Sunday, September 29, 2013

Who does nuance belong to?

In Roman Polanski and the sin of simplification our beloved Victoria Coren Mitchell discusses a new book by Samantha Geimer (the woman that Polanski drugged and raped as a thirteen year old girl). Much as I adore VCM, she confuses a fact about child sex abuse, and abuse generally, and a despicable lie that regularly gets in the way of reporting and justice:

  Fact: Abusers are human beings and thus are very complex, possibly with talents, virtues, their own pain, strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us. Victims are often well aware of this.

  Lie: If someone has talents, or has suffered in some way, the wrongness of their crimes somehow becomes more complicated.

Child abusers are rarely terrible people in every aspect of their lives. Victims will be particularly aware of this because usually, a victim knows their abuser; these are their parents, their family friends, their priests, teachers and mentors. What's more, victims are heavily invested in the idea that their abusers were not monsters because, from their point of view;
  • If he were a monster, I wouldn't have liked or trusted him. 
  • If he were a monster, other people who cared for me would not have let him alone with me. 
  • If he were a monster, what he did to me is without meaning or explanation.
None of this is irrational.  Abusers are human beings. Victims (and the people who care for them) are not stupid, careless creatures who wander naked into caves past signs reading, "Rapist Troll Lives Here". Unless you look at the fundamental humanity of abusers, then you can't understand why this happens or how this happens. The idea that rapists and sexual abusers are monsters is one of the chief reasons that victims are so often met with disbelief; this nice family man has no horns, this talented sportsmen has no forked tail.  

And VCM would have done very well to write an article about that - to say that Roman Polanski is a man who has suffered in his life and he is very talented (though honestly, he's no Kubrick) and yet he still committed this monstrous crime. We need to see that and take note; people who are virtuous in some respects are monstrous in others. But she loses her way. Any article which discusses a rape and has the line 
"A second complicating factor is that Polanski's work is filled with beauty and humanity."
is going to boil a lot of blood. Gandhi beat his wife at least once - we don't think that was okay, and he was Gandhi, for goodness' sake. Polanski is just a film director, whose reputation has been elevated beyond his talent by his history of personal suffering. I think story-telling is nearly the most important thing on Earth, but there's nothing he could ever do in the creation of a movie that would somehow mitigate the rape of a child. VCM talks about Geimer's book:
"She says that the police investigation, hospital exams and reporting of the case were more traumatic than the attack itself. She says: "I did something wrong, I was stupid… To pose topless, and to drink and to take the [sleeping] pill." 
"It is so easy and tempting to knock this into a pigeonhole: the misguided self-blame and denial of the victim."
Only, this is not self-blame or denial.  I was abused as a young adult, so I can tell you about all kinds of foolish things I did, positions I put myself in, misplaced trust and loyalty, and I don't get to wipe that all away with, but I was a child; children are daft and don't know any better. However, none of those things make me responsible for what was done to me. None of those things make what my abuser did less serious because I made a few bad choices.

Geimer was a thirteen year old girl, who chose to pose topless, drink and take a pill she was offered. Some might judge that as stupid (I have very little context). But to think that could be read as self-blame suggests that a thirteen year old girl can do stupid things that make her to blame for her rape. She can't. Rape just isn't that complicated.
"It is the complication that we need. People have become desperate to reduce everything, including each other, to mindless categories of good and bad, as if the world can be divided into Facebook likes and dislikes."
But deeds can and should be divided in this way. I like yarn-bombing. I dislike child-rape. For all I know some yarn-bombers are complete bastards and I'm sure that there are some lovely child-rapists. Except for, you know, the raping children thing, which I struggled to see past.
"So what is to be done with Samantha Geimer's story? She does not condemn Polanski nor exonerate him. She does not blame herself nor refuse to examine herself. Her voice is strong and complicated. You cannot simplify her, or him."
No we can't. But we can simplify the crime he committed towards her - which Geimer does herself. She describes it as "rape, in every sense of the word" because that's what it was. Roman Polanski is a rapist. However complicated he is as a human being, this crime was not and our response to that needs no nuance whatsoever.

Geimer's reaction is nuanced. Like all victims, Geimer is a human being who has reacted, coped with and confronted her experience in a unique and personal way. She's done it bravely, and has written a book that people say is well-written.

But the nuance of what happened to her belongs entirely to Geimer.  It doesn't belong to anyone else. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

10 Reasons A Marriage Tax Break is a Dreadful Idea

1. People have and always did marry for silly reasons. The proposed marriage tax break provides another very silly reason. People who marry for silly reasons don't tend to stay happy or married for long.

2. There's a mixed message about childcare here. Impoverished lone parents are under greater pressure than ever to find full-time work as soon as their children are on solid food. The principle beneficiaries for the planned tax break will be married couples where one partner stays at home or works part time. If you're into social engineering (and there is no other term), then you at least need to be consistent.

