Why the Jeremy Forrest case is NOT a love story

[Trigger warnings: sexual abuse, grooming, victim-blaming]

Clearly the Sun must have either a short memory or a lot of gumption. Today they’re trumpeting the headline that Jeremy Forrest wants to wed the teenage girl he abducted, and the girl’s father would be happy to walk her down the aisle. Yesterday they reported that other teenage girls, some as young as 13, had received advances from him. The story focuses particularly on one girl who describes what sounds like some fairly classic grooming behaviour, while another was touched inappropriately and a third was receiving texts and online messages from him.

Really, Sun? From sexual predator to star-crossed love story in the space of 24 hours? Don’t you read your own newspaper?

I’ve read a lot of comments on social media trying to depict the Forrest case as some sort of modern-day Romeo and Juliet, in which the authorities have simply over-reacted. The trouble is, such suggestions are immediately scotched simply by reading the judge’s remarks prior to sentencing. There are almost no mitigating factors and a whole slew of aggravating ones.

Just to prove what absolute rot is being spoken out there, I’ve juxtaposed some excerpts from the sentencing remarks with a selection of quotes that I found through a quick trawl on Twitter. The sentencing remarks are in bold. The tweets are in italics.

“I really don’t understand how Jeremy Forrest is guilty of abduction when she willingly went with him”

“the evidence showed clearly how concerned your fellow members of staff were for your reputation as a teacher. They responded to the reports from students of your behavior and their own observations. Time and time again between Feb and July 2012, they warned and advised you and offered you support. You lied to them as to the nature of your developing relationship and denied sending the messages and photos that pupils had seen.”

“This is so wrong, she consented”

“You even complained that the rumours that were circulating were lies by X. You lied to her mother and complained that X’s silence in relation to those ‘false’ rumours was ruining your career and that she was harassing you. She felt mortified that her daughter was behaving in that way.”

“Wife and him were distant well before this happened. She didn’t and still doesn’t get on with her Mum. Jeremy was her saviour.”

“I am satisfied that you deceived X, too, about the true nature of your relationship with your wife.”

“Prosecution used terms like ‘paedophile’ and ‘grooming’ and the jury bought it.”

“I have seen nothing in the evidence which shows that at any stage you tried to provide proper boundaries between yourself and her, to discourage her, or let other staff deal with the matter appropriately. Indeed all the evidence shows that you encouraged her infatuation and provided opportunities for her to communicate with you and be alone with you.”

“Maybe she exploited his sensitive and caring vulnerability :-)”

“Your research into what might happen to you, if caught, is proof of the deliberate nature of your behavior.”

“I don’t really get how Jeremy Forrest got 5 and a half years, he didn’t exactly abduct her or do anything she didn’t want :S”

“On 20th September you took her to France. I suspect you went for your own purposes. In taking her with you, you subjected her family to appalling distress and concerns for her safety. You made no attempt to think of their welfare or let someone know she was safe.”

“he may have done it the *wrong* way, but he potentially saved her from suicide or some other fate on her own in France”

“You have contested the abduction charge raising a spurious defense, so that she had to give evidence, evidence very different in content from her original account and designed to support it. She had clearly received assistance in relation to what she should say.”

“He said sorry for failing her, and putting her through all the proceedings – that’s what a genuinely caring guy would do :-)”

“Where is that genuine care for her welfare that is the hallmark of a truly loving relationship?”

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Prejudice or Privilege? Some Difficulties with Privilege-Checking

A couple of weeks ago there was a fairly spirited exchange between the former MP Louise Mensch and the feminist writer Laurie Penny over the phrase “check your privilege”, which started out as a feminist term on Livejournal, and has turned into something of a Twitter trope. It’s mostly (though not exclusively) used in online feminist debate. Louise Mensch isn’t a fan of it.

And that is what the modern feminist movement has become. Full of intersectionality, debates about middle-class privilege, hand-wringing over a good education (this is again “privilege” and not well-deserved success), and otherwise intelligent women backing out of debates and sitting around frenziedly checking their privilege.

It does nothing. It accomplishes nothing. It changes nothing.

Laurie Penny defended the term.

Telling someone to “check their privilege” isn’t the same as censoring or silencing, but to people who aren’t often introduced to the concept that they might be wrong, it can sometimes feel that way. When someone asks you to check your privilege, it doesn’t mean you should stop talking – it means you should start listening, and sometimes that involves giving the other person in the room a chance to speak. That’s what often upsets people most about the whole idea. It’s about who gets to speak, and who has to listen, and social media is changing those rules.

