Last week it was revealed to widespread surprise and disappointment that the late Sir Jimmy Savile (DJ, TV presenter, celebrity and charity fundraiser) was the subject of multiple posthumous allegations of child abuse. However the most worrying revelation of all was surely the reporting, by Hugo Rifkind in The Times, that at least one such criminal offence had been detailed in Savile’s autobiography, published in 1974. (See http://is.gd/7JUhgT).
Rifkind’s conclusion, published without great commentary, is that Savile’s abuse of young women was not a secret, but it still went unremarked. He concludes: “I’m not sure what the lesson of all this is, but if there is one, it’s horribly bleak.” I suggest that there are, in fact, two conclusions – and one of them is indeed very bleak.
The first, and more cheerful, implication of the Savile-saga is that we are a great deal more sensitive to issues surrounding the violation of children’s rights by adults than we were. In the 38 years since the publication of his book, a great deal has been achieved which has helped to protect children born since the 70s. Much progress has been made as a result of the persistence and enormous contribution of those who have lobbied government and established charities to support the victims of such abuse. Esther Rantzen is among the best known of those who have changed the common culture, so that what may have been unremarkable in 1974 would now be very remarkable indeed.
This does not mean, of course, that children are completely safe from violation by adults, not even in the UK. But it does represent a change in circumstances – the loss of a blindness – which is something to be celebrated.
There is, however, a second consequence. And it is bleak. One of the lessons here is that every generation has its blindness. That blindness is shockingly evident to succeeding generations. Sometimes it is risible. The fact that sensible people once thought that covering table legs was a way of preventing sexual passions from being inflamed is one example of successive generations being able to see the absurdity, and sometimes the hypocrisy, that was hidden at the time.
And so recent news begs this vital question: what is it that adults are currently doing to children, which in some way violates their rights, and is damaging to them – and which we are blind to? About which elements of our culture will commentators express incredulity that we failed to discern the damage to young lives to which we contributed, or at least failed to prevent?
Sitting in a provincial airport at the end of a conference last week, surrounded by fellow headteachers, I asked this question. We struggled to think of any which had the same potential for damage to young lives, but the consensus might surprise some readers. One head expressed it best when she suggested that the excessive supervision and control of young people by parents, who deny children independence and a normal scope of decision-making might be seen as risible by our children or grandchildren. It seems to me to be a very sensible starting point, but there may be other ideas which are equally worthy of consideration.
Each answer may not, of course, be as important as continuing to ask the question.