It’s been a very rough week for me, unfortunately, which has thrown a bit of a spanner in the mental works, but I thought I’d update with a bit of a change of scenery. If you haven’t already come cross this thought-provoking article by Joseph Harker, perhaps via Ally Fogg’s latest post on his newly-migrated blog. I’d highly recommend reading it. Joseph Harker is someone who has, for a long time, been someone who has given me plenty of pause and lots to think about, even though I generally tend to end up disagreeing with him. In particular, he has perhaps articulated best of all the persuasive (if ultimately flawed) idea that black people cannot be racist because “In the global order [they] do not belong to the dominant group”. This general idea will be recognisable to those battle-hardened by ad-hom snark from internet feminists who likewise tend to view lazy misandry as somehow the noble voice of the voiceless (example, example), and I think it’s generally a good idea to remind ourselves that feminism exists within a wider environment of what’s often referred to as ‘identity politics’.
Anyway, Harker’s an interesting bloke who’s written another interesting article. This particular article consists largely of a satire of the way people responded to the infamous Rochdale child abuse scandal, arguing that white people need to step up and take responsibility for the Jimmy Saviles and Stuart Halls in their midst. Just by way of a bit of context here, the Rochdale scandal was a major news event in the UK, and has arguably exacerbated racial and religious tensions across the country owing to the fact that it was a case of a child sexual grooming gang comprised of Muslim men of Pakistani descent apparently targeting vulnerable white girls in the area. Thus there was some suggestion that there was a racial and religious component to the crime, with Judge Gerald Clifton saying on sentencing to the defendants that “All of you treated the victims as though they were worthless and beyond any respect – they were not part of your community or religion.”
It’s not hard to see why this would create such controversy in and of itself in an area of the country where far-right groups like the EDL and the BNP operate, but fuel to the fire was added by accusations that the Police and Social Services knew all along about the ongoing abuse, and didn’t do an awful lot for fear of escalating racial and religious tensions in the area. It continues to be very much a hot-button topic in the UK, and far-right organisations are still extremely vocal about it. All in all, the context here is a massive shit-storm of potential controversy that I’m loathe to go into.
Harker’s satire runs to the effect that, if we mimic some of the responses to this scandal from the likes of Jack Straw (well-known MP) and Melanie Phillips (well-known Daily Mail anthropogenic climate change self-appointed expert/Israel-is-never-wrong opinionator), we’d say things emphasising collective responsibility, such as the following:
I urge white people to break this conspiracy of silence. Call on your leaders to show leadership. To show us all that you’re not like the people who dominate the news headlines. That you really do care about protecting children.
As Harker anticipates, people would find this suggestion rather inappropriate, which then lends power to his subsequent rhetorical appeal for his audience to likewise denounce Jack Straw’s and Melanie Phillip’s responses to the Rochdale scandal. Harker continues:
You may think all the above is ridiculous; that I’m stirring ethnic tensions on an issue that is clearly about individuals and small groups of people and has nothing to do with race or religion. And that by making this spurious case I’m ignoring the core issue, which is that children, many of them in vulnerable situations, were terrorised and physically harmed by opportunistic men who were able to get away with their crimes for years. You’d be right.
But all of the above arguments were made within various parts of our print and broadcast media when similarly small numbers of Muslim men were revealed to be grooming young girls for sex. If you think the claims about white people are wrong, then so is the stereotyping of Britain’s Muslims, and the widespread questioning of their culture and their religion, because of the perverted actions of a few.
Given the normal Guardian readership, one would think this would be preaching to the choir, but the comments indicate something of a defensive reaction even amongst the commenters not incapable of understanding satire even when it’s spelt out for them. Well, let me distance myself from them PDQ. I think Harker’s satire is fairly biting. He’s right to point out that holding the Pakistani-descended Muslim community in the UK responsible for the actions of people who just happen to be members of that class represents some pretty lowest-common-denominator political scaremongering and an entirely spurious allocation of responsibility.
OK. So why all this verbiage to say that I merely agree? Well, it seems to me Harker missed a trick here. What he does is isolate instances of child sexual abuse all perpetrated by men. He could, for instance, have quite easily invoked the truly horrific recent case of the poor girl sexually abused by her mother in order to make her pregnant. Perhaps he didn’t do so out of an understandable desire to keep things simple or because he simply didn’t know the racial identity, but nonetheless it represents a missed opportunity.
It also doesn’t explain the gendered language. What’s really fascinating for me here is that, in the midst of rightly satirising others for the immoral and intellectually bankrupt act of collectively blaming the Pakistani Muslim community for child sexual abuse, Harker has perhaps unwittingly endorsed the cultural stereotyping or even the collective blaming of men for child sexual abuse. Whilst he doesn’t explicitly blame men, and only men, for child sexual abuse, it does seem a little arbitrary (to my mind, at least) that he restricts the ‘core issue’ to being that of vulnerable children who are preyed upon by opportunist men. ‘Why not people?’ was my thought. Why make it gendered at all?
One might think female child sexual abusers aren’t terribly common, but the limited evidence available suggests that this perception is unlikely to be true. Charlotte Philby’s article from The Independent from a few years’ back was a notable breaking of the media silence on this issue. It’s also worth watching ManWomanMyth’s interview of Michelle Elliott, an expert on the topic. If it’s true that as many as 20% or even 1/3 (according to Tomeo et. al, 2001) of child sexual abusers are women, the question must surely be asked: why are we still using gendered language as standard to discuss this issue, and why is it so seemingly unworthy of note for Harker to talk solely about male perpetrators? All examples are selective to some extent, but these were perhaps a little too selective.
Switching into rhetoric mode for a moment, surely all this genderising of this topic achieves in doing is creating an environment where women are better able to get away with child sexual abuse? Furthermore, I don’t think it’s healthy to further a culture in which men are to be treated by default as the gender under suspicion. We already live in cultures where airlines have policies advising airline staff not to seat unaccompanied children next to men. Do we really want to encourage this suspicious treatment of men, and the implication that all men are somehow responsible for the actions of a few? Are men now moving towards becoming ‘Schrodinger’s Child Abuser‘? One would hope not, but the way that Harker’s choice of examples seems so fitting, so natural, seems to suggest that the culture of suspicion surrounding men around children will continue for a while longer until we start noticing just how odd is this gendering of topics.
Anyway, like I say, it wouldn’t be fair for me to ascribe any malign intent to Harker on this, and you could quite easily say I’m making a mountain out of a molehill here, but I do feel like perhaps he missed a trick. Thoughts?