I’ve been pondering this for a while, and I’m going to give a list of what I think are some of the problems with privilege-checking. Some have suggested that the only people who have an issue with being asked to check their privilege are those who are privileged themselves. Given that I’m white, male, straight, cisgender, middle-class and able-bodied, quite possibly I may be guilty as charged here.

But here’s something I’ve noticed about the often-virulent arguments between feminists on social media (anyone who says, “If feminism ruled the world, there’d be no war” doesn’t have a Twitter account). These are debates where I’m at best an ally and at worst merely an outside observer, but when I’ve criticised some of the discourse, I seem to get an easier ride than when those on the inside say the same thing. Why are those involved expending so much energy to hurl vitriol at other feminists like Louise Mensch, Caitlin Moran and Helen Lewis? Why aren’t they flaming me?

I suspect that might be one to file under, “Be careful what you wish for”.

Anyway, here’s what I think are some of the problems with saying, “check your privilege.”

1. Not all privileges and oppressions are immediately apparent.

When someone says “check your privilege”, it suggests that they know what privileges the other person has. Trouble is, there are plenty of hidden oppressions and privileges. A history of mental health problems and/or childhood abuse, for example. I recently spoke to a woman with an anxiety disorder who got Twitterstormed by various feminists who (wrongly) interpreted a comment by her as transphobic. Getting bombarded with abusive messages telling her to check her privilege for several hours prompted a mental health relapse.

Even apparently straightforward privileges/oppressions might not be especially visible, especially if all you know about someone is from their social media profile. I spoke to a woman who’d been accused of showing her “white privilege”. When she pointed out that she’s actually mixed-race, she got the retort that since she could pass for white, she still has white privilege.

2. It’s patronising and dismissive.

I’ve actually seen some suggestions that Stephen Fry, when talking about his mental health problems, is doing so from a “privileged” perspective. Admittedly that was said before he disclosed his recent suicide attempt, but even so, do we really want to tell people with a mental illness to check their privilege? Sounds a little too close to, “Chin up, you could be starving in Africa.”

depressed

3. Privileges and oppressions don’t necessarily affect prejudices in straightforward, linear ways.

This point leads me onto the question whether we should really be talking about prejudice rather than privilege. There seems to be an assumption in “check your privilege” that more privileged = more prejudiced and more oppressed = less prejudices. Okay, there’s plenty of examples where that’s true, but by no means always. George Orwell was educated at Eton, and went on to become one of the sharpest observers of injustice and the abuse of power in English literary history. Or there’s Joe Strummer, the son of a diplomat.

Sadly it can also be the case that some people subject to various oppressions can internalise the oppressor’s logic, and even applying it to their fellow oppressed. There isn’t a shortage of people on benefits who will tell you that there’s too many benefit scroungers in this country – though they’d frequently be mortified if someone suggested that they might be seen in the same way by others. Likewise, a while back I had a conversation with a Nigerian-born woman, and was surprised to discover that her views on immigration were well to the right of mine. She simply didn’t view herself as that sort of immigrant.

4. Privilege isn’t the only thing that affects prejudice.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying privilege doesn’t affect prejudice. It can affect it a lot. But it’s not the only thing – what about your life experiences, the people you’ve met, your cultural background, the books (and blogs and Twitter feeds) that you’ve read? this is why I think it’s better to have a wider discussion about prejudice (of which privilege can be a part) rather than talking simply about privilege.

5. It talks at people rather than with people.

Laurie Penny insists that “check your privilege” is an invitation to listen rather than telling someone to shut up. That’s fine in principle, but having seen it used in various Twitter flame-wars, it’s clear that all too often it does get used as a shorthand for, “You are male/white/straight/cis/able-bodied therefore argument invalid.”

And even if it is used as an invitation to listen, is the other person also listening? I actually agree with Penny that social media is changing the way people communicate, but for slightly different reasons. Social media changes the old world of books and newspapers from one in which ideas are presented to the public, into one in which those ideas are co-created by people talking and listening with each other rather than at each other.

