Following up from yesterday’s post regarding the revelation of a steep increase of reports on child abuse in the year ending April 2014, I would like to further elaborate on the problems with the “Stranger, Danger” gimmick. What seems evident since Operation Yew Tew and the exposure of various paedophile rings is that a conspiracy of silence has stopped victims coming forward. Let’s put a lot of this in perspective. This isn’t a conspiracy theory where a careful shadow operation is silencing witnesses. This is instinctive tribal nature. Victims are scared to speak out due to hardwired genetic programming not to disrupt the tribe. Tribal members equally don’t want them to speak out due to the same disruption.
Disruption means weakness in the tribe and therefore vulnerability all-round. It also means tearing down the security of normalcy. If “odd” Uncle Ralph is outed as a sexual predator that would ruin the Christmas get together and wreck his marriage to dear Aunty Margot, who’s suffered enough what with her father dying last year. Beside Uncle Ralph is such good fun and remember how he helped out at that time when no one else would. Report Uncle Ralph, confront Uncle Ralph even, and that would totally rip the family apart. Furthermore, it would draw negative attention to our family from those snotty neighbours and it might cause more bullying at school. I don’t think we can handle the pressure. No, better off forgetting about it and keeping an eye on the kids when they are with Uncle Ralph. It’s just his funny way. Looking at how a community operates in this manner helps one better understand why widespread abuse can go on unexposed within religious institutions and close-knit organizations. Factor into that confused ideas regarding societal and cultural norms of the era or area, and it really is a wonder that anyone comes forward.
The next problem is that we all collectively contribute towards the ignorance surrounding child abuse or any abuse for that matter. We support and repeat the terminology used by our tabloid press, referring to offenders as “evil”, “beast” and “monster”. Such an understandable rage of incredulity exhibited by man people can easily be channelled into a metaphor or symbol of unworldliness. After all, this is what we have always done through our folklore and fiction. We don’t want people who ignite our greatest and deepest fears to be a part of our species. It is much easier to see them as a freak of nature, a product of some supernatural force, than to confront the dangers within our tribes. The press pander to this response by labelling the offenders with dehumanizing titles and surround them with emotive adjectives, which they know will stir the proverbial pitchfork holders who can vent their anger towards a faraway and unconnected target. So the media sells papers and all our tribes unite in our condemnation of the demon, getting high on the natural dopamine produced by the righteous indignation.
It’s an understandable knee-jerk reaction. Whenever I read or hear about the crimes being committed by such individuals my instant response is revulsion and often anger. I can’t switch it off and my own set of moral beliefs doesn’t want me to switch it off. If anything, I fear a day where I meet these reports with cold indifference or stoic acceptance. It is a response from a protective parent, a teacher of child self-protection and a human being that cannot relate to why an individual would do such a crime. However, through a process of trying to better understand the crime and therefore do my best to understand how to prevent and safeguard people from them, I have come to believe that dehumanizing an offender does nothing to help us spot them in our midst. Furthermore, it might actually trigger or encourage other offenders to commit their crimes.
The problem with language is that intent can quickly get muddied. Terms like “evil”, “beast” and “monster” empower the image of an offender. These are terms that are also used to describe people in a positive way. A coach with a tough work ethic is often referred to for being “evil”. The word “beast” is used at least as much in physical training circles to describe impressive athletes as it is to describe rapists and murderers. The word “monster” provides us with the image of a supernatural behemoth. We often use it to describe villainous or malevolent creatures and the term “monstrous” is used to mean something horrific, but our fiction has also provided us with plenty of good monsters too. Regardless of the status of a fictional monster’s morality by turning a human being into a monster, we have likened the individual to a supernatural phenomenon.
When we reinforce the idea that a sex offender or any other criminal is not of the same species as us, we allowing society to be blind to the real threats in our midst. Evil is an invisible commodity that cannot be seen. Beasts in the lives of most are the animals that we use in various different forms and rarely the dangerous creatures we need to spot whilst we huddle around our fires. Monsters are the figments of our imagination used to tell wondrous tales and to scare one another. None of these entities have any bearing on the issue of child abuse. By not being aware of the real signs in our community and not identifying distorted protective tribal attitudes in ourselves and others we are doing nothing to stop the problem.
In fact, we are helping to blind and deafen ourselves from the crimes and possibly promoting it to other would-be offenders. Notoriety can have its own positive reputation and this is something we should be wary of when we start sensationalizing sex offenders. After all, a good number of despicable individuals have courted their own fan clubs. These include famous serial killers – who are often rapists and child killers – who are bombarded with letters that include hero worship and marriage proposals.
