Monday, 28 September 2009

Why labels are really dangerous.

OK, let's kick off my return from the wilderness of the computerless other than the one at work (or, as I like to call it, Firewall City) with a serious post. Not a laugh a minute, this one, sorry.

Roman Polanski has been arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old. It was a long time ago, he is a holocaust survivor, a widower in tragic circumstances and he is an acclaimed film director. He is also charming and well liked.


He had sex with a 13 year old. Taking that on its own and ignoring the allegations that he vaginally and anally raped a 13 year old, it's still enough for me to think that yes, he should do time.

The problem is that those people who are outraged at his surprise arrest in Switzerland think that they know what "A paedophile" is. Paedophiles are nasty men, aren't they, boys and girls. They wear a dirty raincoat and lurk near playgrounds. They are social pariahs and easy to spot on the street.

They also know what a holocaust survivor is. They are saintly sages with an unabashed love of life masking an untouchable tragedy behind the eyes (cf Harold & Maude). Maybe they are impulsive and eccentric, but that's understandable and part of their charm. If they've had other tragic events in their life, so much the saintlier.

And a maverick film director. These are artistic firebrands whose genius excuses bad temper,hedonism and, again, eccentricity.

When these labels conflict in our head, we've got a problem. It's not comfortable to think that perpetrators of sexual violence can be an artistic genius or a survivor of horrors themselves. We are coached to automatically venerate these people. It isn't pleasant to think that the trauma of the holocaust might actually damage a person to the extent that they themselves commit unforgivable acts. After all, that might make us think about all those people we vilify and realise that perhaps they started out as victims and survivors: i.e: saints.

Nobody goes out saying 'I'm going to rape a child/exterminate a race/bully littler kids because I want to be evil'. It's more 'I've got to do this. I'm not really a perpetrator, I'm a victim heroically fighting back'. Hitler didn't go arounf twirling his moustache (he'd have had a job...) and going "Mwuahahaha". In his mind it was "My Struggle", not "My Evil Plan".

In Roman Polanski's mind, he'd lost his childhood, he'd lost his wife, and he was a genius who could do no wrong! Cut him some slack! Who could blame him for getting a little pleasure from a sweet young thing who was hanging on his every word? She was a perk of the job, right?

The majority of paedophiles are not labeled paedophiles. They are labeled Uncle, Daddy, Auntie, Teacher. Maybe they are kind to animals, perhaps tell great stories, could be brilliant cooks, talented muscians, sensitive listeners. They don't all have previous convictions because they haven't all been caught, so criminal records checks on caregivers can only marginally reduce the risk.

The absolute insistence from some quarters that Polanski's achievements in cinema, his advanced age and his troubled past should make him immune to prosecution makes me fear for young people who have been victims of abuse. If we only believe that people are rapists and paedophiles when they fit our profile of rapists and paedophiles, (or worse, know what they did but accept it because they are talented in another area,) then what chance do those suffering abuse have of bringing their abusers to justice?