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Reading between the lines

Mike Fitzpatrick reviews some new attempts to explain why we live in a world of moral panics and witch-hunts

The spirit of Salem goes global

  • Culture of Fear: risk-taking and the morality of low expectation
    Frank Furedi, Cassell, £11.99 pbk

  • Last Night in Paradise: sex and morals at the century's end
    Katie Roiphe, Little Brown, $21.95 hbk

  • Victims of Memory: incest accusations and shattered lives
    Mark Pendergrast, Harper Collins, £14.99 pbk

  • Hystories: hysterical epidemics and modern culture
    Elaine Showalter, Picador, £16.99 hbk

'Social disorder in any age breeds...mystical suspicions' wrote Arthur Miller in the introduction to his classic 1953 play The Crucible (currently on release in a new film version) about the witchcraft trials in Salem, New England in 1692. For Miller, 'the witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom'.

The story of Salem is one that recurs - sometimes implicitly, often explicitly - in accounts of our current moral malaise, particularly the trend towards demonising certain individuals (notably paedophiles) or in discovering demons literally at work (fomenting satanic ritual abuse). The books under review focus on different aspects of the contemporary climate of fear and anxiety, which frequently erupts into panics and modern forms of witch-hunting. The central theme is the quest for a new framework to replace the traditional values whose influence has been steadily eroded by the hectic social changes of recent decades. The dynamic underlying today's moral crisis is the same as in seventeenth century America - the changing relationship between the individual and society and society's need to find some means of regulating individual behaviour.

Victims of Memory, Mark Pendergrast's comprehensive critique of the 'recovered memory' movement in which individuals in the course of various psychotherapeutic techniques recall experiences of infantile sexual abuse, usually by fathers, deals with events which have many parallels with Salem. These are particularly striking in the associated trends for people in therapy to recover memories of 'satanic ritual abuse' or to claim 'multiple personalities' which have become dissociated in response to past traumas.

The scale of the recovered memory movement in the USA, where it originated, may be gauged from the emergence of a rival 'false memory' association, which has been contacted by 17 000 families claiming untrue allegations of abuse. A number of controversial court cases have followed and, according to Pendergrast, 57 people are currently in prison in the USA as a result of false recovered memories. In a special supplement to the British edition, Pendergrast includes details of the development of the recovered memory movement in Britain, with its own activists and advocates, and its growing list of investigations, court cases and aggrieved opponents.

Pendergrast is a journalist who makes no secret of his personal interest: his own family is bitterly divided by his daughters' recovered memories of abuse, which are contested by himself and other family members. Yet he presents a remarkably dispassionate account of a truly terrifying and destructive phenomenon, revealing how the encounter between vulnerable individuals and plausible therapists has led to grotesque injustices. He discusses perceptively the growth of the cult of victimhood out of the involution of feminism and rightly excoriates the parasitic character of much of what passes for psychotherapy today (though whether this justifies the wholesale repudiation of Freud with which he and other critics of recovered memory identify is another matter). He surveys current debates about memory, revealing the absence of scientific support for recovered memory and the likelihood of confabulation, particularly in response to some of the high pressure techniques used by therapists.

Pendergrast also challenges a prejudice that extends far beyond the recovered memory movement - the notion that sexual abuse is a peculiarly damaging form of trauma which inevitably leads to psychological damage which is not only life-long, but which is often also transmitted to the next generation. Citing evidence of researches among survivors of the Holocaust or Cambodian refugees, who have never 'forgotten' or 'repressed' memories of what happened to them, he rejects what he terms the 'grim psychological predestination' of the recovered memory movement. Indeed, he points to the danger that the inflation of false memories of abuse and the devalu-ation of incest by including 'emotional incest' or 'inappropriate glances' trivialises genuine abuse and might even lead to real cases being neglected.