Frank Moorhouse’s “Satanic Killings” is a surprisingly sober and rational journalistic work in the true crime genre. It provides us with plenty of examples of how notorious individuals have made a career out of their crimes after they have been convicted. What might seem abhorrent to the mainstream has its fringe interest of supporters, and the most worrisome of these are those with similar impulses as their idols. We know that the internet provides offenders with support from other like-minded individuals who help create a world populated by people who will not only condone what they do, but actively encourage the behaviour. Many a notorious offender has happily told anyone after his arrest that he is “a monster”. Time and again we grant these individuals the recognition they crave. They become poster-stars for like-minded individuals.
We have already long had a counterculture that has long embraced the notorious as enemies of the establishment. This goes far back into history and is often a good thing. However, there are many that justify any individual crime – which might include rape and murder – as an act of rebellion. The Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, and the cult leader, Charles Manson, are examples of people who have promoted this view. By actively celebrating convicted sexual predators and murderers in our press as if they were real-life Hannibal Lecters (who currently has an ambiguous status that is not far-off from being an anti-hero) or Freddy Krugars provides would-be offenders more icons and does nothing to promote real awareness of predatory crimes.
At present, we have a culture where police often issue press statements describing the cunning and cleverness of a criminal. The press, in turn, blow the criminal up into the nightmarish image of a malevolent demon. The UK’s bestselling newspaper, The Sun, have several stock photos showing imprisoned sex offender and child murderer, Roy Whiting, glaring out at us with jeering eyes and a maniacal grin. The image is comparable to Lon Chaney Snr’s role in Murder by Midnight. It is tabloid dynamite, designed to probe our primal fears. It is designed to scare us and anger us. The fact that it was taken of an imprisoned Whiting long after his conviction for murder, helps underline the paper’s view that this criminal is unrepentant and the penal system is not providing us with the punishment such a killer deserves. Whiting, who was slashed in the face by another convicted murderer in 2002, is leering at us for being too soft. He is pure evil. He was the dreaded stranger that struck from the shadows. He drove a van and he abducted children – having been previously convicted of kidnapping and abusing a child. He was the bogeyman personified in the minds of parents like me who were brought up watching public information films like “Say No to Strangers“, starring the now well-respected Shakespearean actor and regular on Victoria Wood comedies, Duncan Preston. Whiting’s case highlighted a lot of different issues and was used to promote different causes. However, one thing that statistics will tell us and the sheer media presence it received demonstrates is its rarity.
In his book, “Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us”, Benjamin Radford puts the issue regarding stranger, danger into perspective. In an article he wrote on the topic Radford explained:
“Only a tiny minority of kidnapped children are taken by strangers. Between 1990 and 1995 the National Center [US sp.] for Missing and Exploited Children handled only 515 stranger abductions, 3.1 percent of its caseload. A 2000 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs reported that more than 3/4 of kidnappings were committed by family members or acquaintances of the child. The study also found that children abducted by strangers were harmed less frequently than those taken by acquaintances.”
Gavin De Becker covers the myth of stranger, danger in “The Gift of Fear” and, more specifically, in “Protecting the Gift”. In various details on the myth and why it is impractical and ineffective to teach children to not talk to strangers is a subject for another day. However, suffice to say the real issue is at home and within our midst. Am I promoting us to be less social? No. I want more social interaction and, having grown up in a close-knit community, I can vouch for the many benefits of having an extended family. That doesn’t mean we can’t be better educated on assessing the signs of child abuse and to safeguard ourselves against denial.
We need to teach self-protection against the most likely enemies in our society. Helping people take control of their lives and being aware of those around them are crucial steps towards protection against abuse. Teaching people to have a better recognition of the signs in much the same way that we are taught how to spot the symptoms of heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks would be a strong step in the right direction. Providing children with a contextual understanding of personal space, privacy, their rights and openness to talk their parents about anything is also a crucial part of our education.
I appreciate that police are often putting under so much pressure that they feel a need to explain why an investigation has taken so long to conclude, but this should be tempered with a need to downplay the status of a suspect. A sex crime is committed by someone who has abused the trust of society and ignored the boundaries set between people. In the vast majority of cases they have only got away with the crime due to complex tribal issues not because the criminal has been particularly clever. Acting as a parasite, the offender will probably have abused the friendship of friends by lying to them in order to protect him. Acting as a coward, he will have hidden behind the tribal instincts not to draw negative attention or upset the norm in a community or family. He doesn’t deserve the status of the fictional horrors we have used to frighten one another. He is not a supernatural force. He is a problem in our society that needs to be quickly identified and solved.
I am not anti-censorship, but rather pro-responsible journalism. I certainly don’t feel information should be suppressed and I am an active supporter of freedom of expression through art and literature. The public has a right to know, but when they have that right needs to be balanced against what the effect has on society. I find good quality true crime investigation to be educational and I think it has positive benefits. However, I believe our attitudes need to change. I don’t want a gagged media, but a more responsible one. This is a media that does not promote criminals – particularly those committing sexual offences or acts of violence – as if they were supervillains. The best way to influence such a change is by demanding it through what we buy and how we respond.
- Uncovering the Truth: The Reality of Criminal Profiling (coloradotech.edu)