Thursday, 13 November 2008

On the Case of Baby P

By Dr Mark Featherstone

I thought about writing this blog entry on Tuesday, but wavered because I could not decide whether it was ethical to write about the Baby P case on a weblog. Surely a blog cannot adequately represent this case or do justice to Baby P who spent much of his short life being beaten and abused? In the end I decided to write the entry on the basis that I think academics have a responsibility on talk and write about such horrendous events, but not include any links because it seems ethically wrong to support any sensationalism in this case. Although we may never be able to do such events justice, and I am sure I cannot do the Baby P case justice for reasons I will explain, commemorating them by remaining silent will do nothing to stop them happening again.

But what can we say about the Baby P case? When I first read about Baby P I found the story of his short life almost unbearable. Beyond this emotional reaction, I found his story impossible to understand. How could this happen? How could anybody torture a 17 month old child in this way? Given that I could not understand how the Baby P case could happen, I knew I would have a hard time writing about it simply because I would not be able to explain anything about it. Over the course of Wednesday I tried to understand why I could not explain the Baby P case, but at the same time felt that I should say something about it.

I now know why I cannot say anything about Baby P, but feel that I should say something about him regardless. Let me explain. The French writer Immanuel Levinas said that we have an ‘infinite responsibility’ for other people. This is his idea of what it is to behave ethically. We have to put other people first. I have studied the works of Levinas for a number of years and thought I understood his theories. I now know that I understood his theories theoretically, which is not really the point of his theory. I now think that it was only when I became a father that I really grasped what it means to put another person first on a pre-rational level, which is what Levinas meant by ‘ethics’.

I am sure every parent feels the same - that their child comes first is never in question. There is no rational debate in the parent’s head about this issue – there is no decision. That the child comes first seems like a pre-rational fact. The parent lives for the child and if they were asked to choose between their own life and that of their child they would choose to save the life of the child without even thinking about it. After a couple of years of parenthood, I think this is what Levinas meant by the idea of the ‘infinite responsibility for the other’. I cannot conceive what it means to ‘feel’ this way about strangers who, incidentally, Levinas thinks we would have to extend infinite responsibility to in order to inhabit a properly ethical society because I think one would have to be a saint in order to put every other person before oneself in the way that one does one’s own child.

However, it is now hard for me to understand how one cannot feel this way about one’s own child because such a reaction seems completely natural to me. I cannot imagine how it could be otherwise. This is precisely why I cannot explain the case of Baby P. Since I believe that it is natural or, because sociologists do not usually use the term natural, perhaps I should say pre-rational, to put one’s child before oneself, I cannot easily understand or conceive how one could put oneself before one’s own child, never mind torment, torture, and murder them over a period of months. I wonder whether this is why the case of Baby P has inspired such reactions in people: we feel horror that a small child who presumably could not even speak was exposed to violence and torture and deep sadness that he suffered for so long and never knew what it was to live in a normal, meaning pre-rational, family environment where he took priority over his parents who put him first. As a leftist sociologist, I am suspicious of new right politics about the need for normal families, meaning Mum, Dad, and kids, but the kind of normal ‘infinite responsibility’ I am talking about is not simply about ‘keeping a miserable family together for the sake of the kids etc.’, but rather a deep pre-rational connection between parent and child that we might not recognise amid the noise of everyday life, but that remains a deep truth of family life nonetheless.

If this is, in fact, the case and there is some kind of deep, unconscious, connection binding parent to child, then it is inconceivable that anybody could torture their own child over a period of many months. Of any crime, and there are many that are difficult to understand, the majority including children, I wonder if violence against one’s own offspring is the most difficult to conceive. But I do not think that it is enough to say that such violence is completely beyond understanding because such a denial of the human ability to reason out an event means that there is nothing we can do to prevent it happening again. This is not acceptable. We must understand if we are to prevent this kind of violence. Given the need to try to understand, then, how can we even begin to think about the case of Baby P? All I can say in this blog entry is that if it is indeed the case that the link between parent and child is entirely natural or pre-rational, then it may be the case that the sadistic violence of a parent against a completely innocent child is a perverse effect of rational society that desensitizes people to violence and that this kind of terrible event is the result of the socialisation of particular individuals into a reality characterised by torture, abuse, and inconceivable levels of inhumanity.

It is hard to reconcile oneself to the existence of the kind of violence characteristic of the case of Baby P, and any kind of consideration of such violence will leave one numb, but if we ever want to understand such cases in order to try to contribute to the effort to ensure that they do not happen again, then we must think about them on the level of a sociological analysis of perversity, violence, and psychopathology. In the past people thought about such horrible episodes through religious ideas. They invoked ideas of demons, the devil, and evil in order to explain these episodes to themselves. However, I think that the problem with these accounts is that they fill in for the fact that people have never been able to understand the kind of violence seen in the Baby P case by conjuring notions of supernatural evil which ultimately distract our attention from the very real horrors that people perpetrate. We need to recognise this fact. It is people, people living in society, who commit these crimes, not devils.

In Laurence Rickel’s book on the cultural history of the Devil, we are told that the Devil is a psychological symbol of the disciplinary father who prevents us getting what we want during our childhood (‘wait until your father comes home!’). Although the traditional psychoanalytic interpretation of the father is the disciplinary figure who denies the child their heart’s desire, and thus socialises them into society where we have to share, it may be that the real horror, the real evil, of the figure of the Devil, the embodiment of evil, resides in the incomprehensible, inconceivable, figure of the father who does not put his child first, and at the same time socialises them into society, but rather turns their life into a living Hell, systematically tormenting, torturing, and murdering them. Given that I cannot understand the case of Baby P, beyond saying why I cannot understand it, it make perfect sense to me that people would invent the Devil to represent such horror.

But I have noted that the Devil is not enough. Unfortunately the metaphysical figure of the Devil is a fantasy meant to make us feel better about the horrors humans commit against each other. It is people, real people living in society, who commit such horrendous crimes. I cannot pretend that I can explain such events. I cannot explain the case of Baby P, because conceiving such violence is beyond my language and may be beyond language itself, but I think that we must talk about this event and struggle to understand it because Baby P should not be forgotten. His memory should help us prevent such violence ever happening to another child. Although bureaucratic change is, of course, essential it is not enough because it will only ever deal with events that are already occurring. What we really need is to prioritise sociological-criminological study to enable us to understand what is it that produces such horrendous violence in family situations that should be based on the infinite responsibility of parent to child. We need to prioritise this perspective in order that we can address the social roots of such perverse violence and prevent other children having to suffer the fate of Baby P.

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