Not for the first time I must express my admiration for Kirsty Strickland. Her column in The National yesterday (SNP MSP Karen Adam is telling a simple truth about sexual predators) was thoughtful and thought-provoking. She a made a solid point about a sensitive subject and did so without resorting to emotive language. When an issue tends to inflame passions it is essential that somebody is there to damp things down a bit. To take some of the passion out of the discussion. All too often it is issues which are best served by calm reflection which provoke such anger and revulsion as makes calm reflection impossible. When discussion touches on child molestation or sexual assault or rape, dispassionate voices tend to be deprecated. They are condemned as cold and unfeeling. Rational debate gives way to competitive public displays of high emotion. Nobody wants to be seen as the least offended or the least alarmed or the least grief-stricken.
Social media aggravates this phenomenon, of course. It gives everybody a public platform on which to engage with these competitive displays of high emotion. Politicians and celebrities strive to outdo one another and the less exalted are encouraged to take sides. Woe betide them should they take the wrong side. Woe betide them whatever side they take because they will always be on the wrong side as far as the other side is concerned. What may start out as a genuine attempt to open a potentially helpful discussion rapidly descends into a sharply polarised conflict between two deeply entrenched positions. There’s little scope for nuance in 280 characters – whether that limit is imposed by the platform or by the contributor’s limited ability to express themselves.
I wrote the other day about the clumsy, thoughtless, idiotic things even normally intelligent people post on Twitter (Here be idiots). As something of a secondary point, Kirsty Strickland refers to the careless reading which can be just as much of a problem as the slapdash writing. Personally, I think Kirsty is a bit hard on Chris McEleney, who is clearly deeply embarrassed by his misreading of a Tweet from Karen Adams MSP which itself was perhaps somewhat open to misinterpretation.
As is the title of this article. That, I admit, is me being a bit mischievous. It amuses me to see the number of people who react solely to the headline having read precisely none of the article. They assume they know all they need to know. They fall at the first hurdle by failing to question their own assumptions. It’s just another form of the idiocy which appears to be rife wherever I look these days. Is it ‘cos I is gettin’ old?
There is a serious point to the title of this article. Although I’m painfully aware that few people will get as far as that point. And just as few will actually get the point even if they read the entire piece. Of course I don’t think we take rape too seriously. It’s right up there with murder and people-trafficking as one of the worst crimes against the person. I merely suggest the possibility that treating rape as such an exceptional offence may contribute to difficulty in successfully prosecuting offenders. Maybe we do take rape too seriously in at least one narrow sense. Maybe it would better serve the ends of justice if it were to be treated as a category of assault.
Karen Adams was saying something similar when she pointed out that rapists and child-molesters are not monsters but to all appearances very ordinary people. They may be predators. But they operate within society. They are part of society. A fact that we find seriously discomfiting. In painting them as monsters we let ourselves off the hook by setting them apart from society. But in doing so we misunderstand and misrepresent the reality that we should be dealing with if we are to address the issue effectively. Now, before anybody gets on their high horse, I know that this is not exactly what Karen Adams was saying. But it is something we can take from her comments without, I think, seriously misrepresenting them. The two things tie together. The idea that we shouldn’t think of rapists as monsters relates closely to the idea that we shouldn’t treat rape as a crime which is only committed by monsters.
Another columnist for The National – the redoubtable Joanna Cherry – is one more woman prepared to ask probing questions about how the justice system deals with alleged rape and other sexual offences (How justice system can better serve women who have been raped). She too appears intent on taking some of the heat out of the discussion and taking a more thoughtful approach than you’ll ever find on Twitter. She is clearly disturbed at the amount of emotion which is being brought to the issue when emotion has no place in the justice system.
Earlier this year, it was alarming to hear that some MSPs thought the feelings of medical examiners and their personal validation were more important than the very well evidenced preference of women who have been raped to be examined by a female forensic medical examiner. Ultimately, Parliament saw sense but some of what was said during the course of the debate was frankly outrageous.
It’s OK to be emotional when talking about the offence. It most certainly is not OK to be emotional when discussing how the justice system deals with the offence. Labour MP Nadia Whittome demonstrates why it is essential to keep emotion out of the equation as far as possible; while also providing a fine example of a politician saying something idiotic. A report in The Guardian quotes Nadia Whittome’s reaction to the BBC’s disgraceful behaviour in relation to the Alan Dershowitz interview (BBC says interview with Epstein lawyer did not meet its standards). The following remark caught my attention – and not in a good way.
We have a responsibility to believe people when they disclose sexual abuse…
That is just wrong! Nadia Whittome wants a presumption of guilt. She doesn’t just say we should believe allegations of sexual abuse by default, she insists we have a responsibility to do so. A responsibility to prejudge very serious allegations? Really? What was she thinking? Was thinking involved at all?
We have a responsibility to take allegations of sexual assault seriously. We have a responsibility to treat those disclosing sexual abuse with respect and perhaps a bit of kindness. We have a responsibility not to disbelieve them. We have a responsibility to keep an entirely open mind about the matter until it has been thoroughly investigated. We have a responsibility not to introduce to the justice system principles which run counter to the ends of justice. We have a responsibility to defend those principles which are essential to a fair and effective justice system. Such as the presumption of innocence.
Nadia Whittome nicely demonstrates the danger of treating rape as too much of an exception to the normal rules. That is increasingly what has been happening and the results have not been impressive, as Joanna Cherry points out.
The Lord Advocate is also concerned about the low conviction rate in sexual offence cases. Scottish Government statistics show that just 43% of cases of rape and attempted rape in 2019-20 resulted in a conviction – compared to a rate of 88% for all crimes.
Superficially, what this suggests to me is that if we want the conviction rate for sexual offences to rise to somewhere near the rate for all crimes then we might do well to consider treating rape more like those other crimes. That is, I’m fully aware, a very simplistic analysis. But proper analysis begins with asking questions. No question should be discounted. The right questions are in there somewhere and won’t be found unless you’re prepared to ask all the questions. Even asking whether we take rape too seriously.
Scottish law provides for degrees of assault. I’d be very interested to have some expert opinion on how many of those failed convictions on charges which put all the emphasis on the sexual element of the crime might have succeeded had they been charges which stressed the assault element instead. It’s got to be worth considering. It has to be worth considering rationally.
If you find these articles interesting please consider a small donation to help support this site and my other activities on behalf of Scotland’s independence movement.