‘If you question the Savile crusade, you’re seen as evil’
Frank Furedi on his new book about Jimmy Savile, and why it's so hard, but so important, to challenge the moral crusade on child abuse.
Frank Furedi, author, sociologist and spiked writer, has written a new book called Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal. He talked to Tim Black about why he wrote the book, and why he expects it to win him few friends.
Tim Black: What made you write Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust?
Frank Furedi: I’ve become concerned about how the issue of children and abuse has become so badly moralised. It is as if any claim is permissible if you invoke children; the most totalitarian ideas suddenly become acceptable. When it comes to children and allegations of abuse, only one interpretation, only one story is permissible. If you treat child abuse as you would any other crime, and apply the same standards of justice, you are condemned as at best cruel and insensitive, and at worst as an accomplice to an act of paedophilia.
TB: One of the most striking things about a book which takes the Jimmy Savile scandal as its point of departure is the sheer speed with which it appeared. Is there a reason for the speed?
FF: I think one of the things I was trying to do was to show that sociology can be used fairly responsively. It is possible to respond to events using a theoretical and conceptual apparatus. Also, as I say, this is an issue I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. So when the opportunity came to react, I seized it. There’s no point thinking and reading and working on problems if, when the moment arises, you say, ‘I’ll maybe get something out in two or three years’. Also, as someone concerned with the existential security of children, I felt a real sense of urgency in countering a narrative that encourages even more insecurity in intergenerational relations.
TB: Were you wary about writing about such a sensitive issue?
FF: I was aware of the fact that this was an issue on which I’d have very few allies. But I also know there are a lot of people out there who intuitively understand that there is something wrong with the hysterical climate of child-abuse obsession, but who find it very difficult to express their views, or to have a voice. I know, for example, that when you talk to teachers, many feel inhibited by the threat of being accused of abuse. They know that all they need is one allegation and that’s the end of the line – after all, allegations today function as de facto proof.
So a lot of people feel silenced by this discussion. Organisations like the NSPCC claim that it is the victims who are always silenced, and they are giving these victims a voice. But if you look back over the past few years, we have heard a lot from people who have been victimised by sexual predators – which is good, they deserve all the help they can get. But at the same time, what has been forgotten is that there has been this climate of very subtle coercion, which many, many adults feel, but which is rarely broached in public.
TB: Why do you think the Savile scandal has proved so explosive?
FF: I think what the Savile scandal did was bring together a lot of pre-existing anxieties and confusions over a variety of issues. It represented a culmination of various other scandals-cum-inquiries, from cash-for-questions or the MPs’ expenses scandal, to the Leveson Inquiry. All these institutional scandals never really had a symbol attached to them. But here you had a symbol, a personification of evil. Savile wasn’t just an abuser – apparently, he’s the most prolific sexual predator in British history. Once this image is constructed, whether it’s true or not, you have the potential for his misdeeds to be recycled as the institutional failures of the police or the NHS or the BBC, and so on
TB: What is interesting is that it seems as if the 1960s and 1970s are themselves on trial. What is it about that particular period that has compelled attention in the aftermath of the Savile scandal?
FF: It’s certainly easier to have arguments about what’s good and bad in the past than about what’s happening in the here and now. What’s interesting is that whereas the 1960s were traditionally seen as a source of moral turpitude by the conservative right, they are increasingly being seen in that way by all sections of society. The simple reason for this is that during the 1960s, there was a relative openness to experimentation, and life itself was less regulated: people didn’t watch their language, they weren’t expected to behave ‘appropriately’ in the way that we are now. And I think that the backlash against the 1960s, even by people who call themselves left-wing, is the mirror image of the right-wing, conservative rejection of the 1960s during the Seventies and Eighties. That is, the Sixties are being reinterpreted as the source of moral decomposition.
TB: Why is the past being used in this way?
FF: Although there is now a lot of reluctance to ask the big questions to do with existence – with the fact that we lack a contemporary moral groundwork that works for society – that does not mean that this big problem is not recognised. And the way we deal with this is to move back into the past to rediscover what’s good and what’s bad. Usually, the focus is on what is bad. We find focusing on what is evil in the past a lot easier than locating it in the here and now. To do this, we are continually distancing ourselves from the past, creating this present that is somehow unconnected. Hence, as I argue in the book, we now view the past not as the good old days, but as the bad old days.
TB: It sounds as if there is a tendency to use the past today to elevate and affirm the present, to turn it into the moral highground?
FF: Yes, I think a lot of what we say and do, we do as a moral opposite to the past. For instance, parents are told not to bring their kids up in the same way their parents or grandparents did. Or we’re told we have to interact with each other in ways that are different to those of previous eras. It’s a very simplistic polarisation between stuff that was done before, which is deemed unequivocally bad, and the stuff which we are doing now. We don’t have the moral resources to say the present is good, but it’s moving in that direction through these self-conscious excavations of alleged past evils.
TB: Why do you characterise the atmosphere around the Savile scandal as a ‘moral crusade’ rather than a ‘moral panic’?