It is when Pendergrast moves from describing the phenomenon of recovered memory to attempting to explain it - in the chapter 'Why now?' - that he runs into difficulties. His immediate response is that there are 'no simple answers', but 'several historical and cultural threads seem to have woven together'. His particular lack of feel for the fabric of British society is apparent when he invokes the impact of the 1973 decision to join the European Community as a parallel trauma to the American defeat in Vietnam, though the link between Vietnam and recovered memory is also obscure. Evidently despairing of producing an explanation, he offers an account of neurotic trends in American society over the past century, implying that, as a nation, it is uniquely susceptible to irrational movements. This does not, however, explain either the particular intensity of the phenomenon in the USA in the past decade or why the recovered memory movement has gathered momentum throughout the English-speaking world.

Turning to Elaine Showalter, sometime medical historian with links to the prestigious Wellcome Institute, we might expect a more profound or at least a more historical analysis. Yet, though Hystories widens the discussion to include chronic fatigue syndrome ('ME'), Gulf War syndrome and abduction by aliens (as well as dealing in some detail with recovered memory, multiple personality disorder and satanic ritual abuse), it does not take us much deeper.

Showalter's thesis is that all these modern epidemics are analogous to the occurrence of hysteria in the late nineteenth century: 'cultural symptoms of anxiety and stress.' This is undoubtedly a useful corrective to the quest, for example, for some toxin, pollutant or virus to explain the galaxy of symptoms experienced by veterans of the Gulf War or sufferers from ME. As Showalter writes, 'we must accept the interdependence between mind and body, and recognise hysterical symptoms as a universal psychopathology of everyday life before we can dismantle their stigmatising mythologies' (p12).

Showalter offers a lively critique of modern forms of hysteria, echoing Pendergrast's outrage at the irrationality and disregard for truth of some feminist campaigners. She also provides some entertaining literary diversions and illustrations. Yet, when it comes to explaining the remarkable proliferation of these phenomena in recent years, her recurrent theme is that such events tend to come around at the end of centuries:

'Like the witch-hunts of the 1690s, the mesmerism craze of the 1790s, or the hypnotic cures of the 1890s, the hysterical syndromes of the 1990s clearly speak to the hidden needs and fears of a culture.' (p203)

But what are these hidden needs and fears, and how do the hysterical syndromes speak to them? Why should such trends occur in decades beginning with the digit 9? All this is as clear as mud.

Though Katie Roiphe's Last Night in Paradise focuses more narrowly on the state of sexual morality in the era of Aids, she turns out to be a more acute interrogator of contemporary trends. From a younger generation of American commentators, she writes in a relaxed and unpretentious style, drawing on her experience of growing up in a liberal New York family in the 1970s (her older sister became HIV positive through drug abuse) and her observations of the impact of different manifestations of the Aids panic. She discusses a number of key cautionary tales and moral parables, such as the story of Alison Gertz (another middle class New Yorker who became Esquire magazine's woman of the year in 1989 when she became a symbol of the risk of heterosexual HIV transmission), that of the basketball star Magic Johnson who came out as HIV positive in 1991 (an event for Roiphe's generation she compares to that of the Kennedy assassination for her parents') and the response to Cyril Collard's 1993 film Savage Nights (which includes a scene truly shocking to modern American sensibilities - one which repudiates safe sex).

Roiphe's account is full of acute perceptions and sharp insights. She is particularly perceptive on the impact of Aids on the young: 'the equation sex can equal death has been chalked into their minds along with the multiplication tables.' (p152) Noting that sex education has 'less to do with education than it might appear', she exposes the moralistic content of the self-consciously non-judgmental propaganda of 'safe sex'. Teenagers, Roiphe writes, have become 'more thoughtful, more serious...like little 45-year olds'. While bemoaning the effect of the new gospel of caution and restraint in causing a collapse of 'imaginative possibility', she is well aware that 'anxiety doesn't change behaviour in a straightforward way'. As she puts it, 'fear incorporates itself into our lives in irrational, almost arbitrary ways' (p32).

One of Roiphe's most important insights is that, though Aids may have encouraged the quest for a new morality, it did not initiate it: she discerns 'a gradual build-up of anxiety' about sex over the past 25 years. In the course of the 1970s there emerged a growing critique of the values of 'permissiveness' that had been briefly celebrated in the 1960s, as the public mood became increasingly cynical and pessimistic. When herpes arrived in the early 1980s, Roiphe notes, 'the interpretive mechanisms' of the new morality were already in place. Yet public opinion was not quite ready for the full scale moral panic that was to greet Aids towards the end of the decade.

