Yes, Joseph Harker, white society really is implicated in sexual abuse

In the Guardian on Monday, Joseph Harker wrote a piece which was met with equal parts disdain and acclaim. It reflected on around 18 months of horrific news of sexual abuse in the UK, which began with a succession of convictions for members of child grooming and rape rings, mostly but not entirely involving  British-Asian Muslims. This was followed by the ongoing scandal of sexual crimes and child abuse by an ever-lengthening list of prominent celebrities and public figures, some alleged and under investigation, some admitted, many, of course, involving the TV presenter and DJ Jimmy Savile – now believed to be perhaps the most prolific sex offender ever to have been unmasked, albeit only after his death.

Harker employed thick satire to contrast the ways in which the media and public debate has covered the two different scandals. The first focussed heavily on the culture from which the rapists and abusers were drawn, their ethnicity, their religion in particular. The second focussed on evil individuals doing bad things and their personal criminality or pathology. A couple of typical quotes:

“But after the shock has subsided and we have time to reflect on these revolting crimes, the main question in most reasonable people’s minds must surely be: what is it about white people that makes them do this?

and

“First, though, we need to find out what’s causing the problem. Is it something to do with white people’s culture?

Harker is quite right to point out the double standards at play in reporting the two scandals, and the racist undertones to much of the reporting of the first. But beyond that, I actually agree with what Joseph Harker says. I don’t mean I agree with his satirically veiled message, I mean I literally agree with the actual words he says – or at least quite a lot of them. Is this problem something to do with white people’s culture? Yes, Joseph, it bloody well is.

Of course it is questionable whether such a thing as ‘white people’s culture’ actually exists. It would be rather more accurate to say ‘white British people’s cultures,’ and even then it would obscure some vast diversity. But exactly the same is true of, say, ‘African-Caribbean culture’ or ‘the British Muslim community,’ though both terms are commonly cited, not least by African-Caribbean people and Muslims. So, for ease of argument, let’s assume we are talking about the full range of the ethnically European, monolinguistically English-speaking, culturally-Christian population or,more simply, the ethnic majority. The phrase ‘white culture’ might be deliberately provocative and problematic, but I think it describes something real. Since Harker has thrust the phrase upon us, I shall continue to use it.

Sexual abuse does not occur in a social vacuum. Yes, the personal psychology, selfish motivations or pathology of the offender are always the primary cause, but the human environment plays a vital role too. Offenders can be encouraged in their behaviour by prevailing social norms which recount that victims are “asking for it” by behaving or dressing in particular ways. That is culture. A default attitude of disbelief towards victims who report assaults allows offenders to continue to attack with impunity – we know that several victims of both Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith attempted to report attacks and were rebuffed by police or other authorities. That is culture. The abusive behaviour of powerful people can be considered as entitlements, not only by offenders themselves but by their colleagues, subordinates and friends. That is culture. When such a prominent commentator as Richard Dawkins says that child sex abuse is less harmful than religious indoctrination, it does indeed trivialise abuse. That is culture. That is my culture. British culture. White culture. Yes, we should have a fucking hard look at ourselves and examine everything we, as a society, might have been doing over the decades to enable, encourage and cover up these types of horrendous acts and what we can do to prevent others.

This, of course, was not what Joseph Harker intended us to take from his article. His point, I’m sure, is that sexual abuse and exploitation happens in all societies, all communities, and of course he is correct. But this misses the point that the nature and circumstances of such crimes can change from one community to the next, as can the social roots which give rise to them. We live in a multicultural society and the attitudes which enable abuse in one culture may not be identical to those in another. The steps which might need to be taken to prevent future abuse in one culture may not be identical to those in another.

Bundling together all cases of child sex abuse as if they are all identical and require blanket solutions is a lazy, ineffective reaction. The problem of domestic incest is not the same problem as child rape tourism to the far East, which is not the same problem as abuse within the Catholic church, which is not the same problem as the exploitative debauchery of rich celebrities, which is not the same problem as child sex grooming rings in impoverished Northern towns.  There are similarities of course, but to pretend they are identical glosses over the specific details of each.

