Sunday, 1 September 2013

Nothing is as strong as gentleness

The 3 year-old boy stood to attention before his stepfather as the man relaxed with his newspaper. Suddenly a resounding crack disturbed the silence and the child suddenly found himself sitting on the floor, wailing with an adult cry which should never be heard on the lips of one so young. The stepfather ordered the little one to stand to attention in front of him once more. Again the man raised his hand and slapped the boy across his face. This time, however, he also put down the newspaper, picked up a piece of wood and beat him. At that point the editors of a major international television news agency froze the pictures, saying that they were too violent to be screened. The reporter continued, saying that the film of the abuse had gone viral on Youtube, allowing the man to be identified and arrested. The child was taken to hospital and subsequently put into care.

This was a television news item which I heartily wish I had not seen. I will never forget the heartrending cry of that poor child, unlike anything I had ever previously heard and which I never, ever, want to hear again. Where was his mother? How on earth could anybody, especially a family member, cause gratuitous pain to a child? How could anybody film violence, especially that done to a child and post it on Youtube?

Yet, across the world, there are those adults who choose to inflict unbelievable suffering on children. In this country, just in the last few weeks, we have heard of a mother found guilty of beating her 2 year-old son to death. Birmingham Crown Court heard that little Keanu Shuttleworth had 37 injuries at the time of his death, the result of months of abuse. Baby P and Victoria Climbie have now become household names, and for all the wrong reasons. For sure, child protection services hold enquiries and sharpen up their activities, but, all too often, it is too late for the child in question. Why was it, for instance, that people noticed 4 year-old Daniel Pelka was losing weight and seemed abnormally hungry, yet believed his mother’s story about ‘eating problems’ and did nothing to stop the child starving to death?

Violence takes different forms. Society has a responsibility to treat people with the respect and dignity that they deserve. In order to uphold human rights, the media has a duty to inform us of abuses at home and abroad. It is right, for instance, that the world knows of the brutality of sharia law and is aware of the beating and assassination of the 14 year-old boy who joked about Mohammed when some jihadists demanded a free cup of coffee from his kiosk. Did a boy have to be murdered over a drink? Is that not violence which should never be repeated and should not the perpetrators receive the full weight of the law? If the media can help to create a culture of decency, then it should have every freedom necessary to achieve that goal.

Yet there is also a limit to the way in which a news item should be transmitted: there is such a thing as gratuitous violence. A recent BBC report from Syria appeared to be made whilst, nearby, three men were flogged with an electric cable for attempting to steal a taxi cab: in the background, listeners could hear the sound of each lash. Does news have to be so graphic?

The most prevalent form of violence today is so subtle that some people constantly argue for its continuation, declaring that access to pornography is a ‘right’, personal and does no harm. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre's (Ceop) annual report says that, in 2012, the organisation received 8,000 reports of the sharing of indecent images of children and that the total number of images and videos had doubled to 70,000 on previous years. Ceop also found that there has been a 70 percent increase in the number of female victims under 10 years old.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) reported that “17,186 sexual crimes against children under 16 were recorded in England and Wales in 2011/12.” How many of those crimes also involved pornography? Do those who use and distribute such materials realise that, whether or not such resources are explicitly violent, they are degrading? Do they ever stop to consider that the users and disseminators of pornography are doing violence to basic human decency and dignity? Where pornography is regularly accessed, how can individuals have a clear and unclouded understanding of what normally constitutes a good and respectful relationship?

An estimated 90 per cent of boys have seen pornographic images before they are 18 years old. Further, approximately 80-90 per cent of Internet porn users only access free online material – which means that youngsters can easily download sites without having to worry about the impact on their pockets. As a result, an estimated four out of five 16 year-olds regularly access pornography online. That is a frightening number of young people who witness degrading images which inevitably impinge on their appreciation of what it means to be a mature, responsible and caring individual.

One young woman recently admitted that she enjoyed watching pornographic films, sometimes with her boyfriend, but complained that she also had a problem: in spite of his expectations, she could not do with him the things that they saw happening on videos – and yet she did not appear to associate her reluctance to be ‘adventurous’ with an underlying desire for a relationship which is also wholesome.

A short time ago, a man admitted that he only stopped his viewing of pornography, when, after several years of silent tolerance, his wife insisted that “enough was enough”. It was only when he tried to halt his activities that he realised that his initial interest, which he had hitherto considered ‘normal’, had grown into an addiction which was very difficult to terminate. The effect of explicit material is insidious and potentially disastrous for a marriage and for family life.

The murderers of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, April Jones and Tia Sharp had all accessed child pornography before selecting and killing their victims. Yet there are those who argue that to restrict such materials is an abuse of their “right to information and freedom of expression” under the Human Rights Act! There are obviously different understandings of the meaning of the word ‘abuse’!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that ‘The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God’. Jesus put it more simply. He said that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves. In fact his statement has two meanings since ‘as’ can mean both ‘because’ and ‘in the same way and to the same degree’.

St Francis de Sales declared, “Nothing is as strong as gentleness, nothing as gentle as real strength.” Blessed Mother Teresa expressed it differently: “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”