Thursday, 12 January 2012

Chris Langham to speak Bristol's Cube

An overview of the arguments I've heard for and against Chris Langham taking part in a Q&A at Bristol's Cube.

Some might feel this post is a bit of a cop out as I don’t really talk about my opinion on the Chris Langham invite. That is because I wanted it to be more of a space to illustrate the various arguments I have heard for and against his invite, and my own reactions to those arguments. My blog, my rules etc.!

When I heard via a member of Bristol Fawcett that Chris Langham is to speak at a Q&A in the Cube as part of the screening of his new film, my first reaction was shock, then anger. I admit I didn't know a lot about his case, but I knew that Langham had been convicted of and found guilty of downloading images of child abuse and rape, and had gone to prison for three and a half months. Was this another case of a known abuser returning to an open armed society, his crimes forgotten and brushed under the (red) carpet whilst those who have survived abuse are not privileged a voice? Or was it the case of a survivor of abuse acknowledging his crimes and trying to move forward with his life and career? Perhaps it was even something in between?

On Facebook, I expressed my shock about the invite which led to an interesting debate. Questions were raised about whether once time has been served, should and could a line be drawn under the crime. Whether there can be separation between the personal lives and crimes of people, and their work in films/TV etc. Whether my shock was akin to those who want to 'lynch' paedophiles and motivated by nimby-ism (it was neither). Then links were shared, regarding Chris Langham's own history as a survivor of child abuse, his admission of guilt and apology, and the ruling from the judge that there was no evidence to suggest he was a paedophile or sexually interested in children. His given reason for downloading the films (many of which his computer showed he hadn't watched) was, he stated, for research. He told Decca Aitkenhead that he believed he would get away with it, wouldn't get caught, that his 'art' would serve as an excuse ("It was just hubristic and arrogant of me to think I'm above the law because I'm an artist.").

I then spoke online to various volunteers from the Cube to try and understand their reasoning for the invite. I learnt that they had had lengthy discussions about whether to agree with the filmmakers' request to be accompanied by Langham. The Cube is run co-operatively in a non-hierarchical way so any decision is met by a group that then discusses and democratically proceeds by consensus. I haven't been able to define whether or not they expected the (albeit small) controversy that the invite has generated and I think they would have been naive not to expect it. Inviting any convicted criminal to speak would have sparked some controversy, not least when that someone has been convicted of downloading images of child sex abuse.

The debate continued via the BFN and Bristol Fawcett email lists. And it quickly became clear that for most the argument was not about my anger over how so often celebrity male abusers return to their careers, their crimes forgotten, whilst survivors of their crimes are all too often left behind, silenced. The argument became about how we rehabilitate, and how we decide whether or not someone has 'served their time'.

I have read messages from people who have worked with abusers and survivors who have expressed concern that by vilifying abusers we then deny them the chance to be defined by anything other than their abuse/crime. This then leaves no space or chance for that person to become anything else other than an abuser. This can lead to re-offending. I’ve heard that the chance of the abuser seeking support to stop offending is also reduced if they fear they are always going to be vilified and defined by their crime - something which again leads to re-offending. We then are led to ask about what sentencing means - once time is served is the period of punishment then over? This raises questions about whether our justice system is punitive or based on rehabilitation, and about what support is or should be available to offenders after prison time. The argument put forward to me by those who have worked in this field suggests that by vilifying offenders we then risk the abuser re-offending, as they are never allowed to see themselves as anything other than an abuser. However everyone I have heard from emphasises rightly that we mustn’t risk forgetting the survivor when we talk about offenders. The long lasting traumatic and health impact of abuse on the survivor may well be far longer than the sentence served by the perpetrator (I say 'may' as I do not wish to talk for survivors).

I appreciate and agree that vilification is not the answer. I believe this for many reasons - not least because when we see those who abuse and rape (children and adults) as 'monsters' and 'animals' and 'evil' then we rarely look at what causes the abuse and violence, and how our society allows/excuses this behaviour (particularly in relation to violence against women IMO). I also understand and agree that vilification (which so often leads to more violence and calls for the death penalty - something I am obviously against!) does not provide or allow for change and for rehabilitation.

However, one of the issues we have in our society is that sentencing for 'sex crimes', particularly rape and sexual assault of adults and teens, is so poor. We know that the rape conviction rate is 6.5% and we know that so many men get away with rape. Two thirds of reported rapes don't even get to court (www.cwasu.org) and even the conviction of group rape of a 12 year old girl can result in the men getting less than 12 months in jail. When we have a justice system that does not seem to consider, listen to, or even believe the voices of survivors, then it is understandable why there is a lot of anger when we see someone who is guilty of downloading images of child rape welcomed at our local arts cinema. We know that it isn't always as simple as 'served the time' because so many don't. And this 'don't' means that even when someone does serve time, we are always remembering that so many walk free.

My initial anger was that it seemed to me that Langham joined the footballers, Polanski, Chris Brown, Mike Tyson, R Kelly, Norman Mailer etc. – the list of men who have abused women and children and yet are culturally lauded, have cameos in cult movies, win Oscars and awards, are heroes. Because when this happens, when you sit there and listen to Rihanna being forced in interviews to praise the man who abused her, when you have to boycott yet another director because they are praising Polanski...when this happens over and over again you are left furious that these men who abuse women and children are repeatedly privileged over the survivors of their crimes.

