I am still haunted by a chilling encounter I had with a young woman who was being shockingly abused –half way through a phone call she told me she was trying to kill herself.
Just for clarity, I mean there and then – while we were on the phone.
At first it was imperceptible. She was torn by emotional and physical pain as she recounted what was being done to her and what seemed an impossible challenge to make her voice heard, which was why she was talking to me.
To be taken seriously, that is all she wanted. To make it stop. To be believed.
As minutes ticked by, she was more and more distracted by doing something else and her voice became slightly strained, her words choked.
She told me she was hanging herself. I became frantic and pleaded with her, but after a while she fell silent even although the line was still open.
I was inconsolable. I was convinced she was dead, as was someone else who was with me, who had far more experience as a professional counsellor.
You can imagine how I felt. The next morning I discovered she was alive. Police had found her in a deeply troubled state, but she had not tried to take her own life and mercifully she was safe.
The abuse was real, but the “suicide” attempt could not be dismissed as a prank. It was more serious than that – it might have been a dress rehearsal.
These potential tragedies are being played out every day of the week in Scotland as victims find themselves locked in a world of abuse. Some charities literally offer a lifeline for those brave enough to ask for help.
Childline in Scotland, for example, recently recorded unprecedented levels of calls from young people with suicidal thoughts.
For others the demons might come out in later years. When people in public life are involved, it is often played out in brutal detail for all to see and engulfed in a storm of controversy. Just look at the Christine Blasey Ford-Brett Kavanaugh case.
I applaud a crusade to root out abuse, but I am appalled by the social media lynchmob mentality which has insidiously crept into our lives.
We are in a bewildering “apology culture” where social justice warriors on their laptops and tablets act as judge and jury, making instant judgments and demanding punishment for the “guilty”. Based on what?
Very rarely is it based on fact or evidence which would stand up on court, but rather on opinion and prejudice. I have a feeling some people would rather bypass the courts, a fair trial and due process – and just go straight to the “execution” section.
Presumed innocence seems to be going out of fashion.
Don’t misread me. I spent two years working as a volunteer with abused young people. I was abused by bullies myself for a time as a child, and remember vividly the psychological terror in particular. Aged 10, I was promoted by teachers from my own class to replace the bullies’ buddy in their class.
I do hope all perpetrators get their just desserts, but only after due process.
Many alleged sexual crimes have a complicating factor which acts as a common denominator: they are often one-to-one and lack corroborating evidence from witnesses, injuries or forensics.
Sometimes, publicity surrounding a famous individual will bring forward other alleged victims, which can be a powerful form of corroboration based on certain similarities. But it must be tested in a proper court, not a court of public opinion.
If the prosecution messes up, perpetrators get away with it. It can also mean the innocent are accused wrongly or even go to jail. The mental damage for them, or victims without justice, can last for life. Look at the case of a young man in England who was accused of 12 rapes, but was only cleared at the last minute after a massive prosecution blunder was exposed which revealed new evidence. If it wasn’t for that, he could be serving multiple life sentences.
There is a huge debate in Scotland about rape cases, where the conviction rate is only 39%. Cross-examination of alleged victims is an issue hotly contested by lawyers.
In terms of social media lynchmob reaction to personal allegations of any kind, some of the most-publicised cases are hijacked by self-interested parties.
There is not necessarily anything wrong with that in principle, provided it is fair comment in the interests of free speech and balanced.
After all, self-interest is what makes us all tick. It is known as “psychological egoism” among those who study these things. Rational egoists will make compromises to try to achieve their aims by living within a moral code which restricts excessive behaviour and respects the views of others. Those who think they can resort to anything to impose their views on others don‘t have that moral compass, or sense of decency.
Free speech is a precious commodity, but not tolerated by the latter. Free speech might best be summed up by the quote attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Some people cannot grasp this fundamental concept.
These days if you don’t agree with the mob you get shouted down by a wave of outrage and their own brand of abuse, but this clamour can drown out the victim’s voice as well.