Within our moral structure it is a central, but oft unspoken, tenet that individuals must give their consent prior to any action that may affect them or that may prove limiting or distressing to them. It can only be through an individuals private decision to partake in an action or to allow change to be made that they can meaningfully engage with that change or action. Furthermore, it can also only be through their private decision to partake that they can own any negative consequences of their actions. If they were forced into participation then they become a passive victim of any backlash, if they chose to engage with full knowledge then they have accepted the negative possibilities and can take responsibility for the outcome.
This tenet is often taken to apply to all things but, I suggest, the mere act of being raised in our society undermines the concept of consent and we have put little provision in place to reinforce it.
In our earliest childhood we either do not have preferences (because we are yet to encounter any options) or we have difficulty in transmitting the nuances of our preferences. In order to keep us safe and (hopefully) healthy good parents must over-ride our infant preferences to ensure that, for example, we eat a balanced diet – or in some cases even eat at all. In this situation we understand that the child must be protected and occasionally forced into situations with which it is unhappy and for which it does not give consent. Some would even argue that a young child is incapable of giving meaningful consent as it cannot fully comprehend its options (although this is a slippery slope that could also be applied to adults).
There are different extents of ‘domination’ over our children. Some parents follow a path of baby led weaning and will always respond to cries of distress; some dictate when weaning will take place and will follow the route of allowing the child to cry until it learns that it cannot manipulate its carers in that way. I don’t know which route is healthiest but I do know that either set of parents will override their child’s express desire to climb into a well or play dangerously close to a fire – they will move the child against its will and without its consent. Similarly its consent will be overruled to enable attendance at important events such as picking up a second child from school. There are times at which we must act to protect or progress against the expressed wishes of the child – without its consent – and this is correct and good.
If there are so many situations in which a child’s consent must be over-ruled then when does a child’s consent matter at all? At the age of two the child is certainly capable of independent thought but we are forced to say that whilst its consent may matter in small things its life will still be mostly directed regardless of its consent (for even of it consents to have a bath or go on a journey we would not change our route if consent were withdrawn). This is correct and good.
At age four if it doesn’t wish to attend school it shall rarely be given a choice. If you think about that in an adult context it is quite horrendous. If an authority figure were to tell you tomorrow that you had to fundamentally change the structure of your life to enter a situation you found threatening every single day and that your consent was neither required nor relevant for this change – I would have difficulty with that (although on re-reading it sounds a lot like our social security system). For a child this is correct and good.
This marginalization of consent continues again and again and again through the child’s formative years. In significant issues consent is only requested as decoration – the child, when asked if it wants a haircut or if it wants to move house, or undergo an operation learns that its consent is meaningless – that to say no just brings argument and unpleasant sensations. For a child this is correct and good, they must be looked after and school is good for them. Furthermore they must learn to survive in a society in which obedience to written and unspoken rules – regardless of personal preferences – is a requirement.
The two sentences that closed the previous paragraph is the summation of childhood dominance. The child does not know better, the child does not understand, and so we will enforce what is good for it- we will override their preference and not seek their consent because when they experience the thing we are providing they are expected to like it or expected to benefit from the lesson it imparts. A child will internalize this message, how can it not, and yet it is a necessary evil to keep them safe and enable them to function in a society that imposes certain demands regardless of consent. For a child no does not, and cannot, mean no.
And so the child grows.
As a teenager they begin to question in earnest and society begins to allow a degree of freedom from parental control. By this stage it is implicitly hoped that they have internalized the requirement to follow rules that they neither understand nor agree with and associate this rule following with safety and protection. Having internalized this they are safe to be released unchaperoned (at least for short periods and preferably under strictly defined times and conditions). By this stage we can be fairly certain that although they want that thing in a shop window they will not simply take it and that whilst they will rebel that rebelion will be within societally accepted limits.
Teenagers challenge the impositions that have been made upon them by their parents and society and through this provide a hope that the individual will learn that their voice can matter, albeit in a small way. This is the moment they walk that deadly high wire between learning that, as adults, they cannot be forced into an action without giving consent and learning that some things should be consented to even though they are restrictive (for example, many laws are restrictive upon us but give to us more than we lose – in the greater analysis). This is the moment that these lessons must be learned. If the teenager remains trapped under the equivalent of parental domination then they may transfer the lessons they received in early childhood to their adult life – that they have no agency and that, therefore, their consent is irrelevant. If they entirely reject the caring domination of childhood (assuming for the individual it was caring) then they cannot function within the bounds of society – and whatever we think of society it is hard to thrive when completely outside it. Teenagers must learn that giving voice to consent (or lack thereof) is a vital part of a healthy life and moreover a vital part of a functioning society. They must learn to look to the bigger picture as well as the personal so that they can understand that laws are required (but able judge when laws are incorrect). They must learn to look to the personal when issues or actions affect them directly and when peer pressure to perform an act must be resisted for their personal health. In tandem with all of this they must learn that the consent of others is as vital as there own and must be acknowledged and respected.
