The recent death of Michael Jackson has raised a lot of discussion about how feminists should approach ‘bad’, by which I mean anti-feminist, violent, abusive, sexist, racist, disablist etc, etc, people. If Michael Jackson was a paedophile, does that mean we should never listen to his music (or, for example, Gary Glitter’s)? Does the fact that men, or women, in our lives sometimes abuse or hurt us mean that we should cut them out of our lives? Is there ever a place to forgive? And why is it that certain crimes are less forgivable than others? Why is it that a man who rapes becomes a rapist, but we are unlikely to think of someone who speeds while driving as a ‘speeder’?
In the medieval periods and really into the eighteenth-century in Western Europe, every person was considered capable of sin (or for that matter had the potential for sainthood) - in certain theologies, we were all born sinners. People at that time believed that some people were more likely to commit certain sins or behave certain ways than others due to social circumstance, and, indeed, there was a strong belief that our social place was set by God, but it was not innate. We were not ‘naturally’ evil or good, or even, for that matter, gay or straight, male or female (well, gender was a complex mix of biology and behaviour, but that’s straying from the point). It was our behaviour that ultimately came to define us, but, equally, if we changed our behaviour we became something else. So men that had sex with other men were understood to commit sodomy- they may even be referred to as sodomites- but they could stop behaving in that way and would no longer hold the label. Homosexual sex was an act that could be performed by anybody; it was not the innate identity of a particular group.
Then came the eighteenth century, ‘the rise of the individual’ and the sense that the self was an innate, unique being that, depending on your philosophy, was with you from birth, or was formed in childhood (so not entirely natural) and difficult to alter once fully formed. Freud followed a century or so after this, and he took this philosophy applied it to sex, and, hey presto, sexual urges are part of your psychological make-up and a reflection of your development in childhood (where ‘deviant’ sexual urges reflect an ‘immature’ mind). This of course had huge implications for homosexuality, which while still considered ‘deviant’, at least was no longer a choice. But, it was not just homosexuals that were created by Freud and his predecessors, but rapists and paedophiles. All forms of sexual activity fell under the same umbrella; whether you got your kicks shagging kids, or jumping out of bushes; or looking at a variety of inanimate objects, or respectfully and consensually engaging in sexual activity with a willing partner, your sexual choices were a result of your psychology and as such were part of what made you – you. And you couldn’t (or at least not without years of professional help) ever get away from that- if you were a rapist that is who you were.
Now a lot of these ideas are now disputed, not least due to feminist analyses of sex and violence, as well as the work of the gay liberation movement, but these ideas continue to have a profound impact on how we view sex crimes. Now, other crimes can be assigned a psychological motive (and thus are seen as the problem of the individual), but we also recognise that the same crimes can be committed by healthy individuals. Some murderers kill due to an innate need to do so; some are normal people in the wrong place at the wrong time, or who make a choice to kill – perhaps for a cause, like a soldier. But, in general, we do not see the soldier who returns from war as innately murderous. Similarly, while some thieves may steal due to psychological issues, most are driven by economic need or desire.
It is much easier to forgive someone who has committed an individual crime, but is not a ‘bad person’, than it is to forgive someone who is innately evil or dangerous. But, the problem is that nobody is entirely without a redeeming feature. Some paedophiles produce outstanding music; some wife beaters are great humanitarians; none of us our perfect. Sometimes the people who hurt us are our families who offer love and pain with the same hand; who perhaps cause us pain not because they are malicious or evil but because they are imperfect individuals in an imperfect world.
And sometimes, it is easy to figure out the right path. Don’t buy music with homophobic lyrics or endorse behaviour which is discriminatory. Don’t buy products that support people whose behaviour is despicable. But, it isn’t so easy to cut off your families and friends. And what happens to the family of the rapist, who have to live with the horror of his crime, without necessarily being the victim. How do they respond to him- do they forgive or cut him out of their lives? And at what point, if ever, does a person earn forgiveness? When he or she says sorry; when they stop behaving in a ‘sinful’ way? And, for how long are they held in purgatory? How long after the rapist commits the crime does he become cleansed of his sin and allowed back into society- when does his music move off the ‘banned’ list? Especially, because the victim of a crime doesn’t just magically ‘get over it’- they often suffer years, if not a lifetime, of trauma; they may have to seek counselling; they may have physical scars; or a crime may affect their life opportunities. The re-integration of the sinner into society makes the sinner visible with the potential to remind the victim of their trauma- which is even more pressing when they are a public figure.
And, yet, is redemption never possible? Are we always the sum of our mistakes? Because none of us are crime free. Most of us hope to be continually learning and growing. How do we move towards a better, fairer society, unless we are allowed to move past our sins?