FF: The first reason is that panics don’t last very long – they come and go. Yet we’ve had panics about abusers and paedophiles for a very long time now. As a phenomenon, it does not appear sporadically, it is an annual feast. And it is also deeply institutionalised. Society is organised, in part, around the threat of child abuse. So it is not a panic; it is a fact of life now.
And secondly, when the term ‘moral panic’ was developed in the 1970s, it assumed there was a moral consensus in society that could be challenged or undermined. But it seems to me that the moral underpinning to the current prolonged panic isn’t really there. So that’s why I prefer to use the term ‘moral crusade’, because what you have here is a moral project, mounted by groups of campaigners who are trying to make society more aware of a perceived evil. If you look at the language of the child-protection industry, there are constant references to that problem which, say, the NSPCC can see, but which society is apparently refusing to acknowledge. That’s why these campaigners are always using metaphors like ‘the tip of the iceberg’. That’s why I think it’s a moral crusade – it’s an attempt on the part of some individuals to enlighten others about the truth that, at the moment, only they possess but others need to know if society is to improve.
TB: The current moral crusades seem to have an infernal, interminable quality – is there no end to them?
FF: This is what is interesting about a moral crusade: no matter what happens, there is always another problem, because it’s always worse than you suspect. So a moral crusader can never acknowledge that a problem has been solved or improved. That’s why it is possible to imagine that children are at greater risk now than they were in 1970. And the way the crusaders do that is by continually inventing new problems. So you begin with child abuse, and then you discover that there’s also peer-to-peer abuse, which is even more widespread than child abuse. You then have exploitation by gangs, online abuse and various other things. So moral crusaders, whatever their intentions – and the intentions are usually well meaning – find it difficult to imagine that the world has been saved, that people have now seen the light.
TB: Why do children so often become the focal point of contemporary moral crusades?
FF: The meaning of children has changed over time. In the nineteenth century, children were also valued for their economic role, but as this role receded, they became the ‘priceless child’, a child beyond value. I think what we’ve done is created a situation where the child becomes a focus for all of our positive moral sentiments – we can only imagine purity and goodness in the innocent child. As a result, we tend to regard any transgressions related to the child as particularly lethal and destructive. Yet the sacralisation of the child in this way leads to a situation where we actually push them away from other adults. So this contributes to a situation of generational detachment between adults and children, ironically making children less secure than they would be otherwise.
Moreover, the child has become the only institution that I can think of where there is unambiguous moral consensus. The nation doesn’t play that role anymore, neither does religion. Childhood, though, is something we all agree on; it is a focus of sacredness, of moral goodness. No one questions that. And for that reason, because childhood is an unquestioned, powerful and unique source of moral affirmation, it becomes a regular object of moral crusades.
TB: The book has been taking a bit of flak for ‘ignoring the victims’ – what do you make of that accusation?
FF: When I’m accused of ignoring the victims, what people really mean is that I don’t interpret a problem from the victim’s point of view. That’s because I’m a sociologist, and my interest is to look at the total point of view and get a measure of distance from the issue. It seems to me that victim culture has a tendency to ratify the victims’ identity and to recast it as permanent, for life. Which I don’t think is good for anyone, including those who have suffered from abuse. I’ve no interest in being complicit in this process of undermining the power and agency of individuals to deal with negative experiences. Rather, I want the victims to transcend their experience, to begin to regain control over their existence instead of being encouraged to embrace the victim narrative which gives the victim this constant, very distinct, very limited identity
TB: It seems that if you cast any doubt on allegations, you are accused of denigrating the victims.
FF: Yes, the victims are used as a form of moral blackmail. What you have to remember is that it is based upon the idea that an allegation is not simply a claim but also that it must contain an element of truth. By definition it points towards something that is true. That’s one of the reasons I was so motivated to write this book. We live in a world where elementary notions of evidence and proof have been dispensed with, where you just assume in so many domains of experience that an allegation by itself is a precursor to establishing guilt. The police themselves do not use the word allegations in relation to Savile; they use something approximate to evidence. So what is really being said is that if you dare question an allegation, if you call for some measure of objectivity, then you’re complicit in a double victimisation. You are as bad as the person against whom the allegations have been made.
This is why I use a lot of material in the book about medieval witchcraft. The procedure adopted for dealing with sceptics is what you’d find in witchcraft manuals. I spent a lot of time, before writing the book, studying medieval witchcraft manuals. If you look at the guidance that was being given to witchhunters, time and time again they are told that the people they really have to worry about are those who deny the existence of witchcraft. In short, the sceptics are considered worse than the witches themselves. The act of denial or of scepticism is seen as being corrosive to the hunt, or in this case, the crusade.
Even today, if you are accused of abuse, and you claim ‘I’m innocent’, that’s acceptable to some extent, because you’re not questioning the framework in which the whole debate occurs. You might be criticised for lying. But if you question the way in which this culture of abuse has been created, then you are considered to be wholly more dangerous.