I’ve actually found blogs and Twitter to be powerful tools in challenging and reshaping my prejudices. I can hear about the lives of prisoners through @PrisonerBen or sex workers such as @itsjustahobby or @pastachips – two groups that tend to be talked about or to rather than with. Just recently I’ve been reading about the experience of having a gender identity that doesn’t fit into a binary male/female divide from @halfabear and @jaspergregory – a group that’s barely written about at all. But these people didn’t change my thinking through, “I’m going to tell you about your life and what you think”, which is what “check your privilege” does. They did so by saying, “I’d like to invite you to hear about my life and my thoughts.”

Ultimately, I don’t think people’s views are changed by simply tweeting “check your privilege” at each other, and in that sense it fails in its purpose. It doesn’t get the recipient to think differently. If anything, it’s the obsolete old media thinking of talking at people rather than with them. I think views are changed through civil constructive discourse where people tell each other about their own lives rather than presuming to tell someone else about theirs.

Empathy, anxiety and resilience: Lady Hale in the Supreme Court yesterday

“We do not have many women judges in the higher, law-shaping courts. We have even fewer judges, men or women, who are prepared to call themselves feminists…

…it makes such a difference how the story is told. Feminist judges will take different facts from the mass of detail to tell the story in a different way, to bring out the features which others discard, and to explain the features which others will find difficult to understand. …Feminist judges will set the story in a different context, a context which they understand but others may not.

Reading this book… is certainly a chastening experience for any judge who, like me, believes herself to be a feminist.”

(Lady Hale, Baroness Hale of Richmond, in the Foreword to ‘Feminist Judgments’, the book coming out of the Feminist Judgments Project)

I am not going to presume to analyse Lady Hale’s self-ascription as a feminist. But I am going to open my observations on B (a Child), Re [2013] UKSC 30 (12 June 2013)  by observing that the only woman ever to sit as a judge of the Supreme Court yesterday sat in a lonely minority of one as she gave judgment for the parents while the four male judges gave judgment for the local authority.

And to draw on her analysis above about how she might take a different approach, in a case involving the removal of a girl from her mother at birth.

‘…bringing out the features which others discard…’

Lady Hale’s is the only mention of empathy. Talking of the lack of co-operation of the parents with the local authority, she says,

“Perhaps this is not to be wondered at. Their original contact… was to seek an interim care order separating mother and baby without taking the usual step of a pre-proceedings letter explaining matters to them. Anyone who has had to leave a premature baby in a special baby care unit can empathise with the feelings of a mother who is prevented from taking her baby home when, miracle of miracles, that baby is well enough to be discharged from hospital. Of course, the first social work statement to the court explained why the authority was making the application. But the scene was set for a rocky relationship.”

Touché. The point about co-operation was fundamental to this case, because there was broad agreement that the child could only be removed if it was necessary, and that meant that alternatives would not work; and the reason that alternatives would not work was held to be that lack of cooperation.

Now, this point about co-operative social work is something of a hobby horse of mine. It seems to me fundamental to social work as a profession, and to the guidance under which we operate, that we try co-operation first, and compulsion as a remedy of last resort. I ask, “why don’t you try to seek consent”, and am told, “because we might not get it, and we’d have to act anyway”; and I ask, “but aren’t you more likely to get co-operation, and likely to get more co-operation, if you ask for it than if you don’t?” There are plenty of examples of the harm to a supportive relationship that can result from the premature use of compulsion.

And yet even though it is a hobby horse of mine, the fact that the “parents had been able to co-operate with a succession of workers who were supervising their contact with Amelia over the whole of her life” but had a particular problem with the local authority that had made pre-emptive use of compulsion had passed me by until Lady Hale drew out the detail.

“…a different context, a context which they understand but others may not…”

The risk of “over-medicalisation” was held to arise in this case. Here Lady Hale uses the first person plural “we, us” to identify herself as a mother:

“A child whose mother exaggerates and sees the worst and thereby exposes her to unnecessary medical investigations and even treatment may well suffer significant harm. But it will be a question of degree, depending upon its frequency and severity. Many of us are anxious mothers and take our children to the doctor far more often than we should. Some of us, of course, are not anxious enough and do not take our children to the doctor when we should. There was evidence that the mother was over-anxious during the early days when Amelia was in foster care and that she over-dramatised an occasion when Amelia was taken to hospital with breathing difficulties. On the other hand, there was no evidence at all that her older daughter had been subject to excessive medicalisation…”

More detail then: the mother was ‘over-anxious’ about the child who had been removed at birth, but not the child who had not.

