Sunday, 20 July 2014

He couldn't possibly mean anything by it. 19.07.14

(You'll have to excuse me if this one comes out as a long, rambling anecdote.  It's a true story - cross my heart, I am not making this up.  It came up in conversation with someone recently, so I thought I'd get it down.  I think it highlights a phenomenon, but I'm still working at finding the "moral" in it.  Maybe you can help. Maybe there isn't one.)

Once upon a time, when I was eleven, I got me a brand-spanking-new supply teacher. On the face of it, this ought to have been the least of my concerns. I'd just been dragged kicking and screaming into junior high - a hellhole full of strangers, continuous testing, bullies, obscure rules, and a battery of "professors" far more interested in catching us out failing than in helping us achieve. Another unfamiliar adult in a position of power ought to have just blended in the general horror of it all. This guy, though, just wasn't right. I couldn't tell what or why, but there was something about him that was just... wrong. 

I bet you are already guessing where this story is going (panic not - nothing much happened). Unfortunately, back then I couldn't. I was a kid - I knew that life wasn't all Disney, but I was entirely innocent of that aspect of it. Not only I wasn't sexualised, but I didn't even have a concept of what the word could mean. In fact, although I was aware that babies came out of their mothers' bellies, I had no idea of how they got in there in the first place.  I was still playing with My Little Ponies, for crying out loud. All us girls, we were all in the same boat: we were all innocent, all clueless, and yet all somehow repulsed by this strange adult who kept standing too close, talking too intently, getting too cuddly, looking too hungry... but now I'm putting thoughts in my eleven-year-old's head. The truth was that my main bugbears were that he smelled nasty and his face was scratchy. I didn't want to be close to him because it felt unpleasant - none of us liked it - but he was very insistent. Most of us had told our parents that we didn't like him, but we couldn't really explain why, and kids not liking a teacher isn't precisely breaking news. It didn't feel good, it didn't feel right, but we didn't have the words to explain to ourselves what was happening, let alone raise any kind of alarm.  

This situation went on for quite some time, until the guy pushed it too far. One of the girls in my class was a bit older, having being held back a couple of years. She wasn't ahead of us on the mental development front, but she'd already started to need the services of a brassiere... And it was his excessive interest in that particular garment that caused the girl's mother to turn up at the school one afternoon, baying for blood.

A paedophilic teacher in a school full of pre-teens is no laughing matter. As a member of the school board, my mum jumped on her white charger and raced down to an emergency meeting, where she fought uncharacteristically hard until she got what she wanted: the girl silenced, the angry mother placated, no mention of the incident to be put on the teacher's official record, and for his employment to continue as normal.

Yeah, you got it right.  My mother fought for a paedophilic teacher's right to continue teaching in my school, in my class.

I must admit that I didn't quite understand how utterly screwed up the entire incident was until I had kids (nearly) of my own to mind. Although they were step rather than biological children, anyone touching a hair on their head with any malicious intent would have found himself short of a hand, if he was lucky.  Seriously, merely thinking of anyone intending to harm them in any way makes me want to rip and tear and maim and gauge and stomp and repeat until I'm entirely out of breath or they are entirely out of body. In reality, unless I caught them right at it, I probably would manage to control my impulses and seek a more socially-approved retribution. However, I sure as hell would not be aiding and abetting them in carrying on their activities unhindered. That's insane. It's as alien to me as my teacher's impulses towards us, and nearly as repulsive.

I have broached the subject with my mum a few times. A teacher herself, she still believed she did the right thing, because:
1. She's sure "he couldn't possibly mean anything by it".
2. His own kid was studying in that very school at the time.  He would have heard about a report and been upset by it.
3. "It could have ruined the poor man's career."

...and none of it makes any sense to me.  You don't bother a whole class of girls by accident - and even if you do, sorry and all that, I think you should still be called to task. Whether it's because of poor social skills, some sort of mental deficiency or evil intent, bothering kids isn't something I'm willing to excuse. The fact that his own child was at the school was not an inconvenience, but a great opportunity to ensure that there weren't any similar problems at home.  If someone is mad or bad enough to bother pre-pubescent children, I'm not comfortable with assuming that the rest of his life is exemplary. As for ruining a paedophile's career in the educational system... yeah, right, we wouldn't want to do that, would we?  

