Recent events involving public naming and attacking of pedophiles and alleged pedophiles show an increasing anxiety and fear amongst the community but what are these fears really about, who benefits from their promotion and are they grounded in fact?
In the last month there have been two incidents involving the subject of pedophilia which have gained national attention in the media.
The first involved a man who had been released from jail after serving a sentence for sexual offences against children. He moved to Blackball on the west coast of the South Island. The name of the town (also famous for previous trade union militancy) proved to be prophetic. The police wrote to the local schools warning that this man might be a threat to local children. News soon got out to the local community and some of the citizens decided on some good old vigilante activity. The media of course played its usual role of shit stirring and helping the hysteria along. The cops seemed to play their usual game as well, calling on citizens to act responsibly whilst not doing a lot to stop any action taken against the man in question. Eventually he decided to cut his losses and flee from the town, rightly fearing for his life.
There use to be a principle (albeit largely fictional) that once a person had served there time they should be allowed to have a chance to get on with their life. But even the pretense of this principle seems to have gone out the window when it comes to certain offences.
Statistics show that sexual offenders have one of the lowest rates of re-offending of people who go to prison. You wouldn’t know that from the way the media and police carry on. If they are to be believed then every sex offender is a walking time bomb ready to grab the nearest child.
When burglars, car thieves and drug dealers are released from prison the media and cops aren’t out there warning the community (nor should they be). But a special case is made for sex offenders.
The other important fact to remember about sex offenders is that most sexual abuse occurs within the family. The stranger offender is relativity rare.
The other incident which has occurred more recently was an anonymous leaflet sent out in the Wellington suburb of Whitby where it was alleged a person living in an IHC home was a sex offender. There was no foundation to this spineless attack and even the cops circulated a letter saying the rumour was untrue. What was interesting was that when the local police commander was interviewed he said that people have to be careful with such leaflets and allegations. We can take it from that the cops think it is OK as long as you have a real sex-offender!
This sort of incident would not have happened ten years ago. Is this happening now because there are so many more sex attacks on children by people? No, the rates of these types of offences have remained mercifully low.
The media were, or course, quick to wring their hands and display a great concern about people taking matters in to their own hands. The irony is that they are part of the whole problem. They are quick to stir the pot when it suits them.
The case of the person in the IHC home illustrates how quick some people are to jump to conclusions and then feel they have the right to make allegations and even go further by distributing their poison.
How have we got to this point in 2005? Surely in these rational times one would have thought that such witch hunt tactics would garner no or little support. But the reality is we do not live in rational times. We live in a time when there is much fear and uncertainty.
The term witch hunt comes from the famous witch trials of Salem in 17th century America. Here innocent people were accused of being witches by people who had their own agendas (land grabbing, jilted lovers etc.) The wonderful play The Crucible by Arthur Miller is both powerful in it’s depiction of the mass hysteria of that time and making the historical parallel to a contemporary witch hunt. Miller’s play was a carefully crafted metaphor for the McCarthy communist witch hunts of the 50s and 60s.
These two witch hunts are just two examples (perhaps the best known) but there are countless other examples of such panic attacks. At the same time McCarthy was hunting for communists there was a huge gay moral panic in Idaho in the United States which resulted from the abduction and rape of two boys. Gay men in that town were rounded up and sent to mental institutions. In his book Sex-crime Panic – A journey to the paranoid heart of the 1950s” Neil Miller paints a picture of a community in the grip of panic and fear.
We could go on and on with examples of such panics and witch hunts. In our own time it is not just pedophiles and alleged pedophiles who are the target of witch hunting. We can’t forget it is election year and so it’s time to have a go at immigrants again. Winston Peters and Rodney Hyde are particularly good at finding a potential terrorist lurking behind every tree or at the very least some overstayer who is going to take the job off a hard working kiwi bloke or blokess.
And it isn’t just Act and New Zealand First who push this poison. National has jumped on the bandwagon and the Labour government fearing a public backlash has joined the heartless brigade.
Who really benefits from these sorts of witch hunts and are the public really just a bunch of pitch fork waving yokels who will be roused to attack their neighbour on the mere suspicion of them being an illegal immigrant or pedophile?
Fortunately there are many people (perhaps the silent majority) who are not sucked into this sort of panic. Not long ago a man was released from prison and ended up working in a library in Christchurch. The media tried to work up a story, but when they interviewed people on the streets, the reaction was “well, he’s done his time and he should be given a chance.” The story died – score resulting – common sense1 – Media sensationalism – Nil!
Even the recent events in Blackball where the media assured us the Whole community seemed to be united against this person was not all black and white. A public meeting called to voice concerns was attended by about 50 people. Blackball is small but not that small.
There are many people like those mentioned above in Christchurch who take the view that people should be treated as humans and given a chance. What stops these people speaking out more often is the fear that people will label them as pedophile sympathizers or worse still pedophiles themselves. This fear is well grounded. In Salem those who tried to stop the witch hunts found themselves labeled as witches themselves, likewise in McCarthyist America if you thought red-baiting was wrong then your politics were suspect.
The real agenda of the new right in pushing hysteria on these issues is to divert people away from the real enemy, the capitalist system. The abuse of children is a product of a system that founds itself on the exploitation of people. It is this system which keeps the bourgeois family alive, where family life is a source of gender oppression and repression of the rights of children. It is capitalism that leads to the abuse of children, be it sexual, physical or emotional. There will be no end to the suffering of children until there is an end to capitalism.
As Marxists we must consistently identify the real enemy and speak out against these witch hunts at every opportunity. We must also strive to point out that the real enemy is the capitalist system which is the real cause of exploitation whether it is against children or adults.
From Class Struggle 61 May-June 2005