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.


  • 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/

Stigma and the pedophile, surely it’s more than just opinion and morality!

The last post on this site looked at how a person accused of assaulting his daughter had decided to not appear before a New Zealand court. The focus of that post was how New Zealand courts perform, and how they are viewed when dealing with such allegations. This post looks at a very different issue – social stigma for those socially ‘positioned’ as child abusers.

While working on a post-graduate diploma in Arts at Victoria University, I had an informal conversation with one of the teaching staff. She commented on my use of the term pedophile, “These days articles don’t refer to pedophiles, they talk of child abusers.”

In this post the lecturer’s comment is taken at face value. At the same time it needs to be acknowledged there are different discourses: sociological, criminological, psychological, media studies, and so on. The discussion here is intended to show how a care about how one speaks and a look at how others use words can be helpful. What is offered in this post offers a possible structure and process that language can demonstrate. Academic discourses can be subdivided into subcategories and even subcultures. One such subcategory and subculture is referred to as “victimological sociology”. If the woman’s comments are located inside that subculture, then what she refers to may well reflect what has been happening over the past twenty years.

For example, the way some authors use the term child abuser rather than pedophile shows how stigma can shift in terms of what it purports to offer. Stigma often begins by constructing a profile of an individual or group on the basis of opinions, and moral judgements. Eventually what is offered up seeks a more solid, more ‘factual’ quality. This process or set of moves is offered up inside the comments of the university lecturer. The term pedophile as it is used today has a history and it is one of profound social stigma – the individual so labelled is socially positioned in a strongly negative way. The individual, indeed the entire group, is discounted – they do not belong to the normals. That this is constructed with strong opinions and moral views is not unknown to a reader. However the introduction of the term child abuser evokes the extensive social, political, and academic discourses about abuse, child safety, and harm done to children, linked to a further discourse – rape and the feminist claim to be our current expert on trauma.

The move to the term child abuser from that of pedophile is a significant shift. A character of the child abuse discourse is its claim to be based in research and scientific enquiry. By calling the pedophile the child abuser what happens is the moral and opinion aspects drop below the radar, strengthening the notion that this profile is based inside what science has to tell us.

In this way, ideology and morality morph and lay claim to a place inside scientific discourse. This situation can be managed: it is the task of a critical thinker, and a good scientist, to keep ideology and morality in a position where such confusion does not take place.

To hold a moral view is perfectly valid. It is important however those moral views do not end up hiding inside scientific discourse as if they are not there, and this is equally important when looking at ideology. Both are part of how ideas and social practices are shaped. But they can seek to be invisible and thus go unexamined and unacknowledged. (For readers interested in the subject of ideology and how it functions, a text to explore is Louis Althusser’s book, For Marx.)

Some see religion as less central, that secular thought is normative, and in some ways that shift has happened. In the same way some see ideology as less a part of who we are – that in a better educated and more aware phase of social history we are less easily captured by political groups, less willing to just follow the leader. The political rhetoric of Hitler’s 1930/40s Germany and McCarthy’s 1950s America seem crude and unconvincing. I argue it would be foolish to become too confident that morality and ideology are dead – far from it. At the same time, I wouldn’t argue for either morality or ideology to be ‘taken out’ or ‘dumped’.

Nor is it the focus of this post to enter into long discussions about what is morality, what is ideology, and what is science. These terms are not interchangeable, not simply the same thing presented to us in different clothing.

Socially and culturally we have come to view science as a template for truth. Western culture has changed the way ideas and claims about what is true and what is false are managed. (An interesting text on this topic is Fearless Speech, based on lectures Michel Foucault offered at the University of California at Berkeley in the Fall Term of 1983 – its focus is not so much a discussion of the problem of truth, but with the problems that face the truth-teller, or of truth-telling as an activity.)

In the media and in public debate views are often offered up to us as scientific. That is significant because it is seen as a marker. To see an idea or argument as scientific says something about its validity. The position science has gained inside Western culture has a history, and one should keep a critical eye on the process by which science sustains this status. I want that feature to be noted, and I am interested in developing this point in a later post.

In my view it is a mistake – and dangerous – in academic writing to refer to the pedophile as the sex abuser. It is a lazy way of writing about those whose sexual orientation would be better termed minor-attracted persons. This problem of lazy thought does not go away if one then says, oh I am only talking about those adults who have had sexual contacts with the young. There is a temptation to form two separate groups: first, the person who has no sexual contact with youths; second, those who have. This division, while seductive, is unhelpful.

Individuals in this second group find themselves subject to the full force of the law and all the social stigma that can be evoked and applied. Currently we seem to suffer from far too much interest in punishment and far too little interest in understand just what it is we are drawn into when we discuss pedophilia and the sexual abuse of children.

