Loosening grip – a breath of air

Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte – nephew of the Emperor Napoléon – was elected as the first President of France in 1848. History Today has the story – and it’s an interesting one, inasmuch as it contains pre-echoes of the most recent presidential elections … not only the French one, but also the American one. According to Richard Cavendish, Louis Napoleon “won one of the most remarkable victories in French history, though he had never held public office or distinguished himself in any worthwhile capacity.” Some considered him an ass; others called him a cretin. Cavendish reports that “Karl Marx sourly remarked that because Louis Napoleon was nothing, he could appear to be everything.” (Cavendish, 1998)

Macron and his wife, sourced from CNN, 12 May, 2017.

Macron and his wife, sourced from CNN, 12 May, 2017.

Aged forty years and eight months, Louis Napoleon was the youngest French president to assume office. That’s now no longer the case, of course: France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, is 39. And his wife, Brigitte Trogneux, is 64. (“Emmanuel Macron,” 2017)

Macron’s victory was welcomed with a sigh of relief in Europe, according to the Financial Times, which offered analysis indicating that wealthier, better-educated, and optimistic voters had preferred Macron. In his victory speech, Mr Macron told the crowd Europe and the world were “watching us” and “waiting for us to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment, threatened in so many places”. See Sky News, 2017 (“World leaders react to Macron’s election win,” 2017)

But the election left the nation deeply divided. Pledging to “guarantee unity”, President Macron acknowledges he faces an immense task ahead. He plans to invest in job training, farming, transport, infrastructure, and healthcare. He intends to push for public service modernisation, greater efficiency in the health sector, and cuts to local authority spending. In contrast to Marine Le Pen, Macron does not envisage a France that shuts out immigrants and asylum seekers.

Both Macron and Le Pen represent outsider movements. In choosing Macron, an independent and a centrist, voters have turned their backs on the traditional conservatives and socialists – the Republicans, the National Front, the Socialist party, and La France insoumise (France unbowed). “France offers an extreme case of the populist wave against governing elites that is sweeping many nations,” explains Jonah D Levy, writing in the Washington Post. In short, it is the French establishment that has been rejected. And it would be a mistake for that establishment to view Macron’s win as evidence that they have avoided what unfolded for the UK and the US. (Levy, 2017)

David Cameron – Britain’s Prime Minister at the time of Brexit – had called the referendum with the intention of strengthening his political grip. Cameron didn’t want to leave the EU. The establishment of the day told itself there was no way the UK would leave the EU. The outcome was a total shock.

Broadly speaking, the result is explained in one of two ways. The first expresses a deep resentment of the migrants who have come to live in Britain. It is immigrants, we are told, who are responsible for lack of jobs, the escalating cost of living, and the dilution and pollution of British culture. It is seen as vital that Britain leave the EU. The voice for this anti-immigrant line was Nigel Farage, the driver of Ukip’s Brexit battle bus. A second explanation, and the one this blog favours, is that issues like employment and housing are social problems, responsibility for which rests with the establishment of the day. The real reason for the social and political complaints – Neoliberal politics – remains to be addressed.

On his Brexit tour of the UK, Jeremy Corbyn promised a Labour government would deliver a “a jobs first Brexit.” (Agerholm, 2017) His view is more complex than simply a yes or no to continued membership of the EU – and he has thus at times viewed Europe as a bit of a riddle.

Corbyn has consistently argued against the economic and political view that says “free market at all costs”. In 2015, he was unhappy with how the EU was handling the grinding austerity enforced upon Greece. He had wanted to build bridges with Europe in order to give support for labour – common workers’ rights, poverty reduction, and welfare. That outlook could be seen as a reason to stay in the EU – not leave. As things have worked out, Corbyn is embracing the decision to leave. Notice how a response to the austerity attitudes could just as easily have informed the view, “If that’s how you treat the labour force, I want nothing to do with such behaviour” – a reason to leave the EU.

Social and political change is not the product of disaffected white males inspired by violent right wing ideologies. Traditional Marxist theory argued the agents of social change were the proletariat – the working class. In sociology and economics, people suffering a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material and psychological welfare, have been dubbed the precariat. What is in front of us now is a new proletariat, a new group without an independent identity – and they are looking for a political voice. This is the subject of Guy Standing’s book, The Precariat. Recent events in the UK and America point to this nascent group’s struggle to shape the future. (Standing, 2016)

The explanation I’m offering here is unorthodox – but it is not an effort to say something radically new. I’m being loyal to a framework of ideas and perspectives that seems to have been pushed to one side in favour of notions that owe more to emotion and moral outrage than to facts. The reader might recall Stanley Cohen’s foundation text, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, published in 1972 and based on research he had carried out during the 1960s. I’m arguing that we haven’t yet finished with the sixties and seventies – and nor have we lost hope in the possibilities and aspirations envisaged in those days. (Cohen, 2011)

