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Sunday, Oct 01, 2023

Our focus on past bad behaviour is blinding us to the wrongs of today

Our focus on past bad behaviour is blinding us to the wrongs of today

Society’s compulsive need to rake over retrospective sins means that we fail to focus on wrongdoing in the here and now. We should not prioritise retrospective punishment over contemporary justice.
In recent years the decades-old inappropriate behaviour of people has become more newsworthy than how they conduct themselves today.

So, when Tory MP Caroline Nokes accused Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley, of smacking her on the bottom 18 years ago, it was immediately highlighted by the media as today’s news.

Just to ensure that Noakes’ accusation remained newsworthy, the Labour Party exhorted the Tories to launch an investigation into Stanley Johnson’s behaviour. Adopting the tone of a political therapist, shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas Symonds stated that a ‘serious allegation’ needs to be treated ‘extremely and sensitively’.

As is so often the case with retrospective allegations of misconduct, others soon pile on with their recollections of harassment. Ailbhe Rea, the New Statesman’s political correspondent, stated she was grateful to Nokes for calling out Johnson and stated that he had “groped me at a party at Conservative conference in 2019”.

In many cases retrospective accusations of sexual misconduct are motivated by the impulse of spoiling the reputation of a public figure. Take the case of Brett Kavanaugh. In 2018, Christine Blasey Ford went public with an allegation of sexual assault by Kavanaugh, the conservative judge who former President Donald Tump had chosen to replace the retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Ford claimed that back in the early 1980s, she was assaulted by Kavanaugh at a school party in Maryland. After Ford’s accusations made the headlines, two other women came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual harassment at high school parties. These accusations made the headlines and Democratic Party politicians tried to use them to discredit Kavanaugh and block his nomination to the Supreme Court.

It is, of course, next to impossible to investigate an allegation of sexual harassment that occurred nearly four decades ago. Nor is it possible to investigate ‘sensitively’ the alleged vile behaviour of Stanley Johnson 18 years ago. Invariably such accusations are met with denial. In a situation where ‘she says’ is met by ‘he says’ people come to a conclusion on the basis of whether their sympathy lies with her or him.

However, something has radically changed! In the current era it is sufficient to make an allegation of sexual harassment for the accuser to gain the moral high ground. Since the emergence of the MeToo movement in 2017 there has been a veritable flood of retrospective allegations – often implicating prominent men. Whatever the outcome of these allegations they, at the very least, lead to spoiling the reputation of the accused.

A veritable army of offence archaeologists is constantly searching the past for examples of past behaviour with which to criminalise or at least embarrass their target.

Even before the rise of the MeToo movement, the mantra of ‘Believe The Victim’ enjoyed cultural authority. The duty to believe an allegation means that by virtue of making an accusation, the accuser gains access to the identity of being a victim. All that is needed is to mobilise one’s memory in order to achieve victim status.

No doubt individuals bear responsibility for the crimes that they have committed in the past. However, accusations of crimes perpetrated decades ago require the same standard of proof as those mounted today. Otherwise, injustice will prevail.

Let us focus on the boorish and inappropriate behaviour of public figures in the here and now rather than engaging in the dubious project of offence archaeology.

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