Yes, Joseph, white Britain needs to take a deep hard look at our own culture, far beyond condemning the vile acts of individual abusers. And yes, British Muslim communities need to take a deep hard look at their own cultures, far beyond condemning the vile acts of individual abusers. So too does the Catholic church, so too does the British entertainment industry. Further afield, so too does the US college sports culture that enabled the Steubenville scandal, so too does the Indian society that has been so shaken by a succession of horrific rapes and murders. So too does every culture, every community, every society, every nation. None of us should be given a free ride on this score.

I have no problem with the suggestion that white society needs to look at its own culture. I do have a problem with the implication that British Muslim communities do not.

Welcome to Global Inc. Here is your induction pack

Imagine for a moment that you join a large multinational company, which we shall call Global Inc. Nobody is quite sure who owns the company, indeed no individual really does own it. Ownership and profits are spread across disparate stock markets, investment funds, banks, even governments.

You are recruited to a specific department. It might be the board of directors or senior management team. It might be IT support, the manufacturing production line, cleaning or maintenance. On your first day you are handed your induction pack. This contains all the strict rules and regulations of the company along with some softer policies, codes of practice, descriptions of your entitlements and even helpful tips on how to use the canteen. Much of it is devoted to your specific job description, what you will be expected to do in your role. Your first week is spent learning every page in the binder.

Then, when you settle into your department, you quickly learn that your new team also has its own unique, unwritten culture and ways of doing things. It is dynamic, evolving, it doesn’t quite match the descriptions in the binder. But so long as the department is doing well enough, meeting its targets and making profits, the hierarchy at Global Inc doesn’t really mind too much, and doesn’t interfere.

Members of some departments have much more power, influence and prestige than others, and of course some are paid much better than others. The power relationships between departments don’t need to be spelled out, they are universally understood. Someone in the IT department can insist that a cleaner scrubs the bathroom window, but the cleaners can’t suddenly demand some SQL subscript code in return.  Nowhere does it say that IT outranks sanitation, but everyone understands. However, woe betide the SQL programmer who starts scrubbing the office floor, s/he will find him/herself angrily berated by a cleaner for overstepping accepted lines of demarcation  – and probably using the wrong detergent or missing a bit.

Within each department there are one or two eccentric individuals. There’s old Chunders Charlie who works in his underpants at his desk every day and Mystic Mary who dangles feathery dreamcatchers over the kettle in the kitchen. Again, so long as Charlie and Mary are hitting their targets and making profits, they’re allowed to get on with it. However occasionally there will be an employee who deviates so far from the departmental culture that it starts to interfere with the departmental culture, causing upheaval, stress and damaging attainment. Let’s call him Awkward Ollie. When Ollie’s corrosive idiosyncrasies first emerge, the rest of the department react with social disapproval, gossiping and sniping behind his back, using group psychology to try to enforce conformity. If that doesn’t work Ollie will soon find himself being yelled at, bullied, socially ostracised and eventually booted out of the department. The easiest thing for Ollie to do is to fall into line with the demands of his department, and usually he will.

So each individual has a vested interest in maintaining their own role within their department. Each department has a vested interest in protecting its own position within the company and maintaining mutually supportive (if unequal) relationships with other departments with which they network and interact.

I said Global Inc. was a large company. I didn’t say quite how large. It has thousands of departments within it, perhaps millions. In fact Global Inc. employs seven billion people – every single one of us. The binder full of policies and procedures is written into laws, into religious books and moral codes, into the myriad threads of social systems and culture that teach us how we are meant to behave if we are born male or female, black or white, British or Bangladeshi or any combination. The induction period happens not over a week, but across the early years of our childhood and beyond.

The company is clever enough to evolve constantly, to incorporate the changing cultures within each department. Until recently, in much of the world (and still in many parts of the world), someone deviating from the strict policy on heterosexuality would be considered Awkward Ollie and be punished. But increasingly, Global Inc has been able to create entire new departments with their own culture, economy (“the pink pound” as we call it in the UK) and latterly the ultimate symbol of conformity to the company – licensed marriage. Even active counter-cultures can be co-opted. As the Clash once sang: “haha, ain’t it funny – turning rebellion into money.” Naomi Klein’s brilliant anti-capitalist tracts are published by Rupert Murdoch, remember.