French philosopher Alain Badiou uses the term ‘event’ when discussing the idea of truth and truth-telling. (Badiou & Feltham, 2007) He argues that truth breaks through, interrupting the flow of history, insisting we see something, even briefly. For him, the loyalty to that event is central to truth-telling. My reading of Badiou is that he is a Marxist and that he wants to ground his thinking in an historical view. So for him, and for me, truth-telling incorporates both a remembering and a re-experiencing. Marxism insists on a loyalty to emancipation – primarily economic and social, but also sexual. The discourse here is not about sex, but about culture. The political and social battles in the UK, France, and America – and indeed, in New Zealand – are cultural battles. The hard left wants to make a big thing of gender, safe spaces, and legislated language (see Jordan Peterson and his stand in a Canadian university), but I’m viewing these things within a broader and deeper context. (Peterson, 2017)

The irony is that the media don’t seem to be serving us well; I view the newsmongers as pro-establishment, and pro-business. What they offer is a version of the establishment view, perpetuating the old conversation of identity politics – a crusade against ‘bad men’, under the banner of ‘social justice warriors’. But the players – in America, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, et al – are all caricatures. The narratives in which these characters play out their dramas are supposed to explain why things are the way they are – the good guys and the bad guys. My view differs from this.

I can’t pretend to stand outside the media, as if they have played no role in shaping my views. YouTube, the various news sources, and all kinds of media provide access to information and opinions. The ways in which the business community controls and defines how media functions in Western democracies give the possibility of free speech and, in complicated ways, also undermine it.

Slavoj Žižek saw the US election as a chance for change. “Slavoj Žižek Says He’d Vote Trump: Hillary ‘Is the Real Danger’” said the headline in Breitbart (Hahn, 2016) . Žižek was not pro-Trump; he predicted the Democrats would lose because their chosen leader had links with banks and big business which undermined the party’s ability to point to real change – to step back from Neoliberalism and close the gap between the rich and the poor. Hillary Clinton may well have talked about emancipation for gays and lesbians, an openness to immigrants, and the promotion of liberal agendas. In the end, her words were seen to be superficial.

In America the Democrats, the media, and a large part of the Republican movement regard themselves as the establishment. For this group, the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House has been a shock. The way things work is spelled out in the distinctive style and damaged profile of Donald Trump – the compulsive liar, the fondler of women’s bodies – and the struggle to establish a new, draconian feminism as the determinant of our political future.

Here we see an alliance between the media’s lurid version of current affairs and an emergent faction inside feminism. It is important to note that not all feminist voices are singing these songs. “The progressive, feminist politics of the American campus have become so extreme that they’ve become comical,” says Allum Bokhari in Breitbart (Bokhari, 2016). The headline of this piece reads: “Christina Hoff Sommers and Camille Paglia on Coddled Students and Fainting-Couch Feminists.” It’s not all funny, however; there’s a dark side. Modern identity politics are currently being driven by a third-wave feminist view that is intolerant, and Stalinist.

Sometimes the media, informed by this new ideology, insists on offering us a picture of Donald Trump as the most recent version of the dangerous male – a pussy-grabbing bully, shaped by the business world, but ultimately a woman-hater. As stated above, Slavoj Žižek was not pro-Trump. He advocated voting for Trump because he saw Clinton as the dangerous one.

So now, all three nations are on notice: in Britain, America, and France, people who see themselves as the victims of economic strategies which undermine the future for individuals and families are demanding change. Across western liberal democracies, and at every level, we see people suffering and angry. One can hear such voices within the worlds of the working class, the middle class, and the upper class.

Some French liberals feared their old enemy, the radical right. The old categories of political left and right don’t serve us well in analysing modern liberal democracies. More to the point is the disenfranchisement of a population who have lost their faith in the political process, and fear a future that includes temporary work contracts, ballooning debt, and a sense of disconnection from society and culture.

As was the case in the US, the French media have portrayed things differently, focusing on gender wars, the faults of men, and the rising radicalism of feminist factions – the style one observes here is of Stalinist intolerance, rather than assertive critical thought.

At this point, it might be worth acknowledging this post has devoted more attention than usual to political matters. My intention is in fact focused on the intricately interwoven sociological and cultural aspects of our current situation – hardly surprising, given my training and experience.

Although the French election result is widely regarded as good news, some have expressed concern – not about the flavour of Emmanuel Macron’s politics, but about the fact that his current partner, Brigitte Trogneux, was once a teacher at his former high school, where she ran the drama club. The young Emmanuel’s parents sent him to Paris to put a distance between the precocious fifteen-year-old and his drama teacher. Interestingly, two years later Emmanuel declared that she would one day be his wife. (Jordan, 2017)

These facts alter the way we interpret the simple observation that the age gap for the French couple is almost exactly the same as that between Donald Trump and his wife Melania – although in that instance the differential is the other way around.

