Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Protecting the Weakest in Our Midst (24 Sept. 2013)

            A State Senator I greatly respect has gotten through the California legislature a bill increasing sentences for possession of child pornography. The bill is recommended as protecting "the weakest members of society" and protecting children from life-long damage, emotional scars that will never heal.

            The Senator has a demonstrated ability to produce carefully-crafted legislation, and I trust her with this bill. Still, I want to look at the rhetoric that goes with such legislation and get to some basics in politics.

            The child-pornography bill doesn't involve serious money, but serious money, in aggregate, is at stake with much legislation designed "to protect and serve the weakest in our midst." Such a formulation sounds good and is good, but I was taught in the Chicago school of practical politics to go back to any legislation that actually does that and get it rewritten to have it help also people with some clout. Indeed, it's sometimes prudent to throw in some goodies for people who don't deserve them and whom you don't even particularly like. You want food stamps for hungry Americans? You may need the programs in a farm bill with over-generous subsidies for over-stuffed giants in industrial agriculture.

            If the programs you set up serve only the truly needy, the really wretched of the Earth, those programs are in danger of being cut the next budgetary crisis. The truly needy, the powerless among us, lack the power — by definition lack the power — to protect their interests; so you build in aid for them from the powerful, even if (on occasion) you gag a bit while doing it.

            You want to protect kids from being abused in the making of child pornography? Increased prison time for possession of such images is one approach, but be very careful, especially in California, that when budgets get tight, money to keep porn fans in prison isn't coming out of programs more immediately devoted to child protection, or programs that might make life a bit better for children, such as art or music classes — or food.

            We love our kids so much we'll throw porn fans in the slammer, but maybe not enough to pay for luxuries for them, like becoming musically literate, or eating fresh fruit.

            But, ah, that professed love of children — and the very real and powerful urge to protect children — should also, always, get us to pause before acting.

            The urge to protect offspring is widespread in mammals and pretty much universal among humans, and we humans add to that imperative our abilities to abstract, generalize, and think imaginatively, to such a degree that almost all of us will try to protect children of other people, even children of strangers. Almost all of us, and those who want to systematically hurt or exploit children we will see as radically different, in a way inhuman, demonic.

            Hold that thought for a moment.

            Now note that the desire to protect children — innocent young girls — was at the heart of what led, pretty quickly, to the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1690s. And if the late 17th century colonial America doesn't seem relevant, note that accusations from "recovered memory" of sexual abuse escalated in the United States in the 1980s to include accusations of "Satanic ritual abuse."

            So, RULE: Whenever the debate gets to protecting children and protecting children from abuse and, especially, protecting children from sexual abuse that we will perceive and should judge as figuratively demonic — pause; take a moment.

            And then pause some more. Macbeth is hypocritical when he says it, but he's right that one should be careful not to let rage, or even totally-justified indignation based in "violent love[,] / Outrun the pauser, reason" (Macbeth 2.3.89-90).

            Appeals to protect children can activate some of our strongest emotions and damn well should trigger strong reactions.

            So pause. Think. Note that the relatively quiet hysteria that hit Salem — without riots, with everything formal and legal and done by due process — that low-key, Puritan hysteria left in its wake, as a contemporary reported, "Nineteen persons having been hang'd, and one prest to death, and Eight more condemned […]; above an Hundred and Fifty in Prison, and Two Hundred more accused […]," with five of the people imprisoned dying in prison. Recognize that in the last two decades of the 20th century less lethal but still highly destructive panics hit Manhattan Beach, California, in the McMartin preschool case and among the well-educated citizens of Christchurch, New Zealand. In the "recovered memory" panic of the late 20th century, families were disrupted, reputations ruined, and people imprisoned or threatened with prison.

            Recall that however much we in America prize the idea of presumption of innocence — and we prize it less than we brag about to foreigners — however much we maintain a presumption of innocence, to be accused of a serious crime is to be harmed: justly harmed if one is guilty, unjustly harmed if one is innocent.

