Barbro Fröding’s Posts

The Accused or the Accuser?

In the BBC Radio program Jeopardising Justice (here) Helena Kennedy QC spoke about the rise of ‘the victims’ movement’. The 1970s saw a legal reform that marked a watershed in the treatment of victims throughout the judicial system. Once marginalised and passive, victims are now centre-stage in many a judicial process. Kennedy, a fervent champion of the movement in her early career, set out to explore whether the victim’s voice had become so strong that it now threatens the rights of the defendants. The program feeds into the broader debate on whether or not this well intended reform has gone too far and now it is the defendants who risk being marginalised.

Earlier this month the related discussion on whether or not police should have to visit every crime victim flared up again (here). In Sweden there is currently a very heated debate on how rape victims are treated in the courts and the rights of the defendants (here and here) involving, for example, a District Prosecutor saying that there are different types of rape some of which he labels as ‘scarier’ than others. Meanwhile, in the wake of the resent release of the Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds (here) it has been argued that the Scottish Government lost sight of the real victims and that the appropriate display of virtuous compassion would have been better directed at their families rather than a convicted mass-murderer (here).

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On a happier note

Starting with the financial crisis back in autumn it seems that greed and poor judgement are two persistent themes this year. While mankind was not entirely unfamiliar with the plague of greed prior to October 2008, recent events have meant that hardly a day goes by when such vicious matters do not make the headlines in one form or another. Attending an Oxford college ceremony the other day gave a bit of a historical perspective on how to deal with greed. The ‘pennies from the tower’ ceremony involved (or used to involve in times prior to current health and safety regulations) inviting a group of impoverished children onto the college lawn and then letting the pennies rain down from the tower above. But as they started to scurry around, fighting each other for the coins, they noticed that the pennies were hot. Piping hot. This was considered an excellent way to teach the children that greed is a vice and that there is no such thing as a free lunch. No doubt the blisters on their little hands would have served as an efficient reminder of this harsh lesson. One of the problems with this practice is it is far from clear that brute force the best way to introduce more positive values and behavioural patterns in people. Indeed, it is not even clear that the threat of punishment and public humiliation works as a deterrent.

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What kind of happiness?

At a conference for headteachers child psychologist Dr Carol Craig (chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Glasgow) warned that “young people were being encouraged to believe that the most important thing in life is whether they feel happy”. She argued that the exaggerated focus on building pupils self-esteem left adults overly afraid of criticising the children. “Parents no longer want to hear if their children have done anything wrong. This is the downside of the self-esteem agenda. The problem is that if you tell parents that it’s incredibly important that children feel good all the time, we will get people going out of their way to boost children’s self-esteem all the time”.  Dr Craig added that this lack of criticism gave rise to narcissism in the children which would leave them ill-equipped for forming lasting relationships. (The Observer, 15.03.09). This made me think about what we mean when we say ‘happiness’ and when we talk about a happy, or a good, life. The above seems to imply that many parents and other adults believe that being criticised (even in a constrictive, sensitive and appropriate manner) would somehow be incompatible with being happy. Is it the case that we in society today tacitly, or otherwise, subscribe to the idea that a happy life equals an uncomplicated life largely void of challenges?

In spite of objectively being among the best off in the world Swedish teens and young adults rank how they feel about themselves and their level of wellbeing comparatively low. When polled a relatively large number report that they suffer from anxiety, stress and unhappiness. One example is the WHO report ‘Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC)’ which is based on national studies of young people’s health and wellbeing. Some 40 countries participate in this study the aim of which is to “gain new insight into, and increase our understanding of young people's health and well-being, health behaviours and their social context” (here).  When asked to rank their life satisfaction Swedish children and teens scored significantly lower than the other Nordic countries. According to the national 2005/2006 report 43% of 15-16 year olds said that they felt down at least once a week (to be compared with 25% in 1985 for example). In the 2007 status report summary states that “Self-reported mental ill health – such as anxiety, worry, or anguish and continuous tiredness – has decreased to some degree in several population groups since the beginning of the 21st century, having previously shown an increasing trend for some years. In certain groups, however, mental ill health has continued to increase since the years of 2000–2001, in particular among young women.” (here). These results are echoed in others studies e.g. ‘MTV Wellbeing Study’ (here and here) which polled 5200 16-34 year olds in 14 countries on their own perceived sense of wellbeing. Although Swedes ended up high in the ranking overall it is interesting to note that only 27% said that they were happy (compare e.g. with Argentina 75%, Mexico 71% and Indonesia 62%).

These and other similar results have triggered a rather intense debate, both with regards to possible causes and the reliability of such findings, among Swedish politicians, journalist and the general public alike. Undoubtedly there are many complex factors at play here and no one explanation covers it all but a contributing factor might be an expectation that a good and successful life must not involve experiences like failure and disappointment.

This would, however, require an extremely sheltered existence and exclude a lot of the things that would be a part of a happy life. For most of us a good quality life is a life filled with experiences, encounters and interaction. But as we expose ourselves and introduce others into our lives we also become susceptible to disappointment, loss and so on. Evidently I don’t wish to imply that pain and suffering are good states in themselves nor that we ought to accept social injustice, poverty, violence and disease as a natural part of a human life. Quite to the contrary I would argue that we should work both on improving ourselves as well as society and promote happiness and wellbeing on a large scale. The point is rather that even if we are successful in this project it seems that in light of what we know about human nature and human co-existence a good life will be a bit of a mixed bag. In all likelihood it will involve anger, loss, failure, rejection, pain and disappointment but it will also offer pleasure, warmth, joy and success. One might come up against both the limitations of ourselves and the limitations of other people but the fact that we are human doesn’t mean that we cannot have good and happy lives.

Perhaps then the problem is not so much an exaggerated focus on happiness (if anything, to strive to be happy seems a fine and noble goal) but rather this narrow understanding of what type of experiences a happy human life could involve.