social distance. One comment offered, and it is the profound riddle in this area, is “How to you restore a person to a society which they never felt they belonged to in the first place?” The exclusionary social practices societies put in place and sustain have a lot to do with how crime happens in the first place. It can seem paradoxical to talk of re-entry for some who find themselves inside our prisons.

A profile that has this feel of the ‘excluded ones’ that is well known to people who work with prisons and study the topics of criminology in western societies and cultures is the sex offender. The COSA model, with its less punitive style, has been born because of the growing numbers of these people inside our prisons. There is an irony here, that the very existence of this negative social profile had given birth to its opposite – a call to be more human, more inclusive.

I argue here that the push to place the sex offender to the outer edges of society has a cost.  That move ultimately will prove to be both unwise as well as unjust. Interestingly the political faction who may well lead the way, who are most likely to want change, are precisely those groups who are concerned about financial cost. To not change how we run prisons and promote punishment, to keep going the way we are now, will be very expensive, possibly excessively so.  In New Zealand we have a National Party as our government. Although they offer up a politically conservative face, they are genuinely concerned for costs, they want change in how New Zealand prisons are run. The question that springs from this observation is, when the economic debt problems go away, will this mean those political perspectives will again follow the wallet and allow a return to a commitment to punishment, incarceration, and social exclusion?

The book launch offered  “Contrasts in Punishment: An explanation of Anglophone excess and Nordic exceptionalism”.  The two authors are a New Zealand academic who has a global profile for his work on criminology – John Pratt, Prof. of Criminology at Victoria University, New Zealand, and Anna Ericksson, Senior Lecture in Criminology at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. The event offered three papers, all of which acknowledged of the punitive explosion that is global, posing the question – what does this mean for society and culture, and how best can it be explained?

The book, and indeed the papers offered at the book launch, deserves a post on my blog-site that stands alone. I have decided to combine things and put up the information now because time moves on. To delay would be a mistake. Both the seminar and the book launch showed a social mood or perspective is present, at least where I am. That mood, expressed in what is being argued at sites like Victoria University, suggests both an acknowledgement punitive attitudes and social practices are present inside societies and cultures such as America, New Zealand, England (the Anglophone cluster), and second that its opposite is also now being put forward – there is a call to rethink the punitive and exclusory actions that have contributed to swelling numbers in our prisons.

Emeritus Prof. David Brown was the first speaker at the launch, and I will close this blog post with a couple of his comments. More may well be offered later. David Brown pointed out how Pratt and Ericksson saw differences in how prisons are being run, despite the strength of the punitive swing in recent times. It is not valid to see everywhere as the same. To paraphrase what was offered by Prof. Brown, things are not rooted in some doxa of neo-liberalsim sweeping everything before it; nor is this some inherent punitive human nature working itself out – some Kantian universal requirement for punishment, or a species-driven behaviour to inflict as much harm as can be done on those you dislike. Things are not everywhere the same, and very significantly, things can be done differently, choice is not an illusion.

Pratt and Ericksson’s book asks, “What is it in the two cultural clusters (first Nordic countries and second Anglophone) that can accounts for their very different ways of thinking about punishment?” The focus is to look at the production of cultural difference for each cluster. Left open is the issue of cultural change – if one decides change needs to happen in the management of prisons, how to go about that? Both the seminar and the book launch presented this as an important question to be explored.

New Zealand is one nation with different cultures. At a political level New Zealand is bi-cultural. This is rooted firmly in how the country was founded, the document that gives witness to that is the Treaty of Waitangi (a formal agreement between two parties – the Pakeha and the Maori tribes). At the same time New Zealand society is multi-cultural, evident if one looks at recent statistics as to who lives here, who attends our schools and universities, how many overseas workers are part of our workforce. It is not accurate to label New Zealand as wholly Anglophone because of this, although clearly the fact our law is based on British law shows the linkages are strong.

The cultural groups in New Zealand who are neither Anglophone nor Nordic (Maori, Pacifica, Asian) may well facilitate a social practice that, in the near future, may be different from what we have now regarding the management of our prisons. For example the thinking used in the COSA model seems very similar to the perspectives that are already present in some of these groups. New Zealand’s management of our prisons has led to increases in incarceration, a feature also found in America. If culture does shape how prisons are run can we change ourselves. There is no evidence change has to happen so that prison numbers go down. What this past week offered me, via the seminar and the book launch, was the suggestion change might be on the table. I hope it is more than just a flash in the pan, what is sometimes referred to as a Prague spring.

References

Pratt, J. (2012). Contrasts in punishment :an explanation of Anglophone excess and Nordic exceptionalism /John Pratt and Anna Eriksson. New York, NY Routledge.

Fox, K. (2013). Offender Re-entry in the U.S.—Re-integrating communities to the process SACS Seminar Series. Seminar presentation. School of Social and Cultural Studies. Victoria University.