The modern betrayal of intellect: why the moral panic over pedophilia has no roots

In 523 AD, while in prison awaiting trial for alleged treason against the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great, the famous Christian philosopher and logician Boethius penned one of the most far-reaching and well-received religio-philosophical tracts of the medieval age, The Consolation of Philosophy, in which he concludes that human contentment can only come from God, and furthermore, that God must be known through the intellect, the highest and best quality a man possesses, standing in stark contrast to his fleeting passions. This Christian tradition of experiencing God through the mind was the core of medieval philosophy, which itself sprang from the classical tradition. Boethius, highly influenced by Plato and especially Socrates, understood that it was the mind, not the fickle and often treacherous heart, that ultimately led one to God, and thus to true happiness. This was accomplished through study and reasoning (theoreos, to use Aristotle’s term).

This is not to say that medieval Christians were never guilty of falling prey to their passions. Certainly the Inquisition was motivated to a large extent by fear, but I would suggest that the bigger portion of it arose out of politics, namely the need for the Church to augment and reinforce its power and prestige.

Likewise, to a large degree today’s power-hungry—including not only certain politicians but also a particularly vicious stripe of media demagogue—though they did not invent these moral panics, definitely use them to great effect to increase their own popularity and influence in the socio-political sphere. In order to be successful at this, such individuals need to completely break down the appeal of reason, which to some degree restrains them, and tap into pure emotionalism. Thus, you have people like Alex Jones who wantonly, indeed ecstatically, not only eschews logic but outright attacks it. On his internet-based show InfoWars, he has more than once gone into fits of raving lunacy and glossolalia, spitting and raging at the camera. Jones, who claims to be Christian, has violated the entire historical arc of Christian thought by equating his base animal appetites with masculinity and virtue. Of course, by his own admission this is all an act. Or is it?

In any case, it’s no mystery why Jones would spend an entire episode of his show attacking my Salon pieces (in which he doesn’t criticize my ideas so much as attack my name, my face and my imaginary crimes): my first article was essentially a call for society to look at one of the far right’s favorite target groups, pedophiles, more reasonably than they are prone to. Pedophiles are in many ways the star target for fascists. Pedophilia is an easy issue to inflame people’s passions over, especially when those people have been systematically misinformed for decades and the taboo against pedophiles is so powerful that few without a direct stake in the matter are willing to stand up in their defense. It’s also an easy way to make a slippery slope appeal, thus seeming to vindicate their increasingly unpopular views on other minorities: look, if we give rights to gays, then next pedophiles are going to be able to rape your kids and you won’t be able to do a thing about it!

These sorts of arguments have little or no foundation in reason, and that’s why they appeal so much to the might-makes-right crowd. You don’t need to make a long and thought-out intellectual argument if you can bypass the brain and go straight to the heart. Fascism has always been an intellectually lazy form of authority, but in the past it has at least demonstrated respect for and attempted to wear the sheen of reason, to slyly base its moral pronouncements, no matter how skewed they might be, in the science and philosophy of the day (e.g. social Darwinism).

At this point, however, the political right has essentially renounced that long tradition altogether in favor of openly and enthusiastically embracing a new Dark Age, where reason has been entirely divorced not only from spirituality but from rightist politics. The right-wing internet is a veritable breeding ground for deliberate misinformation and thought-terminating clichés. (Yes, this exists on the left as well, but not nearly to the same extent.) The new gray and black propaganda delivered in the form of graphic memes—the internet version of the sound bite, only with even less context and fact-checking—is sometimes even in direct conflict with itself, but that is largely irrelevant in a medium where there is no need or plan for long-term cohesion of thought. Most Americans seem incapable of taking the big picture view of reality these days, a fact which people like Jones and the Russian Trump-trolls readily exploit, feeding right-wing web surfers, many of whom are simply unwilling to properly check facts, or don’t have the time to, a constant stream of new memes.

If this were somehow helpful to the overall situation then it might perhaps be forgiven to some extent, but the thing about reason is, it’s usually on the right track. Faulty reason exists, certainly, but a person who is truly devoted to understanding and solving a problem will almost inevitably arrive at a reasonable position sooner or later. The problem is, once an issue becomes a politicized one in an environment where political rivals have devolved into mortal enemies, then those who take an oppositional stance are no longer devoted to solving the problem. While they may claim they want to do so, in reality they are only intent on creating political scapegoats, which is why we have a culture where something as absurd and spurious as the Pizzagate conspiracy can gain any sort of traction.