There are indications that for some at least, age gaps are no big deal. Quoted in a pre-election story that appeared widely – including in the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand – Martine Bergossi, a Paris retailer, gives her view: “Why can’t we marry younger men? I date them all the time.” Mary Jordan, the Paris-based writer of the article, remarks, “[Macron is] a candidate young enough to be his wife’s son.”

The Sydney Morning Herald ran Mary Jordan’s story under a headline that highlighted “the social revenge factor” which the story, intending to offer its readers a little titillation, claimed delighted many French women – including Martine Bergossi – and added “a little ooh-la-la” to the presidential campaign.

It crosses my mind to wonder: Is this fresh focus on age disparate relationships something out of the blue? Does it perhaps offer an opportunity for change? But then I am reminded that this sort of thing is in fact not new. Wikipedia offers a discussion of age disparity and the ‘half your age plus seven’ rule of thumb, admitting that “Although the origin of the rule is unclear, it is sometimes considered to have French origin.” (“Age disparity in sexual relationships,” 2017)

The media are certainly not neutral on this matter. Over recent years, the opinion shapers have been reinforcing popular culture, emphasizing talk of the need to shift to more age appropriate couplings, and urging punitive hard-line condemnation of relationships which break the rule. But age disparate relationships have been de-facto ‘normal’ for a very long time, and while all the talk of age appropriateness unfolds, in the real world other stuff happens.

Some of my readers might at this point be asking: What about same sex couples? But there’s no talk here of two males or two females. In 2015, I posted a piece titled, “Still breaking rules, but that’s okay”, which discussed the relationship between Stephen Fry (at the time, 57) and his partner, Elliot Spencer (then 27). Stephen Fry boxed clever with this message, I believe, by publishing two volumes of memoirs, in which he dealt frankly with all the ‘stuff’ about himself. “This is me, like it or lump it,” he seemed to be saying. (Hooper, 2015)

Interestingly, British commentators persisted in talking about him as likely to receive some kind of award or honour, validating his role in British society and culture as a leading voice to be taken seriously. Fry’s recent skirmish with the Irish Catholic establishment over ‘blasphemy’ is just another example of his readiness to push back against the challenges which crop up from time to time – things he regards as tattered emblems of the old establishment, outmoded relics worthy of being unceremoniously dumped. (Bell, 2017).

It is interesting to note both the British couple (Fry and Elliot) and the French couple (Macron and Trogneux) are the recipients of public approbation. This encourages me to suggest again that, at least for now, relationship age gaps are not as important as some might have thought.

Currently I live in a Western liberal democracy. I understand, and value, the contribution pop culture and news media make to our lives. But they are too close to business, and too deeply enmeshed in some of the negative aspects of society. They are part of the establishment that needs to change, an establishment that is in denial, and that resists change. I see the American Democratic party behaving just this way.

Since the election the media has provided endless stories of the evils of Donald Trump, and little acknowledgement that the Democratic party has participated in and contributed to a country where the gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater. On the evening when the American election result became clear Hillary Clinton retreated to her bedroom, refused to acknowledge that outcome, and went to bed. This symbolic act of denial still represents the Democratic party beyond the first 100 days.

Looking at the media’s comparisons of the American couple and the French couple … in both cases, the age difference is roughly the same – about 24 years. Whilst one term for an older man in a relationship of this sort is “silver fox” – or “silver daddy”, in the case of a gay man – it didn’t take long for the Western liberal media to start portraying Donald Trump with a subtext that inferred ‘bad guy’.

For some time now, in media pieces, age appropriate relationships have been couples whose ages were very close, whilst age disparate relationships – sometimes the gap is 20 years or more – were a matter of concern, even suspicion. The ideology of appropriateness spreading through our media seems in fact to be at odds with the choices people make when forming relationships. Nevertheless the promoters of prescriptive views are determined: “we tell it like it is,” they cry.

For many people the media seems more real than their own lives, and their day-to-day experiences less significant. It might be worth questioning the establishment and the media, worth holding them to account for the way things are. What seems to be unfolding is the ‘real’ they promote is being replaced by a real that breaks through. The voices of age gap couples – in Britain, France, and America, in straight worlds and in gay – are being listened to, and are receiving social support. Let’s see where this takes us. Age gaps are not bad by definition, nor are men the source of all that is dark and dangerous. To those whose lives include relationships across generations – men or women, heterosexual or same sex – see yourself as very much ordinary, normal, a valued part of a diverse society. We live in interesting times.

Curiously, the feminists, who regard themselves as liberal, have begun to occupy positions vacated by the old guard – the establishment. They do not approve of Donald Trump, any more than they approve of the flow of unvetted speakers onto University campuses. The prospect of enshrining in legislation a set of rules concerning appropriate and inappropriate pronouns (this is Jordan Peterson again) is of a piece with attempts to restrict who people fall in love with.

