Why moral opportunists are exploiting this tragedy
The death of Baby P has been turned into a morality tale through which people can express their outrage and affirm their decency.
Baby P, who died in Haringey, London, in August 2007, is the latest child victim to exercise the imagination of British society. Every now and then, a brutal and depraved killing or death of an infant is turned into a morality play through which people can express outrage and affirm their sense of decency.
The tendency, over the past week, to transform the tragic death of a 17-month-old boy into a national spectacle is symptomatic of the impoverished state of contemporary public discourse. This time, the usual dramatisation of the issue of child protection is being linked to the stigmatisation of poor, marginalised families living on benefits – as if the sort of cruelty visited upon Baby P is quite normal in the very poor parts of Britain.
There is no doubt that there are many so-called ‘dysfunctional people’ who inhabit disorganised and fragmented family units. But what happened to Baby P should not be presented as an extreme manifestation of the kind of abuse that occurs routinely in isolated, disorganised communities who subsist on welfare. Whatever the numerous problems that afflict such communities, they should be distinguished from the fortunately very rare violent treatment of Baby P.
It would also help if moral entrepreneurs would stop using Baby P as an advert for their various crusades. There are those who argue that this terrible event shows the need for social workers to act more decisively and to stop giving parents the benefit of the doubt. They believe that if more children are taken into care, then the fate and lives of youngsters living in precarious circumstances will improve. For many members of the child protection industry, Baby P’s terrible demise reinforces their faith in ‘early intervention’ into family life.
However, the expansion of state intervention into family life is one of the most stupid ideas in contemporary society – yet it is one that has captured the imagination of our current government. In truth, the state has proven to be uniquely ill-suited both for understanding and responding to the problems that families face.
It is worth noting that Baby P was not only on the at-risk register; he was also visited 60 times by a veritable army of child professionals. That means, averaged out, he was seen virtually every week of his short life by a professional early interventionist. The inability of these good people to grasp the tragedy unfolding before their eyes cannot be reduced to a question of professional incompetence alone. Nor is it the result of ‘bad practice’ or ‘poor process’; this is simply how a bureaucratic system of intervention works in contemporary Britain.
Others argue that the Baby P tragedy proves the need to promote marriage and make it more difficult for people to divorce. Yet given that most people living in precarious circumstances do not get married in the first place, and the vast majority of them do not go on to batter or seriously neglect children, it is difficult to see what good could be achieved from a policy that bears so little relationship to reality.
Instead of trying to prove a point or draw policy lessons from Baby P’s death, we need to find the maturity to recognise that, from time to time, tragic events like this cannot be avoided. What can be avoided, however, is the kind of cheap moralising that has dominated the response to Baby P’s demise. We really need to clear the air and learn to treat exceptional cases of human depravity as precisely that: exceptional.
Then we can move on, and maybe learn to deal with the more banal – yet potentially very destructive – forces of social and moral disorientation that are impacting on many of our communities today.
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