From my point of view, my mother made a dangerously insane decision.  She chose to wilfully ignore a number of warning signs and put tens of children in danger, including her own daughter, to protect a colleague. From her point of view, I am unfair and cruel. After all, nothing that bad happened... A girl was made uncomfortable, but it's not like she was hurt. People get uncomfortable all the time, often for no valid reason. Why would you punish someone so badly when nothing really happened?

And that's where our worldviews just can't match, because we are looking at the situation through different lenses. To me the risk of paedophilia is a terrible thing to expose a child to. To her it is just a word, a nebulous concept with no basis in reality. It's something so twisted and alien that she can't picture it in her own head; she can't fathom the mechanics nor begin to appreciate the possible consequences.

Social shaming and shunning, however, are very concrete, understandable issues to her, as are financial problems. To be made not just unemployed but also unemployable in one's own field, turned into a social pariah, shamed in front of one's family and colleagues... That's destroying a life, hurting the man more than if you'd killed him outright because his pain will keep on going, and hurting his family to boot.  That's serious, real stuff.

So far, I've managed to gleam a lesson from this story, and it isn't more of a "duh" than a "eureka".  People often make bad risk assessments when they don't fully understand a situation: they discount the seriousness of what they can't comprehend. You see it rather a lot in the comments on violent videos on the internet. (Why did the cops handle that person so harshly? Well, he was armed and acting aggressive.  But couldn't they just take the weapon off him nicely? They were so rough with him, and all he was doing was waving a sword at them... Yeah, ok.) Also, people who don't understand asocial predators often can't recognise them, and look for social solution to asocial problems. They seem to find it hard to comprehend that predators don't have horns or scales, that they look and act pretty much like us up until the point they choose to act very, very differently. They seem to be unable to change tack in their heads, holding on to the tried-and-tested social conventions in the belief or hope that they will keep everything going nicely.

When one of the risks is certain and the other is hypothetical, people are even less willing to "overreact". They value the definite risk, the damage to the stability of the group, over the hypothetical and hard-to-accept possibility that one of their own may be some sort of monster. So they ignore their gut feelings or even low-level cries for help, waiting for proof that the situation is really an issue. Unfortunately, in certain situations if you wait for something to happen then you're waiting way too long. 

It seems to be worse the tighter the relationship with the perpetrator is, whether it's personal or financial. I've seen this happen in all manners of groups: families, schools, work places and even, ironically, self-defence clubs. You tell someone that one of their relatives, friends, colleagues or valued customers is up to no good without solid evidence other than a series of not-quite-right behaviours that make you go "eeeeeek!" and they'll flap around like mad ducks looking for excuses.  "He's just being friendly."  "He's just socially awkward."  "He just doesn't understand personal space."  "He's always like that." Ultimately, the excuse underlying each of their excuses is my mother's "he could't possibly mean anything by it". You are supposed to somehow tolerate the behaviour, however uncomfortable it may make you, because there is no proof of malice underpinning it. We may look for work-arounds -  tell you we'll keep and eye on him, make sure he's not alone with anyone vulnerable, etc. - but we won't challenge the behaviour directly or seek to change it.

Regardless of legislation, regulations and loud proclamations of horror every time a nasty story comes up in the news, I have yet to report an emerging situations and not see people put the stability of their group ahead of potential future misdeeds. It is generally only after things have got bad that people suddenly change their priorities, but by then it's too late. That's in marked contrasts with how we react to any "creepy" behaviours carried out by strangers, particularly around children. I've lost count of the number of times I've been called out at work to deal with "disgusting pervs" whose only crime was doing their own stuff in the vicinity of children - you know, like having a picnic or walking in the park. Nobody would do that unless they were up to no good, right?