There are times when the establishment, with its PC arguments, could do with not merely an update, but a vigorous challenge. Britain, America, and France are really sharing a theme here: the establishment and the media are being given a push back. In the UK it was not really about the immigrants; the establishment had made ordinary people’s lives difficult and voters wanted that to stop. In America, as well, it was less about the bad guy and the angry white males – lots of women supported Trump. No, here too was anti-establishment anger. The Democrats and Clinton had made deals that the American population did not trust. As in Britain, human misery had maxed out.

In France, too, the push-back against the old guard has been accompanied by a sense of fresh hope. Macron wants to rebuild France – reminding me of Donald Trump’s pledge to “make America great again”.

These days, in a Western liberal democratic setting, people often can’t imagine that a sexually expressed intergenerational friendship can be regarded as positive – “it’s just not on”. An adult in such a relationship can’t be doing a good thing or being a good person. Asked why, many people would find it difficult to explain. For those who look at both how we talk and what we talk about, there is the notion of “rules of discourse”. Without going into great detail, it can be observed that in terms of discourse, one cannot talk about the emancipation of the minor attracted person and at the same time talk about care of the young. I’m willing to break those rules.

What I’m seeking to comment on here is the rare situation where the rules of that discourse are that you can speak about one or other but not both together. So three couples – Macron and his partner, Trump and his partner, and Stephen Fry and his partner – are being talked about as important and socially valued relationships, and at the same time are age disparate and sexual. The point here is that the discursive rules are obliged to give way to the real. It was ever thus. For many people the view that is considered impossible has become so strongly felt that it is experienced as having always been that way. Factually, it has not. In my thinking, I am not insensitive to people’s strongly held views, but seeing the structure of how those rules have been built up, I’m freer to break them … or perhaps I only need to bend them.

During the 1950s the discourse about “sexual perversions” and psychologically dangerous individuals was conflated with the discourse about homosexuality. Behavioural psychology and its stimulus/response paradigm became the preferred discourse when talking about sexual minorities. The modern gay man and woman have successfully extricated themselves, and as if to not leave this social position vacant, it has been filled by the sex abuser/pedophile. Stanley Cohen, in early editions of his book on Folk Devils, observed that the dangerous individual was the young black male – a threat to the white man’s daughter. It seems to me Cohen’s stereotype has now been replaced by the dangerous middle class white man – the pedophile. 

Deleuze makes a challenging comment regarding modern life and the social position of the person who is labeled mentally ill. Individuals who are ‘marginal’ – as in the case of schizophrenics – can be seduced to live as if they are off to one side, isolated, so different as to belong there. At times the minor attracted person has a similar experience. Deleuze’s advice is to reject that isolation. The way forward is to stress our connectedness to others.

When writing about sexuality and the profile of Stephen Fry and his relationship with Elliot Spencer I offered a similar view. A discourse where one’s urges are the centre of one’s dialogue/interrogation at the hands of those who demand ‘talk’ is problematic.  Minor attracted persons find themselves being told to stop urges and to stop his or her desires as if they are different in kind from everyone else. The truth is they aren’t different – desire as one finds it lodged inside the text of literature and poetry is at the heart of who we are and – for everyone – understanding this is vitally important. The modern gay man and the lesbian in Western culture are no longer interrogated as if they are off to one side – they have been normalised – my view is the minor attracted person needs to stress their connectedness to others, and not allow themselves to be isolated and dehumanised.

Because we are at a time when we are sensitive to or captured by the talk of child abuse and the exploitation of the young, we are being sold the view that “the only way to solve these problems” is we can and must erase all age disparate relationships.

People are being told to manage their sexuality, I would suggest – as if it is only an issue of ‘sexual urges’. It might be more precise to say the targets of these messages are those we are unhappy about. When we view people this way we assume – wrongly, I believe – that we understand them in depth. We are most likely to end up with a better understanding of people – who they are, what they’re about, and how they manage their desires – only if they’re free to talk with us, on their terms. To sharpen this point even more, I argue this is equally true with regard to self-knowledge. What’s on offer right now is, can the view I’m offering here gain a foothold? Can the minor attracted person become someone we dialogue with rather than someone we interrogate?

I argue the establishment, as freshly reconfigured, is making determined efforts to insist their ideological views be the only guides to how we live, and who we choose to live with – and love. Which makes it crucial that we pay attention to our actual choices. I don’t think the hard-line feminists and their Stalinist intolerance will be the last word. What I look forward to is more evidence the 1960s and 70s have indeed not finished with us – and that we will reject hate and vote for love.

Details:

Is Gender Off The Table for New Zealand When It Comes To Sex Crimes With The Young?

 Stacey Reriti. Photo / Mark Mitchell (NZ Herald)

Stacey Reriti. Photo / Mark Mitchell (NZ Herald)

This item wants to draw the reader’s attention to a court decision in New Zealand. The NZ Herald recently offered a story of a female teacher being found guilty of sex with a boy from the age of 10 years of age – Female Teacher Jailed for 10 Years For Sexually Violating Boy. He is now a teenager and it would be safe to say he feels differently about his relationship with the teacher now than he did when aged 10.

