The media is full of Cameron’s broken society, for which apparently the evidence is now incontrovertible following the appalling case of the little boys from Doncaster. Much has also been made of the parallel between Cameron’s use of this case, and Blair’s use of the Bulger case from the 1990’s. Both politicians have attempted to extrapolate from one terrible event to lessons about a society trundling headlong in a hell-bound handcart, whose course only their policies can halt. A moment’s thought reveals both the danger and the impossibility of drawing universal conclusions from single incidents, but I think it’s equally facile to bemoan the use of such cases as “political footballs”. What the incidents reveal is not of course a causal link between them and the social problems the politicians decry, still less a link between those problems and the governing party’s policies. Rather they reveal the pre-existing sense of cause and effect that was already in the politician’s head. Blair used the Bulger case to illustrate his thesis that broad social policy creates economic determinants, whilst for Cameron it’s that broad social policy creates moral determinants. If you are generally sympathetic with the “leftist” emphasis on economic and societal causation, you probably didn’t criticise Blair’s reference to the Bulger case as making it into a political football, whereas if your view is more consonant with the “rightist” emphasis on personal moral responsibility you probably did. And vice versa now with Doncaster. It’s much easier to get exercised about politicians’ use of topical incidents than it is to think through where we stand on complex and difficult problems. It’s not the politicisation that’s dangerous; rather it’s the simplification of complexity and its reduction to slogans.
Whenever extreme crimes burst into the media spotlight, especially crimes committed by children, we are always invited to demonise. The Mail can’t quite bring itself to decide between its love of the monster soubriquet and its contempt for “bad parents”, so its headline today screams for the “monsters’ parents to be prosecuted”. Its solution to the dichotomy of this post’s title is simply to replace “or” with “and”. Monsters in their own right, and victims of feckless and incompetent parenting. Two lots of demons for the price of one. That wasn’t quite the resolution to the dichotomy that I had in mind. I don’t want to choose between the categories of monster and victim, nor do I want hedge my bets and embrace both. Rather, I want to reject them both.
There is a spectrum between “monster” at one end and “victim” at the other. At the monster end it’s all about moral turpitude and intrinsic evil in which the perpetrators are seen as simply and wholly responsible for their actions. At the victim end it’s all about a deterministic, mechanistic working out of cause and effect in which individual responsibility is an illogical illusion. Neither is remotely satisfactory as an explication. Saying that both are true as the Mail seems to be doing merely doubles the dissatisfaction. These children are neither monsters nor victims. They are rather battlegrounds in which impulses rage as they do in all of us. An understanding of why in these two particular individuals the mechanisms for dealing with unruly and contrary impulses did not develop, at least not sufficiently, is not something that you or I can acquire since we don’t know enough about them or their personal histories. Substituting for that understanding a false choice between monster and victim gets us nowhere.
Of one thing I’m certain. If it is ever possible for those with access to these two boys to work out what has gone wrong with their development, it will undoubtedly transpire that the causes and the effects are intricately intertwined and impenetrably complex. And they’ll surely include both moral and social elements, but not as facilely presented either by Blair or by Cameron.