written during the Jimmy Savile revelations
commentary • 14.10.12
SAVILE & THE IDIOT RESPONSE
When Top of the Pops first appeared in 1964 I was seven years-old and already big into music. It was a seminal year for the hit parade. One of the show’s early “personalities” was Jimmy Savile and even at that tender age I found him more than a little repulsive. My fondness for radio presenters would never be great and he came over as a particularly vile specimen of the type, speaking as he did in that weird smoke and mirrors manner, managing to exude an air of gross insincerity.
There will be few now who are at all surprised to learn there was a dark heart lurking behind Savile’s inane, televisual garb. Someone said he had managed to dupe the youth into thinking he was a great guy and I wondered what youth was that then. In all my years I never knew anyone who was a big Jimmy Savile fan. He was just there, a shallow-brained clown, sufficiently exhibitionist to garner attention at a time of burgeoning youth culture when television attracted enormous numbers of viewers. New slots were there to be filled and Savile with his manic grin and imbecilic hair was there to fit the bill. I think it not impossible that no one quite approved of him and he was merely a device fabricated by a then older generation of television producers who were trying to be down with the kids. Somehow he and his mindless shtick caught on and he was able to insinuate himself into wider British society morphing over decades into a virtual institution. That his lecherous behaviour was suspect should have been evident and a cause for sanction but it went undisclosed.
I hardly need pour more vitriol on the man however odious he was. The media is doing that job well enough currently with the trashing of his reputation complete. Actually it’s the trashing I want to draw attention to here. It is questionable in itself, there being something dubious in the way Savile’s demise has been orchestrated. Although his sins are probable it is curious how he has been posthumously convicted based on accusation alone. There is good reason why the legal system doesn’t do that and allows for presumption of innocence. For one thing, by putting burden of proof on accusers it counteracts the more natural tendency to assume guilt upon an assertion especially when the accusers are numerous. No such safeguard has been afforded Jimmy Savile, so he is thus branded an absolute paedophile by public decree.
Definitions alone demand a more measured response. Legally, paedophilia is defined as sex between an adult and a minor. It is age-specific varying by jurisdiction. Literal definitions are looser: a paedophile is someone who has a primary sexual interest in pre-pubescents (not age-specific). Savile’s attentions appear to have been mostly, though perhaps not exclusively, focussed on sexually mature teenagers at the time of the offences. If that is so, rather than paedophile then ephebophile would be more accurate describing a primary or exclusive attraction to adolescents. However inappropriate that might be it is a lesser offence and not necessarily illegal. If Savile was alive there would need to be a due process but as he isn’t around to defend himself he is an easy target for those with a moral zeal in such matters. And there seems to be an unhealthy abundance of these types in society currently, people who are potentially as dangerous to a tenable set of ethics as the ones they seek to scorn.
It’s a curious kind of rectitude which allows no space for nuance and complexity. It’s a peculiar ethic which is intolerant of deviancy, which treats sexual transgressions as if they were crimes worthy of stoning. I complained about narratives before and about those who slavishly adhere to them. The discourse which tries to govern sexual morality is about as dumb as it gets. As ever the news media with its one-size-fits-all headlining is always on hand to make things dumber still.
Recently an affair between a teacher and a pupil was headlined as child abduction. A week later there was an actual abduction of a five-year old which looked like murder. The tone of the coverage for these different events was virtually indistinguishable as if both were roughly equivalent on the moral spectrum. That an inappropriate affair comes over as having comparable weight to the killing of an infant is seriously confused and I think is a bi-product of a moralising sector in our midst bent on a crusade of its own designs.
Sadly, such a crusade is less to do with proper protection of children and more about finding people to hate. Given that many parents, perhaps the majority, have a blind spot regarding the sexuality of their children (mature or not), the idea of it being violated in any way is unconscionable in the extreme. As such they are easily duped by a moralism posing as protectorate. In this climate a reasonable distinction between heinous acts of a sexual nature and common deviancy such as cross-generational relationships becomes blurred.
