• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

‘Children are being used to socialise their parents’

This transcript was typed from a recording of the programme. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.

Michael Duffy: Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of many books, I’ll mention some of them at the end of the interview, particularly on the subject of fear and its role in modern politics. Frank, welcome back.

Frank Furedi: Hi there.

Michael Duffy: Can you tell us, what are you doing in Australia this time?

Frank Furedi: I’ve gone to a few meetings organised by a concilium where I’ve been talking about the way in which people are trying to turn happiness into the domain of public policy making. I’m also talking tonight on the Enlightenment and in particular on the way in which free speech is now regarded as no longer a desirable commodity but is a threat to our way of life.

Michael Duffy: This concilium forum, for our listeners, is an organisation run by the Centre of Independent Studies, it’s very successful, it’s held every year and it attracts many people. I think Prime Minister Kevin Rudd actually spoke there this year. Frank, in the 1970s, like many of us you were on the left, in fact I think you were a Marxist, but during your visit this week you’ve addressed some of Australia’s wealthiest people, you’re on the same platform as the Prime Minister. It’s quite a turnaround, isn’t it. What’s changed the most, you or the world?

Frank Furedi: I tend to flatter myself, I think the world has changed and I’m pretty much the same. I think what has happened is that increasingly the conventional language of politics has become transformed and many of the ideas that we used to associate with the left are no longer seen as being left wing, and many of the ideas that used to be right wing causes are no longer embraced by the right. I think that gives room for independent thinking, a lot of latitude to [unclear] politics that’s appropriate for the 21st century.

Michael Duffy: I know we’ve talked to you several times in the past about fear and its many manifestations and now I believe that work is leading you into a new area, possibly a related one, that’s the nature of authority today, and you’re going to do a lot of work on that, I understand, in the next year or two. Can you tell us a bit about that? Why is authority interesting to you?

Frank Furedi: I’m principally interested in the first instance in what I call pre-political authority, and that’s the authority of a mother and a father over a child, that’s the authority that adults would be able to exercise with children, that’s the authority that teachers would have over students. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that most people who have formal positions of authority find it difficult to behave authoritively, find it very difficult to exercise their authority, and I think as a result of that, people at the receiving end don’t get very clear signals about how they should behave, what’s expected of them, what is right and what is wrong. And I think under those circumstances we do become very awkward at handling uncertainty. Many of our fears come from the fact that there are no clear ideas about what is right and what is wrong, how you should behave in difficult circumstances. In those situations where we find it difficult to gain meaning in the experience, it’s not surprising that we become anxious and become much more fearful than would be the case otherwise.

Michael Duffy: Do you have any thoughts on this? Why has authority broken down, even at that most basic level that you were talking about, of the parent and the child?

Frank Furedi: This is a problem that I’m working on. A lot of people suggest that authority broke down with the decline of religion, because in previous times there were very clear lines of authority that were underwritten by a religious culture. I myself, I think that’s too simplistic. I think what has happened is that with the rise of science you naturally have authority always being challenged. One of the things about science, it’s a good dimension of it, is that there is no final answers, there’s always new possibilities, always testing the future and future terrain.

But I think what has happened is that whereas in the past there would be conflicts and debate and authority would be contested, today we find it difficult to believe in authority as such. One of the things that I find in Western culture is that authority has acquired a very negative connotation. Authority is increasingly synonymous with being authoritarian, and we find it very difficult to believe that anybody, you or I or anybody in a position, can act in a disinterested way in exercising their power and their influence. So we are in very simplistic anti-authoritarian mood at present which makes it very difficult to play the role of a legitimate authority.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Frank, you write a regular column at Spiked Online.com about demonology. Is that displaced religious activity…is it an attempt to find alternatives to Satan and the seven deadly sins?

Frank Furedi: I think there is something in that. If you look at witchcraft in the 14th and 15th centuries, you’ll find that witchcraft wasn’t just simply about demonising the odd individual here and there, it was very much about closing down debate, and it was very much about holding the line and ensuring that certain issues were not discussed. Many of the professional demonologists were very concerned about what they considered to be subversive heretic ideas emerging and tended to use their powers as a way of basically preventing the free expression of opinion.