“…to explain the features which others will find difficult to understand…”

Lady Hale twice mentions the notion of resilience:

“Every child is an individual, with her own character and personality. Many children are remarkably resilient. They do not all inherit their parents’ less attractive characters or copy their less attractive behaviours. Indeed some will consciously reject them. They have many other positive influences in their lives which can help them to resist the negative, whether it is their schools, their friends, or other people around them. How confident do we have to be that a child will indeed suffer harm because of her parents’ character and behaviour before we separate them for good?”

In a recent speech to the Socio-Legal Studies Association, Lady Hale explored the question whether judges should be socio-legal scholars, and along the way the place of academic research in judgments. Although she makes no mention of it, her reference to ‘resilience’ calls to mind an important and relevant piece of research published this year in the British Journal of Social Work. The authors, in words prescient of Lady Hale’s approach to unknown future harm, are specifically concerned that the policy trend towards early intervention is not underpinned by the scientific research:

“The focus on early intervention begun under New Labour has been sharpened under the Coalition. This is a future-oriented project building on elements of social investment and moral underclass discourses. It incorporates an unforgiving approach to time and to parents—improve quickly or within the set time limits. It is shored up by a particularly potent neuroscientific argument which has been widely critiqued from within neuroscience itself (Bruer, 1999; Uttal, 2011) but is unchallenged in current policy. Read carefully, the original neuroscience literature shows that the infant brain has quite remarkable resilience and plasticity when exposed to ordinary patterns of ‘chaotic’ neglect usually seen in the population referred to children’s social care (Wastell and White, 2012). In truth, if changes to the brain were the criterion for removal from parents, very few children would be removed. Yet, the rhetorical potency of the ‘now or never’ (Munro, 2011b, p. 69) argument is so great that it is supporting a drive towards early removal and has become a powerful and unquestioned professional mantra.”

(Featherstone, B. et al, ‘A Marriage Made in Hell: Early Intervention Meets Child Protection’ British Journal of Social Work (2013) advance access publication)

‘…to tell the story in a different way…’

So is this a judgment in which Lady Hale let her heart rule her head? Absolutely not. Hers is the longest judgment by some way, and rises admirably to the challenge that she alone faced, of having to explain why she would interfere with and overturn the decisions below. The other judgments have only to explain why they would not, and as one commentator (@suesspiciousmin) has already observed,

“For my part, I am unsure why the other Judges did not share [Lady Hale’s] views…”

It is something of a problem when it is difficult to tell from four majority judgments what the key points actually are. But working out the lessons from this case is indeed for me going to have to be an exercise in revision of legal principles with obscure Latin names: stare decisis, obiter dicta, rationes decidendi, per incuriam. Because the truth of the matter is that it rather looks as though Lady Hale’s judgment fits more naturally at the beginning, and her legal analysis is largely adopted. One might almost imagine them all considering her first draft and saying, “well, we agree with you about the law, but we can’t endorse the conclusion it leads you to in this case, you’ll have to go last, and what can we say first?”

On my quick review of the majority judgments, I counted 17 specific endorsements of the minority analysis (including paragraph 73 “As Lady Hale (who knows more about this than anybody) says…”), and two specific disagreements (on the approach to proportionality by an appellate court, and the feasibility of remission). There were also statements difficult to categorise as one or the other: “[my analysis] appears to differ… However” (para 95); “real sympathy with” (para 99); “in deference to Lady Hale’s conclusions, I see how it could be argued…” (para 101). The earlier judgments adopted the factual matrix from Lady Hale (e.g. para 51); the legislation (para 50); and her approach to naming (para 2, 3, 132). One of the judges specifically endorses both the majority and the minority approach to significant harm (para 56). He also goes out of his way to specifically endorse Lady Hale’s guidance to practitioners (para 56).

The truth of the matter is that it is the minority judgment that is truly useful. I commend it not only for its emotional intelligence (and because I agree with almost all of it!), but because of its lucidity, clarity of reasoning and its attempt to give real guidance to practitioners. Which leaves wide open the question, “but is it the law if she’s in a minority”.  A question which is difficult to answer but cannot be a resounding ‘no’ and may well be a qualified ‘yes’, given the nature and extent of endorsement from the majority.

Back to the Latin!

Allan Norman (@CelticKnotTweet) is a registered social worker and a solicitor at Celtic Knot – Solicitors and Social Workers.

