Trigger warning: first two paragraphs mention paedophiles, middle section is about racism and sexism, later content is political
The first time I met a paedophile I had no idea. He didn’t wear white towelling socks that showed below his slightly-too-short trousers, he didn’t wear a dirty trench coat, and he wasn’t a socially awkward man with greasy hair, unflattering glasses and a slight squint. Quite the contrary. He was a well-groomed, educated, articulate, middle-class man. He attended appointments to express concern about his grandchildren, and appeared supportive to his children in trying to sort out their problems. He was polite to professionals, and always thanked us for our time and expertise. I later found out that he had sexually and physically abused several members of the family. Looking back, our only clue (beyond the fact the children referred to us were evidently troubled and failing to thrive) was that the receptionist in one clinic said that she didn’t like the way he spoke to his wife in the waiting room, saying “I wouldn’t talk to a dog that way”. But we didn’t know how you could appropriately record that in the notes, given only the children were open to the service. So we didn’t record it.
The next time I met a paedophile he didn’t fit my stereotype of a creep or bad guy either. In fact, he tried to be my friend and find areas of common ground. If I hadn’t met him in my professional capacity and known of his conviction in advance, but instead had met him socially under different circumstances, I suspect we would have found some. Perhaps we would have had a pleasant conversation about politics, video games or running internet forums, and I’d have left thinking he seemed like a nice person. He was young, outgoing and wore a colourful T-shirt referencing a slightly crude meme. He was charismatic, informal and irreverent, and he flirted with the admin staff. However, I might have picked up on something when I found out his partner’s IQ was more than 60 points lower than his, that she had a serious trauma history, and they had met on a dating app for single parents where his profile bragged of how much he loved children. But I doubt his attraction to vulnerable single mothers is something apparent to most people that meet him, at least until they know him well.
The opposite face of this coin, where people assume they can judge a person’s character accurately from superficial appearances, almost certainly contributes to a lot of prejudice and discrimination. So many people from specific population groups are assumed to be aggressive, untrustworthy, or unacceptably different because of their culture or religion – but whether people experience these prejudices or not doesn’t reflect their behaviour or beliefs (or even whether they actually belong to the assumed demographic). Think of the prejudice about gypsies and travellers, or Muslims, or young black men, for example. Likewise the stereotypes about gender, or age. As I mentioned in another blog post, women in the public eye get judged for how well they conform to societal expectations of women – to look decorative at all times, to not be perceived as “aggressive” and to look after others. Any emotional expression is seen as a weakness compared to the perceived standard of cold logic that is perceived as more masculine and therefore preferable. There is a whole lexicon of words used to put women down when they step up to the plate.
Again, most of us are blind to our prejudices and we are also blind to our privilege. We assume an equal playing field when we congratulate ourselves for our achievements, and we don’t see the constant attrition that marks facing prejudice that contextualises individual incidents. This forum conversation (from post by mr0860 near the bottom of page 2 onwards), this twitter thread and this twitter thread show exactly what happens when the recipient flags sexism or racism, but those in the audience who have not experienced it do not pick up the same cues. You end up with a split between those who think it is legitimate behaviour/debate and those who are fed up with it (the recipients of the behaviour). The former group are disproportionately white men who have never been on the receiving end of the issue they cast doubt on. In fact they often haven’t even witnessed the issue first hand, giving them the false impression that it is rare, due to the false belief we all hold to some extent that our own experience is universal. The latter group are then branded as over-sensitive snowflakes stifling debate (though ironically it is those bandying those terms about who cry the loudest if they feel they are being criticised or their voice isn’t being given enough credit, see Stephen Yaxley Lennon or Milo Yiannopoulos).
Meghan Markle has been a particular victim of this pattern, as a mixed race woman that has used her platform to speak up for feminism and against racism and inequality, so it is no surprise that the vested interests of the British tabloid press dislike her and want to put her in her place. Yet there are still those who claim it isn’t racism, or that she brought the problems on herself in some way. In this brilliant clip Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu calls it out perfectly. The emotional labour of explaining or performing inequality is exhausting, and falls disproportionately on those who are subject to the prejudice in the first place, who already have additional burdens to carry.
My point is that we all make assumptions about other people, and often we aren’t as good as we think we are at picking out people’s true character from their appearance or what we get to see of them before we know them well. In fact sometimes we can know people very well and still miss huge facets of them, as is often evident in the terrible guilt and grief post-mortem when someone dies by suicide. The same thing might also contribute to why people enter relationships with partners who later become abusive toward them. Yet we are often blind to what we don’t know – I had someone on twitter recently claim to be certain that nobody in her extended network of over 100 friends and family members has ever experienced mental health problems. Statistically that’s as probable as a lottery win on a day you get struck by lightning, unless her family deviates very far from the rest of the world population in some way.
That isn’t to say there aren’t horrible people who are outwardly and obviously bad. There are. And I’ve met plenty of them, both personally and professionally. But I don’t think we can always pick them out from a line-up. And even when we can, it doesn’t seem to always hold them back. After all, we’ve had some very popular and powerful men come to light after many years of sexually abusing people on a massive scale (eg Weinstein, Epstein, Savile). There are also more than a few repugnant men in prominent political positions at the moment. Somehow being a division-stoking, lying, philanderer who will take whatever political position is expedient to him or his far-right paymasters, or a hate-mongering, tax-dodging, cheating, sex-pest who has asked foreign powers to interfere in his country’s elections hasn’t blocked two rich, overweight, blond men from some of the most powerful offices of power in the world. Far from it. Instead of their moral character being a barrier to office it is a selling point. Rather than denying or attempting to mask their true nature, they have started to double down in the knowledge that it isn’t reducing their popularity. Perhaps their carefully constructed persona of being harmlessly dim keeps them filed under ‘amusing oaf’ rather than ‘dangerous autocrat’. It is clear that their simplistic slogans have appealed to populations fed up of being ignored or talked down to, and made them seem more down to earth, whilst their decisions (no matter how hypocritical or founded on lies) make them seem like men of action.
I can’t be the only person that finds this incredibly frustrating. Surely we need to value truth and honour and block bad people from power? We need to stop it being amusing or acceptable to lie, express prejudice, exploit others, or to foment hatred of vulnerable people, and that means challenging the way that this is reported. Critical in this is the regulation of social media, and the support of journalism that is ethical and independent, rather than being reliant on social media, misleading narratives from biased sources and badly checked hearsay that spreads more rapidly and widely than the corrections that follow. I’m with Carole Cadwalladr that this is key to helping the public understand the truth about key issues and allowing democracy to function. If everyone who wanted progressive values to stand a chance in the world boycotted Facebook and lobbied for better regulation, their advertising revenue would fall and their business model would have to change. The million dollar question is whether we want things to change enough to take action, even if this means we have to find alternate ways to journal and share our lives with our networks*. Otherwise the bad people might tighten their hold on power and lead us in increasingly worrying directions.
*If that feels too much of a step, then I’d recommend you take three simple areas:
Increase your privacy. On Facebook change your name and set your privacy settings higher so little or no information is public. Be wary of services with poor privacy and data protection.
Be more data savvy. Watch The Big Hack. Be aware of what data you are giving way. Be mindful of what data your mobile phone and/or internet browser is collecting and what “personalisation” of advertising you are allowing, read what you are consenting to in the user agreement for apps and software
Install apps that block advertising and show who is funding the adverts you do see. I use FB Purity and Who Targets Me?