Thoughts on a tweet

Why Mary Beard’s tweet affected me.


Hi there, just a few notes to explain why I was up all night feeling triggered by Mary Beard’s tweeting. I don’t normally engage in discussions on Twitter but this was impossible to overlook. (The initial tweet, for context, is this: “This US doctor is clearly awful. But could we not punish him more productively. And arent we all a bit complicit? Do we imagine that getting people to be olympic stars is a nice procees, from bullying to worse abuse? Shouldnt we get real?” I’m also referring to other tweets in her feeds, which I’m not going to quote here but clearly you can look up if you want).

This won’t be written to a particularly high standard and it is not meant to be attacking or controversial. It’s a personal response. I felt I didn’t communicate adequately enough the reasons I challenged her in the Twitter medium. I believe in my responsibility as an adult with the privileges I have, to share thoughts and experiences where I witness attitudes and expressions that I feel could be harmful. So that’s where this comes from.

Childhood sexual abuse is a complex and deeply affecting experience that the US and UK are just beginning to understand about. Discourse in the media relating to the subject is, understandably, not always going to be helpful or supportive. This seems a good opportunity to try and engage minds in a constructive way of thinking about this issue.

As I tried to get across last night, my issue with what was written in the tweet is not that I don’t agree with any of Mary’s individual points, which I loosely remember are as follows:

  • the validity of the penal system in the US (and by implication UK too) is questionable as is the meaningfulness of 175 year sentencing, for various reasons including economic impact, quality of life of the criminal, the philosophical / moral / practical issue of possibility of reform
  • it is worth thinking about and discussing the concept of forgiveness in relation to heinous crimes (but this is unrelated to criminal justice system in my view; forgiveness is aneconomical)
  • it is worth thinking about and discussing ways of assisting in development of programmes for reform and rehabilitation of convicted paedophiles and other criminals (look at Dunkelfeld prevention project in Germany for example)
  • it is important to examine cultures that enable abuse to be carried out in order to challenge and avoid complicity (though not limited to elite athletics – and if you are going to raise this important issue about societal complicity you have to be very real and acknowledge that abuse happens in all walks of life, contexts, institution including the family, education, religion, music, sport and any place where children are. 12 million young women are raped each year in the US and over half of these rapes happen to girls under the age of 15. The vast majority of cases of sexual abuse are perpetuated by someone the person knows. And this stat is not meant to minimise or ignore that sexual abuse happens to boys and men too. Just think about the footballers who have bravely spoken out in recent times in the UK. A more productive way of discussing how to effect societal change would be to frame a separate discussion around how can we all be more aware of how to empower, support and protect children. Practical stuff like giving your child choices whether or not to kiss and hug relatives, developing a trusting relationship where your child believes you will believe them if they disclose concerns, creating good practice policies for schools and clubs around safeguarding, speaking to kids about it etc.)

To clarify, I don’t disagree with any of the above points. I was deeply affected by Mary’s tweet, however. I’d like to explain why. I understand that Twitter is a concise medium and that nuances can be missed/misinterpreted. But I also think the brevity of form can be quite revealing about underlying assumptions, and I also believe that we still have a responsibility to those who are going to be reading, to be clear and try to avoid causing offence.

My difficulty is with the way in which Mary conflates all the above points within a rhetorical structure set up to sound like an excuse. (He’s awful. But…) It is a clumsy, insensitive comment that has deep reverberations. What’s more, she uses a specific case of a white, male, middle class professional who sexually abused hundreds of young girls, leading to two suicides and who knows how much torment and ruined lives, to open a “debate” on a range of different, general (not specific to this case, she later clarified) yet related issues.

She specifically draws attention to the abuser’s professional status (“don’t we need his skills”) and when questioned about why she chose this particular case to spark discussion, asks “isn’t it those cases that prompt the sharpest reflection?” The implication is that it was something about the characteristics of this case in particular that made her question the penal system, the culture of the sport, the possibility of redemption. Why? Why not open a debate about the issue of prison sentencing in general (for all crimes), without mentioning this case? Why not open a discussion about a penal system that includes discourse on its inherent racism, its use of violence, why not refer to a range of criminal acts, instead of focussing solely on the sexual abuse of children? What does she think about sentencing of non-violent people, or for that matter of those who have caused grievous bodily harm? Should there be any difference in approach to sentencing? What is so significant about a case of sexual abuse that has caused these thoughts to stir? There was a case a few days ago of a man who beat his wife and cut her hand off because she didn’t make dinner for him. Why not focus on any one of the millions of cases like this, to discuss crime and punishment, the notion of forgiveness? Whether or not this was intentional or conscious, what her language implies is that the value of the life and professional skills of a doctor is more than the value of the children he abused. I know this is not literally what she said, but it is the effect of identifying this case and stacking up the points as she did. There is clear sympathy for the abuser (acknowledgment of his misfortune at having to spend the rest of his life in prison without a chance at being reformed and obtaining freedom) contrasted with no comments to my memory that sympathise with the survivors. My issue with this is the huge following it went out to, many of whom will not have a nuanced appreciation of the challenges faced by children and adults experiencing or coming to terms with abuse. Any discourse that could be interpreted as excusing or minimising the actions of an abuser is harmful because it reinforces the prevailing mood that preferences the adult over the child.