I think my anger was based less specifically on the Langham invite, and far more on the crisis we have when it comes to sentencing rapists and abusers, convicting rapists and abusers, and ensuring justice for victims and survivors. It was also based on how often men who abuse are excused of their violence and misogyny and become cult heroes (or cultural heroes), defended and lauded in equal measure. When this happens, as it does so often, the voices of the abusers are privileged over the voices of survivors. The survivors of their crimes are forgotten, treated as an embarrassment, or as a liar, or as to blame etc. And this is simply not fair. In fact, it's plain wrong.

So, this post has been meandering and tentative. I have tried to explain why I was angry with the invite, and why I think my anger was based less on the specific invite and more about a rape culture that excuses abusers. I think this holds true to a lot of abusers in the public eye (although I understand and appreciate the arguments about why this may not apply to Langham). I have tried to present the arguments I have heard about why rehabilitation is important and can prevent re-offending and how these arguments have raised important questions. And I hope I have explained why I disagree with vilification, seeing as it refuses to acknowledge the causes of violence and abuse. As I say, I have asked myself a lot of questions about this and I won't be attending the event, I don't support the event. But one good thing is that it has raised these questions and arguments, as well as allowed me to start considering ways we can have events that give voice to survivors of abuse, when so often those voices are silenced.

6 comments:

mr_hopkinson said...

Just wanted to say thank you for great, and I would say greatly measured - post. As a Cube volunteer I've been discussing the issues around his appearance a lot this past week, and really appreciate the care you've given in addressing the subject.

sian and crooked rib said...

Thank you, it took a while to write as I wanted to do justice to the various arguments and present a measured view.

mr_hopkinson said...

The point stuck with me the most was in the final paragraph - how to consider ways we can have events that give voice to survivors of abuse, when so often those voices are silenced.

One of the most distressing accusations has been that The Cube is "giving a platform to a paedophile".

Distressing because the person in question is not a paedophie, sure, but even if it was phrased "giving a platform for a person who has viewed images of abuse" - even with the further information that the images were not viewed with sexual intent, and the viewer is remorseful in acknowledging their arrogance that they could feel justified in viewing such images in a research context . . . even with all that added, the easy inference is still that they are they to talk about issues relating to the abuse - which is not the case.

The flipside of this is difficult also . . . if they are not there to talk about issues relating to the abuse, is this then a sweeping under the "red" carpet?

I felt, and feel very strongly that in this particular case, the actor's conviction should not be mentioned in the copy because I felt it could be, and/or be seen to be, exploiting the situation for publicity, which also could be, and/or be seen to be, perpetrating the "cultural lauding" of offenders you mentioned.

He is there, at the arts centre, as an actor, not as a viewer of images of child abuse, or as a survivor of child abuse - although he is all three things.

For me, this raises the question, how does one put on events to give voice to survivors of abuse without running the risk of perpetrating an idea that they are defined by the abuse they have survived?

There is also the issue of being identified at all - how to appropriately help enable the giving of voice to people who completely understandably very often do not wish to be publically identified?

Though I have no answers, in a way I feel more confident that it is right to The Cube should host Chris Langham, an actor and survivor of child abuse . . . as an actor.

In saying that however I am aware his privileged position as a man means symbolically putting this view could be viewed as naive, and even blase and insulting, given that the vast majority of survivors are women . . . and that's before considering the nature of his crime.

In principle, though, is it not best to, however possible, to give voice to survivors not in terms of the abuse they have survived, but in terms of what ever and where ever their talents and dreams lie?

As, I say, I don't have answers, but thanks again for a measured and thought provoking post.

sian and crooked rib said...

thank you for your thoughtful and considered comment.

i completely agree that when/if anyone puts on an event to give a voice to the survivors of abuse it isn't about defining speakers/participants as only and always survivors - something which is very negative.

It was more to think of ways to consider the feminist activist history of 'breaking the silence' on abuse and violence. This is motivated from the idea that all too often when abuse of violence happens, it is seen or presented as the victim/survivor's shame. When I went to FIL 2010, Finn Mackay talked about this, how 'society' places shame on survivors so as to avoid facing up to the fact that a society that allows, hides, even condones abuse and violence is shameful. So I was kind of thinking about how we can create safe spaces where people are supported to 'break the silence' on this subject. A good example of where this happened was with the art and writing workshops curated by Jan in 2010 where survivors had a safe and supportive and non judgemental space to talk about and express what happened to them.

It isn't about defining people by the crimes committed against them because i completely and utterly agree with what you say here:

'is it not best to, however possible, to give voice to survivors not in terms of the abuse they have survived, but in terms of what ever and where ever their talents and dreams lie?'

Absolutely and of course it is. There is often a criticism i have heard of feminists when we talk about VAWG in particular that we are trying to always define women as victims. It's a criticism I don't think is true, but i do think we need to be careful about not falling into that trap when we speak out against violence. Let's together 'break the silence' rather than see survivors as eternal victims.

mr_hopkinson said...

Thank you for your reply comment, Sian

I totally agree with all you said.

I particularly find the specific examples useful in thinking about the "however possible" in thinking about how to practically "give voice" without defining speakers/participants as only and always survivors.

It strikes me as an especially complex thing to address effectively and sensitively, given the shameful societal collusion as described by Finn.

Repeating myself - or should I say "concluding" (although I haven't really got a conclusion, but...) I'm feeling aware of what could be the difference between events for survivors and events with survivors, and interested in thinking about how the latter can - or should - be done sensitively in relation to not perpetuating an idea of definition (essentially overridingly) as a survivor.

sian and crooked rib said...

Definitely!