Stacey Reriti used to teach at Natone Park School in Porirua – her role in the school was that of both teacher and deputy principal. She was judged to have exploited the boy. Prosecutor Dale LaHood offered the view Reriti’s conduct was especially bad because of the “vulnerability” of the victim. That claim is not unusual in cases involving adults having sexual relations with underage boys; what was untypical was how this statement was being made about a woman.

Reriti’s lawyer Stephen Iorns said his client suffered from a psychiatric illness and that prison would not be good for her. It is not unusual that the prosecution would stress how bad the case was; and the defense would point to how the legal process and what follows a guilty verdict is likely to do more harm to the adult than a reasonable person would want anyone to go through.

What is worth paying special attention to are the comments by the Judge. Justice Mark Woolford equated some of Reriti’s offending with rape. He also said the charge of unlawful sexual connection carried a penalty of up to 20 years’ imprisonment. The Judge’s third comment catches one’s attention: “Because a woman cannot be charged with rape” the actions Reriti and the boy engaged in all resulted in charges of unlawful sexual connection; rape could not legally be on the table.

A great deal can be, and perhaps should be said with news of this court finding. To unpack three things is all we will do here.

First, it is possibly a good thing that in this case gender was seen as having no role to play in finding this adult guilty; usually it does and women gain much less punitive legal outcomes than males for similar criminal acts. I say possibly because objectively speaking I would argue we should be putting less people inside prisons for sex with the young than we currently do. It is my reading of some people’s views that women have been getting off light – men being hit hard for sex with those underage; and women not. But does that call to “level things up” really mean things get better? I am not that sure this is true – time will tell.

Second it shows our laws on rape need to be changed/overhauled – currently a woman can’t be charged with rape (this point of women being excluded as able to be charged with rape was made in the article). The teacher in this case was charged with sexual violation and that charge brings with it similar legal punishments as a charge for rape. However, I am going to argue there is a language game going on here that matters. The term rape has been crafted as a male crime – something men do to women and other males. I think there is an ideological bias here that I want challenged. It isn’t valid to argue men bad; women good. So I want rape to stay as a term denoting bad and unethical conduct, I just want the person who acts as a rapist viewed as potentially male or female.

Third, and this point is complex, the case clearly involves a process of change that has been commented on elsewhere – that 95% of sexual contacts between adults and children aged under 12 are situations where trauma does not happen at the time sexual contact occurs; trauma is experienced when the young person comes to appreciate society’s views and punishment directed at a person involved in such exchanges. This third point suggests we, as a society, can reduce that trauma by changing the way we act. There is a lot that can be discussed following the outcome of this court case.

If this statistic of 95% interests you, then read Susan Clancy’s book The Trauma Myth. It is from this text that this statistic is pulled.

Update: article in the Dominion Post,  “Teacher’s sex abuse convictions upheld,” section A4, Friday 24 March, 2017.

The decision was as upheld, and the sentence reduced from 10 years six months jail to nine years nine months. The reduction was intended to reflect factors presented at the appeal.

Details

Clancy, S. A. (2009). The trauma myth and the truth about the sexual abuse of children – and its aftermath. New York: Basic Books.
Weekes, J. (2015, 27/11). Female teacher jailed for 10 years for sexually violating boy [Online News Item]. New Zealand Herald (New Zealand).

Still breaking rules, but that’s okay

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer (Sourced at entertainment.ie.)

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer are married. It seems unlikely either man will read my blog but that is the myth of modern celebrity isn’t it? – the proximity of those who are famous – the modern celebrity seems close to us, almost familiar. In earlier  times fame meant distance, not closeness. In keeping with that modern feel I can send out a message of congratulations to them both as if I might meet them at the supermarket next time I buy my fruit and vegetables.

My next comment probably has both men in mind, but Stephen is its focus. For two persons of such differing ages to be sexually intimate – and be very public about that – is not typical of our time. I am not saying Stephen Fry is ‘one of those bad types’. There is a rule of thumb which asserts a partner ought not be younger than ‘half your age plus seven’. Stephen Fry is 57, so by that rule his sexual partner should be older than 35 (approx.); Elliot Spencer is 27. It is my assumption this rule applies to Elliot as well – he isn’t meant to go for those older guys – a partner can as easily be too old as too young.

Let me say it again, no way am I hinting that Stephen is ‘minor attracted’, and yet the discourses of sexual assault, child abuse, negative narratives about what male culture is perceived to promote, all position Stephen Fry badly. For all that his profile is doing fine; he is even viewed by some commentators as likely to get the nod from upper-class English society for some honorary title in the near future. Truth is some see him as a darling of the British public – the British Royal Family included. Where I sourced that view was listening to John Crace’s podcast for The Guardian, he discussed this very point we taking of Stephen Fry’s new book – More Fool Me.

