When Arthur Miller was writing The Crucible, he mentioned to a friend as he left dinner for the evening that he was working on a play about the Salem witch trials.
She was astonished that he could see any parallel between witch trials and the McCarthyite hearings against un-American activities, going on at the time. Yet now we call both ‘witch hunts’ without batting an eye. It is sometimes more obvious with the benefit of hindsight.
These kind of frenzies emerge often with good reason, but involve a great deal of projection. I have a feeling the un-American witch hunters were projecting their own sense of betrayal – and nearly everybody in public life seems to carry one of those – onto the nation.
I wonder in a similar way whether the ferocious elements of the furore about child abuse is caused, to some extent, by people projecting their own loss of innocence onto children.
This is not to suggest that the child abuse campaign isn’t important, but it might explain the fringe elements like banning single adult males – or those who appear single – from public parks, as they have done in Telford and Weston-super-Mare.
So I’m grateful to Jonathan Calder for being the first to draw my attention to this. It is a frightening trend, not just because of its assumptions, but also because it undermines family life in its own way (if you need a child with you to prove your own innocence) and therefore makes abuse more likely, not less.
I realised more than a decade ago that the issue had the potential for tyranny of this kind, when someone I knew well told me that it didn’t matter if a few innocent people were gaoled in order to catch the paedophiles. Since another friend of mine was one of those innocent people facing gaol at the time, this was not comforting.
Important causes may always have the potential to draw out this kind of insanity. But we have to be careful, because this is also how causes undermine themselves - whenever something is considered so important taht a mere accusation is evidence of guilt.
There is a strong current in the child abuse ‘industry’, if I could call it that , which regards abuse as mainstream in family life, and justifies the treatment of children accordingly – seized in the middle of the night by police during the satanic abuse panic.
There is another strand which assumes that children will usually be better off in local authority care than at risk of abuse at home – though, historically, that is more often a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Both of these get in the way of keeping children safe, because they risk changing the boundary lines of the issue. A world where single people are regarded as pariahs, or anyone who happens to have left their children or grandchildren at home, is a much more dangerous one for children.