Taking responsibility for our words

Someonimagee in the NHS ought to be feeling very embarrassed this week. As The Independent reported on Thursday, there has been a major public outcry over this poster, which dates from 2005-07 but has recently been seen on NHS premises and elsewhere.

I know, I know. It was a perfectly sincere attempt by the NHS and the Home Office to encourage people to drink responsibly.

It was also completely irresponsible.

As The Independent and others (including a former Solicitor-General) have pointed out, it implies strongly that rape sometimes happens because the victim is drunk. It doesn’t. Rape may sometimes happen when a victim is drunk, but rape only happens because of one thing. Rapists.

As a friend of mine put it on Facebook, “three out of three reported rapes and all non-reported rapes happen when a person (male or female) is forced to have sex against their will.” The poster can all too easily be read as blaming the rape victim for their horrific ordeal.

I’m sure that wasn’t the intention. It never is.  But as reported in the Huffington Post yesterday, the Department of Health has refused to apologise for the poster, saying only that it is no longer in use or in stock, and stating – which is frankly even more disturbing, even more insulting to rape victims – that the NHS “doesn’t see what the problem is“.

(There’s a petition on change.org which now has nearly 100,000 signatures from people who see very clearly what the problem is.  Please sign it.)

In addition to the problem with the original poster, the problem with the DoH response is threefold. Firstly, it leaves the perfectly valid and serious charge of victim-blaming unanswered, in effect trivialising rape and its effects on its victims. Secondly, it admits no responsibility for the unintended consequences of the poster’s message. And thirdly, it smacks strongly of a public sector that believes it has the right to tell people what to think.

Blaming the victim

It is only in the last few years – ten, maybe – that we have started to see widespread acknowledgement that rape victims are not responsible for their plight. Whilst this message is gaining ground, it is still relatively young and has not yet become part of our shared psyche. (Think back thirty years or so, to a time when blatantly sexist and racist language was much more widespread than now, and issues of racial and sexual equality were seen by many as belonging largely to activists and protest groups. That’s roughly where we are today, as a society, in our views on victim-blaming.)

It is telling that, despite successive govenments that have not hesitated to tell us what to think (see below), I haven’t yet seen the Department of Health or the Home Office fronting a publicity campaign with the strapline “The only thing that causes rape is rapists.” Or perhaps “She’s still not asking for it“. No, these messages are coming from the grassroots, from activists, from ordinary people. (If any government campaign managers are looking for inspiration, here are some snappy messages that might work well on posters.)

Matthew Taylor, in the speech about which I wrote last week, talked persuasively about the need for governments to shape society by “articulating a clear vision, convening new conversations and collaborations.” (22:00 on the YouTube clip). The failure of politicians to send a clear and consistent message about the culture of victim-blaming, the silence of the great government publicity machine on the subject, helps to keep the debate on the margins – and trivialises rape.

This marginalisation and trivialisation is exacerbated by things like Richard Dawkins’ infamous and poorly judged tweet, where – whatever he may have intended – he gave the clear if unintentional message that he believed date rape to be less awful than stranger rape at knifepoint:


Tell that to the date rape victim who is too afraid to come forward, who is already suffering the undeserved guilt and shame that besets so many victims, along with the inevitable trauma. She would be forgiven for not believing you, and for feeling even worse because of what you said and how you said it.

Like the NHS poster, Professor Dawkins’s comment had unintended consequences in the way it was read and interpreted.  Like the Department of Health, Dawkins appears to have abdicated any responsibility for these unintended consequences.  The DoH hid behind the fact that the poster was several years out of date (as if that makes any diffeence); Dawkins, in a subsequent blog post, hid behind an arcane point of punctuation, admitting only that he should have put quotation marks around his first two sentences.

Owning the consequences

In their excellent book Boundaries, one of the best things I have read on the dynamics of relationship (and I make no apology to Professor Dawkins or anybody else that it is written from a Christian perspective – after all, according to its founder 50% of real Christianity is about the way we treat each other), Henry Cloud and John Townsend make the point that we each need to take responsibility for our own day-to-day emotions and reactions (pp 32-33) and for the consequences of our words and actions (p 40).

This is a point that both the DoH and Richard Dawkins seem to have missed. Neither response displays the emotional intelligence to acknowledge the unintended consequences of the original message, still less to take any responsibility for them.

