Sunday, November 17, 2019
Home News The Tale of the Bear and the Rabbit

The Tale of the Bear and the Rabbit

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Only with great reluctance was I dragged by my wife and mother to see Paddington 2. I can usually rely upon my wife to borrow someone else’s children to accompany her on such occasions, but her failure to do so had left me with little option but to infantilise myself for a couple of hours of a Saturday afternoon.

My reluctance to spend even such a limited time at ‘the movies’ arises from what might be called being at the ‘excessive’ end of the male spectrum – I’m simply not very good with things, particularly films in which I can’t see any point. My mother’s helpful suggestion that the point was simply to enjoy oneself did little to satisfy an instinctive curmudgeon such as me.

Some weeks down the line, however, I believe that I may have found a, if not the, point for having watched what, even I have to accept, is a most agreeable film: the moral outrage concerning Peter Rabbit and his new film.

‘Advocates’ for allergy sufferers, particularly for those sufferers who are children, are incensed that Peter Rabbit and his friends are seen to pelt Mr MacGregor’s nephew with soft fruit despite the latter’s known risk of an allergic reaction and anaphylactic shock. (Only his EpiPen saves the poor lad.) The mother of one child similarly afflicted questioned how she could possibly take her child to see such a film (https://www.theguardian.com/society/shortcuts/2018/feb/12/allergies-peter-rabbit-apology-not-good-enough?CMP=share_btn_link).

It has been pointed out that there are other things in the fictional tale of Peter Rabbit that might reasonably cause offence – not least the consistent indecent exposure entailed by his only ever wearing a short coat without any trousering, and the ethically dubious fact that his father was murdered to be a pie filling, but nonetheless it is the allergy story that has sufficient ‘legs’ to get up and running.

For those who have not seen Paddington 2, it portrays a stereotypically cantankerous judge who uses the criminal justice system as a means of settling a personal vendetta with the eponymous bear. Equally stereotypically the judge (Tom Conti) is white, middle-aged, male, heterosexually married, privileged and crass.

However, ‘advocates’ for the judiciary have not expressed outrage at the reputation of the entire profession being impugned in the cause of amusing children. Likewise, there has been no uproar about the criminal justice system being gravely undermined in the eyes of children by being portrayed as arbitrary and corrupt.

Arguably, encouraging wholesale disrespect for the rule of law amongst ‘the youth of today’ is rather more serious than fictional allergy sufferers being pelted with allergens; and yet reaction from the law came there none.

The difference? Poorly children make good victims but judges do not. In particular white, middle-aged, male, privileged, heterosexual, married judges, that is to say for comedic purposes all judges, do not.

Without wishing to ask light entertainment to shoulder a burden for which it is not designed, such an approach to public morality is beset with difficulty. If the gravity of wrongdoing is measured by the degree of public sympathy for the category of victim, that would be rather bad news if you were a black person in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s, a Jew in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, or a suffragette in the 1900s. If identifying wrongdoing requires identifying publicity-worthy victims, it is the most vulnerable, the voiceless, the anonymous, who will suffer. Only the recovery of an objective standard of wrongdoing regardless of degree of ‘victimhood’ will protect them.

Moreover, if it is the ‘victim’ that determines the guilt or otherwise of the malefactor, grave injustice will result if the complainant is less than entirely reliable. As Lord Carlile has revealed, this is a lesson that the Church of England in general and the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular would have done well to learn, in the light of the damage done to the reputations of  Lord Brammall, Lord Janner, Lord Brittan, Sir Edward Heath, Sir Cliff Richard and probably many others.

Some will say, however that the real difference between the rabbit and the judge is that the former is the hero of the narrative and the latter the villain. This too, however, rather misses the point. Surely what we should be seeking to teach our children is that the world is not divided into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, that the greatest of heroes may have clay feet and that even villains can have redeeming characteristics.

Surely, only if we teach them that will they be equipped to deal with the news that secular saints such as aid workers can also be the darkest of sinners.

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Daniel Leafe
Dan Leafe is a barrister a member of Fowey Parish Church.

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