Sunday, 17 August 2014

Our changing mores

In 1952 Alan Turing was convicted of Gross Indecency because of a homosexual relationship. I do not know what protests were made at the time but, since homosexual relations between males were then  illegal in the UK, I doubt that there would have been much outcry. Certainly no-one would have anticipated that, 57 years later, the British Prime Minister would publicly apologise for Turing's treatment calling it "appalling" and "utterly unfair".

In many countries homosexuals are still persecuted today. The persecutors often justify their attitude by reference to the Bible and cite Leviticus Chapter 18. But Leviticus proscribes many other activities that today occasion no especial opprobrium so I think we need to look to other reasons for the persecution. Many persecutors say that they are revolted by the idea of same-sex relations and argue that such activities are unnatural and therefore abhorrent.

In my opinion this abhorrence is genuinely felt. However there are many intimate practices which occasion a feeling of ickiness and I believe that, the more intimate the activity, the more our senses and feeling come into our play - and these senses and feelings can be both positive and negative. To give one example: licking ones partner's ear may be a very erotic act in some relationships but produce revulsion in others. I am sure you can think of many such activities that produce polar opposites of approval.

In most Western countries we have come to realise that any gut feeling we might have about an intimate activity is something that we do not need to dwell on and we need not therefore let it upset us. This applies to ear-licking and gay sex and all manner of other forms of intimacy. We can instead let our feelings of social justice come to the forefront and sanction pretty well any form of intimate activity. Our sexual mores have become more relaxed and we are all the better for it.

I said "pretty well any form of intimate activity" but of course I should have added the important rider "so long as both parties agree to the activity". And for ultra-caution I should also add that both parties should be of an age and mental state that they understand what they are agreeing to.

So far you may be thinking that all I am saying is: the more enlightened we become the more we sanction different forms of intimate activity. But that is not quite the whole of it because there is one large aspect of what we permit that has become more restricted over the years: the licensing of intimate activities with children. Child brides were once very common in Western society (and remain so in some parts of the world even today). Nowadays marriages can only take place between parties who have attained a certain age (varying by country) and sexual relations with minors are against the law (the age of consent varies between 12 in Angola to 20 in Tunisia). By the way, just so there is no confusion, I regard the laws against non-statutory rape as laws against physical violence rather than sexual prohibitions. So what once were perfectly legal activities might nowadays fall under the pedophilia umbrella.

This brings me to the controversial question: do we have the right attitudes towards pedophilia? Since the majority of people will regard this as a no-brainer I want to explain why I want to challenge the orthodoxy that all forms of pedophilia are so sick as to be against the law. First I have to say that I do not condone in any way actual intimate activities with children. But the reason I am against them is not because it is "icky" or "abhorrent" nor because it offends what we regard as acceptable sexual practice: I condemn them because sex with a child is a physical assault and an emotional abuse. Perpetrators should be punished and the victims counselled as would happen for any other physical or emotional attack.

Instead I want to take issue with how we treat pedophiles who do not engage in sexual activity with children.

Should we criminalise people who have sexual fantasies about children? In my view, no. This smacks of Orwell's 1984 Thought Crime. If you disagree with me then I fear we shall not find common ground and you might as well stop reading.

Should we criminalise people who seek out child pornography? Again I think not, realising that this is more controversial. I understand the argument that says we must forbid viewing child pornography because it may encourage passive pedophiles to become active pedophiles. Some studies of this hypothesis may be found here: bottom line, the evidence is very weak.

But what about when viewing child pornography produces an intent to indulge? Here I am in the camp that "intending to commit a crime" is itself a crime but, before a prosecution can be successful, it has to be demonstrated that the intent was there (e.g. by finding records of a conspiracy to groom children). In other words the mere possession of child pornography should not be a criminal offence.

I would like to see a much more open discussion of how pedophilia should be regarded. This discussion should not be coloured by feelings of "ickiness" otherwise we will not be able to progress to a rational conclusion of what should be legal and what should be illegal; we would be locked into the thinking that for so many years condemned people with homosexual urges.

Finally I want to draw attention to how the advertising and fashion industries exploit images of children (or adults who are deliberately made to look like children) to further their products. In a society that tries to protect children that is hypocrisy of the highest order.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Sensing the world

This post has been inspired by my recently attending two weddings within 8 days of one another: my youngest son and youngest daughter who each acquired mates of whom I thoroughly approve. As might be expected the two occasions generated quite a bit of emotion: happiness for the young couples and pleasure at suddenly being related to a large number of new people. They caused me to reflect on the different ways in which we sense the world around us.

The 5 classical senses are sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. We normally think of them as being the main ways in which we acquire our knowledge of the world around us. One of our sense organs is employed and the corresponding chemicals that are generated and the neurons that are fired induce in our brains a more refined knowledge of the world around us than we had before. Or to put it another way, the sense organ gathers data and we process this data with our brains.

Yet, the classical senses are not the only ways in which our brains acquire knowledge. The two recent family weddings gave me knowledge of what other wedding guests were experiencing in their own consciousnesses. I was aware of their own happiness and, while some of this awareness came from visual and other classical senses, it seems that these alone don't explain the sense of connection that is made when we let our analytical guards down. I felt a sense of sharing that it is hard to believe arose solely out of simply seeing and hearing the same sights and sounds as the other guests.

Of course I am not describing anything mysterious or unique: almost everyone has experienced an empathetic connection (some more than others, depending on the day to day situations they find themselves in).

I think one often hears this empathetic sense pooh-poohed as being not so reliable as the sense of sight (to fix on the classical sense that seems to be the strongest in most humans - though not in all animals). Can you imagine, in a court of law, struggling to communicate something that you have knowledge of through empathy? Yet the same difficulties might not be present if you described something you knew through being an eye-witness. 

Certainly I admit that empathy can often get things wrong. But the point I want to make is that the classical senses can often get things wrong too. Increasingly, psychologists are discovering that our brains can easily be fooled into wrong interpretations of what our 5 sense organs have detected. Even sight which is the sense we use all the time to navigate and whose reliability we rarely question is now known to be very imperfect - a fact which is exploited to the hilt by stage magicians. Courts of law no longer use the eye-witness account as the gold standard for deciding how or whether a crime has been committed.

What this suggests to me is that our empathetic sense should be accorded more respect than it has normally received. I do not know whether our empathetic sense is more reliable than our classical senses. Indeed I think the issue of comparative reliability of all our senses is very complex. It is probably not the same for everyone and very likely it changes throughout our life-times.

Anyone want to conduct experiments in empathy?