My recent piece on the Josh Duggar controversy was an especially controversial one for many of my readers, as I expected it would be, and here’s a response in answer to the many objections and questions I received in response to it.
To begin with, what do I mean by ‘child’ anyway? Fifteen-year-olds aren’t children, are they? I mean, it’s not like they’re little kids any more! C’mon, they know what they’re doing!
Well, yes and no, They know what they’re doing much more than younger children; but, like younger children, they’re encountering new and often staggering challenges which their not yet fully developed brains are still learning how to handle, especially when it comes to integrating their newfound sexual needs and urges into socially responsible behavior.
When it comes to nailing down an exact age or age range for the category child, I would leave it to relevant experts to decide this as it relates to policy. I consider a child a person who has not yet reached a stage of development in experience and physical maturity (including and especially of the brain) generally capable of practicing reason, forward-thinking, and self-control to the level that mature persons are generally capable of. I expect this age to be somewhere in the range of 17 – 19, though of course this differs from person to person. This might be better determined by a mental health professional when deciding if an offender should be directed to medical treatment or juvenile court or to the adult justice system.
Disgust is also playing a big role in public reactions to this case. Many are uncomfortable with the fact that children often act on their new sexual urges at all, let alone in ways that don’t respect the rights of others, since they lack the relevant social experience and their immature brains lack the structures that adults rely on for self-control. I was recently listening to a talk by the great Martha Nussbaum on how disgust often leads us to act unjustly towards one another; I think that this is happening here in Josh’s case. We all need to remember that sex is just as much a natural part of life as any other, and that to help them get through their life changes, we must react constructively and help children learn how to deal with it all. There are plenty of childhood misbehaviors that infringe on others’ rights: bullying, stealing, selfish refusal to help or share, and so on and so on. It makes no more sense to react hysterically to one than the other.
To single out sexuality in children as an instinct or set of behaviors to be disgusted at or feared more than others is to my mind not only unreasonable but superstitious, since it’s anti-scientific and anti-naturalistic, even inhumane. And to lump all sexual misbehavior in children together as ‘molestation’ and ‘assault’ is not only inappropriate, it’s absolutely wrong. Not only does it cause the public to treat the person slapped with these labels unjustly, it minimizes the injury of those who suffered real assaults or suffered substantial harm. In this case, people are referring to Josh’s unwanted groping or petting in the same terms that people are referring to the rape of children by clergy, for example: they are all being lumped together as ‘child molesters’. There is no moral justification for equating the forcible rape of a younger person by an older person with unwanted groping of one child by another, yet so many people are getting away with doing this very thing in the public debate right now by referring to them all in the same terms.
And it doesn’t make sense to react to the suffering of one child, the target of the undesirable behavior, by treating the misbehaving child unjustly. Whether or not we like it, the process of growing into our mature sexual nature is uncomfortable, complicated, and riddled with mistakes. Sometimes we need to give sexually misbehaving children a talking-to, sometimes we need to punish them, and sometimes we need to separate violent or dangerous children from others until they’ve learned their lesson. But we need to stop trying to sanitize childhood and adolescence, both on the right side of the ideological spectrum and on the left. Conservatives need to stop screeching about the horrors of teens having sex, the dire consequences of sex-ed, and how making contraceptives and the HPV vaccine available to youngsters will cause them all to be sex-addled reprobates. Liberals need to stop self-righteously acting as if children are simultaneously passive receptacles of adult virtues and perfect little angels whose misbehaviors are products of a corrupt society rather than immaturity, that children who cause discomfort or suffering in others must be ruthlessly tried, convicted, and sentenced in public opinion, and most of all, they need to stop promoting a culture of perpetual victimhood. Like I said before, we all need to grow up!
Even in the cases of extreme misbehavior, the future of the offending child should not be ruined by exposing them to a lifetime of media scrutiny, or placing them on a publicly accessible criminal registry for life, or otherwise lynching their reputation. The situation is never helped by heaping injustice upon suffering. And imagine what a society would look like, what a huge and oppressed underclass we would create, if we were to actually punish all children who were caught misbehaving in ways that caused other children suffering, or infringed on others’ rights, by publicizing their misdeeds for life. Today, I’m finding it quite funny (not ‘ha-ha’ funny) how many of the same people who’ve jumped on the ‘Josh Duggar is a child molester’ bandwagon are upset, as they absolutely should be, by Kalief Browder’s unjust punishment for allegedly stealing a backpack as a child of 16. Yet they’re treating Josh as a pariah since he ‘should have known better’ and Kalief as a tragedy because ‘he was just a kid’. Of course, Kalief’s treatment was far more unfair, and had far more dire consequences, than Josh’s. But many lives are ruined forever because of how society sometimes unjustly punishes people for life for offenses they commit as children, by the courts and in the media, and many people are driven to despair and even suicide because of it. And as Human Rights Watch and many other criminal justice reform organizations have found, people treated as Josh is being treated now are often driven to the same desperate lengths as Kalief.