            To be accused of a sensational crime means bad publicity, easily-accessed arrest records, and time and expense even if all goes very well for you and you are soon released. To be accused of a sexual crime against children is damning.

            Such crimes do happen, far too often.

            A friend I'll call Kevin lived with a very nice woman who was on what I'll call the Illinois Child Protection Special Ops team (definitely not its real name): they intervened in really serious cases. She said one time over dinner that she was somewhat surprised by all the publicity a "home alone" story had gotten in the Chicago area. She mused that, well, the kid was cute, White, and middle class, so the story was news. For her it was the sort of routine case her unit referred down the line to rank-and-file cops and caseworkers. When I asked about the sort of cases her unit handled, she thought about something she could discuss over dinner, and told a couple of horror stories that enraged me and turned my stomach.

            That's the one hand.

            On the other hand, my compassionate friend Kevin helped out a young woman with schizophrenia and had her accuse him of raping her, in a rather implausible context. Kevin went in to see the local police and was told his young, schizophrenic friend had been in. Her mother had also come in and told the police that her daughter had dreamed the rape and that Kevin had been kind to her daughter.

            The cops were aware of the young woman's mental problems, and, possibly illegally, didn't detain Kevin or the other men she fairly regularly accused, nor did they force her to submit to a medical examination.

            Rapes do occur. Child abuse occurs: a significant amount when we note most abuse is nonsexual and combined with neglect; and people concerned only with sexual abuse and nonchalant about all the other kinds should expand their circle of concern. (They should also shut the hell up until they've repaired their moral compass.)

            One last point here.

            Almost inevitably in receiving alerts to sexual crimes and sexual exploitation, we're told the victims are scarred for life.

            I'm certain many are, but we should wonder if all victims are scarred for life and if fewer would be permanently damaged if permanent damage wasn't expected of them. My mother was a great believer in the "self-fulfilling prophecy," and the idea is valid.

            Let's say a child is forced for a while into child pornography and is raped and neglected and, for a while, is abused; and let's say you run into her — or him — as a young adult and ask "How are you?" and are told "Fine." And then you clarify that you really care (most Americans who ask "How are you?" don't give a rat's ass and will be upset if you try to tell them in any detail). And upon clarification that you really want to know, you're told again that the person is fine; that s/he had some therapy and support from friends and family and is getting on with life — "And how are you?"

            With luck, and some justice in the world, the people who harmed this healthy young adult are in jail, and they deserve it. They deserve exactly the same sentence if the victim recovers as they would if s/he were "scarred for life" and never recovered from the trauma.

            And we should want that victim to recover and hesitate to accuse her — or him — of denial or false consciousness. We may believe such victims have been victimized and will always be victims, at best recovering, never recovered, but it's probably evil to insist on that belief so much that we set up a cultural expectation of permanent damage and a system of norms where former victims are punished, if subtly, for saying "I'm fine" and getting on with their lives.

            I'll repeat the word "evil."

            It can be effective rhetoric and good politics to present victims "scarred for life." In terms of ethics, however, people making such assertions need to look up the statistics on recovery and cite those statistics and, if possible, offer victims the hope and even the cautious expectation of recovery: it's ethically required for honesty, diligence, and in hope of the possibility of a positive "self-fulfilling prophecy."

            So California will get our laws on the possession of child pornography more in lines with those of other States, and that's probably a good thing. The debates on such matters, though — debates on sex, violence, exploitation of children — should proceed with minimal sensationalism and very great caution.

            I trust the good Senator sponsoring the child-pornography possession bill and see so far no problems with the increased sentences in extreme cases. (I'm a life member of the American Civil Liberties Union and trust them to keep an eye on how the new law is enforced.)

            More generally, though, for all such debates: Kids must be protected, but adults also deserve protection. We need to aid "the weakest in our midst," but in ways that will survive budget cuts. We need to follow "the good angels of our nature" in responding to threats to children — and keep a grip on our emotions; otherwise we risk that we will "Outrun the pauser, reason" into evil, ironically doing evil when trying to do good. 

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