(Personal note: I thought for quite a while before writing this, and I’m a little reluctant to post it because I know it may hit some very raw nerves. If it does, I certainly apologise).
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse is starting to trouble me.
Not because I have a personal stake in the subject matter at any level (save, perhaps, for being a reasonably genuine Roman Catholic). I am starting to think that, ultimately, the Commission will help normalise child abuse rather than stamp it out.
Like most people, I have followed the enquiry entirely through the media. The accounts of abuse and institutional inaction must, indeed, be seen to be believed. The problem is that, once seen and believed, they quickly numb the senses (1). I don’t think that this (lack of) reaction is unique to me: I suspect it is becoming the norm. Some evidence for this might have come through a few weeks ago, when an allegation that at other times would have seemed implausible – that former Field Marshal, war hero and Governer-General Sir William Slim had been an abuser – was reported, not only uncritically, but deadpan. What’s important here, I stress, is not the allegation (which might or might not be well-founded) but the tone of the report. It is, one might say, a scandal that failed to scandalise.
I’m going to make a prediction and suggest that in the foreseeable future, we may see the Royal Commission, and child abuse connected with it, becoming the source material for comedy. There’s a precedent for this: in the late 1980s the Fitzgerald Inquiry into Police Corruption uncovered a seemingly endless amount of misconduct, and itself eventually became the subject of humour –
In the case of child abuse, some of the comic foundations have perhaps already been laid in the form of Family Guy’s character “Herbert the Pervert” and in South Park episodes like “Cartman joins NAMBLA” and “World Wide Recorder Concert”. (2)
If I am right about this, and child abuse becomes a subject of comedy, then the next step is likely to be normalisation: once something becomes a punchline, it tends to lose a great deal of its taboo-ness and its abnormality (3) and can be discussed ‘rationally’ (for want of a better word). Some of the intellectual groundwork has actually already been done for treating child abuse as just another form of sexual conduct: consider the indulgence which some would afford film-maker Roman Polanski in relation to his rape of a thirteen year old girl, and the support in 1970s France for legalizing sexual relations between adults and children.
There is a powerful argument that the present Royal Commission is a long overdue act of justice, and a much needed cleaning of many institutions’ Augean stables. I have a lot of sympathy for this argument. But I think that in the long run, the revelations which flow from it will do more harm than good.
(1) A phrasing I have shamelessly stolen from Clive James’ “Postcard from Los Angeles”.
(2) It’s interesting to note in this regard that Family Guy is usually taken to have a liberal orientation and South Park a conservative one.
(3) For example, a person who might have been alarmed by the decision in National Socialist Party of America v Village of Skokie may well find it harder to treat Illinois Nazis as a threat after seeing them openly mocked in The Blues Brothers.