Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Jekyll and Hyde

Last week’s report on investigations into Savile had me pondering the reluctance of people to call out misbehaviour and abuse.

Jimmy Savile abused 63 people connected to Stoke Mandeville Hospital, but the one formal complaint made was ignored, an independent report has found.
BBC News website 26 February 2015 : Savile ‘abused 63 people at Stoke Mandeville Hospital’

I did not want to rush to blog on this issue and pondered in silence. Today (3 March 2015) we have some more headlines which also potentially hinge on delays in addressing problems.

The question that arises is why the delays?

Last week on the Radio 4 Today programme, a secretary at Stoke Mandeville hospital who worked for Savile was interviewed. It was uncomfortable listening:

I’m not denying anything took place, it’s not my business to know, I can only know, what I know, can’t I. I can only know that I saw a man that put hours and hours and hours of work into rebuilding a spinal centre, into helping spinal people and other people throughout this country, and I can’t change my mind on that.
BBC Radio 4 Today Website 26 February 2015 : Savile abuse: ‘I can only say that I saw him do good’

It was particularly uncomfortable because the BBC interviewer, Justin Webb, was pressurising her to denounce Savile and to accept that she had been duped. In that respect he was possibly making the same error as her – believing the “evidence” that they had experienced and being unable to accept that there might be contrary evidence.

She knew Savile as a good man and was struggling to accept the evil that he did.

He knew Savile by the recent headlines and wanted all the “good” that he had done to be disregarded.

Is the problem with this case (and many others) that we struggle to believe that people can be both good and bad, saintly and evil? We resolve this dissonance by believing the evidence of only one side of someone’s character. And if we believe the “good side” of a perpetrator, nothing gets reported.

Likewise if we believe that a victim is wilful or wicked (based possible being out late, drunk and “inappropriately dressed”), we may be inclined not take their complaints of abuse seriously and just dismiss them as “making life-style choices”. Likewise if parents report that their child is out of control and getting into bad company do we believe that they are “bad parents” and then feel disinclined to investigate? Perhaps the child is both good and bad, perhaps the parents are caring but struggling? But are we incapable of believing apparently contradictory evidence and do we tend to be enslaved to our initial impressions?

Wilful children and bad parents should not of course be denied protection, but are we also failing because of our inability to believe that in all of us there is a bit of Jekyll and Hyde – or at least a range of shades of character?

In another field we see a similar reluctance. We want to believe that doctors and nurses are saintly or angelic and are very reluctant to believe that any of them are anything but saintly or angelic. People who complain are then thought to be trouble makers or distraught because they have lost a relative or have been otherwise traumatised. We might do this because we need to rationalise why they are presenting us with evidence that contradicts what we believe to be true – especially when it is too awful to believe.

In health:

… the problems found represented a “simultaneous failure of a great many systems at almost every level, from labour ward to the headquarters of national bodies”.
BBC News website 3 March 2015 : Furness baby deaths inquiry: ‘Lethal mix of failures’

In social services and policing:

“Young girls – and they are young girls – being abused over and over again on an industrial scale, being raped, being passed from one bunch of perpetrators to another bunch of perpetrators.”

An independent report found that at least 1,400 children were sexually exploited in Rotherham by gangs of men

BBC News website 3 March 2015 : UK children suffered sex abuse on ‘industrial scale’

We need a better way to manage this dissonance. We need to be able to simultaneously believe:

  • that someone who runs marathons for charity is doing something good – without excluding the ability to believe that they can also do something evil.
  • that parents who can’t keep their young teenage children from going out at night with unsuitable people are also loving parents.
  • that nurses who are caring and compassionate are also sometimes capable when tired, stressed and over-pressurised of making mistakes so dire that they are not even capable of rationalising why they happened.

People are not “good” or “bad”, we do not even exist at a single point on the continuum between “good” and “bad”. We surely exist on a range on that continuum and for some people that range is very wide – possibly dangerously so – and we should not be blind to that possibility.


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