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Regulating The Irrepressible

The long-established phenomenon of ‘domestic abuse,’ the main practitioners of which seem to be male, has not merely survived attempts to end or perhaps curtail it but seems to have grown despite them.  Its intractability is not unique. Unlike, however, other types of behaviour, nobody suggests that there is something to be said for it, or that its prevalence indicates that it is ‘normal’ in the sense of being morally ‘neutral,’ or that efforts against it should be abandoned, or (even more remarkably) that it should be ‘managed’ in the sense of being facilitated.

Such suggestions would be met with astonishment and condemnation. ‘Times change,’ however. Some beliefs which were taken for granted have become doubted or rejected. Causes of astonishment and condemnation long ago, or comparatively recently, are now taken for granted or praised. For example, the founder of the Association of Priests for the Gospel of Life wrote that in 1968 “alarmist and unrealistic” would have been the response to a prediction that the consequences of rejecting “Humanae Vitae” would include civil partnerships for homosexuals, demonstration of the use of condoms for children, secret abortions for girls under 16, In Vitro Fertilisation and the discarding of ‘spare’ embryos.[1] To that list must now be added same-gender ‘marriage’.

Such precedents render not entirely ridiculous the entertainment of hypotheses about what could, or should, happen. Imagine, therefore, the following satirical suggestion, modelled on arguments heard in regard to various other subjects.

‘We still have not solved the growing problem of domestic abuse. Police and hospital Accident Departments are familiar with such incidents, which obviously are not being deterred by existing laws. Surely it is futile to persist with old-fashioned standards which show a blinkered attitude to reality?

Let us instead face facts and adopt a pragmatic policy.

There has always been domestic abuse, and there always will be despite what the law says. Human nature being what it is, people do get angry and hit each other. Instead of punishing a normal human tendency, regulating it would be a more realistic and sensible aim.

Furthermore, who are we to tell people how they should behave, especially in the privacy of their homes? People are entitled to live according to their own standards, and the State should not impose contrary rules on them.

A wide range of factors, often accumulating and then co-existing, can erode ability to maintain self-control, and indeed the mere presence of another person (especially that of someone who embodies such factors) can at times be too great a strain. Release of previously-suppressed emotion can be cathartic, and in those cases should be encouraged rather than condemned. The law’s ‘blanket ban’ lacks compassion for people struggling against simplistic moral strictures.

‘Abusive’ behaviour can be involuntary because of genetic or other medico-scientific influences. There is a tendency to be judgmental in dismissing them and saying simply that the sufferer should overcome them. Although relevant therapies may exist, it cannot be acceptable to coerce submission to them. Individual autonomy is a human right. Although availability of treatment might properly be made known, every person should have a free choice without fear of adverse results. On the other hand, perhaps it is time to have a public debate on whether ‘corrective therapy’ should be banned.

Another, often overlooked, fact is that whereas each gender is capable of the behaviour which the law has vainly been attempting to eradicate, the current law weighs more heavily on males than on females. This is an intolerable anomaly, flying in the face of progress towards full equality. Only when all gender-types are free to make their own informed choices will such equality exist.

The meaning of ‘abuse’ is itself open to question, because it presupposes that there is a valid, objective standard by which correct ‘use’ is distinguishable from ‘ab’use. This is one of the antiquated assumptions which have survived the modern, enlightened moves towards emancipation. How dare law-makers usurp an individual’s right to decide the standards which must be maintained within his, her or their own home? Politicians say ‘Trust people’ when it suits them, but interfere when they think that it will bring them votes. Trusting people requires leaving them free to lead the lives which they choose, including private lives. That is why we have a law of blackmail (which is long overdue for re-naming to remove the slur directed at some sections of our multicultural society) – to prevent financially-motivated public exposure of private behaviour. The way to prevent blackmail is to banish the sanctimonious stigma attached to ‘deviance’ – for example, nobody is likely now to be er, blackmailed (sorry), for indulging privately in what used to be known as “unnatural offences.” It may be pointed out that a key factor in the rehabilitation of previously-proscribed conduct is consent, and that lack of consent is equivalent to abuse of power, but that brings us back to the question of entitlement to interfere: interference requires justification by reference to a valid, objective standard, whereas our culture and law are notable now for being based on relativism, and relativism undermines entitlement to interfere. As an English judge said in 2002, “The days are past when the business of the judges was the enforcement of morals…” (Stand up, that heckler who said “That’s the very purpose of law!”)