To restate: to identify this case in particular and phrase questions as she did creates a minimising effect on the act of sexual violence, shifts focus to the value of the life of the abuser rather than the survivors and the acts of violence they were subjected to, thus perpetuating the kind of cognitive dissonance in society that enables people to abuse children in the first place. It is flippant because it fails to respect the experiences of the survivors in the case, it fails to respect the inherent power imbalance that is already heavily weighted on the side of abusers, it fails to respect the context of the various separate discussions. Any comment relating to the case specifically on the day the sentencing took place ought, surely, to be of support and solidarity for the survivors? Social media is an international platform and Mary Beard has 174k followers each of whom could share her tweet etc. It is my view that it was disrespectful to open debate on general issues by linking to this specific case.

Of course, her tweet did lead to debate and discussion in all the different areas (e.g. the meaningfulness of such long sentences) and I’m sure some of this will feel useful for people. But by confusing and conflating them she has taken away the potential focus and power of any one area. To reiterate, my objection to her stance is not to do with the particulars of her opinion on sentencing or forgiveness or social complicity; it is the way in which she has approached the subject of child abuse. She seems to have done no research, shows very little understanding of the inherent challenges with disclosure let alone evidencing and conviction of sexual abuse. The subtext seems to me to be – I am shocked that this respectable white professional has done this. He has done it, that is clear, but he is otherwise of good social standing and he must be capable of being reformed and of his status in society being restored. It seems a shame to spend tax-payers’ money imprisoning him when he has professional skills (ignoring the fact that it was his professional status he took advantage of, and not mentioning what her thoughts are on abusers who are unskilled) and anyway he deserves to be forgiven and if “we” sentence him to 175 years we’re saying we don’t believe in forgiveness or redemption (even though the criminal justice system is a system discrete from personal and moral forgiveness).

I also forgot to mention that by saying “we” it strikes me she creates an artificial community in which she assumes all her 174k followers are ‘safe’ and not abusers of children, and are on the good side with some stake in what to do about these horrible corrupt people over there. This undermines her argument that we are “all a bit complicit”, by failing to acknowledge that child abusers are everywhere in society, including within her list of followers on Twitter, undoubtedly. As I said in one of my tweets, she could have used her platform to research and offer resources for support for current and potential offenders who may come across her Twitter feed.

The problem here, and why it is so affectively triggering for those with awareness of the complex repercussions of childhood sexual abuse, is that this sort of incoherent debating, shifting focus, explaining, distracting, is so, so, so common in response to these crimes and acts and abuses of power. The syntax of excuse is embedded in the structure of discourse about sexual violence. People, for various reasons, do not wish to acknowledge that this happens to and by people they may know. But dodging the reality (and especially dodging it by thinking that you are engaging with it) perpetuates a culture of uplifting those in power and oppressing those who’ve been abused. Regardless of what your thoughts are on the penal system: length of prison sentences; the validity of incarceration; the validity of punishment in and of itself, a clear and important point to make (that this case and the judge performed explicitly) is that it is very helpful to survivors to see and hear and be told unequivocally that they have done nothing wrong, they have done the right thing by disclosing, they have been listened to and believed, and the perpetrator has been told that what they did was wrong, and has been told of the impact on the survivors. This is what the criminal justice system enables to happen, regardless of the length of sentencing etc.

Opening a discussion focussing on this particular case, the abuser’s professional skill, the economic cost of imprisoning him and the moral debate about forgiveness creates an impression of undermining the process that led to his conviction. (I do realise that Mary was not objecting to the conviction in itself and she has acknowledged that she thinks he he is “awful” but again I’m talking about the way she has approached the subject). The thread highlights social responsibility and complicity yet at the same time, in the space of 280 characters, demonstrates exactly why we have a cultural problem with systemic abuse, by electing to focus on this case and then using general remarks to distort and disorient the focus away from the fact of the crime.

One of the girls in this case told her parents this doctor was abusing her. They didn’t believe her. I hope that if you’re reading this and don’t have any direct experience of CSA you can try to imagine what that must feel like. This is the reality of childhood sexual abuse, the root of the cultural problem we are living in. Any discourse that could be interpreted as excusing or minimising the actions of an abuser is harmful to society’s progress towards acknowledging and validating these horrific experiences. We need to acknowledge and validate before the culture shifts to one in which abusers are unable engage in this behaviour because societal structures, awareness, attitudes and the way children are perceived do not allow it.

Ways of showing support and helping to change the culture and the real-life experiences of those at risk of harm could include (again, these are my personal thoughts):

  1. Promoting charities and organisations that support survivors of CSA and campaign to raise awareness
  2. Talking to people you know who are parents or carers of children, or who work with children, about helping children to have healthy boundaries, respect for their bodies and about developing their own (the adults) trust in the children
  3. Reflecting and asking questions openly about your own attitudes towards the prevalence of sexual violence towards children and the fact it occurs in literally every context you can think of where children are present
  4. Researching and sharing information about approaches that attempt to identify and rehabilitate offenders and potential offenders

Had I seen a tweet about the state of the US or UK criminal justice systems, I may have scrolled thought the feed with interest. If I’d have seen a tweet drawing attention to the social responsibility for keeping children safe, I would have been heartened, if I’d have seen a tweet about the culture of high level sports, from doping to abuse, I would have engaged interestedly also. I am interested in and care about these things.

If I’d have seen a tweet like the one Mary posted in the profile of someone of relative obscurity and with a handful of followers I would have been upset and would have responded. But the thing that is really upsetting is seeing someone with such a high profile, a respected figure in our society, using their platform in this way.




Thanks for listening.