By way of example, I knew someone who married an older man and became estranged from her family as a consequence. She said she was physically abused by her father which the family denied. If her claim is true it is a terrible testament: the parents bury the abuse but take a stand against the age gap marriage. If her claim is false it says something about contemporary codes and the kind of accusations that are used in the fray. Either way it’s a indictment on family life and the appalling things people do to each other behind the veil.
Cross-generational relationships are repugnant because they don’t conform. Unpalatable truths are demonised by those who think themselves more virtuous. They don’t accept there are natural attractions between older men and younger women or that a sexually mature teenager isn't necessarily a child. They ignore that lines were drawn in different places in different eras regarding what was permissible. To those on a mission to save the children, paedophilia or anything like it is the most heinous of crimes, worse than killing a person. There are even parents who would prefer their kids dead than see them subject to a sex crime.
Should it need stressing, this is not to suggest that sexual abuse of children is a trivial matter or that Jimmy Savile was innocent. It is to say that human sexuality is complicated and arcane. It is also to say by way of a reminder that much of the abuse in question happens within families and not in the public space by some deranged guy in a raincoat or indeed by a man with a stupid haircut in a shell-suit.
The problem with moral crusaders is their obfuscation. They devalue the issues by overindulging their own disgust. This can have the effect of actually reducing sympathies for the abused as people like me become sceptical of motives. The upshot is then the opposite of what these self-appointed moralists were supposed to be trying for in the first place. This is when they have become witch-hunters and as such are more problem than solution. When I see a supposed miscreant doorstepped by a moralising journalist and reticence to speak taken as evidence of guilt then they’ve lost me and a little bit more of the worthy issue at stake is lost too.
My main point, then, in the aftermath of Savile and the subsequent idiot response, is to draw attention to the folly of too much finger-pointing and to counsel that a bad reaction to a bad event can be as damaging to society as the bad event itself. Jung was instructive here and warned against scapegoating which is a long established psychological phenomenon in human behaviour with its own sinister pathology. When an individual or a group is being singled out as especially depraved we need to be suspicious. It is invariably a driver for further degenerate behaviour.
People in power who abuse their privilege need to be sanctioned accordingly, though I’m not sure condemning them based on accusation alone is helpful. I’m not sure that prosecuting the ones still around decades after the event does much to serve justice either. They are easy targets for an undiscerning morality too often driven by a vengeful kind of religiosity. Celebs high on the creep scale like Jimmy Savile are the perfect foil. If there’s a lesson to be drawn it is that neither the celebrity clown nor the moral crusader should be allowed anywhere near a position of authority. Probity in its purest form is a rare event in the world and needs all the help it can get free of such contaminants.
While the media waxed hysterical over the Savile affair, there were a few enlightened voices buried in the prurience where wiser insight prevailed:
• In a long and excellent piece entitled Light Entertainment: Our Paedophile Culture Andrew O’Hagan talked of “willed outrage” and asked if “our culture itself is largely paedophile in its commercial and entertainment excitements.” He thought there was something creepy about British light entertainment and always has been.
• Bryan Appleyard in The Maiden Tribute of Jimmy Savile warned that “child abuse should not be used as a priggish moral crusade to disguise our woes nor as a prison for our intellects.”
• In his Times column Beware a modern Salem over child abuse David Aaronovitch suggested that “pursuing witch hunts is as dangerous as ignoring victims” and that post Savile “we are in danger of passing from one kind of injustice to another”.
• When Barbara Hewson argued for lowering the age of consent a torrent of vitriol rained down upon her. Perhaps she was being deliberately provocative because the thrust of her article Yewtree Is Destroying The Rule Of Law in Spiked wasn't consent. It was to point out the dangers of the Police and the NSPCC assuming the role of judge and jury faced with allegations of sexual abuse. She thought that “the manipulation of the British criminal-justice system to produce scapegoats on demand was a grotesque spectacle.”