On the one hand, we're a society so frightened of sexual misbehaviours that we're legislating ourselves into a very lonely corner. Telling someone that their outfit looks good could be construed as sexual harassment. Touching their shoulders or arms could be classed as assault. Asking them out... seriously, would you want to risk that? And if it's bad for adults, it's infinitely worse for children. A child falls over and gets hurt, and rather than comforting them you end up having to treat them like unexploded ordnance. It skews our priorities, because a broken bone is bad but will fix, but an accusation of sexual misconduct will ruin your life. On the other hand, I've lost count of the people who have a relative, friend or co-worker who they know they can't leave alone with kids or women, yet never confront the issue until it blows up. 

I don't know where to go with this. I've seen it too often for it to be just something happening around me, though I may be wrong.  I don't know how or if it can be changed.

The corollary, though, is that don't feel able to rely on the "white knight" syndrome. I've been told repeatedly by people I regard very highly that when faced by creeps and pervs I ought to call upon the folk around me for help. Apparently they are supposed to be naturally overcome by the need to protect those smaller and/or weaker. Well, I can see that working if the bother is caused by someone outside of the group (for instance, in a bar), although I still wager that most folk these days will not want to get involved in someone else's problem. For solving problems within a group, though, I just can't believe it would work. Whilst I'm perfectly glad to cause as big a fuss as I can to keep myself safe, I fully expect to end up being the one who ends up paying for it. I will have been the one to damage the solidity of the group without an actual incident to justify my behaviour - I will have done something real, something people could see and understand, whilst the creep hadn't done anything, yet.

[As for my supply teacher, he finished that year with us without any further incidents. The following year he was hired to work at my mother's school, rather ironically. Surrounded by older kids who had a much better understanding of what was what, he didn't last a month. He was reported, investigated and kicked out. I've not heard about him since. My mother still doesn't get it.]


Jeffrey Deutsch said...

Wow. Way to go for juggling both of those greased watermelons!

You know those friendship necklaces, you buy them in pairs each with half of a locket, a key or something else? Most folks, MRAs and feminists and everyone else, each carry only half of the truth. Some people focus on fair judgment, tolerance and how likely a bad thing is to happen. Others focus on protecting girls and women, stopping sexual predators and how bad a risk could get if it does happen. You somehow got both halves.

As someone who suffers from Asperger Syndrome (AS), an autism spectrum condition, I have more than a few times accidentally -- and totally unknowingly -- creeped out girls and women.

I know that some of the things I did -- and some of the things the supply teacher did -- can be done just as "easily" by a socially awkward person, by an Aspie...and by a predator.

I would never dismiss or ignore problems like this. And sometimes, even if the person doesn't mean it and may not even know it we may have to put an immediate stop to it. And this may have been one of those times...when working with minors -- perhaps especially girls -- enough social skills not to continually set off others' alarm bells may be a job prerequisite.*

That said, once we know somebody's doing creepy things we can address it in a variety of ways...depending on the kind of person we know (or rather, believe) he is. Selfish predators get the bum's rush, while honestly awkward people who just slipped up get we handle all sorts of offenses.

In fact, speaking of education I can see a role for prevention -- broadly teaching certain kinds of social skills to both makes and females. Both how not to cross boundaries and how to effectively show (and defend) your boundaries. A stitch in time saves nine, plus it helps everybody not only stop predators but also date and socialize better and even work together better.

Last but not least, I see a dismal common thread through all the problems on both sides. People all too often jump to conclusions. Your mother assumed the teacher couldn't possibly have meant anything by it...not that she'd talked to the girls and especially to the teacher, knew the situation and could say he didn't mean anything by it. That can be just as bad as another bystander assuming that he must be guilty as hell and should be fired and unemployed forever just because a few people complained about him.

And yes, it's sad that people make these "decisions" all too often based on who's in the tribe and who's out.

Bottom line: Precisely because sex and sexual harassment, abuse and assault are such touchy issues we all need to put a lot more nuance into our approaches. Let's investigate each situation thoroughly and handle it on its merits, with both a second chance with education for accidental offenders and severe punishment for predators.

