Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Calling child sexual abuse "evil" is counterproductive

17th Century English woodcut.
Expect a lot of this kind of useless language over the coming days, weeks and months, especially from politicians hoping to make political mileage out of the suffering of the innocent. Child sexual abuse is not "evil". The concept of evil is ancient, the stuff of fairy tales and old stories told by the fireside to amuse and terrify. It's a concept that the major perpetrators in the current scandal, the established churches, have a lot invested in. But how useful can it be if the very people who use that word to arrogate to themselves the privileges of authority are so apt to abuse the power thus conferred? Clearly, the concept of evil has failed its remit. It's time for a rethink. What child sexual abuse is, in brass tacks terms, is abuse of power.

In human historical terms the 17th Century woodcut that accompanies this piece was not made that long ago. But the churches have for the past decade been braying their frustration at the diminishment of religious observance, blaming it on the rise of "materialism", a concept that means, in this context, the vacuous pursuit of things in place of their preferred object of the "eternal" and the divine. But what materialism really is is to agree that there is no divine influence in the universe, and that there is a physical explanation for everything. Such a view clearly sets out to reject such notions as evil. Instead of relying on old wives' tales to explain why people act the way they do, it falls back in a rather cumbersome fashion on far more difficult sets of ideas contained, for example, within the realms of postmodern discourse theory, psychology and brain science. But because these things are far more difficult to easily explain, we continue to publicly use terms such as "evil" to talk about behaviours that go counter to our best intentions, such as child sexual abuse. They fit into headlines far more easily than some of the abstruse terms that can better explain why people do some of the terrible things they do. Nevertheless, the abuse of power can surely be better explained with reference to exact sciences, than it can by whipping out such an old saw as the Devil, Lucifer. Watch out, Dr Faustus!

It's a matter, for people such as Julia Gillard, of "othering". Calling child sexual abuse "evil" is her way of bringing the majority - who do not sexually abuse children - onto her side of the debate. But how useful is it really when she exploits terminology preferred by the very institutions that her royal commission will seek to unmask? Abuse of power when it refers to children and sex acts is surely abhorrent, as well as illegal. But abuse of power is not something that is foreign to everyone. Far from it. If we want to effectively address the root causes of this problem then it will be necessary to start talking about the issues in more appropriate terms. Othering the minority, making them outcasts, is counterproductive because it ignores the potential for further abuse in other contexts and by other parts of the community. It is surely easier to take this line than it is to fully understand the motivation for child sexual abuse, but in the long term the latter will be more useful because it can help us to really understand, as a community, where this kind of behaviour has its roots, and how we can make the kinds of changes that are needed in order to ensure that it never happens again.

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