Rolf Harris: the latest chapter in the history of kindness

Britain Rolf Harris
© Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/Press Association Images

The once very famous and immensely successful artist Rolf Harris has been convicted of a string of predatory sex-crimes that seem utterly horrible and debased. The sexual abuse of young people strikes us as purely and completely wrong: an incarnation of evil.

There have been so many cases like this in recent times. It’s easy to feel we live in a sick society. It appears that civilisation is breaking down. What is going on?

But there’s another, perhaps more accurate, way of seeing things. These are times of moral progress. We have become more and more sensitive to, and concerned about, the suffering of others.

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In 1976 many a man – a branch manager of the Municipal Bank in Birmingham or a Professor of Literature at the University of East Anglia – would have thought nothing of groping their secretaries’ bottoms. They’d have seen it as a bit of harmless fun or even considered it a perk of the job. To object would have been to have risked being thought standoffish or a bit of a prude. There were plenty of people who loathed this kind of behaviour. But it was not generally seen as a legal matter. Demeaning and vulgar – perhaps, in the eyes of some. Something for the courts – no.

We are now so much more receptive to the feelings of others, so much more worried about possible harm. It’s a welcome evidence of a very widespread ambition to treat people well. It’s the long march of kindness.

Progress doesn’t stop. This week perhaps two million men in the UK will at some high point of frustration call their wives, girlfriends and partners a c***. It’s brutish and insulting and no doubt makes any trouble worse – though we don’t expect it to make the pages of the local newspaper.

Yet it could well be that in twenty-five years time, in 2039, such an outburst will be something to be brought to the attention of the police. Conclusive evidence captured on an iPhone31 could lead to time in jail and a grim photo on the front page of the Accrington Observer.

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When a guy in the 1960s or 70s put his hand up a fifteen-year-old girl’s skirt or made a unilateral grab at a woman’s breasts he would not have seen himself as a criminal – like a mugger or a bank robber. But he knew he wasn’t being nice. Just like the man who mouths an enraged insult today.

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History invites the worry: have I done something that a slightly more severe society would hit me hard for? And the answer is: probably yes.

This isn’t to argue that swearing at one’s spouse is on a par with sexual abuse. It’s just that in very different ways the same underlying theme is being played out. Our moral aspirations are on the rise. That’s why more people are ending up in the dock.

There is one slight problem though. As yet we have not quite figured out how to raise the bar on kindness in a kindly way. We are absolutely right to lift expectation on what is acceptable and what is not. But there’s a tendency to get rather savage in the process. We can be sure that certain actions are very wrong, without gloating when someone is brought down. And one of the reasons for a sliver of pity is the thought that who knows how the less attractive parts of our own conduct will look, when viewed from the better vantage point of the 2030s.

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