Another thing: it doesn’t matter a tiny bit what Josh Duggar believes as an adult, what his religious or political opinions are, and especially, what his parents’ beliefs are, when it comes to how he misbehaved as a child and how we treat him because of it. I don’t like Josh’s religion, I don’t like the indoctrination brand of homeschooling his family promotes (which I experienced myself, to the detriment of my early education), and I don’t agree with the Duggar clan’s message overall. None of that matters. Neither I nor anyone else has license to do the wrong thing just because we don’t agree with someone’s opinions, even if we think they are being hypocritical. In Josh’s case, if he now promotes Christian moral values and believes we should deal with sexual misbehavior harshly, it has nothing to do with whether he failed to live up to those principles before he was old enough to maturely formulate them. An adult can oppose bullying (rightly!) even if they themselves bullied others as a child, or promote stricter laws against theft even if they stole things as a child. The one has nothing to do with the other when it comes to one’s beliefs; every single one of us have convictions that our childhood behavior doesn’t reflect. We should criticize Josh’s beliefs on their own merits, and not on anything else.
In fact, we all learn right from wrong precisely because we’ve made mistakes: we do the wrong thing constantly as we grow up, and learn not to do it again because of the consequences. Sometimes it’s because we’re corrected or punished by an authority figure, sometimes it’s because we hurt others and feel ashamed, or because our peers strike back or shun us, and so on. It’s not until we’ve had ample opportunity to learn these lessons, and for our brains to develop enough to process and implement them, that we should begin to be held fully responsible for our actions.
One more thing: I would ask my fellow liberals and progressives who are jumping on the ‘Josh Duggar is a child molester’ bandwagon to consider this: would you accept this brand of character assassination based on childhood misdeeds from people on the other side of the ideological divide?
Let’s imagine ourselves in a counterfactual (make-believe or what-might-have-been) world in which Peter Singer, influential philosopher and founder of the modern animal rights movement, was suddenly embroiled in controversy. Suppose an angry neighbor convinced the local police to publish a report revealing that Singer has thrown rocks at the neighbors’ cats when he was fourteen or fifteen, sometimes injuring them a little or causing them fear and distress; sometimes, the rocks missed and the cats didn’t even notice what happened since they were asleep at the time. Then suppose conservatives who oppose animal rights’ legislation started splashing this story all over the press, saying things like: ‘Look what a hypocrite Peter Singer is, that animal abuser!’ and ‘See, I told you so-called liberal values are no good, look how Peter Singer behaves, that just shows what all those animal-rights bleeding-heart liberals who support him are really like!’ If you were not outraged at that injustice, and amazed at the unconscionable behavior of conservatives who reacted to the story this way, I would be just as appalled at the lack of critical thinking, and the willingness to betray ones’ principles to score political points, as I am with the ‘Josh Duggar is a child molester’ crowd. Peter Singer’s principles and beliefs he espouses as an adult has nothing to do with whether or not he misbehaved as a child in that counterfactual world.
In sum: we all need to deal justly with one another, and not stoop to assassinating one another’s characters for bad reasons just because we disagree. If we really believe in truth, justice, tolerance, and the rightness of our cause, we should hold ourselves to the discipline of never taking the moral low ground, because, ultimately, we all lose by doing so.
Sources nad Inspiration:
Nussbaum, Martha. ‘Same-Sex Marriage and Constitutional Law: Beyond the Politics of Disgust’
Talk at Cornell Law School, Nov 11, 2009 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dybhnOZvCvw
Schwirtz, Michael & Michael Winerip. ‘Kalief Browder, Held at Rikers Island for 3 Years Without Trial, Commits Suicide’. New York Times, June 8, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/nyregi…
Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. Random House, New York, 1975
‘US: More Harm Than Good: Exempt Youth Sex Offenders From Registration Laws’. Human Rights Watch, May 1, 2013. http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/01/us-more-harm-good