We’ve all been in situations where we have unwittingly given offence by what we’ve said; the mature thing to do (assuming we give a damn about the person the other end, and weren’t intending to be offensive) is to apologise for expressing ourselves badly, and only then to move on to “What I really meant to say was…”. The mature response to both the poster and the tweet would include something like “I sincerely apologise for the offence and hurt I have caused by what I originally said. I didn’t mean to, and I’ll pick my words more carefully next time.”

There’s not a shred of apology in either response. Indeed, Professor Dawkins’s blog, despite fleshing out his argument with more nuance than can be achieved in 140 characters, displays a strident insistence on the rightness of his logic, which comes across with every bit as much arrogance as his original tweet. That, Professor, is a further unintended consequence. If you think it isn’t, go away and learn to display some emotional intelligence in the way you communicate.

It’s perfectly true that we live in a culture of free speech. One thing about freedom of speech, though, is that people are equally free to draw their own conclusions about you from what you say and how you say it. They will draw those conclusions based on their own experience, circumstances and world view – factors over which you have no control.

Both the NHS and Professor Dawkins chose to bring up the subject of rape to make a point about something else – in one case, drinking; in the other, logic. For those who have lived through it and its long-term consequences, either themselves or for a loved one, rape is perhaps the most emotive subject there is. Their response is always likely to be emotional and visceral rather than logical and rational. To suggest or imply otherwise – or to suggest or imply that a rape victim somehow should move beyond their emotional response and treat it as a subject for abstract logical debate – further belittles what those victims have been through. And it belittles them as people too.

Part of the problem here is the soundbite mentality of a poster campaign or of Twitter. I’ve written elsewhere about the consequences of boiling down complex or nuanced information into a simplistic headline. Here are two prime examples of why that doesn’t work. You need to choose your forum for discussion as carefully as you choose your words.

Twitter is not the place for a mature debate about anything; the best it can do is to start people thinking. Professor Dawkins accused Twitter users of “thinking in absolutist terms”, but that is the nature of the beast – and he is the one who chose Twitter as the platform for his argument. If his sole intention was to start people thinking, at least he achieved that – though his response to that thinking in his blog post was inept and boorish, to say the least.

“Don’t tell us what to think. Give us the information to let us think for ourselves”

When New Labour came to power in 1997, they had an explicit agenda to create a more connected society, one in which people took more responsibility towards each other and more responsibility for the long-term consequences of their actions. (Remember the “Are You Doing Your Bit” campaign?)

It was and is an ambitious and laudable goal.  I would be sorry to see Britain becoming the kind of self-centred society that is sometimes visible in the view we get of the USA through social and other media – whether that is resistance to gun control on the specious grounds of individual rights, or the aggressive pursuit of bottom-line profits and executive pay at the expense of a living wage for workers and long-term environmental and economic consequences. (Note to Americans: for the avoidance of doubt, I am not saying that these things necessarily characterise the USA, but it is the way your culture can too easily be perceived.  Something for another post, perhaps.)

Back to the late ’90s, though. The problem with “Are You Doing Your Bit?”, and many other campaigns of the period, was that government sometimes forgot that their role was to encourage us to change our attitudes and behaviour, and started to lecture us on what we ought to do. Over and over again in the late nineties and early noughties, in my own experience in local government and on the fringes of Whitehall, I encountered an attitude of “we know best” among officials and a corresponding attitude of reluctance and resentment among the people whose behaviour and attitudes they were trying to change. Rightly or wrongly, I sense the same attitude behind the DoH response to the rape/drinking poster: we had a message to get across, and who are you to question the way we did it?

(I should say that this step change in the role of government, from a provider of infrastructure and services to a leader and shaper of society – something else Matthew Taylor touched on in his recent lecture – is by no means a bad thing. However, it’s hugely complex and I am not sure that we are fully aware of its implications and consequences. Again, it deserves its own post.)

A ray of hope?

There is one thing about both the NHS poster and Professor Dawkins’s tweet from which we can perhaps take encouragement – the public reaction. The “Know Your Limits” campaign ran from 2005 to 2007. I don’t remember seeing that particular poster, but it is telling that there was no outcry at the time.

If we have become more aware of the horrors of rape in the last seven years, whether because of high-profile cases or for whatever reason – if we are now more alert to the culture of victim-blaming – that can only be a sign of progress.

And if the NHS’s poster and Richard Dawkins’s tweet have raised awareness even further – awareness of the issues, and awareness of the flawed thinking behind their responses – then they may even have done some unwitting good.

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