Adults, and even children (who, after all, are being prepared to look after themselves in the adult world), should be allowed to make their own decisions about how to deal with each other and how to resolve difficulties in their relationships, and (like it or not) power is something which is intrinsically resistant to equalisation. According to Darwin and his disciples, living illustrates the survival of the fittest (i.e. of the most powerful).

So the law relating to so-called ‘domestic abuse’ should come to terms with reality. Many years ago a similarly intractable problem was abortion. It was, by legislation, basically illegal. Then a court-case made an exception for cases in which continuation of the pregnancy would wreck the patient’s health. That left plenty of scope for criminal abortions to be committed. Estimates of their numbers varied widely. Eventually Parliament was persuaded to make very flexible exceptions to the basic illegality, a national system for ‘terminating pregnancies’ was established, continues to operate without more than occasional minor irritants, and now “the abortion debate is virtually moribund.”[2]

The same could happen to ‘domestic abuse’. It could be put on a statutory footing, modelled on the now-routine management of what was once a widespread illegal act. Just as in the mid-1960s when public opinion was thought to be not ready for complete legalisation of abortion, at the moment there would be no support for abolition of laws against ‘domestic abuse’. Would there, however, be a difference between making generous provision for the commission of what is now regarded as ‘domestic abuse’ and a near-complete legalisation of it in practice? That is what has happened with abortion, and (whatever opinion-pollsters are told by samples of the public) very few people seem to want anything done about it. Nevertheless, it would be prudent for ‘reformers’ of the ‘domestic abuse’ laws to deny an intention to open the door to completely unregulated ‘abuse’; that was what was said when a liberalised abortion law was being proposed. The annual total shows that the regulations have had negligible restrictive effect, but there has been no change of mind.

‘All’ that ‘reformers’ have to do is, therefore, to emphasise that ‘domestic abuse’ is irrepressible, show (by reference to factors such as those indicated above) that it is not intrinsically wrong, and find a politician who will propose an ostensibly-‘fair balance’ between near-complete illegality and near-total free-for-all.’

That suggestion of how to re-assess ‘domestic abuse’ is, at the moment, hypothetical, but it is disturbingly reminiscent of what has actually happened in regard to other subjects. In a lecture in 1983, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales said: “Easy divorce; the pill; legalised abortion; easy access to pornography; all these things are now everyday, unremarkable phenomena of our society. They were unthinkable 30 years ago. They’ve all made their contribution to our present condition.”[3] Factors which were, and still are, put forward in support of them are invoked also to prepare the way for legalising assisted suicide, and its intended outcome – euthanasia.

Such successive developments are linked by perverse logic and by strategy. In outline, the sequence is: build up a feeling of inability to prevent something; then begin to suggest compromising with it; then, to widen the scope of the concessions, spread ideas that it is not a bad thing in itself; then prepare a draft new law; then introduce it into the legislature. During the whole process, the fewer the voices of objection, and the less prestigious the objectors, the easier it is to marginalise the objectors as insignificant; incrementally (‘controlled’ initially by regulations which experience proves to be almost worthless) what was irrepressible becomes inculturated; and, as was predicted when ‘civil partnerships’ were advocated as a trail-blazer for same-sex ‘marriage,’ people end up wondering why they ever disapproved of it.

So, mindful of a well-known old adage, if you don’t want “a mile” to be taken, don’t “give an inch.”                              

[1] “Challenges and Opportunities in Pro-Life Preaching,” Father Timothy Finigan, in “Proclaiming the Gospel of Life;” Catholic Truth Society, 2009, p.56.
[2] “The Noble Liar,” Robin Aitken; Biteback Publishing Ltd., 2018, p.180.
[3] Lord Lane, Darwin Lecture.

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