In that light we can better understand the recent vote on a child exploitation bill by the House of Representatives, in which the House overwhelmingly supported the bill that hands down a harsh 15 year sentence to teenagers who are caught sexting each other. Child sex laws may have originally been made in good faith and with the actual goal of fixing, or at least curtailing, the sexual exploitation of children, but thanks to the ongoing moral panic we as a society have moved far beyond that point and straight into Bizarro World. There are effective measures and there are ineffective measures, but this spectrum is not a straight line like many may imagine. It’s a circle, and when you push too far in one direction, you’re ultimately going to come back around to the other. This is where we are as a culture, because our methods for dealing with these issues both in the legal domain and the social one have become measurably counterproductive.

Politicians know it too, but they are to some extent now captives of the very moral panic they helped create back in the 80s and 90s, and even Democrats, those bastions of reason and tolerance in most respects, have a hard time justifying to their constituents voting against measures which on the surface may seem to combat the problem but really don’t, so many of them simply pick their battles elsewhere and vote with the majority. I’m certain that’s what happened here, despite the fact that throwing the book at kids who get caught having a little fun with their phone cameras and their own bodies doesn’t punish hardened child porn purveyors but rather the very kids these laws are supposed to protect. It’s a first-class load of Orwellian double-think, but few in Washington are willing to call it that. Instead we’re now facing the substantial growth of a whole new class of thought criminal: the self-exploiting teenager. Congrats! Kids now have even less reason to trust their elders when it comes to sex mores, and like drug use (which is now an epidemic in this country), the very taboo nature of it is only going to give it more appeal to a group already prone to rebellion.

In the social arena things aren’t much better, and may arguably be worse. The constant refrain of anonymous internet trolls to pedophiles of “Kill yourself” and the calls for a pedo genocide (not to mention the legal policy of mandatory reporting) not only do not act as much of a deterrent to sexual abusers, it almost certainly makes the problem worse, for the zeitgeist of heavy hostility simply alienates pedophiles from the mainstream and pushes them further underground, including those who may be facing temptation and could benefit from seeking help before they offend. But again, despite what they may say, curtailing abuse is not the actual goal of most folks who harass and target pedophiles with hate speech. Maintaining a socially acceptable scapegoat on which to vent their rage and frustration is, and even more so now that pedophilia has been tagged to liberalism (nevermind the fact that most of the politicians and cultural leaders who have been caught sexually exploiting minors have actually been conservative).

Now, let us imagine a society where legal execution for child sex offenders was a real possibility. Sexual abuse is still going to happen. Ratcheting up the taboo may deter some, but for others—those who are risk-seekers—it will only provide more temptation, since the stakes are higher. And when they do abuse, what do you think will happen? I guarantee child murder will increase, since a) the incentive to hide the abuse is now much higher, and b) when child sexual abuse and child murder are both capital offenses, an offender has nothing to lose by killing his victim if there’s a chance he might get away with his crime by forever silencing that victim. Executing sex offenders is clearly a wholly irrational response to the problem, not simply because the punishment does not fit the crime but because it severely increases the danger to children themselves.

But, as is increasingly clear, society’s views on pedophiles and sex offenders are not rooted in rationality. Neither in a desire for a proportional reaction to the offenses committed, nor in a genuine aim to help pedophiles better integrate in society and give them the tools and support they need to keep them from offending in the first place. I’ll wager if they were interrogated with a polygraph, the majority of those who scapegoat pedophiles would ultimately reveal that their hatred has little if anything to do with empathy for kids or abuse survivors. It’s no coincidence, I think, that some of my detractors have actually said to me they were happy I was sexually abused as a child (failing to grasp, or more likely not caring, that if I hadn’t been molested I may very well not have developed pedophilia in the first place).

As the left-wing/right-wing divide grows even more . . . well, divided and America continues to be at war with itself, reason, truth and civility have become the most important casualties in that war. Within this new political reality, the non-offending pedophile’s prospects for being understood are poor. Nevertheless, it’s an undertaking of great worthiness, and like Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, though I may be viewed by some as mentally unstable in my own time, I reckon history will eventually vindicate me. So I’ve deemed the risks worthwhile, as I do not judge the current anti-intellectual lapse a permanent state of affairs for a country as resilient and experimental as America. Reason will return here someday, of this I’m certain. When it does, I will be ahead of the game. 🙂