I want you to put yourself in what might be a difficult position. Imagine a parallel universe where you are you in every way, except, suddenly, you find yourself having impure thoughts about children.
Lucky for you, in that universe, Britain is a tolerant and understanding country which punishes people for their actions rather than demonising them for their thoughts. You have the confidence to admit your thoughts to friends and, if necessary, psychological professionals. You can work through your issues in a positive, constructive way and continue to lead a normal life. Wonderful.
Now imagine if that same situation arose in the Britain we live in. Our media habitually conflates the concept of a paedophile, literally someone who loves children when you go to the word’s Greek roots, and a sex offender, which requires that you act upon such feelings.
Regularly seeing headlines in the tabloids about sick paedos and hearing from all angles that you are pure evil is hardly likely to inspire you with the necessary gall to come clean about such a personal issue. You are more likely to find yourself withdrawing, and taking solace with like-minded people on the internet. You will be forced into crime by those who abhor it.
This article is not simply intended as a defence of paedophiles. This example points to wider issues about the dehumanisation of criminals or those who we think of as criminal in the public sphere. We have lost our capacity for compassion and empathy, and 2010 has been rife with examples.
I was inspired to think about this over Easter. Travelling in and out of London every day, I read a lot of the _Evening Standard_ – hey, it’s free, I’m a student. One evening, the paper featured an interview with former _Sun_ editor David Yelland. The primary focus of the piece was Yelland’s alcoholism in the job. While this was fascinating, one section interested me in particular: “I couldn’t have edited the _Sun_ sober … I was having to judge people, even people like murderers or paedophiles, for example — and these people are not as different from the rest of us as we’d like to think.”
Yelland had great courage to say so. Take Raoul Moat. For those who can’t cast your minds back to last summer, he was the man who emerged from prison to shoot dead his ex-girlfriend’s lover, wound the ex and blind a police officer in the process. He eventually shot himself after a stand-off with police.
A Facebook group quickly sprang up in support of Moat and attracted over 36,000 members (although, as an astute Radio 4 listener pointed out to our press still tragically oblivious to the workings of social media, this does not mean he had over 36,000 supporters – many just joined in order to slate the man). But this is where the man who is sadly our leader David Cameron showed once again how out of touch he is with the public by stating in the House of Commons, “I cannot understand any wave, however small, of public sympathy for this man.”
Those who did support Moat were (largely) not condoning murder as an end to fantasies of revenge; they simply sympathised with a man they saw broken and empty on national TV. They observed someone who had done something about the frustration in his life, and while condemning him still found a little bit in their heart that could reach out to his.
Cameron’s comments, while understandable, are unhelpful. Moat had a difficult history to say the least: numerous criminal offences, a failed business for which he blamed police and problems with anger management. The PM did not ask questions about whether he could have been better supported during his previous prison time, whether the support for his anger problems was adequate, whether the police could have done more to help him after the collapse of his business – he just called him intrinsically wrong and that was that.
By writing Moat off as an anomaly, a flawed product in an otherwise satisfactory system, we fail to acknowledge the underlying problems behind his actions and trivialise the feelings of anyone who shares a similar history.
Another example is the much publicised case of Jon Venables, the killer of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 when Venables was aged ten. After a much criticised early release, Venables was living under a false name in a new location in order to protect him from vigilantes until it was revealed last year that he had returned to prison for serious, though confidential, violations of his release arrangement.
The media was up in arms. The _Daily Mail_ and the _Sun_, such purveyors of calm and reasoned opinion, insisted that the public had ‘a right to know’ why Venables was back in jail; it is difficult to work out how knowing would have made us any better off with the man already locked up. When the _Mirror_ alleged that the imprisonment related to charges of child pornography, that was it – Venables was no longer even human, but some twisted monster who didn’t deserve to see the light of day ever again.
The guy was ten when he murdered James Bulger. Again, this is not a defence, but the fact remains that it is incredibly questionable whether a person can be considered evil at that age. Since then he has been either in prison or shipped around the country as a new person – it is little wonder he has not turned out to be the most upstanding citizen in the country. Had we been more rational in our reaction to his crimes, we could be better equipped to treat anyone in the future in the same situation – he may not even have needed a false name.
We may think we are helping things by treating those we think of as undeserving of a place in society as inhuman, but in fact we make things much, much worse. Whatever your opinion on that particular individual, by analysing their motivations on a human level we can genuinely tackle any underlying issues that might prevent future tragedies.
Compassion breeds understanding, which is the seed of progress; dehumanisation only breeds hatred, which unchecked will go on forever. It is much easier to remain in an oblivious bubble to these issues, but this bubble prevents social problems from resolving at all.