[*] Once in a while, it can be a tough call whether it's someone's behavior or his race, ethnicity, controversial views, apparent (even if relative) poverty, unattractive appearance or other problematic criteria that are really upsetting people.

What do you think?

Jeff Deutsch

God's Bastard said...

Arrrrrrrgh... I think I've probably not thought enough about it - I did say I was still working on the "moral"... and that I owe you a blog. How to defuse awkward social situations is a big and important subject that doesn't get handled enough. Your postscript, in particular, is a very big deal that we routinely wilfully ignore.

As you mention, the solution may be teaching everybody better social skills, how to use discernment and how to be fair-minded. As a basic criteria, would we react the same way if the same thing had been said/done by someone we find attractive? Legislating human interactions seems to be becoming increasingly restrictive and unfairly punitive, particularly against unattractive men.

I genuinely don't think the issue in this particular case was one of social awkwardness. There was too much touchy-feely stuff going on and way too many "nos" ignored to be innocent. I doubt anyone reaches his late twenties in a career that involves working with people all the time without either being told or working out that you don't go sticking your paws on thirteen year old girls' breasts.

Aside from this guy, I've met (but not known very well) three active paedophiles. Two did stuff that was bad enough, but not extreme, and eventually got convicted. Both of them had a bunch of people who knew they "weren't quite right", but did nothing. That's what I'm talking about - we're so scared to raise the issue, so defensive of our tribe that we let things get far too far. Afterwards everyone came out with "I *knew* there was something not quite right..." but by that time they'd already had victims.

The third was a real shock and did some very extreme stuff indeed. He got away with it because the prosecutors deemed that the victim was too fragile to "withstand the rigours of the trial". Yeah, that happens.

Meanwhile some innocent guy in an office is screwing up the courage to ask a pretty co-worker out, and will likely get a sexual harassment charge as a thank you.

It's a funny ol' world.

God's Bastard said...

Also - the fact that it's an innocent mistake doesn't necessarily mean it gets swept under the carpet. If our handling of interpersonal conflict was less ham-fisted and punitive, it'd be perfectly possible to say "look, man, when you do X people get upset" without the world coming to an end. Yeah, it's uncomfortable for both parties, but wouldn't it help everyone long-term? Then if the person persists in the behaviour we could escalate our response accordingly, rather than wait until shit has hit the fan and we've got to call the cavalry.

...but I guess that's the difference between "management" and "leadership". You can get promoted to the former without having any of the skills required by for the latter.

Anonymous said...

Always an excuse can be found by the activists on both sides. First comment is a perfect example of how there is always an excuse for evil.

Paul said...

There is never an excuse for evil, but, there is all too often an excuse for refusing to see it, accept that it is evil, and fight against it.

It's not easy fighting evil without slowly becoming a bit more evil yourself.

After all, anyone who would do _that_ is a little less than human, and deserve everything they get, right?

And then you remember that "the only thing required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."

And, so, it's almost always easier to pretend that it wasn't _that_ evil an act, it was a misunderstanding, a bit of karmic nostalgia, or maybe nostalgic karma...but not really evil.

I don't go looking for evil, but I won't refuse to see it, and do whatever I can to stop it, because evil perpetuates itself.

By changing the goal just a little, someone else summed it up the best:

"We choose to do the things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."


(A young kid just giggled outside my window...if that sound doesn't make you smile a bit, it's time to examine your life.)

SteveW51 said...

"I'm talking about people genuinely not understanding the issue, hence making bad risk assessments, NOT willingly supporting sex offenders. I've never met anyone other than sex offenders who is supportive of the plight of other sex offenders."

I have seen such. A 60 Minutes broadcast years ago profiled a woman who was once a potential star in track and field events. So talented was she that her coach managed to convince her family to let her move in with him and his wife so he could help her with her future career.

She claimed he molested her for years until she grew too old to keep his interest.

The TV crew couldn't get a statement from him, but when they approached his wife she said something vague about that kind of thing being OK "in some cultures."

God's Bastard said...

Hmmmmm. Did they play doubles, I wonder.