I doubted whether I had anything valuable to add on the Rotherham child abuse case.
Three posts @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar (here, here, and here) seem to me to be the very best commentary (at least, that I’ve seen) on the social, and media-reporting, aspects of the case, and I certainly have no qualification to talk about any of the rest of it. But there was one thing I did want to mention, because it’s been a thought in my mind concerning not just the most recent cases, but stories that have broken over the past 15 years or more, a common thread that links how the people who are supposed to care, somehow end up seeming not to.
One of my favourite story books as a child was “There’s No Such Thing As A Dragon” in which a kitten-sized dragon turns up one day in a boy’s bedroom. His mother insists, “There’s no such thing as a dragon”, and the dragon grows bigger, and bigger, and bigger until finally the boy asserts, “There IS a dragon. A very BIG dragon!” and mum is forced to concede that yes, there is a dragon. At which, the dragon shrinks back to the size of a kitten. “I don’t mind dragons this size,” says mum, “But why did it have to grow so big?” “Maybe it just wanted to be noticed”.
In the story, the dragon challenges mum’s comfortable, ordered perception of the world and how it works so she simply finds ways to pretend it doesn’t exist until finally the evidence is impossible to ignore and someone else has the courage to insist that actually, this thing is a problem, a real problem, and one that has already had terrible effects.
People seem to do this a lot in real life, when confronted by evidence of dreadful crimes happening in our midst. It is easier to disbelieve those reporting the crimes (which, initially at least, will be isolated victims) than to deal with the consequences of believing the report.
When people say “It’s unbelievable”, or, “I can’t believe this would happen” are more accurately saying that they don’t want to believe it, that they wish it not to be true so that they don’t have to. Many have noted that the implied message to the survivor is, “I think you’re a liar” and this disbelief is harmful.
If you read children’s stories, ranging in age group from the very young (like There’s No Such Thing As A Dragon) through to early teens, there is one common theme that comes up again and again and again: when weird, dangerous stuff starts happening, the adults are the last people to believe in it. Either they laugh it off, ignore the kids, or flat-out accuse the kids of lying – because Grownups Know Best (and, perhaps, “Children Have Such Wild Imaginations”). These themes are so prevalent because they are how children perceive the world, and grownups are big, powerful, and have hidden motives that are hard to fathom.
But what happens if you do believe it? There are two things. The first, is that you have to do something about it if you decide it’s true. Or else, be a bad person, in some way complicit with the criminal by virtue of covering it up. Doing something about it may be risky, or just require a bit of extra effort and there’s so much else to do with the humdrum of daily living.
The other thing that happens is you have to accept that the kind of evil discussed is something that happens not just in some far-off place, populated by strangers who are “Not Like Me”, but it happens to people you know, perhaps committed by people you know, and is a part of your immediate world, too. To some people, it implies “This can happen to me” or “This could have happened to me”. That’s an uncomfortable thought, and for some it is more uncomfortable than ignoring. It is easier, and less disturbing, to think, “Well, there’s no actual proof, so maybe it didn’t happen, or at least, not that way. Not so that I have to worry about it. This stuff doesn’t happen to people like me.”
I am usually worrying about something, and it takes effort for me to filter through and determine that the worry I am having today is not a serious problem, versus the worries that are about serious problems. I’m used to the idea of saying to myself, “It’s probably nothing” about things that are small, but I’m also familiar with the “Bystander Effect” and made a promise to myself to overcome the social impulse not to intervene is no one else is: if I see something that causes concern, I will take some action to determine whether it is a real issue, and if possible and necessary, to help. But I am a person whose experiences already lead me to perceive the world as a place where “these things can happen to me” so the fear is no longer a factor. It isn’t new, the only thing that changes when I believe the account, is to ask “what can I do?”
As much as I understand and sympathise with the desire to shield oneself, to plead doubt and lack of proof, to “know and yet not-know”, this instinct of people is no different from the mother in There’s No Such Thing As A Dragon. And in real life, it can be a lot more harmful. Problems grow until you notice them, and abusers in their myriad forms are the same, taking advantage of society’s and individuals’ instinct towards not-believing in order to get away with their crimes, building support systems and networks around themselves, either of unwitting people who “follow the rules” or of other abusers. Eventually, something happens to bring the proof unavoidably to light (the dragon gets too big to ignore) and people blame each other for following instincts common to most people, instead of recognising that (a) this is what people are like and (b) making the choice not to be like that in future.
As Jemima @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar writes, in her contribution to the posts linked at the top of this post:
We can instead though understand that all children want, need, to be loved, and some people will take that natural urge and misuse it for their own dark purposes. Once we accept that this is the world we live in we can then start to consider how we make this a world where children can speak out. We may never end child abuse, we can end a culture that turns its back on the abused.
All I add to that is that it doesn’t matter which circles, or which social world you live in, when it comes to these matters, we all live in the same world.