Why I’m being threatened with a libel lawsuit by a #UKIP activist

Earlier this week I tweeted a screenshot of some deeply unpleasant remarks by Marty Caine, an activist with the Poole branch of the UK Independence Party.

martycaine

 

The screenshot promptly went quite spectacularly viral, with multiple retweets and repostings. It also got published by Hope Not Hate and the International Business Times. My Twitter Connect page didn’t calm down for a couple of days.

Since then Marty Caine has announced his intention to sue me for libel, along with Nick Lowles of Hope Not Hate and Timur Moon of the International Business Times. He isn’t disputing that he said what was in the screenshot. However, he insists he was libelled because I stated that he had called Lee Rigby’s family idiots.

You see, he didn’t call them idiots. He simply stated that they believe the English Defence League are right-wing fascists, which is also believed by a lot of idiots.

If that makes no sense to you, then you’ve understood Mr Caine’s argument perfectly.

Anyway, since Mr Caine seems to believe I’ve taken him out of context, here’s a Storify of the full exchange. It’s rather long and very silly, but I think it doesn’t so much vindicate him as show him digging himself into a deeper hole. He also makes some spectacularly defamatory remarks about me along the way. Who is supposed to be suing who here?

Before anyone gets excited I should point out that I’ve yet to hear from Mr Caine’s lawyers. And frankly, I’d be very surprised if I actually do.

Mr Caine appears to be something of a colourful character, to say the least. I’m not entirely sure what his position is at Poole UKIP, though I understand that part of his role is to look after their social media. Which might explain exchanges like this:

 

pooleukip

 

[I should point out that I’m not entirely certain that it was Marty I was talking to there. Call it an educated guess.]

Marty also describes himself as a comedian, disc jockey, karaoke jockey and entertainer. He also runs a web design business, if you fancy getting yourself a website with a nostalgic “1998 Geocities” vibe.

While I’m certainly not frightened by Mr Caine’s legal threats, I will say this. Marty, to paraphrase what may well be part of your karaoke repertoire, this song ain’t about you. A couple of weeks ago a fine young man and a brave soldier was killed in the most appalling manner by a couple of deluded thugs. This tragic and terrible crime was then seized upon by far-right knuckledraggers to try to stir up hatred and attack Muslims. Drummer Rigby’s family, even in the depth of their grief, did not give in to hate. They reminded the world that their son had lived and worked with people all of all faiths and backgrounds, and would not want his memory being used to attack others. They are to be commended for saying that, and it speaks volumes about their strength of character.

So, Marty, give up on thinking you can sue people because you strongly implied something rather than said it in black and white. Instead, I suggest you reflect on why your words caused such outrage and offence, and offer an apology.

 

 

#UKIP activist calls Lee Rigby’s family “idiots” for denouncing the #EDL

 

 

Lee Rigby’s murder was an awful and barbaric crime. To make matters worse, it’s also been exploited shamelessly by the English Defence League to whip up hatred against Muslims. This is despite the fact that both Rigby’s family and his regiment have made it clear that they do not want his name used in such a manner.

Last night, I was debating this on Twitter with Marty Caine, a UKIP activist based in Poole. He gave a startling response to the family’s wishes.

 

martycaine

 

Caine describes himself on his Tumblr as an entertainer and comedian, though I can’t imagine Rigby’s family will be laughing at being called idiots. Especially not for the sin of not wanting their son’s memory hijacked by a bunch of racist thugs. Caine’s Tumblr also has a long, rambling defence of the EDL. The gist of it seems to be that if it wasn’t for the malicious propaganda of Hope Not Hate and Anonymous, then everyone would realise what jolly nice people the EDL are. He ends, in a spectacular piece of unintentional irony, by stating, “There is no excuse for ignorance in a world that has Google.” Indeed there isn’t.

I had a long Twitter discussion with Caine last night. At no point did he offer a retraction or apology for insulting Rigby’s family. Mostly he engaged in lots of Whatabout and Will-You-Condemn-a-Thon responses, demanding to know what I thought of Unite Against Fascism (which I’m not a member of and don’t much like).

I wouldn’t endorse David Cameron’s famous description of UKIP as a bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, but only because I’m not keen on mental health-themed insults. Their activists do, however, seem to have an impressive knack for exposing themselves as deeply unpleasant extremists.