Ken Clarke’s rape sentence trial

Yesterday’s news was dominated by two stories: the Queen’s historic visit to Ireland and Ken Clarke’s choice of words, or probably more, the inferred lack of empathy behind his choice of words, in a radio discussion about sentencing rape crimes.

Both stories are of concern those who teach citizenship. The Queen’s visit is more symbolic and probably quite archaic to the young who might associate Ireland with Boyzone or bank crises more than long gone battles.

It shows how long it takes for wounds to heal when fighting is in close territories. You only have to spend time with people in the Balkans to recognise how live that still is. There’s a lot to be learnt about the value of peacemaking right now, and why the symbolic visit was slow in coming but should be long lasting.

Ken Clarke’s story has the opposite immediacy. He seemed to have been in a legal mindset, arguing technicalities of the law, but in a public setting where the crime was anything but technical. It showed how close and how far apart these two worlds can be – and how ‘live’ the law is as an issue when it comes to such atrocious crimes.

In a former job I used to train teachers to deliver sex education. It is a terribly difficult area (like many when dealing with teenagers) because you are aware that for some this subject is a giggle, the bedrock of endless jokes and jibes that are funny because of age, stage and previous taboos for this age group, but for others sex is anything but funny. For many it is a painful reminder of a moment of violation or recurring trauma, so you can’t talk about sex with teenagers without raising the barrier of sensitivity high.

I had some sympathy for Ken Clarke because I think he’d forgotten that, probably in the heat of the moment when he found himself knocking around legal concepts relating to sentencing and categories of crime. I presume that’s something of an occupational risk for those who have to extract principles and deduction out of what must be repellent and emotive situations where they are charged with passing judgment. I’m not excusing the gaffe, but I am trying to understand it and wondering what I’d say today if I woke as a teacher who was about to go into school where I’d be quizzed on my thoughts about it.

I have a friend who is a barrister and have often seen him tortured over the release of people who he believes are violent criminals and have been freed by juries to, as he sees it, go and commit the same crimes again. He can’t help but imagine that next time it could be his daughter that suffers for it – that’s how he connects his empathy to those victims and criminals he deals with daily…

But it’s very wearing for him.

I’m not trying to make ‘heroes’ out of lawyers… but I think it may be worth separating two issues. Statistically it is likely that every class of 15 year olds will have someone in it who has had a bad experience connected with human sexuality and interpersonal violence. This is therefore a terribly serious issue that shouldn’t be readily or lightly turned into a cerebral legal debate. It may also be right then to show some empathy for those who have to daily wrestle with such issues on behalf of everyone, and then thirdly consider whether it’s the context for a discussion about sentencing, deterrents, and the protection of public safety.

It shows if nothing else, that the law is not simply a stuffy and detached profession, but a public duty and of public benefit. It may be a time to remind ourselves of that and why its quality and rule is of vital interest to everyone.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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