The law of the parent, until that moment, is often ‘do what the dominant person demands or be forced against your will.’ That law creates expectations and those expectations take away the individuals agency. Even with the best of parents the lesson can only be that the systems of childhood are at an end and that ‘now you are grown you have agency, you can give or withdraw consent and expect that action to be respected and followed’ but can the internalised message of all those years spent under childhood rules be so easily erased?
The development of a fully nuanced understanding of consent should emerge in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood in order to create a fully functional adult human being. I am not convinced that we give people enough assistance in developing this vital and nuanced understanding. We imagine that it will emerge magically from a teenagers experiences, as if society or the universe will teach it by osmosis. We assume that our young will know that they should question and withdraw consent when offered dangerous drugs or pressured to have sex that they do not feel ready for and yet we have spent their life to that moment teaching them that their consent is of limited importance and liable to lead to argument as well as being overridden when expressed. We expect our children to ask for someone’s consent before performing actions that are sexual or physically dangerous and to know that acting against consent is wrong – but their most important childhood interactions have told them that it is okay for a dominant force to impose its will in order to teach the weaker individual or show it something it is expected to like. Of course, external to the dominance of the parent the child has, hopefully, been taught to respect its peers but the dominant power interactions all act at some level against the concept of consent.
Why do we assume that all teenagers will simply know that a change of rule has taken place without our explicit guidance?
Why do we offer so little resource to teenagers, or those who failed to be given the message as teenagers, around the topic of consent?
If we are lucky we touch on sexual consent. If we are very lucky the idea has been instilled that in matters pertaining to someone’s body we must ask for consent before performing any potentially distressing act. Again, if we are very lucky the idea is lodged that an individual receiving physical advances is not only able but actually obligated to make and voice a decision – the need to consent or refuse consent has been instilled. We must hope that they know that when that decision has been made they are free to change it, at any time, and that it is not and never will be okay for someone to pressure them or coerce them into changing their decision – it is their inalienable right to create a boundary that must be respected by others. We are lucky if this much has been taught.
Do we ever explicitly touch on political consent? The fact that we consent to be governed and that we can withdraw that consent. Do we touch on how to withdraw political consent not just through the often meaningless act of voting but through lawful protest?
How about the consent to be managed at work? We explicitly give that consent by signing a contract that defines the extent of that consent through a job description but do people understand that they cannot legally be pressured to take actions that are far outside the contract they consented to and that they can withdraw that consent if they choose? What does consent mean in this situation in which they may have to take a job to put food on the table? Do they know how to withdraw consent from a blatantly abusive employer and what systems exist to support them? Are those systems functional and sufficient and if not can consent be meaningfully said to exist in the workplace? Of not how does this cascade to borderline work events like Christmas parties?
Do we have these conversations with our children? Do we help them to understand that consent is a complex and many tiered thing that permeates all the strata of our lives? That we ourselves probably do not fully understand it but that in some aspects it can be grey whilst in others it is resoundingly black and white. Do we teach them to think about consent or do we stay silent and hope that they learn these things as if by magic? Hope that the most important system in our morality gets taught to them by someone else. Hope that they don’t rape, or steal, that they learn that it is their duty to speak out against oppression and not to slavishly follow a group or government without considering whether their actions are correct. Do we want to hope that the complexity of consent is taught or do we want to step up and ensure that it is taught?
How are we, the ones who have come through this learning experience more or less intact, helping the next wave of people – the ones currently trying to navigate the signpostless wilderness from which we have emerged? We need to give them resources to understand their right to consent and their right to withdraw that consent. We need to teach them the skills that we learned and are still learning so that they might do better than we have done in a country that is rife with both rape and political abuses.
The last lesson under the enforced conditions of childhood must be that consent is important.
The first moment of adulthood must be to invite them to partake in a supportive resource that will teach them the basics that they need to know, without pressure or coercion, you cannot teach consent to those who do not consent to be present.
This past Christmas was hard because I have a happy and supportive family.
This past Christmas was hard because I saw the happiness of homeless people.
This past Christmas was hard because, when all was done, I turned homeless people back out onto the street.
This past Christmas was hard because I lost my good CPAP machine.
This past Christmas was hard because straight afterwards I started a new and well-paying job.
This past Christmas was hard because we were planning a wedding.
Some of the above, most of the above, should be positives in my life. Not unmitigated positives, new jobs and weddings are undoubtedly stressful events, but they mark progression – they mark the growth of wonderful things. They are positives, huge positives, but when set side by side with my experiences working with Crisis over Christmas to help rough sleepers in London these positives become hard to deal with. These positives, when set against the suffering, victimisation and demonization of others become hard to reconcile mentally. The fact that my life is going well makes the gulf between me and a group of people, some of whom I would like to call friends, that much harder to reconcile. I am taking that difficult but liberating leap into flight as they are trapped and held down against a cold and hostile earth.
