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
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
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
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