Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Apparent Panic and Self-Flagellation

In today's the other day's Guardian, former Haringey children's services boss Sharon Shoesmith takes aim at 'naive' politicians for creating a panic around the Baby P case:

"She warns ministers that plans to publish serious case review inquiries into child deaths in full could backfire by sending child protection workers "running for cover" to avoid blame rather than sharing lessons of how to improve services."

(Link hat-tip to Dominic Campbell)

But what is the "Baby P effect"? Why are we left with a bunch of adults trying to direct responsibility and accountability around like an Indian car park?

Hold that thought a moment and now go and read all about self-flagellation. Apparently the late Pope John Paul II used to whip himself, and many individuals still regularly carry out fairly extreme acts of self-harm, even willing crucifiction.

The public spectacle around these events is, at one level, understandable. (How many people gather round glowing screens to see Big Brother contestants booed?) Yet at another level, it is disturbing to our distilled sense of ethics. On another level again, though, it is also entirely necessary. Without spectacle, flagellation loses its power. Only through public demonstrations of misery can the derived aspect of "punishment" over-ride the individual's sense of atonement. As the BBC article notes, self-punishment "is an expression of remorse for sins". The key word here is "expression".

We may, as a nation, be gradually losing our faith-based skin. But on a more fundamentally psychological layer, this self-flagellation is still all too-evident. The apparent wilingness to suffer for someone else's suffering holds power. It is the ultimate act of passive-aggressiveness. It says "By taking on your suffering as my own, I now hold responsibility for your redemption. I have made your salvation my power."

Every time someone screams "something must be done!", this process takes place again. There is Power in Panic. There is Authority in Altruism. Therefore beware: fear + love is often just an abduction of trust. Say hello to Orwell's O'Brien - who is, at least, open as to his convictions.

Or, rather, there is the perception of power and only apparent authority. Responsibility is far removed from action, from honest salvation. In the same way that being classified as a "father" does not make one "be" a father, so labeling oneself as a saviour says nothing of the act of saving. Indeed, one might argue that focusing on the label may well detract from an impetus of action.

This is why we need to continue to ask questions in the face of panic, why scepticism is essential. It is too easy to let others tell us more about ourselves than we think we know - the world is confusing and dangerous. But realistically, it is no more confusing or dangerous than it has ever been. If anything, it is merely our ability to cope that has changed, and our faith in that ability.

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