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  1. module - Social Sciences and International Studies - University of Exeter
  2. Where did the culture wars come from?
  3. Most commented

Instead of examination and reflection, opportunistic moralisation dominated public life. Indeed one of the most sordid dimension of the response to the murder of James Bulger were the opportunistic attempts to promote causes and political agenda through linking it with the concern provoked by this event. Moral entrepreneurs presented this crime as a justification for promoting their campaign to ban violent videos or to lower the age criminal responsibility. In turn Conservative politicians reacted to this tragedy by denouncing the underclass culture that breeds feckless parents and feral children in urban Britain.

In effect the Bulger case became a focus for political exploitation. By the time that the two youngsters — Jon Venables and Robert Thompson — faced a court of justice they had been demonised to the point that it was easy to forget that they were children. In what was an unprecedented step the two 11 year-olds were dragged into an adult court and treated as if they were mature individuals capable of exercising the kind of moral responsibility normally associated with adulthood. In their wisdom the courts allowed the name and photographs of the children to be published by the press thereby putting faces to these targets of venomous hate.

For me the most disquieting moment is this shameful episode was when I read the summing up of the case against the two children by the trial judge Mr Justice Morland. The conviction and sentencing of the two children provoked a reaction that a civilised society usually reserves for hardened war criminals. One regrettable and long term consequence of the transformation of the trial into a medieval passion play was that it fostered a climate of opinion where the age of criminal responsibility could be steadily lowered to the point where the distinction between act of a child and adult lost much of its meaning.

Since this trial, the age of criminal responsibility has been steadily lowered. British courts now regard children as young as 10 as bearing moral responsibility for the most serious of crimes. In contrast most European systems of justice set the age of criminal responsibility at 14, 16 — even Research into the British media's reporting showed the case had a major impact on parents.

module - Social Sciences and International Studies - University of Exeter

In a survey of 1, parents taken a year after the killing, 97 per cent cited the possible abduction of their children as their greatest fear. The Times reported that many of these parents revealed that 'video images of the two-year-old being taken by his killers were still fresh in their minds'. But this event did not simply intensify parental anxiety. Possibly the most depressing legacy of the febrile atmosphere surrounding the killing of James Bulger and the subsequent trial and demonization of Venables and Thompson was its distortion of the meaning of childhood.

The demonisation of so-called feral youngsters did not merely exaggerate the scale of violence facing children, but also raised fundamental questions about the state of childhood. It was as if suddenly adults did not quite know what made their children tick.

Where did the culture wars come from?

What this reaction signalled was not that parents feared that their children were murderers in the making. What it reflected was a sense of estrangement — do we really know them? Since the Bulger case parental anxieties directed towards stranger-danger have been extended to the threat posed by dangerous and violent children. The most significant legacy of the panic surrounding the Bulger case was to reinforce the pre-existing trend towards the privatisation of parenting.

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In recent years these perceptions have been reinforced by the actions of policy makers who are literally intent on criminalising infants. As a result we now live in a Britain where a 10 and an 11 year-old boys can be hauled before the Old Bailey and tried for rape. It looks upon adults as simply biologically mature children, and children as physically underdeveloped grown-ups. Strangely the myth of the feral child coexists with the powerful counter-myth of the innocent child who is incapable of lying or wrong-doing.

Fear of 'Rocking the Boat': Why BBC refused to speak on Rotherham's child sex abuse scandal

Both of these myths are the product of adult fantasy. Parents who are continually confronted with engaging and processing these highly polarised myths often become distracted from seeing children for what they are —just children. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists? Start your Independent Premium subscription today.

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