Monday, November 25, 2013
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
“MORAL PANIC” – AND OTHER PRETEXTS
Even as the story first broke, I knew how it would play out in the press and social media.
A bunch of teenage boys, calling themselves “Roast Busters”, got younger girls drunk, raped them, then boasted about it on Facebook.
Here was a confluence of modern themes – rape and teenage sex in general; boastful young machismo; the culture that promotes these things; the misuse of the electronic media by teenagers, as a means of humiliating people; and the teenage boys’ stupidity in imagining that there would be no consequences from their broadcasts.
The first media response was simply shocked reporting of the boys’ actions.
Then came the editorialising.
Then came the comments on the editorialising and it was game on, with the teams taking their predictable sides.
Two talkback hosts implied that the matter was all the fault of the young girls for allowing themselves to be raped. When one of the mistreated girls rang their station, they bullied her with questions along the lines of – Why were you out with these boys anyway? Had you been drinking? Did your parents know where you were? The implication was that the rape was her fault for being in the company of the wrong males; that she was “asking for it”.
In no time, this blokey accusatory attitude was receiving more attention than the original events. The two talkback hosts were taken off the air. Editorials appeared saying that their questions and comments were themselves part of “rape culture”. Many people noted that police were often as unsympathetic to rape victims as the talkback jocks had been, and that they subjected girls and women to grillings about their own motives, rather than taking their complaints seriously.
A long article in a Sunday newspaper said that we should have a “conversation” about sex with teenagers, and about what was, and what was not, appropriate behaviour. On certain on-line websites, women wrote (anonymously) of their own experiences of sexual harassment or assault, and the responses they had met with when they made a complaint. A petition was circulated.
Then we hit rock bottom. An editorial in a national magazine invoked the cliché phrase “moral panic”, and compared concern about “Roast Busters” with the Mazengarb Report of the 1950s.
At this point, I knew that absolutely nothing would change and nothing would come of the uproar.
My reasons for this view?
(a.) The use of the term “moral panic”. This term is always used as a means of stopping dead and shutting down any concerned comment on moral issues, especially moral issues relating to sex. Those who use the phrase “moral panic” are always implying that people who are upset over sexual matters are uninformed, puritanical, narrow-minded, out-of-date, suggestible, gullible, hysterical, prone to knee-jerk reactions etc. etc. etc. and do not know or understand as much as the sophisticated and informed person who is writing. Worried about the frequency of teenage pregnancy? It’s sheer moral panic. Don’t think it’s a good idea for kids’ programmes to be over-sexualised? You’re suffering from moral panic. Think teenage prostitution is something society shouldn’t tolerate? Clearly you have contracted moral panic. Now just take this little dose of Sociology 101 and you’ll calm down. And then we can all go back to sleep.
Saying “moral panic” is a way of brushing issues aside, especially issues that don’t immediately affect us middle-class literati. Like middle-class liberalism, it is a way of saying that other people don’t really matter, so there’s no point in getting upset about them.
(b.)The use of the term “conversation”. Whenever I hear this term used in the context of a social debate, I know something dodgy is being sold. As when the propagandist for euthanasia lies through his/her teeth and says “We’re not promoting euthanasia – we’re just starting a conversation.” That sort of thing. The opinionated columnist who said that we needed a “conversation” with teenagers about sex was promoting the erroneous ideas (i) that public debate would miraculously clear the air; and (ii) that a one-off course of intensive propaganda aimed at teenagers (which, stripped of euphemisms, was what she was really talking about) would change teenagers’ sexual behaviour. Both these assumptions are wrong. Neither debate nor propagandising will change unacceptable teenage behaviour.
(c.) The petition. Unless a petition has ideas that can be translated into enforceable laws, it serves no purpose other than to make its framers and signers feel they are doing something constructive.
I do not mean to be depressing in saying all of this. I understand the outrage that the “Roast Busters” incident has caused. I endorse the comments of those who say that rape victims should not be made to feel guilty for being raped. Sternly, I have been given the crude analogy that, if I leave my house unlocked and it is burgled, it is still the burglar who is morally as fault, and not me. Similarly, even if girls have behaved imprudently before they are raped, it is the rapist who is still morally guilty of the rape and who should be duly prosecuted. No question.
But a quick display of moral outrage, patronising talk of “moral panic”, a petition or a “conversation” will change nothing.
So what will?
I’ve got myself so far into editorialising mode here that I might as well own up and give you a punchline.
The only (repeat – only) thing that will modify bad teenage behaviour is better parenting, better child-rearing.
I do not believe that a group of young men could form the idea that it is okay to sexually abuse girls without a lot of parental negligence, poor parental example and perhaps even tacit parental approval. I open a huge can of worms in saying this. I know that teenagers and young adults are morally responsible for their own actions, and a point comes when parents can no longer reasonably be held to account for what their offspring do. I also know that middle-class people (like you and me) have the habit of blaming poorer people for their children’s behaviour, often not taking into account the stresses of poorly-paid working-class parents who have to work such long hours that they are forced to leave their children poorly supervised. I am not glibly blaming the “homes”. But I am saying that if you want no “Roast Busters”, then it is a more long-term project than the short-term outrage of editorials and petitions. It is the life-long project of raising children well.
Also – probably another unpopular opinion – I think prudence should walk in step with morality. I do not believe that victims of rape are responsible for being raped. But surely it is prudent to warn girls that alcohol is likely to make you more vulnerable; that some older teenage boys are likely to exploit some younger teenage girls; that it’s not very advisable to hang out with people you don’t know very well – and a number of other prudential maxims.
Am I being old-fashioned and succumbing to “moral panic” in saying this?
I hope not.
At this point I could say a few choice words on sexualised teenage pop culture – none of which exonerates the teenage rapists. But comment on this tends to be verboten by media opinion-makers. Hands are wrung over boys who respond to a bombardment of images of girls behaving sluttishly. But suggest that there is a correlation between the images and the behaviour, and you are clearly out of touch and not hip to the jive.
Subject for a later editorial from me, perhaps.