When I was a child in the 1970’s, Jimmy Savile was about as near as you could get on TV to God. For he ran a TV show on the BBC called Jim’ll Fix It, where he granted the wishes of those who wrote to him asking him to ‘fix’ this or that desire. Only God, or perhaps fairies or djinns, have that kind of power. One of my childhood school-friends even got on the show, having asked to spend a day with the Gurkhas and having had his wish granted by the god.
In recent weeks, as anyone following the UK media will know, the god has fallen – he has proved to be a serial rapist and child abuser. Over 200 likely victims have been identified, and he has been described by child protection charity the NSPCC as “the most prolific sex attacker of all time” (see here for one of the most recent reports). It is startling how rapidly wide public praise in the media, given out at the time of his death a year ago, has now turned into public vilification. But of course, all the facts about him that were generally recognised at the time of his death have not changed – for example, that he raised over £40 million for charity. It is just that we now have some new, very disturbing, facts, and people understandably have great difficulty fitting the god-figure and the demonised figure together into the same complex picture.
For me this case offers a number of important psychological and moral points, both in terms of the success with which he concealed his prolific abusive behaviour from public scrutiny, and in terms of the role of metaphysics in people’s view of the man.
Firstly, it is already turning out, long before the police have completed their investigations, that Savile raised suspicions for many people during his career, and was at least occasionally questioned about those suspicions. The fact that he got away with so much was probably not due to a lack of evidence for those who were willing to consider it. Rather, it seems likely that it was due to the halo effect. This is the tendency we have to assume that when we have first been struck by a person’s positive or attractive attributes, we are liable to overestimate all other aspects of their character. This effect also depends on our tendency to assume that others are unified selves, rather than expecting the psychological inconsistency that is actually far more normal. The tendency to flip between Jimmy the good and Jummy the bad, rather than facing up to Jimmy the complex, depends on metaphysical dogmas that we assume both about the self and about absolute moral judgement.
So, secondly, then, it seems clear that Jimmy Savile was probably exceptionally lacking in integration. We don’t have to assume that he was ever insincere in his philanthropy, nor on the other hand that his abusive self was either essential or non-essential to him. He probably just had different and conflicting desires, which resulted in markedly conflicting behaviour at different points. It is this degree of conflict that seems so shocking, and that seems to have abused public trust so much, and it is this conflict and its founding dogmas, if anything, that seems to have been evil about Jimmy Savile (see my other recent post on evil). Jimmy Savile himself has not suddenly become evil when he was not before – but the sustaining beliefs that kept up his psychic conflict both were and are evil.
Thirdly, then, the conflicts in Jimmy Savile unfortunately reflect ones in wider society. Those who accept superficial philanthropy at face value and repress critical consciousness lie on one side of the divide, and those who cannot see the complex and conflicted humanity in an ‘evil’ child abuser lie on the other. Just like Jimmy Savile, society has had different beliefs at different times, and has flipped between them with a speed that shows how brittle those beliefs were in the first place. In some ways, Jimmy Savile holds a mirror up to the public view. If we want to reduce the incidence of such ‘evil’ in our society, we need to start by being willing to see complexity at all points.
Picture: Jimmy Savile at the 1982 Leeds marathon by William Starkey: picture (only) can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons licence provided the original author is acknowledged.