Occasionally people can move from one department to another. A mixed-heritage Euro-Kenyan boy, born in relative poverty in Hawaii, can rise to become chairman of the board. However the system has evolved in such a way that such cases will always be exceptions, not the norm. Indeed, such an exception acts as a pressure valve to prevent the whole edifice exploding. “If one person can do it, anyone can do it” says one page in the binder, and it may be true, but that is entirely different to saying “if one person can do it, everyone can do it.”

***

I have concocted this grand and rather clumsy analogy to illustrate a key point of my political views, which underpins everything I write on this blog and elsewhere. Socialised gender roles are not there by accident. They are functional. Oppressive acts of sexism, misogyny, misandry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, class prejudice and the rest do not arise from individual weakness or venality but because we have all been induced to retain and reinforce them as essential components of our role within the company. Necessary social progress in emancipation, liberation and human rights will be indulged by Global Inc when it can be turned to the company’s advantage – the welcoming of women into the professions, for example – and fiercely resisted when it challenges the bottom line, such as union rights or decent parental leave entitlements.

It is simplistic nonsense to think of patriarchy, in particular, as a system in which men oppress women by choice and for our own interests. Patriarchy often requires men to do horrible things to ourselves, to each other and to women. Patriarchy imposes dominant roles on men whether we want them or not, and punishes us when we fail to fulfil them adequately.  It’s all there in the job description. It is equally simplistic nonsense to imagine that male suffering (on the battlefield and in homelessness, suicide rates, alienation and loneliness) is a consequence of women’s behaviour, choices or social liberation.

Perhaps one day Global Inc. will collapse under the weight of its own internal strains. There may be a few things we can do to help hasten that day, if we are so inclined, but I’ll agree it is a dauntingly big challenge, and it is easier to criticise the company we have than agree on what we would like in its place.

What we can do, every one of us, is work on the culture of our own immediate departments, think of how our own behaviour is influencing or indeed oppressing others, and remember that ultimately the company is made up of innumerable smaller units, each of which can be changed. Above all, we can consider what exactly is in the binders that we hand on to the next generation of new employees and what we can do to improve them.

This blog is my own small contribution to making that happen.

Hello, hello, is this thing on?

You know that feeling when you arrive alone at a party where you don’t really know anyone, and you sort of hang around in the kitchen for a while pretending to talk on your phone until you see someone who might be willing to talk to you? Yeah, me too.

Well just this once I’ll try to be the guy who marches straight into the middle of the living room with a crate of beer and a bong, ejects the Goldfrapp CD that had been beiging up the ambience, and replaces it with Ace of Spades, turned up to 11.

So, hello Freethought Blogs! I’m Ally, the newest member of the FTB family, and it is very, very nice to be here.

In a day or two I will post my first proper blog, which will get into the meat and potatoes (not to mention meat and two veg) of my politics, particularly my gender politics. There will be plenty of opportunities to argue about all those kinds of things in the weeks, months and (hopefully) years to come. But it is a bank holiday weekend here in the UK, and it seems appropriate to begin with a bit of a housewarming party.

Being desperately ancient and chronically unhip, I have yet to get into the whole Ask FM wotchamagoogle. But I am told it is all the rage among borderline narcissists and troll-baiters (hello world, you called?) So in the spirit of the times, I open myself here to your questions and impertinent queries. I might edit a few answers into the post here, at least until it starts to get unwieldy.

I’ll give you a few to get you started:

Ally? Isn’t that a girl’s name?

Don’t you oppress me with your binary gender conformity. And no, I’m not a woman, I’m Scottish, (long settled in Manchester)

Why does your blog have such a ridiculous name?

It started as a photoshop joke and spiralled horribly out of control. But when you’re a straight, white, middle-aged, middle-class man explaining gender issues to the world, it helps to be upfront about these things.

What do you call a man with four planks on his head?

I dunno, but Edward Woodward would.