So has Britain turned the corner on tolerance to the older man who is attracted to the young, where the guy’s interest is younger than ‘half your age plus seven’? No, I don’t think so. A New Zealand woman – Justice Lowell Goddard – has just been appointed to head a British inquiry into child sex abuse in British society, aimed right at the very group of people a chap like Stephen Fry is likely to do his local shopping with – the upper class of England. No, what Stephen – and very likely Elliot as well – have done is to manage their profile. I argue they have done this because they understand what has changed inside Western culture and have kept all that negative stuff at arms length.

What sits at the centre of what is offered here is sociological, not psychological. I can actually take a middle position here and say I find a psychoanalytic discourse more helpful here than the text so often offered by psychology. Desire is a very broad category and a very ‘thick’ one – there is a lot to consider when using the term ‘desire’. When discussing or viewing the desire of the minor attracted person one is not looking at some kind of desire different from what is so readily acknowledged by the adults who view the sex they experience as ordinary.  I argue desire is this aspect of the human condition that everyone has as part of who they are – straight, gay, minor attracted – it’s all desire and its all part of who a person is. In my view the term ‘sexual orientation’ is a modern term that attempted to convey this radical and fundamental equality and ‘sameness’ that can be understood to unite the gay and the straight worlds – this term carries the message we are all in the same boat.  I am saying the boat has more than two people in it.

To gloss over this issue without making an effort to say what I mean would be a mistake, but I also know the value of being precise. There is a need to speak briefly rather then offer long paragraphs.  It is my view the language used to speak about what we experience has been influenced in recent decades by a reductionist view of the person. Sex and desire has become merely stimulus and response; sexual life is viewed more and more as the management of mechanical bits. People are being told to manage their sexuality as if it is only an issue of ‘sexual urges’. Actually that view is itself problematic. Why all this matters is because the minor attracted person finds themselves being told to stop urges and to stop his or her desires as if they are different in kind from everyone else. The truth is they aren’t different – desire as one finds it lodged inside the texts of literature and poetry is at the heart of who we are and – for everyone – understanding it is vitally important.

Thus when attempting to see what has gone on for this celebrity gay British couple it is not about what desire is allowed to have our social/cultural support – gay and straight get a thumbs up; minor attraction gets a thumbs down; it is about how sociological shifts have unfolded over time and how Fry and Spencer have managed their profile. Both know how desire feels – they  have fallen for each other. What is clever, and I think it has been a matter of being smart, both men have worked to prevent their profile being spoiled (to use Irving Goffman’s term).

Let us unpack things even more.  A Western philosopher writing in the distant past was read, even admired, but there was no expectation for that person to write about their sex life. There are those who will say they know what Socrates and Plato were, sexually, but in reality this says more about the readers than it does about the philosophers.  The two men’s private lives were not seen as warranting our investigative gaze. Move closer to our time – say Emanual Kant – and I would say never in any of the writings about his philosophical views are Kant’s sexual interests referenced. However by the time we get to Jean Paul Sartre we see a shift. The relationship between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir is an important part of how Sartre is read as a philosopher and an author. Come even closer to today and this year one of the films nominated for a film award is about  Stephen Hawking.  The modern biography references things we would never expect to be told about Kant. A good read that documents this shift and these features of modern Western society is Erving Goffman’s book, Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled profile.

Where the modern biography – and even the notion of a profile – gets interesting is when one has a negative bit, a fact or factor that might be construed as bringing the person’s reputation into question. Take Martin Heidegger for example.  His links to the German Nazi movement are often pointed out when commenting on his work and assessing its credibility; not all commentators will reference the matter, but there is no surprise when the connections are discussed.  In a very different field we have the example of Richard Wagner and how Jewish feeling against him and his music can be very strong because of particular features of his profile.

The ‘modern’ way to manage this sort of thing is to actually put it out there early  to acknowledge the difficult bit, and not attempt to hide it. Where a person offers a profile and later a difficult bit surfaces, one’s audience feels ‘wronged’ somehow, the reaction against the person can be very strong. What I am saying here is that, in our modern ways of thinking and behaving, we seem to have shifted what we consider privacy involves. One gets the feeling that, for a celebrity, privacy is simply not something this person has a right to.  The profile of the sex offender is actually a kind of modern-day criminal celebrity.

To date, Stephen Fry has published three books that make up his ongoing narrative about himself. It is more memoir than biography. It is my belief Fry has rightly understood how this is all done.  Pulling no punches, his latest volume – More Fool Me – details his use of cocaine as a younger man, putting out so much ‘stuff’ for us to consume that it seems like oversupply, a surfeit.  In a sense we are shock-proofed regarding who he is as a person. I had considered buying Fry’s latest book about himself but after reading the reviews I am reluctant to do it because it all seems just too much. I argue it is this rather novel way of  putting himself out there that has allowed him to retain his on-going social and cultural position as ‘the darling of modern England’ and at the same time self-narrate himself as an admirer/lover to another who is very much his junior. A classic case of “still breaking rules, but that’s okay”.