One way to resolve this is to forget them. To take the road that most choose to take and fail to see them asleep in doorways or begging in the street. To pretend that they are criminals or drug addicts who brought their own misfortunes down upon themselves. To fool myself that they could not be me and I could not be them. I won’t ignore them, I couldn’t even if I chose because I have met some of their representatives and I know they are people like me. Some are nice, some nasty; some intelligent, others slow; many are sick or have turned to alcohol to try and cope with their situation – but less have become addicts or alcoholics than you think. Many have mental health problems, vulnerable people are easy for the system to side-line – the mentally ill often don’t know how to fight back. Many do not have mental health problems when they first go out onto the street, the environment provides them; they can then be used to ignore the afflicted individual.
This year one of our guests (that is our homeless guests to whom we gave a bed) was an English teacher – a very erudite man who gave us a talk on what the work of Crisis meant to him and the other homeless people he knew. That talk meant a great deal to me at the end of the final shift, the shift in which we have to take the people we have helped and turn many of them back onto the street, the shift at the end of which you are more emotionally and physically tired than any other. I don’t remember his exact words but I think I can paraphrase an extract here:
“The quality of volunteers at Crisis has not changed. You still give hope to people through food, shelter and, perhaps more importantly, through conversation and little things such as opening doors for your guests and treating them like human beings – an experience that is rare on the streets.
“The calibre of volunteers has not changed, but the calibre of guests has. This year the centre has had one professor, two doctors and several teachers – all homeless. There are more of what society calls skilled people, people who you would not have seen in the past.”
I can add to his comments that we had at least one person homeless because they could not work – on the waiting list for an operation (and so not someone an employer would take on with major time-off looming) and another who was a barely controlled diabetic. A third had a crippling heart condition. Our speaker did not venture an opinion on why our homeless guests suddenly seemed more educated, more professional. Why they were from areas of the workforce that have traditionally been ‘safe’ or why people who were so sick had been left homeless and rough sleeping. He did not venture an opinion on why all our centres (more were opened this year than last) were swamped by numbers never seen before. I can venture my opinion:
We have seen a massive spike in the numbers of homeless people in the last few years as the coalition government has implemented austerity measures. Crisis loans for the disabled have effectively been removed (they were moved under local council control but no funding was transferred to pay them). ATOS, the government’s private medical assessor, has been ruling disabled people fit for work against their specialist’s direct recommendations and thus taking away the benefits of people who cannot in reality hold a job. Job centres have become incrementally harsher in applying penalties to job seekers in the case of minor infringements (such as missing a meeting due to a sick child, the flare up of a severe disability or to attend a last minute interview for a job). With DLA/PIP, ESA and many others being removed or slashed in real terms or placed behind a bureaucratic wall that takes months, and a huge emotional investment, to penetrate more and more people – skilled or otherwise – are finding themselves abandoned by the systems they have been funding for decades through taxation.
So, my life is doing well, but as I watch the gap between myself and the people that I have met opening ever wider my heart is filled with a deep impenetrable sadness. I see a void, a gap that our current austerity blinkered society refuses to see, expanding and start to swallow people that it could never reach in the past. I see a void looming behind friends who have not seen its growth or, instead, stubbornly deny that it could ever reach out to them. I have met people better qualified than them or I, people who had better jobs and better prospects who have been swallowed whole and deposited on the streets. I see a shadow at the edges of this void and I fear what is coming.
I have met homeless teachers, doctors, market traders, professors, literary critics, chef’s, cooks, musicians, labourers, civil servants, taxi drivers and businessmen. They have been a mixture of healthy, sick, disabled, desperate, hopeful, determined, broken and unbreakable. To cope they have stayed sober, gotten drunk or high, denied reality or faced a nihilistic world with grim resolve. They have been people like you and for some of these readers they will be you, one day in the future.
That void is opening up below you and unless we all open our eyes and work to close it down some of you will be swallowed by it, as might I.
There was a famous statement made by Pastor Niemöller with regard to the cowardice of German intellectuals in the face of Nazism. You have probably heard the official version:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”
There are other versions, one of the first written included these lines:
“Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. – I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? — Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren’t guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers”
I do not claim we are facing a holocaust, but we are facing the deaths of people because politicians have decided that those who are a burden to society, the incurably sick or disabled, are no longer worth supporting. We are seeing a rise in homelessness amongst our educators, a sign that their moral and intellectual guidance is being devalued. We are once again adopting the creed that an individual that does not contribute monetarily does not deserve the basic rights afforded to all humans. The last holocaust began with the gassing of the mentally ill in specially modified vans because society deemed they were a burden. Be alert and speak out when once again we are shown that these people are not cared for by the state. Place Niemöller’s statement into your mind every day and speak out now, it is too late to speak when the void has swallowed you.