(From Thil) What do you mean when you call yourself middle-class?

Here in Britland, class is something we are incredibly attuned to and it plays out with all sorts of intricate dynamics. I’m very much lower middle-class. Dad was a teacher, mum a home-maker. So I grew up in a family with more books on the shelves than quids in the bank. I went to a mediocre comprehensive school then a mediocre university. I’ve continued to live my life with more books on the shelves than quids in the bank. I live in a ramshackle house in a very poor inner-city area, and my own kids are growing up in the same kind of cash-poor, love-rich household that I did.

The labour I sell is my brain, not my brawn, and that is primarily what makes me think of myself as middle-class. But I have little or nothing in common with the upper-middle classes with their inheritances, trust funds, private schooling & health insurance and useful old-school tie connections. I’ve never been more than a paycheque away from destitution. So in comparison with most people in the national media in the UK, I’m pretty much a filthy pleb with a big ol’ fuck off chip on my shoulder as a consequence.

 (From Artor) Just curious- What’s Ally short for? Are you an Aleister? Albert? Alicorn? Ally-ally-oxen-free?

I’m an Alistair. Or at least I am to my mum when I’ve been naughty.

(From oolon) do you have a comment policy?

Yes, see here. I have no hard and fast rules. There are no specific rules on what words or ideas are or are not acceptable, but that doesn’t mean anything goes. As the great philosophers once said: “Be excellent to each other”

(from Kamaka) Are you an atheist?

Yes. It’s something that feels so natural and obvious to me that it barely warrants mentioning. I tend not to write about it because I never really know what to say. It always strikes me as an odd thing to get passionate about. I’m a rationalist, but I’ve long resigned myself to accepting that people believe in weird and whacky things, like god existing or homeopathy working or Coldplay making interesting music. So long as they don’t attempt to impose such weird beliefs on me, I see it as none of my business.

So I’m not a passionate atheist, but I am a passionate secularist and a passionate believer in human rights. When religious people claim dominion over women’s wombs, little boys’ foreskins, children’s schooling or political decision-making, then I will fight them tooth and nail.

But it is not really the religion / rationalism thing that brings me to FTB. I’m here because I try to apply the same principles of free thinking – ie questioning everything, accepting nothing on faith, demanding evidence etc – to gender politics. Political dogma can be just as irrational and damaging as religious dogma, IMO.

(From Stubby) 1) Which Shameless character do you most resemble

Start of the weekend – James McAvoy’s character (Steve?) in the first series. Although he’s younger and obviously I’m much better looking. We have a similar Scottish/Manc hybrid accent.  By the end of the weekend it’s more like Frank.

(From Stubby) 2) Better insult: tosser or wanker?

Wanker is more for day-to-day usage, like the mild white cheddar, whereas tosser is more like a mature stilton, to be brought out and savoured as you roll it around your mouth for special occasions.

————

I hope you feel you know me a little better now. Thanks for all the comments and questions, keep them coming, but it’s past bedtime on this side of the Atlantic. Oh look, there are still a few beers in the crate. Help yourself and let yourselves out. I’ll be back to check on the debris in the morning.

 

EDIT – THE MORNING AFTER THE NIGHT BEFORE

Thanks everyone for your continuing comments and welcomes. I feel as if this blog is now well and truly warmed.

I’ve struck a compromise on the threaded / nested comments thing, trying to take on board people’s problems (especially reading on phones) when the responses get narrower and narrower, but also other people’s preference to be able to react to a comment immediately underneath. So I’ve set it so that it will only nest one comment deep. After that you’ll have to begin again with a new comment, identifying who it is you are talking to manually. I’m sure you’ll work it out.

If this is a compromise that pleases nobody but me, let me know and I’ll switch it off altogether.

Just as a little note to let you know my plans, over the next few weeks I’ll re-post a few highlights from my archive from my previous home as new blogs (with original publication dates etc made clear), as I hope these will be pieces you’d be interested in discussing all over again (or for the first time, for many of you). Then once I’ve done that, I’ll transfer my full archive for you to peruse at your leisure.

Thanks again. New post on its way.