I will close this post by making a brief comment on the inquiry Justice Lowell Goddard has been set up to lead. Goddard is not the first person to be put in this role, the first two leaders having been obliged to resign. What is significant is the new feature this body has – statutory powers to compel a person to appear before it and answer questions. In America’s past Joseph McCarthy and his links to the House Un-American Committee have become an icon for what can be called state ‘over-reach’. I can imagine the notion of loyalty to America and the stigma of being thought ‘a danger to the American dream’ is not too far from what the modern day call to rally around the flag of the fight to oppose sexual abuse of children has come to be for us. I am, of course, not wishing to denigrate national loyalty to one’s country – in this case America – any more than appear to be dismissive about the need to address how children can be treated terribly by adults. It is my perception that England is very much in the grip of a process that is a very serious indeed. It is my hope, of course, that the statutory powers this current inquire now has will be exercised with care. The last thing we need is for the specter of Joseph McCarthy to walk amongst us.

Justice Lowell Goddard is one of sixty three New Zealand judges who have been ranked in 2014 and the results posted on the Kiwi First website.  What follows are comments that flow from three items found on this site.

  • The first article offers its version of how that ranking of New Zealand judges was done – “… sixty-three judges in total were ranked, based upon their melded average score of four factors, on a scale of 1 to 10; perceived intelligence, fairness, knowledge of law and personal character.” What is noteworthy is Goddard sits at the lowest slot on that list.
  • In another piece on the same Kiwi First website Goddard is profiled and the picture is far from comforting. It seems best a reader go look at what is said for themselves. What seems a common perception of her is put in this sentence found on the site – “Lawyers who appear before Justice Lowell Goddard generally have little regard for her as a judge who is willing to conform to law or to rule consistent with relevant facts.  They are far more impressed with her impeccable dress and makeup.”
  • The most damning statement, and the author of this web item links what is said directly to the new appointment of Justice Goddard to the UK role, the comment is made –”her due diligence determined lawyers in New Zealand broadly consider Ms Goddard a political puppet.”

Justice Goddard is presented by some in very different images in the media items that come to us via our televisions and the radio. That is on its own a real source of concern. If the internet can offer such a significant set of criticisms of her and yet the mainstream media are silent on any of this then I find myself asking why. This move in England to set up this inquiry is significant and I am convinced a thoughtful and critical eye needs to be kept on what unfolds.

DETAILS:

We see what we want to see

Source for image for The Imitation Game gained on the Variety film review - details offered below.

Source for image for The Imitation Game gained on the Variety film review – details offered below.

A friend recently invited me to a screening of “The Imitation Game”, a movie that offers a portrait of “mathematician, cryptanalyst and war hero Alan Turing”, as one reviewer describes him.

Susan Sontag, in her essay Against Interpretation, worked to make readers more aware of what she saw as a false claim to be merely describing something or that modern Western self-belief that one can remove subjectivity and have only some bare-bones way of writing.  She felt that was just one more rule-bound way of writing, claiming “there are no rules telling me how to write.”

Sontag’s self-awareness as a writer and a critic is precisely what I want to work with here.  If a Jewish patron were to see The Imitation Game, they would very likely see more than the story of Alan Turning the wronged cryptanalyst; the ‘wrong’ here would for them necessarily and inescapably involve an understanding of what went on in the death camps of Nazi Germany.

We would be unlikely to find a survivor from Turing’s time in the movie theatre; if I were to talk of Turing as a wronged homosexual some of my readers would nod their heads in agreement.  It would be interesting to locate – or, better put, acknowledge – what other current-day wrongs can be mapped onto Turing’s story.

While writing this blog piece I noted that in the reviews, some from well-known sites, the reference to Turing’s homosexuality was often not explicit, as if the reader would take it for granted.  What is going on here represents a further social marker of change – the homosexual man is in the process of being socially repositioned.  Western societies and cultures now find themselves ‘after’ a period of emancipation; they live inside what sociologists call a phase of normalization.  The homosexual man is just like all men: he is now ‘included’ and the putting right of the wrong includes no longer having his sexuality referenced.  In other parts of the world – in certain African states and in Putin’s Russia, for example – Turing’s experience of prejudice and socially-configured hostility is playing out as violence sanctioned by church and state.

I’d be doing a bad job if I failed to acknowledge inside mainstream Western societies and cultures there are other voices, other messages – and the gay lobby, I suspect, is well aware of this.

What I find perplexing is a subtext which insists that the Turing story is only about gay men, that to do what I am doing now is somehow not valid.  As a critic and a film viewer I would want to leave open how a movie might be interpreted.  Jews, persons of colour, and women have every right to see themselves inside this movie’s depiction of individuals who are wronged.