I think today we have something like a new demonology emerging and I’m very much concerned about the way in which we find it very easy to label certain ideas as heretical. We find it very easy to close down the discussion. For example, one of the things that occurs is that if you say something that’s strong and powerful, you’re accused that it might offend somebody, and of course any good idea will offend somebody inevitably, it’s always been the case. But today, the right not to be offended seems to be more important than the right to free speech, and as a result of that we often criticise people for their views and encourage them not to say them with any kind of openness at all.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: The British clergy, you’ve written about, are very active in this area. One in particular, Gordon Mursell, the bishop of Stafford, what’s he’s been on about in terms of climate change and debate?

Frank Furedi: Well, I believe the good bishop took the view that if you deny or you question the conventional wisdom on climate change, in other words if you don’t have an apocalyptic view of climate change, you don’t believe that it’s going to destroy the world tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, then you are as morally reprehensible as Mr Fitzel. As you recall, he’s the Austrian individual who abused his children and kidnapped them for many, many years. I think it’s quite interesting that the bishop feels that you need to equate a sick paedophile with individuals who have sceptical attitudes towards what’s being said about climate change. And I think it’s an interesting way of closing down discussion because by moralising the discussion, what you’re saying is that the received wisdom on climate change is sacred and anybody that questions that is being a heretic.

Michael Duffy: You’ve talked about this desire to express these strong opinions, to create heretics, to shut down debate, and many examples of it appear to be almost self-evidently foolish, and yet it keeps happening and there seems to be a continual need for it almost. Do you think human beings may have hardwired into us somewhere a craving for this sort of behaviour?

Frank Furedi: I’m not really sure. I think that the impulse towards cutting down debate doesn’t come from your pubs and your restaurants and people on the street, there isn’t the powerful desire just to censor. I think what has happened is that our cultural elites feel very uncomfortable with an open-ended discussion. They are relatively insecure about their own opinions. They almost remind me of the emperor without any clothes, and quite often they insist that debate should be stopped and closed down. I think they are, in many ways, responsible for it.

It’s very interesting, there’s a new concept that they always use, they talk about AIDS denial; if you don’t accept the received wisdom on the way that the AIDS disease spins out. You have Holocaust denial, you have denial of climate change. I mean, anything that is very controversial, if you don’t accept the received wisdom then you’re in denial, which is a psychological state. Being in denial assumes that you have some psychological deficit. And as someone who has got this psychological deficit, you really are not meant to make opinions about controversial subjects, you’d better shut up, that’s basically what’s being said.

What’s very scary is a lot of people have gone a step further and they’ve said that if you deny a particular wisdom…for example, if you deny the received wisdom on climate change, then you ought to be punished for that. There’s been discussion of setting up a Nuremburg trial international court that penalises individuals, and this is in all seriousness.

Michael Duffy: You’re going to be in trouble, Paul! Frank, just going back a bit because I’m interested in what you said earlier about the almost pre-political nature of this crisis in authority, the adults and children. I think you’ve published a pamphlet or a report back in June with Jennie Bristow called ‘Licensed to Hug’. What was that about?

Frank Furedi: Basically in England what’s been happening is that if you come anywhere near a child in your work you need to be police-checked. As a result, one out of three English adults who work have been police-checked by the Criminal Records Bureau, which is a lot of people.

Michael Duffy: What sort of check is it?

Frank Furedi: Well, they go through your past to make sure that you’ve never been in trouble. And I know people who have been kicked out of their jobs, not because they’ve done anything with children but because they might have smoked some dope when they were 18 or 19 or were caught doing something relatively unconnected to children. But the really dangerous thing, what concerns me, is that once this becomes the norm, then it tends to expand to new areas. So increasingly a lot of parents, for example, that want to be reassured that their children are mixing with the right peers, want to be sure that the parents of their children’s friends are also checked by the Criminal Record Bureau. I’ve been to parties where I take my son along and the mother says, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m cool.’ And when I say, ‘What do you mean you’re cool?’ They say, ‘Well, I’ve been CRB checked, I’m all right.’

Michael Duffy: Do they show you their…is there some sort of certificate you get?

Frank Furedi: I suppose you do but I’ve never yet asked somebody to show me their CRB rating card.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Frank, in a similar vein, your young son plays soccer, you’re not allowed to take photographs of him, are you.

Frank Furedi: Yes, it is really weird, he’s been playing football for four years competitively. I haven’t got a single shot of him running with the ball, which is astounding when you think about it. And the reasons why I haven’t got a picture of him is not because I’m not there every Saturday but because the only way I can take a picture is if every single adult on the field gives me permission, and that’s impossible to achieve.

