There was a lot of terrible stuff in the news last week (7-13 Oct 2012). The 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai shot by Taliban militia for promoting education for girls. The shocking abduction and murder in Wales of 5-year-old April Jones. And the revelation that the recently-deceased popular DJ and entertainer Sir Jimmy Savile was in all likelihood a serial sexual predator who may well have preyed on 30 or more underage girls, including sexual assault and rape.
In different ways, these are all instances of men in positions of trust or authority subjecting young girls (children) to terrible and inexcusable abuse. These were cases that brought the dark side of maleness to the fore and made one feel ashamed to be a man; tainted by association.
There has also been the scandal surrounding US cyclist Lance Armstrong’s apparent masterminding of a doping ring. This was a slightly different kind of story with no sex allegations, but still involving coercion, abuse of power and the meteoric fall from grace of a man until recently viewed as a hero. And who can say that testosterone didn’t play a part in Armstrong’s drive to win at all costs?
Pointing the finger
These are all stories which rightly provoke shock and outrage and demands for justice. That’s totally understandable. But in the adrenaline rush of righteous anger, it’s all too easy just to point the finger and to turn the guilty individuals into utterly inhuman monsters. The problem is, unfortunately the men who did these awful things weren’t (or aren’t) merely monsters, though they have indeed committed monstrous crimes. They are people like you and me. In some ways they may be entirely ordinary people, albeit deeply damaged (and damaging) in certain areas.
And of course, if we blindly follow our emotional or hormonal reactions in vilifying and wanting to destroy them, we’re arguably not behaving very differently to these men who let their own flawed urges and impulses lead them into committing these atrocities.
These news stories then present us with a tough set of challenges. Firstly, the challenge to view and treat these men fundamentally as humans, despite their shocking and terrible crimes. We need to see them as complex individuals in whom there is, like us, a mixture of good and evil, but in whom tragically the evil dramatically won out at least once, or in Savile’s case many times. (Which, please note, is not in any way to absolve them of responsibility.)
And that in turn presents us with a second and even more difficult challenge – to acknowledge that we ourselves may not necessarily be so utterly different from them in all respects. We need to face up to the darkness lurking within our own souls; the potential for sin and evil, for crime and abuse, given particular temptations and provocations under particular circumstances. God forbid that we ever do what Jimmy Savile or these others did. But we must always say, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
Can any of us absolutely guarantee that, in a position of power, surrounded by temptation and without an accountability framework in place (indeed with everyone turning a blind eye), we would definitely not have sinned – if not as Savile did, then in some other way?
Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. I suspect there aren’t all that many men today who haven’t at some point succumbed at least once to the dark lure of internet porn (I hope there are some). I’m not saying that viewing porn is necessarily on a continuum with committing sexual crime, or that the one leads to the other. I’m just saying there’s no room for complacency, for self-congratulation or self-righteousness. It’s all too easy for sexual ‘misdemeanours’ to become habits, and it’s all too easy to justify them to ourselves or just separate them off from the rest of our lives, making them doubly dangerous.
Please note, none of this is to condone Jimmy Savile (or the others) one iota. If Savile did even a fraction of what he’s alleged to have done, that’s utterly horrific and wrong. I’m just saying that we still have to see him as human like us, and therefore also see ourselves as potentially prone to similar temptations. Let him who stands take heed lest he should fall.
Turning a blind eye
Aside from the horrific nature of the abuse itself, another thing that has been so shocking about the Jimmy Savile affair is the sheer number of others who were partially aware of what was going on. Some apparently tried to blow the whistle and were laughed at, told that they were being naïve – essentially that Savile’s behaviour was to be expected and accepted. This is itself deeply disturbing, hinting at an abusively chauvinist institutional culture that has run deep and unchecked across society for decades – perhaps centuries.
It also highlights the frightening human tendency not to rock the boat, not to disturb the status quo. Talking about the film The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas I said that one of the most chilling aspects was the silent complicity of much of the church in Nazi Germany, and also how easy it was for ordinary people to become caught up or at least complicit in extraordinary evil – if only by pretending it wasn’t happening.
