Allegations of the past must be addressed in the present for the sake of the victimsby A C Grayling / September 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
Investigations into allegations about the notable dead—I have Edward Heath in mind, who might be innocent, and Jimmy Savile, who almost certainly was not—raise inevitable questions about justice. It could be pointed out that the fact that the dead cannot defend themselves violates the principle audi alterem partem—“hear the other side.” It is easy to attack a completely inert target: the accuser is immune to counterattack, and therefore indicts, asperses, alleges and vilifies with impunity. This, so critics of the accusers might say, is unfair to the dead, whose entire life is thereby blackened without their having a chance to respond.
Is this right? On the other side it can be argued that the dead are not silent. Their side of the story is loud in the record, which includes the voices of those on whom they had an effect for good or ill. They could have defenders and advocates now, who can put their side of the story on their behalf. Their defenders can counter-allege that accusers have axes to grind, or are lying, or are attention-seeking. Thus the alterem partem can indeed be presented, and if the principle is not being violated, no injustice is done.
The arguments on both sides are significant. But they recede in the face of the most important point, which is that when allegations are made about past wrongdoings, whether or not their alleged perpetrators are still alive, the value of addressing them lies in the present, for the living victims who still deal with the consequences, and for whom acknowledgement of what happened is a necessity.
This idea generalises from individuals who as children were hurt by people they trusted—by priests, for example—to the inheritors of human rights crimes such as those suffered by the Armenians of Turkey a century ago. When there is no acknowledgment that wrongs occurred, wounds do not heal. Recognition today of Atlantic slavery and the atrocities against Jews in Nazi-dominated Europe make a difference to the inheritors of those victimhoods. Turkey’s refusal to accept Ottoman treatment of Armenians is a festering sore.
Think what it would be like if you were wronged, and therefore complained, but no-one listened—indeed, turned their backs, or even punished you for complaining. Throughout history and still in most parts of today’s world, people in power—whether conferred by celebrity or actual political or weapons-bearing power—exploit other people at whim, and with impunity. The treatment of women and girls by soldiers in wartime is the paradigm. It has been well said that if you want to know what a person is really like, give them power over the weak—whether it is a kitten or a girl captured by troops in a jungle. Decades ago pop celebrities and people in high positions behaved in the same way. Active sensitivity to human rights and the interests of the vulnerable has grown over the past few decades to the point where cover-ups of such behaviour is wholly unacceptable.
This is progress, real progress, and doubters about human rights and scoffers at everything pilloried as “political correctness” (a lot of which, admittedly, is nonsense: but not all) fail to see how great it is that those who were once entirely voiceless are finding voices—their own, or advocates’ voice; that time and death cannot bury wrongs, so that now there is opportunity for injustices to be dragged out of tombs and made visible in the light of day.
If there is one major fault with the conversation that humankind has with itself about these matters, it is the impulse to render everything simplistic, black or white, all or nothing. The operative word is “everything.” Some things are indeed all or nothing: past child molesters, whether dead or alive, are unequivocally wrongdoers, and deserve the appropriate response.
But consider much more complicated matters—say, demands for reparations by some of today’s descendants of the Atlantic slave trade. Arithmetic tells us that almost every one of us on this planet is a descendant of both slaves and slave masters, from some point in history and with almost certainly from multiple points in history.
Who then must make reparation to whom? In this case it is better if we all fight on behalf of today’s slaves, who outnumber all those taken in all three centuries of the Atlantic trade. That is the better response to this aspect of history. But recent child abuse is not in this category. The victims live with the actuality of hurt right now, and some of the perpetrators are still alive. Giving the victims justice requires a full hearing of the available facts, not allowing the accident of death to kill their chance of acknowledgment and catharsis.