The key to the impact of Aids was that by the late 1980s people were only too ready to respond to the crusade for sexual restraint: 'the ardour lay in the discovery of a real and visible danger - an actual crisis to give form and meaning to our free-floating doubts and anxieties about sexual freedom.' (p25) The success of the Aids panic was that it connected with the 'deepest and most private feelings' of a disillusioned generation. For Roiphe, this is what explains the breathless eagerness of the Aids campaign, 'a joy taken in the discussion and controlling of risk that goes beyond the call of duty' and the extraordinary credulity of the public towards wildly inflated estimates of the dangers of heterosexual transmission - a credulity not, as we know, confined to the USA (p24).

Roiphe rightly regards the swing from the self-conscious permissiveness of the 1960s to the new puritanism of the 1990s as symptomatic of a 'larger malaise'. It is indeed striking, as she observes, that 'the idea that neither virginity nor sex is "liberating" seems to have occurred to relatively few of the public commentators of the past several decades' (p132). Yet her explanation of these events as the latest cycle of the 'perennial oscillation' of American society between extremes of reaction and liberation is ultimately as unsatisfactory as Pendergrast's diagnosis of recurrent American sexual neurosis or Showalter's fin de siéclè thesis. As in the books reviewed above, the nature and character of the 'larger malaise' remain tantalisingly obscure.

The strength of Frank Furedi's Culture of Fear is that it attempts to go beyond descriptions of the contemporary moral crisis to provide a social and historical answer to questions such as - why now? why in this form? and how can we respond to it? Well known to readers of LM, Furedi focuses on current preoccupations with risk - risks to health, risks to life, risks from strangers, risks from family members, risks from the environment, risks to the environment, risks at work, risk at home, risks of sporting and leisure activities, risks from science and technology, risks, in short, in every sphere of modern life. The very ubiquity of risk suggests that an explanation of the phenomenon will not be found through examining any particular risk, but rather by asking what is it makes people so responsive to the promotion of risk awareness. Why are people so willing to imagine the worst, so receptive to doomsday scenarios, so predisposed to panic?

The key to Furedi's explanation is 'the relentless process of individuation that has occurred in recent decades in Western societies' (p66). As he argues, this is only partly a result of the familiar trends towards greater job insecurity. A more significant factor is the 'transformation of institutions and relationships throughout society'. The decline of the old organisations of the labour movement indicates the breakdown of traditional working class solidarities, and parallel organisations in other sections of society have also disintegrated.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War at the close of the 1980s proved a critical turning point, destroying both ideological and organisational mechanisms of cohesion at international, national and local level. Both left and right lost not only their historic justification, but also their way of looking at the world and its future. Now the very notion of social change, of 'solutions' to the problems of the world, was discredited, people could only regard the future with apprehension. The vision of changing things according to grand human designs has been replaced by the acceptance of a much diminished role for human agency and an acceptance of the limits imposed by the existing state of the world. The growing awareness of risk and the associated clamour for caution and restraint in all areas of life parallels the diminished role of human subjectivity.

The process of individuation unleashed by the combination of economic dislocation and the weakening of social institutions is not, in itself, Furedi acknowledges, a novel phenomenon. In the past, however, when old institutions crumbled, they were replaced by new forms of solidarity: so trade unions, co-operatives and other collective arrangements emerged in response to the destructive impact of capitalist industrialisation. The current preoccupation of politicians with the problems of 'community' and with measures to create new networks reflects the weakness of new forms of solidarity. As Furedi notes, 'self-help groups, helplines and counselling are initiatives designed to compensate for the absence of more organic links between individuals' (p67).

In the past the private domestic sphere of the family also provided some respite from the corrosive individualism of the capitalist market-place. The crisis of the family today is one of the most significant manifestations of the process of individuation. Not only has family breakdown become commonplace, but there is no longer any consensus about the conduct of relationships within the family, between husbands and wives, and particularly between parents and children. As a result, the family has become more a focus of anxiety and insecurity than a source of support for the individual and stability for society. As Furedi puts it, 'the family home is no longer portrayed as a refuge, but as a jungle, where children are at risk of abuse and where women are at risk of domestic violence' (p68).

