Thursday, August 11, 2005

A Climate of Fear

Lawrence Thomas warns that we are protecting ourselves into oblivion:
For one profound upshot of all this protection is that we are essentially squeezing social warmth out of social relations between adults and the youth and, in turn, the important good of trust is being eliminated. For all practical purposes, a young person today is raised not to trust any adult stranger and to view with suspicion any display of social warmth, even if that social warmth comes from someone who occupies a role that might naturally occasion concern. Elementary school teachers may not hug a child; and college professors trip all over themselves to make sure that their conversations with a student are not behind closed doors. It seems to me it is only a matter of time before plexiglass between student and instructor are the order of the day.
The well-being of society requires both that the innocent be protected and that good will, respect, and trust be nourished. We have become besotted with the first to the exclusion of the latter; and it shows.

I'm reminded of those stories you hear about parents being accused of "child pornography" for taking pictures of their kids in the bath. It's just too much. Sex crimes are utterly horrendous, of course, I'm not denying that. But rampant suspicion can be terrible also, if in a less sensational way. As Thomas points out, it leeches the "social warmth" out of our society -- and the consequences of this can be far more widespread.

There's something unbearably evil about the corruption of goodness. I think that's part of why sex crimes are so awful. The deeply personal violation is extremely serious, of course. But there's something else about it too. Put simply: sex is supposed to be good, one of the great pleasures in life. So to use it as a weapon, as a way of harming another, compounds the evil of harm with that of perversion. Indeed, perhaps this perversion of goodness is precisely why the violation strikes the person so deeply. If we consider other cases where good is similarly corrupted - e.g. abusive parents, or betrayed trust - these too seem more awful, in an important sense, than the more straightforward harms of bullying or scorn.

Human affection (in its myriad forms) is arguably the most valuable thing in the world. But, as Thomas points out, a climate of fear and suspicion stifles this invaluable good. Worse, in a sense, it corrupts it. If all men are to be automatically viewed with suspicion, and considered to be potential sex offenders, then it might no longer be open to them to express innocent affection. It would instead be seen as something more sinister. The good will of the individual is not enough to preserve the purity of affection's goodness here: as an essentially social phenomenon, it depends as much upon how it is perceived and received as how it is given. So if the society insists upon perceiving all male affection in a suspicious light, they may end up occluding and perverting its value despite no-one intending ill.

Further, as Belle Waring notes, the protectionist attitude risks becoming self-defeating, by directly causing psychological harm to the very children it aims to protect:
The curious thing about this attitude is that under the guise of protecting children from exploitation, it unnecessarily sexualises them. The vast majority of people are not pedophiles, and if they want to take pictures of their naked children frolicking in the sprinkler they should not have to worry that some busy-body at Rite-Aid is going to narc them out to child welfare. Children like to run around naked, and it would be wrong to give them the idea that all the adults around them regard this as titillating.

So there's something rather tragic about the unintended consequences of sexual protectionism. But there's also the potential for injustice. Thomas continues:
According to the University’s rules: if a student so much as accuses a faculty of inappropriate behavior, the faculty member is guilty until proven innocent. To be sure, an innocent professor may weather the storm. But the damage done to her or him is irreparable.

This ties in with a recent discussion of David Farrar's concerning false rape complaints -- which senior police investigators have apparently estimated to make up "between 60 and 80 per cent of rape complaints" [update: in one municipality]. I have no idea how accurate that estimate is (it seems incredibly high), but really, any false complaints are too many. It is an extremely serious accusation to make, and if it can be established (beyond reasonable doubt) that the accusation was made up, then the accuser should be severely punished.

The malicious accuser attempted to imprison an innocent person for years, ruin their reputation, and so forth. In short, they attempted to ruin someone's life. Now, I don't think anything is gained by putting this harm in competition with rape itself, and trying to judge which is worse. But I do think we should recognize that such false accusations are of comparable seriousness, and should be recognized and treated as such, even if it would be inappropriate to follow through on those comparisons.

So far in this post, I've simply wanted to highlight the harms that can potentially result from taking too extreme a protectionist position. The dangers of taking too lax a position are obvious. I haven't said much about the huge harms suffered by real victims of sexual abuse. This is not because I want to downplay those harms - not at all! - but I am sure that everyone is quite familiar with those problems already. It seems that the dangers of the protectionist extreme are more in need of highlighting -- not necessarily because they are more serious (though if Thomas is right then their implications might have a wider impact), but simply because they are less commonly recognized.

So, given the dangers posed by either extreme, have we found the right balance? This is something I'm genuinely unsure about. My gut feeling is that we have taken protectionism slightly too far. But it's difficult to see on what basis we can make these judgments. It's easy to point to particular examples which are clearly over the top, and exasperation at these might lead one to exclaim that it's "just too much" (as I did at the start of this post). But no general conclusions can be drawn from a few isolated incidents -- if isolated they indeed are. I guess that's the crucial issue. The cultural phenomena Thomas pointed to in declaiming the loss of "social warmth" seem quite widespread already, so that might provide us with serious cause for concern. But I really don't know anything at all about the other side of the picture, i.e. how common sex crimes are, and how much better or worse things could get in this respect by becoming more or less protectionist. Is the added security so great that it is worth the social costs? I can't answer this. But it is a question that needs to be asked -- and its answer looked into by those in a better position to do so.


  1. "In order to answer that question, aren't we forced to make precisely this comparison?"

    Yeah, fair point. What I meant by the latter quote was more that I don't want to get into a pissing contest between feminists and men's-rights activists about who's the most hard done by.* I think both harms discussed are extremely serious, and it's inappropriate for either side to trivialize or try to "out-do" the other merely in order to score political points. But not all comparisons need be of this pernicious nature. And, as you note, we probably are going to have to make the comparison at some point, if we're to judge the trade-off between under- and over-protection.

    [* = Granted, the issue isn't explicitly gendered -- it's certainly possible for women to rape or men to be victims, even if this isn't legally recognized. But discussions of this issue do tend to assume the gender stereotypes (which are based on pretty strong generalizations, I guess) so it's difficult to avoid seeing the issue in gendered terms.]

  2. I don't think we should ever put sanctions on rape allegations. Now, I can understand the point with the harm that it causes - false accussee's lives can be harmed.

    The number of unreported sexual abuse and rape is huge. Any further restrictions will make life even harder.

    Most of those who are the subject of false allegations will, over time, regain their credibility. Those victims, will not.

  3. "I don't think we should ever put sanctions on rape allegations."

    That's a very strong claim. Would punishing proven liars really make that much difference to how many honest rape victims come forward? Who knows? This isn't a question we can answer a priori -- it requires empirical investigation.

    Suppose we discovered that the following consequences would result from applying sanctions:

    (1) the behaviour of rape victims would be minimally affected (or we could take precautions to counterbalance the adverse affects, encouraging more genuine victims to come forward without fear).

    (2) false allegations would become significantly rarer -- thus saving police time and money; and saving the reputations, family, and freedom of the innocent victims of malicious false accusers.

    It seems at least possible that (1) and (2) could both be true. And if they were, surely it would follow that we ought to apply sanctions.

    If you deny this, I don't think you fully realize how serious these false accusations can be. (I recommend reading some of the later comments on David Farrar's blog.) I think it's simply unconscionable to dismiss the harms of false allegation in such a way. You might give rape more priority, but to give it absolute priority, to show no concern whatsoever for all the harm done by the protectionist position... well, that's precisely the sort of moral blindness my post was arguing against!

    (Sorry if that sounds a bit heated - it's certainly nothing personal. I just think this is a very serious issue, and find it disheartening that so few others are willing to recognize this.)


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