3. It's quite complicated. It's to do with transferring part of your unused tax allowance to your spouse. I'm not sure I even know what that means or how it will work, and I'm guessing there'll be eligible people who never see a penny.

4. As with all political moralising about the merits of marriage, rhetoric around the tax break fails to understand why people who aren't married aren't married. There are perhaps four categories of people who aren't married:

(a) Single people.  Single people may or may not like to be married, they may or may not have been married in the past, they may believe that marriage is the bedrock of civilisation, but marriage is not a reasonable lifestyle option open to a single person. Because there's only one of them.
(b) Committed couples who can't or don't want to get married just now or perhaps ever. Reasons may include a conscientious objection to marriage (see point 10 below), deeply personal reasons, legal or financial obstacles, an uncomplicated disinterest in the subject and, very often, plans to marry in the future. Unmarried couples are not necessarily unmarrying; most married couples were once cohabitees.
(c) Groups of more than two people who are in love and can't have a legal marriage that includes all parties.
(d) (Much more commonly) Couples who aren't entirely committed to each other. 
The elevation of coupledom as the place we all want to be, the first class arrival lounge of adulthood, means that a fair few people are in relationships which aren't really working too well. People in these relationships may be restless, discontented or they may be desperately unhappy but afraid to leave. Such couples should, under no circumstances, be encouraged to marry. The trouble is that some people do think fairy dust is sprinkled over couples at marriage - as with having a child (which is worse), some people believe that a wedding is just what a struggling couple needs to sort themselves out.

The rhetoric around this tax break encourages unhappy couples to marry. The message is that married relationships are better, which can easily sound like your relationships would be better if you were married. It won't be.  It will be roughly like it is now, only harder to get out of. 

5. £3.85 a week is not a great deal of money to most working people. The scheme is expected to cost the state £550 million and not make a great deal of different to the lives or incomes of anyone. 

6. In fact, the administrative cost of marriage is just over £100.  If you want to wear fancy clothes, invite your family and have a nice meal, it's going to cost a few hundred more.  At £200 a year (the maximum tax break), a marriage will take between six months and several years to pay for itself. 

7. Cameron says, "Love is love, commitment is commitment." but marriage is a not a necessary or sufficient condition for love or commitment. For example, former MSP Bill Walker, on his forth marriage having violently abused his first three wives, would still be theoretically eligible for this tax break (if he was working and not in prison). Meanwhile, the most conservative-friendly hard-working jam-making war widow one can imagine would not. 

8. It is very much cheaper to be part of a couple than it is to be single. This is especially the case for couples or single people with children. It is therefore ridiculous to give any kind of subsidy to a group of people who - presuming married people generally live, sleep, eat and socialise together - are already blessed with lower living expenses that many other people.  

9. This policy really feels like it is about making certain people, those lucky enough to have found someone they love, those privileged enough to have been able to afford marriage, those where one person earns enough for another not to have to work full time, to feel superior and smug about a lifestyle that landed in their lap.

10. One of the chief reasons people object to marriage is the idea that it is an institution that belongs to conservative moralisers and religious zealots. The sort of people who say that marriage makes for superior relationships. The sort of people who grit their teeth through decades of domestic conflict, sexual frustration and deception just so they can call their marriages successful.

It strikes me that policies like this are exactly what gives marriage an image problem.

Monday, September 23, 2013

People Are Strange #3897

A woodland path in late summer; leaves slightly yellowing,
sun low in the trees.
So Stephen and I were on honeymoon in West Wales, coming out from the woodland path, both of us on mobility scooters. A slim anoraked woman in her mid-forties was walking down the road and, although we were moving at casual walking pace, she startled and stepped back. Then she said, "I thought you were a rat!"

Most people in the world might respond to this with a mixture of bafflement and offense.  But we're English. We apologised.

"I just saw a rat up the road," she went on to explain. "I thought you were another one, about to jump out at me. It was dead and everything!"

Of course; two tall adults using mobility scooters could easily resemble a rat. Particularly a dead rat. Just like the dead rats that often jump out at people on country lanes in broad daylight.

I have no clue whether the scooters were a factor in our rat-like appearance - we may have been mistaken for a rat by this eccentric person whilst on foot. In fact, had we been standing up, the sight of all six foot of us on our hind legs may have caused the woman to scream and run back up the road.

We had a wonderful honeymoon; exciting, relaxing and productive in equal measures. I got a great deal of writing done, we watched in wonder as this little story took the East Anglian press by storm and Stephen went a little bit wild:

Video description: Stephen (a handsome young white man with dark hair, dark glasses and a funky hat) zooms down a steep slope on his mobility scooter, holding a bubble sword (a plastic loop) that creates a modest cloud of bubbles in his wake.