In my last post I touched on the question of ‘touch‘ and how the absence (or prevention) of it in childhood might have consequences we are only now beginning to discover.

I still think there are two main factors in this: (a) touch has become sexualised so that it can be seen by some as ‘assault’, but evidence of deviant sexual intent; (b) in a litigious culture we try to prevent costly (in terms of finance and reputation) legal redress by prohibiting forms of behaviour involving touch that might be misconstrued later. The effect of this latter dynamic is, of course, that rules or conventions that purport to protect vulnerable people actually are designed to protect institutions from prosecution under a range of legislation.

John Humphrys, Devil's AdvocateWell, this is obviously an area for fruitful discussion and exploration. But, it has also led me back to John Humphrys‘ wonderful book, Devil’s Advocate, published in 1999 but very pertinent to these issues. What reminded me of this was his opening chapter on The Victim Culture. He vividly describes how people of earlier generations recognised that not everything in life is either predictable or nice, but you got on with it; now, however, we are in the ridiculous situation of seeking financial compensation for everything from hurt feelings to doing the job we are paid for. He questions why a paramedic (for example) should get compensation for witnessing carnage in a road traffic accident when that is actually what his job is about and what his salary is for.

Humphrys analyses this in the amusingly scathing language we might expect from him. You can hear the raised Welsh tone of incredulity as he pushes a question that is being deflected by an embarrassed politician or commentator. But the point he makes is essentially that when we see ourselves as ‘victims‘ we cease to take responsibility for ourselves. He highlights the fear of taking risks, emphasising that a risk-free culture is neither desirable nor possible. He identifies the ‘cult of experts’ and the ‘new priesthood’ of medicine as big factors in creating the culture that now stops us letting our children grow up as children.

Now, I wonder if this provides the context for exploring the ‘do not touch’ phenomenon. Clearly, it cannot be healthy for our children to grow up fearing every adult as a potential danger (paedophile, abuser, oppressor, etc). Furthermore, it cannot be good for our children to grow up thinking that everybody’s motives for everything must be suspect – that nobody can be trusted.

The question is: how do we restrain the very few people who are dangerous and protect the very few people who are vulnerable without misshaping the whole culture and thereby unintentionally damaging the next couple of generations of children who will become untrusting adults and pass on to their children similar risk-free suspicions and fear?

52983562SB008_CheeserollingI wish I knew the answer. We did our own little bit by letting our kids climb trees, fall over, get dirty, run risks and learn to fail as well as succeed. Help them be streetwise, by all means, but don’t let them desert the streets because of some ridiculous generated fear of uncertainty or spurious dangers. Humphrys cites cheese rolling in Gloucestershire and accidents with tea cosies in his damnation of the risk-averse, victim-led culture we have created.

I don’t know … maybe we have to find ways of legislating for compulsory ‘appropriate’ touch in schools and elsewhere. Maybe we will have to insist that children in school hold hands with their teacher and each other at least twice a day. Maybe, along with Humphrys, we’ll have to insist that children go out in the snow and risk breaking their leg while having fun in the playground – instead of keeping them inside, protected from the (merely) possible danger, but really protecting the school from litigation if any child enjoyed himself so much as to fall over in the process.

Oh… and Humphrys comes up with a phrase I had not heard before, but it made me laugh out loud on the Tube in London this afternoon: …’ which is about as much use as a cat flap on a submarine.’