When we allow morality and ideology to hide inside science we allow a highly emotive and morally driven set of views to appear to make things more clear; when in reality the lives of many adults and children are misrepresented and adversely affected. I am, as the reader will no doubt recognise, speaking of another topic on which to post. In recent times Western cultures and societies have been more willing to seek a moral perspective on what is happening, just as science has grown in its role as definer of how to speak the truth. Morality is in no real danger of ‘disappearing’.

It is important to notice how morality and ideology hide inside science. Seeing this strengthens a critical approach when it comes to the difficult and often loaded situation where what is being talked about is not only a person who is minor-attracted (pedophile) but a person who has also given expression to that sexuality and sexual orientation.

In a discussion of a person who is minor-attracted one wants to discuss sexuality and profile issues, their social position and how they can own who they are. To label them child abusers will not take us forward in terms of political, social, and academic discussion. As is so often the case, the court room may well allow us to answer the question, has a person broken the law. It may not however lead us to a very deep view, or allow for a very satisfying understand of who this person is. We need to ask what kind of life they can lead inside a society and culture that they and everybody else can see as ethical, responsible, and fulfilling.

In 2007 Umberto Eco published his book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. I recall an interview on the radio where Eco said he had nothing against progress, what worried him most about modernity was that he saw people “marching lockstep into the future.”

Since the close of the Second World War we have seen authors speak of a concern about the return of fascism. In the book Nineteen Eighty-Four we see this message offered up by George Orwell. In that text the issue was largely fascism from above – a bonding/nationalism that is characterised by violent political leadership; what seems to be a new threat at our time is what I would call fascism from below – a bonding/species-ism (seriously misguided notion of what forms the basis of our fears). This is a kind of ‘arm-linking’ exercise that movements like the child sex abuse industry deploy that has the feel of producing that ‘lockstep march into the future’ that Eco talked about as so dangerous. I join Orwell and Eco in saying think, question, take a risk!

■ Althusser, L. (2005). For Marx (B. Brewster, Trans.). London and New York: Verso.
■ Eco, U. (2007). Turning back the clock: hot wars and media populism. Orlando: Harcourt.
■ Foucault, M. (2001). Fearless Speech. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), Distributed by MIT Press.
■ Goffman, E. (1986). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.
■ Koubaridis, A. (2013, 1 Febuary). Court slip up led to escape, The New Zealand Herald.
■ Orwell, G. (1950, July 31). Signet Classics Paperback. Vol. No. 6: 1984/Nineteen Eighty-Four [Afterwood by Erich Fromm] (p. 336). New York, N.Y.: Signet Book.

Do what I say, not what I do in the world of social science research.

Sarah Goode has put up a piece on the newspaper site The Independent. (How can we prevent child abuse if we don’t understand paedophilia?) In a comment on that site I offered the folowing view.

The approach that Sarah Goode offers which says informed reflection and decision-making is better than ignorance is not a position I would criticise, rather safe positioning in my books. However the issue is, as she points out, a bit more complex than it looks at first. Her position that research done, and this includes methodologies adopted, while on this journey has a green light because it is viewed as part of child protection leaves me a little uncomfortable.

Goode states above “Now is the time to shift our attitudes and begin to explore. The journey is uncomfortable but the goal is better child protection, so any discomfort is worth tolerating”, those words “so any discomfort is worth tolerating are the ones that give me pause to think. John Haidt (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Kindle, March 29, 2012) would argue what Sarah Goode’s text does, the pulling on a cord labelled child protection, is designed to trigger something in the reader deliberately. Sarah Goode is in effect saying let me do what I want and don’t think too much about it. (I acknowledge Sarah Goode has written elsewhere about how ethics committees in academic settings have made life complicated for her, sometimes unreasonably so, “Understanding and Addressing Adult Sexual Attraction to Children: A Study of Paedophiles in Contemporary Society“, Kindle, July 3, 2009).

Research into groups does need ethical guidelines. Those being researched deserve to be protected from researchers who too often are guided by the view, “results is what matters; the subject being researched is fair game”. What I think is needed is research on the researchers. Of the work that is out there, how much of it was done ethically, where the subject being looked at was an adult who has an attraction to the young. Was the subject treated as we would want to be treated ourselves. Sarah Goode has my support, but it is not unqualified support.

When Sarah Goode did her research for the book I refer to above (Goode, 2009) the people she interviewed reported a degree of disquiet regarding her research methodology. As subjects they did not feel they had been ethically managed by her. Hopefully the concerns of those being researched will be allowed to influence how future work is done by social science authors.

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  • Ulrich, H., Randolph, M., & Acheson, S. (Fall/Winter 2005-06). Child Sexual Abuse: A Replication of the Meta-analytic Examination of Child Sexual Abuse by Rind, Tromovitch, and Bauserman (1998). The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 4(2), 37-51.
  • Rind, B., Tromovitch, P., & Bauserman, R. (1998). A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples. Psychological Bulletin, 124(1), 22-53.