What I experienced whilst watching The Imitation Game was that feeling you have when you see what you want to see – Morten Tyldum‘s Turing is  there, of course – but what is most striking is that whatever piques one’s interest is there as well.  What I saw was not limited to the story of a homosexual man; I also felt an empathy for the experience of those who are currently labelled ‘paedophile’.

One begins to hear all the reasons why this can’t be the case – mustn’t be the case.  Turing was brilliant; that is not what one expects to see inside the profile of the paedophile, is it?  Well, actually, the modern gay movement knows only too well most gay men aren’t brilliant either, but they expect to be afforded respect as persons on the basis of the consumerized, value-added Alan Turing the film serves up to us.

Second objection would be: but we see homosexuals differently today; we know better.  Funny that – seems to me that’s what the movie is on about: how a society can get things so wrong.  For those who are unaware of the work of John Money, he was a New Zealand sexologist (1921–2006); one of his professional concerns was what he referred to as ‘paedophilic genius’ (discussed inside Pedophilia: Biosocial Dimensions).  Money gave Lewis Carroll and JM Barrie as examples of paedophilic genius.

As with the homosexual man in the 1950s – and (as discussed above) in some non-Western countries today – social stigma all too often blocks and hides the contribution and giftedness of the ‘deviant’/’pervert’/’child sex-abuser’. I know some readers will be very angry with what I say next: in my lifetime, Michael Jackson would have to be the West’s poster-boy when it comes to paedophilic genius (Tom O’Carroll has authored a text under the name of Carl Toms called “Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons: Arvizo, Barnes, Bhatti, Chandler, Culkin… The A-Z of All the King’s Boys“).

The homosexual story is a good teacher when it comes to understanding how stigma works and what is at stake when it operates in full swing.  Those of a more academic bent might take a look at Stanley Cohen’s “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” (The 1972 version of this book is referenced below; the link offered in this paragraph is the 2011 Routledge Classic of the same book.)

Sociologists refer to stigma in terms of social distance. A recent study – “Stigmatization of People with Pedophilia: Two Comparative Surveys” – looked at stigma and the paedophile noting that in our current societies and cultures the paedophile is the most strongly negative profile inside our spaces.  This condemnation – and even hatred – is practiced inside our societies, perhaps because people tell themselves this social practice keeps children safe; Jahnke, Imhoff and Hoyer argue this is not the case; in fact the very opposite may be true – stigmatization of the paedophile may make child sexual abuse more likely.  The abstract for this paper states, “The strongest predictors of social distance towards people with paedophilia were affective reactions to this group (anger and, inversely, associated, pity) and the political attitude of right-wing authoritarianism …)”.

Given that we see what we want to see, was what I felt when watching that film an example of personal delusion?  I don’t think so; in my view, seeing what you want to see sits at the heart of all art.  If that is the way things work, then failing to admit this is where real delusion lives.

What I think is important is not how one’s sense of empathy for Alan Turing as a gay man might map onto the paedophile.  The real issue is seeing the ‘person’ who would want to punish Turing in his lifetime.  The key question is, Does that person – the one who sees a subhuman object they can kick, punish, imprison for being ‘that way‘ – live in our world today?  My sense of things is that yes, that person is very much alive … and kicking.

Put “The Imitation Game” on your list of films to watch – see what you see.


DETAILS:

  • Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Third Edition). London and New York: Routledge
  • Downing, L., Morland, I., & Sullivan, N. (2015, 4/01). Pervert or sexual libertarian?: Meet John Money, “the father of f***ology” [Excerpt from the Book “Fuckology: Critical Essays on John Money’s Diagnostic Concepts”]. Salon (USA). Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2015/01/04/pervert_or_sexual_libertarian_meet_john_money_the_father_of_fology/
  • Jahnke, S., Imhoff, R., & Hoyer, J. (2015, 20 June). Stigmatization of People with Pedophilia: Two Comparative Surveys. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(1), 21-
  • Pedophilia: Biosocial Demensions. (1990) (J. R. Felerman, Ed.).
  • Songtag, S. (2001). Against Interpretation. USA: Picador.
  • Staff Writer. (2014). The Imitation Game [Web commentator on Film and TV shows.]. In Rotten Tomatoes (Movie Info).
  • Toms, C. (2010). Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons: Arvizo, Barnes, Bhatti, Chandler, Culkin. The A-Z of All the King’s Boys. Leicester, United Kingdom: Troubador.
  • Tyldum, M. (2014). The Imitation Game [Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong.]. U.S.-U.K.) A Weinstein Co. (in U.S.)/StudioCanal (in U.K.) release and presentation of A Black Bear Pictures/Bristol Automotive production. (International sales: FilmNation Entertainment, Los Angeles.) (113 minutes). Retrieved from http://variety.com/2014/film/reviews/telluride-film-review-the-imitation-game-1201294590/

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

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.

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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