The drive towards individuation has produced a unique sense of individual insecurity and vulnerability - a sensibility that is highly responsive to scares and panics. When established social roles and traditional modes of behaviour can no longer be taken for granted, people feel that they are losing control and develop a heightened awareness of dangers once accepted as part of everyday life. In this climate of confusion and uncertainty, people are receptive to the formulation of new guidelines and codes of practice offered as a means of containing and regulating risk. Out of this ferment, a new moral framework is emerging in which good and evil are redefined in terms of health and safety, on the one hand, and risk and danger, on the other.

Like Roiphe, Furedi notes the emergence of a new moral climate in the sphere of sexual relations. He argues further that 'the impact of these changes goes way beyond the realm of sexuality' to discredit experimentation in any form. His conclusion, that 'at least temporarily, the principle of caution has triumphed over the pioneering spirit of adventure and discovery', both exposes the fundamental flaw of the new morality, and suggests a line of attack against those who would impose the inquisition experienced in one parish in Salem three centuries ago on a global scale today.

Read On

  • Why is Sex Fun? The evolution of human sexuality
    Jared Diamond, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £11.99 pbk

If you have ever wondered why men don't breastfeed babies, or why women's vaginas don't swell up and turn bright red when they want sex, or why men have penises three times longer than gorillas', on the average, then this is the book for you. Such fascinating trivia make Jared Diamond's new book a fun read for anybody who, like your reviewer, enjoys escaping for a quiet hour or two in front of TV nature documentaries, freed from the worry of thinking about anything more pressing.

Diamond, however, imagines that the natural evolution of the peculiar sexual functioning of homo sapiens is of compelling importance for anybody interested in human sexuality, hence the sub-title. Indeed he insists that 'we humans still carry the legacy of hundreds of millions of years of vertebrate evolution engraved deeply into our sexuality. Over that legacy, our art, language and culture have only recently added a veneer' (p154).

Why Is Sex Fun? is an object lesson in the wisdom of biologists who study biology and the foolishness of biologists who imagine that their conceptual tools have any purchase on the phenomena of human social organisation such as sexuality.

As long as Diamond sticks to the biology his rigorous and lucid explanations of Darwinian reasoning are intriguing if not always entirely plausible. Rational and informed speculation about the evolutionary origins of certain unique or unusual aspects of homo sapiens' reproductive process and capacity to copulate is an appropriate activity for the evolutionary biologist. But as soon as he strays into the discussion of human 'sexuality', rigour is replaced by laughably stereotypical prejudice, and knowledge by embarrassing ignorance.

So why is sex fun? According to Diamond the fun of sex is a consequence of the evolution of concealed ovulation in the human female. From an evolutionary point of view, concealed ovulation carries a number of advantages under the probable conditions experienced by our very early ancestors. But lacking a clear oestrus period, when the female advertises ovulation to potential mates, human females must be constantly receptive to attempts to copulate and human males constantly willing to try it on if reproductive success is to be ensured. The pleasant physical stimulation offered by sexual intercourse is natural selection's answer to the need for more or less continuous copulation.

This is all very well but what has it got to do with fun? Obeying an instinctive urge to impregnate a female of the species and experiencing a pleasant sensation as a consequence is not the same thing as having fun (even though it may seem like it to many people). It has not occurred to Diamond that whatever our ancient ancestors did experience while they were out hunting and gathering and in copulating, it was not 'fun'. Indeed fun is something that our not so ancient ancestors regarded very differently to us. Before the eighteenth century, the forerunner of the modern English word 'fun' meant idiotic, moronic, and it has only gained its positive connotation since the time of Dr Johnson.

Surely Diamond can be forgiven for choosing to describe the always pleasurable aspects of sex under the modern term of fun? Well, perhaps, if he showed in other respects the slightest knowledge of human history. That even so trivial an experience as fun has a history, and a very recent one, that is quite independent of natural evolution, should serve as a warning to anybody who, like Diamond, seeks to deal with a rather more substantial human institution - the family.

