Tuesday 19 February 2013

The legacy of the James Bulger case

On the 20th anniversary of the abduction and murder of two-year-old James Bulger, Professor Frank Furedi argues that this tragedy has been exploited to create a thoroughly unhealthy culture surrounding our attitudes to childhood:
The tragic legacy of this horrific murder continues to haunt British society. The immediate response of British society to this shocking event was an understandable sense of revulsion. But regrettably this very human reaction swiftly mutated into one of moral disorientation.
Policy makers, politicians and media commentators played a critical role in inciting this response. Their histrionic and scaremongering response to this event served to distort the perception of the wider public. As a result this unique and thankfully very rare occurrence was widely perceived as a danger that threatened children throughout the land.
This “very rare occurrence” has had a profound effect on parental beliefs:
Research into the British media’s reporting showed the [Bulger] case had a major impact on parents. In a survey of 1,000 parents taken a year after the killing, 97 per cent cited the possible abduction of their children as their greatest fear.
The effects go beyond parents:
British society has become so morally distanced from childhood that it has lost the ability to make a moral distinction between it and adulthood. It looks upon adults as simply biologically mature children, and children as physically underdeveloped grown-ups. This leads to a tragic state of affairs where children’s behaviour is continually interpreted through the prism of adult imaginations. At its worst, contemporary British culture attributes adult motives to children’s behaviour. Consequently, even infants in nurseries are told off for their ‘harassment’ of other kids or for their ‘racist’ behaviour. We live in a world where six year-old children are expelled from school for inappropriate sexual behaviour, where a 10-year-old boy is put on the Sex Offenders’ Register for touching a girl, and where playing ‘doctors and nurses’ is increasingly interpreted as the precursor to an act of sexual violence.
Strangely the myth of the feral child coexists with the powerful counter-myth of the innocent child who is incapable of lying or wrong-doing. Both of these myths are the product of adult fantasy. Both of them express sentiments that fail to grasp the reality of children’s lives. Parents who are continually confronted with engaging and processing these highly polarised myths often become distracted from seeing children for what they are – just children. And that’s the shameful legacy of moral panic created in response to the tragedy of James Bulger.
Ask any parent today about the main dangers to their children and they will invariably cite two: traffic and paedophiles. Yet the number of road casualties in the UK has been in steady decline since a peak over seventy years ago, while there is no evidence of any long-term increase in the sexual abuse of children (which in any case is a crime committed mainly by parents and guardians rather than strangers). Despite this, most children have had their independent mobility severely curtailed.

One suspects that more harm is being done to children by parental paranoia and a morally confused culture than by motorists or predatory sex offenders.

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