So I have a situation where a lot of adults find, a lot of parents find that they haven’t got pictures of their children playing sports, they haven’t got pictures of their children in a school play or a nativity play. I know somebody who’s in a very important choir, I find it very difficult to take pictures of their child singing in case anybody objects. So we’ve got this really weird development occurring where child photography has acquired this sinister connotation and we imagine that every adult who takes a picture of a child is really a paedophile and therefore we’ve got to stop it.

When you think about it, pictures don’t hurt children. We cannot really organise the world around the default position that we’re all paedophiles. We need to understand that having a picture of your child is very important, that photo album needs to be complete as part of the family’s memory and as part of the family’s story, what it’s all about.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: And yet what’s going to happen is that family memories are going to have gaps in them.

Frank Furedi: Exactly, very big gaps, and it’s funny because often I look at pictures of my mother and her mother and I learn a lot about who I am through the way they behaved as kids. I’ve got a lot of pictures of my son with his mother and a lot of pictures of my son with some of his closest friends, but the really important action shots, where they’re going through some important, I don’t have. And quite often the best pictures of children are those where you catch them unaware in a public park when they’re messing around with other kids. Those are precisely the pictures I cannot take any longer without being the object of suspicion.

Michael Duffy: And this is all happening out of fear of an event, an occurrence which, while it does happen, is incredibly rare. I mean, actual paedophilia or something like that. This is from that incredibly remote fear which is now debasing the quality of all our lives.

Frank Furedi: It does, and an interesting thing is the problem is not the paedophiles because it’s not the paedophiles that are being targeted by pictures, and I haven’t yet seen a picture that has hurt a child.

Michael Duffy: I know you’re writing a book about this and you’ve got this concept called reverse socialisation. Can you tell us what that means?

Frank Furedi: Yes. One of the things that I’ve noticed in schooling is that increasingly children are being used to socialise their parents. There used to be a time when it was the adults who were seen as being the initiators of socialisation, but that has changed. For example, you find that in schools children are told, ‘You must go home and tell your mum and dad what food they need to cook for you. You must tell your mum and dad what are the healthy options.’ The kid comes home and says, ‘Mummy, I must have salad all the time, don’t cook me all that meat.’

Or you tell the child that the parents must be informed that they must recycle their rubbish, and you’ve got all these initiatives being launched in schools, which actually are potentially quite insidious because it basically assumes that the parents are morons, they cannot be trusted, they are moral inferiors, both to their children and to the teachers. And secondly it kind of manipulates children into pestering their parents to adopt forms of behaviour that are not organically linked to their family life.

Michael Duffy: It’s like a mild version of 1984, isn’t it, where children were expected to report on their parents. Who is doing this, Frank? You said the children are being used, who’s using them in this way?

Frank Furedi: I think a lot of educators. Some educators have always regarded parents as a bit of a drag who shouldn’t really be involved in their kids’ education, and now what has happened is they think, well, we’re going to teach the parents a lesson. They’re going to have to learn from us through the children, and they’re using kids in that way. They mean well, they think this is a wonderful idea. What they really forget is that they really haven’t got the moral authority to, in a sense, colonise children’s internal life in this kind of direct sense.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Before we go, I have to ask you to tell us about the latest article at Spiked Online. Apparently there’s an editorial in the British Medical Journal that’s urging people to have fewer children. Why is that?

Frank Furedi: The reason why the BMJ is saying there should be less children is because they’re no longer regarded as that cute little baby when they’re born, they’re regarded as a potential polluter, and therefore every new child is going to consume more carbon, is going to pollute more and therefore it would be far better that we didn’t really have them. The point that I make is that King Herod only wanted to get rid of one child, that was all, whereas now we seem to regard all children as potential danger to our life.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Why is the British Medical Journal pushing this line?

Frank Furedi: The BMJ as such isn’t, it’s one editorial among many. I think what has happened is that a growing section of the medical community and other professionals have bought into a new form of altruism where you regard people as being the main threat to the planet and to the world, and therefore it only follows that the less people you have the better it will be for everybody else. And instead of regarding a new person, a new baby as an extra pair of hands to do things, more brain cells to solve problems with, we regard every new baby as an extra consumer, as an extra mouth to feed in a very destructive and misanthropic way.

Michael Duffy: We live in very pessimistic times, don’t we! Frank, thanks very much for dropping in today.

Frank Furedi: Thank you.

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