Perhaps equally troubling then are those who are now coming forward to say they saw Savile sexually assault underage girls during his ‘charitable’ hospital visits, and who are now roundly and openly condemning him – but who apparently didn’t do anything about it at the time. They point the finger now yet at the time turned a blind eye; they loudly express moral outrage and indignation now, yet by their silence in the past they are arguably complicit in his crimes and in the suffering he caused to so many young women. (I in turn can’t judge them – I don’t know if I would have done differently. It’s the phenomenon I find disturbing; I’m not seeking to blame particular individuals.)
Bad artists, good art?
One more issue that troubles me in cases like these is, what do we make of the apparently good things that people who have committed horrific acts said and did and created and contributed to in the rest of their lives? If these are complex individuals and not merely one-dimensional monsters, can we separate out some of their good work and not merely see it all as tainted by the terrible evil they committed?
So many great artists and authors, and so many religious or political leaders, have turned out to have had terrible skeletons in their closets. Some we see as more acceptable, though still wrong – for example, those who have had affairs, ranging from Martin Luther King to Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, and Gustav Klimt; but clearly this doesn’t come anywhere near abusing children. And then there were those who were great in some area but deeply unpleasant in other ways, like Richard Wagner, the best of whose music is sublime but who was deeply anti-Semitic and not by all accounts a particularly nice character.
We’re all sinners, but does that invalidate all of our work or our words? I am a sinner and over the years have done things of which I’m ashamed, but I still blog, believing that I can say worthwhile and helpful things. If our sins invalidate all the good we do or all the words we speak, then we might as well all remain silent and passive.
But what are we to make of those who have committed crimes which we see as beyond the pale, in particular abusing children? The sculptor and designer Eric Gill is a case in point – his work is held in high esteem, and many of us have used his Gill Sans font. He was also deeply religious. But he sexually abused his children, had an incestuous relationship with his sister and performed sexual acts on his dog. These kinds of cases present us with a deeply troubling dilemma.
My secondary school headmaster was a man I viewed with respect and even affection; he seemed to me and many others a kindly, good man and a thoughtfully progressive Christian. But there was a darker side. He paid choirboys at his church for sex, and he was found dead after one such encounter, apparently killed by one of the boys. Yet knowing this, I can’t bring myself to write him off as totally bad, or dismiss all the good that he brought to the school and to us as headmaster. Of course, his sexual dark side didn’t affect me directly, so it costs me little to forgive.
Mass emasculation or masculinity redeemed?
So is it just inevitable that many men will do bad things, driven by natural libido and lust? Is the ultimate culprit simply the male sex drive, or testosterone, or masculinity itself? Is mass emasculation the answer?
At times like this when all the stories of male behaviour are so dark, such a solution might seem tempting. It could certainly be argued that male sexual urges have caused more misery and suffering than almost any other power on earth.
Yet it has also been the source of creativity and, above all, the continuation of the human species –none of us would be here without it. As with these flawed composers and creators, with sex we can’t just chuck the baby out with the bathwater; we have to take the important good with the very real and terrible bad.
In any case, the problem is not the sex drive itself, nor indeed is it masculinity itself. These terrible news stories are not about true masculinity or sex per se, but about masculinity gone wrong, sexual urges misdirected. The acts of Jimmy Savile, and April Jones’ abductor, and the Taliban, and even Lance Armstrong are not those of men confident and secure in their own masculinity or happy with their own sexual natures. They are perversions, subversions or sublimations of the dark side of a stunted and repressed sexuality and masculinity, not of a healthy one. However, few can claim to be fully healthy; none of us can be complacent, nor can we condemn.
When I was preparing this post, I originally titled the document ‘Jimmy Savile’ which meant that every time I hit Ctrl+S I saw the message ‘Word is saving Jimmy Savile’. If only salvation were that easy, available at the touch of a button. But perhaps the true Word, the One who became flesh and dwelt among us, is saving Jimmy Savile. Who knows?