In his fascinating, if unconvincing, speculation as to possible evolutionary causes of the female menopause, Diamond explains the important role of grandmothers in ensuring the survival of their grandchildren in primitive societies, implicitly describing extended family relationships. And yet when he discusses the role of men in hunter-gatherer societies Diamond writes of the 'nuclear family'. Diamond seems unaware of the contradiction, and unaware of the variety of family forms that existed in prehistoric societies or that the nuclear family has appeared only in very recent times.

Oblivious, he ploughs on to assert that modern-day norms of beauty are the same as those that applied in hunter-gatherer societies, when they are not even the same as they were a century ago. This fact is dismissed as 'no more than noise slightly complicating but not invalidating the main conclusion' (p150). And the main conclusion? 'That men at all places and times have on the average preferred well-nourished women with beautiful faces.' (p150) Diamond seems to be unaware of the concept of tautology.

The historical fact is that the same physical actions and sensations mean something quite different and are experienced quite differently in different times and places. In the study of sexuality these meanings and experiences are referred to as the erotic and their motivation as desire. But desire and eroticism do not make an appearance in Diamond's account of 'the evolution of human sexuality'.

Diamond persists in the quaint notion that the sexual behaviour of men and women is driven by the genetically programmed instinct to reproduce. He reproduces the tired old 'battle of the sexes' model in which the boys try to shag anything that moves so as to spread their genes far and wide, while the girls try to trap their man to ensure he helps to look after the offspring that biology dictates she will have to nurture.

Meanwhile all around Jared Diamond millions of heterosexuals are spending the majority of their sex lives carefully avoiding reproduction, and millions more career women and homosexuals spend their entire lives eschewing it. Why? Perhaps industrial pollution has resulted in some extraordinary mass mutation in the human genome? Who knows? Such people are also missing from Jared Diamond's version of 'human sexuality'. It goes without saying that Diamond does not attempt an evolutionary account of adults who get a kick from wearing diapers.

Without indulging in any celebration of contemporary 'sexual diversity', it is clear that Diamond's idea of sex is like that of the Fonz from Happy Days, all horny faithless boys and romantic girls who want to trap their man. And, like the nuclear family, it was ever thus. Decades ago the Catholic scholar CS Lewis wrote The Allegory of Love, a learned account of the origins of the erotic tradition of Western Europe in medieval courtly love, a tradition that Diamond finds programmed in the genes. 'What we took for "nature"', Lewis writes, 'is really a special state of affairs, which will probably have an end, and certainly had a beginning in eleventh-century Provence'. Lewis' rich study of 'art, language and culture' points to the specific social conditions of the time that made possible the sexual world which Diamond vulgarises. But all that is just 'a veneer' to Diamond; a veneer, to somebody whose sexual imagination ends at producing as many babies as possible. But it is the veneer in which everything vital and distinctively human about sex, eroticism and romance, is to be found.

The silliness of the attempt to explain contemporary sexuality through natural selection is summed up by Diamond himself when concluding his discussion of the technological possibility of developing male breastfeeding. 'Perhaps our greatest distinction as a species is our capacity, unique among animals, to make counter-evolutionary choices.' (p65) He simply does not realise that we have been doing it for centuries.

Peter Ray

  • The Silencing of Society: the true cost of the lust for news
    Kenneth Minogue, Social Affairs Unit, £8.95 pbk

'The emergence of a media civilisation threatens Western resilience because it erodes the inner life, the alert subjectivity which scans and adjusts our responses to the world....To put the matter at its most extreme: what we seem to be seeing is a decline in subjectivity.'

Despite a very promising subject matter, and the occasional flash of insight, ultra-dry conservative Kenneth Minogue does not get to heart of the question in this right-wing think tank pamphlet. The process of trivialisation of the news, the way that the broadsheets have transformed themselves into scandal sheets is well worth investigating. Unfortunately Minogue has stinted on the research. He seems to think that studying the media means reading the papers - sporadically. His own semi-religious views of man's fall from grace fills the vacuum. It is our own appetite for sensation that is to blame according to Minogue. A laudable refusal to adopt the mainstream approach to social problems - ill-thought out legislation - leaves Minogue chiding his readers to exercise better judgement.

James Heartfield

Reproduced from LM issue 103, September 1997



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