Will Self on Question Time

I know I should be shouting about the album (omfg CDs arrived today, look sweeet) but I had to digress because I can’t get this moment of moral clarity out of my head, from last night’s Question Time: it needs transcribing. They were debating one of the killers of Jamie Bulger. Amid a hawkish, invasive majority view (particularly depraved from Carol Vordermort, who has revealed herself to be an angry, ill-informed sponge for sub-Melanie Phillips Daily Mail fear-isms)…

…amid all that, Will Self said this:

“But there’s something weird, isn’t there, in the kind of British collective imagination about child killers, because there’s a presumption that these boys, who were 10 years old at the time of the crime, must be more evil than an adult killer. Is that what people are thinking? Are they all thinking: “Wow, they must be super evil?” You know, let’s turn it round the other way and just float the weird, strange idea that they maybe didn’t really know what they were doing. People who read the transcriptions of the case at the time and heard these boys’ testimonies heard very, very confused 10-year-old children talking about something.

So people talk in terms of the killers of Jamie Bulger as if they were some kind of Mengele figures, some kind of incredibly evil people: what a frightening thought that they might not have been evil at all.

And even to talk about as you do and as people here – and even I caught Shirley [Williams] saying it in terms of ‘murder’; ‘murder’ is ‘malice of forethought’, I read the transcriptions of the Bulger trial and there was no real evidence of malice of forethought in their crime.”


10 responses to “Will Self on Question Time

  1. His vigour was almost like a preacher at that point, especially in response to Carol’s shrill witterings on the subject. Self can sometimes come across as a cartoon-ish version of himself, all pompousness and jaded quips. However, on Thursday, perhaps inspired by Vorderman’s incessant bleatings (and her utter lack of respect for Dame Shirley) he delivered.

  2. Thanks for transcribing this; I was struck at the time by the accuracy and clarity of Self’s comments. It’s a cliche to say ‘I couldn’t put it any better myself’, but with Self it’s often impossible to imagine an improvement on his words.

  3. I heard Self talking about their confusion on talking about the matter and his repeated mentioning of the transcript and I couldn’t help think to myself… Aren’t you getting being confused by the bright lights, media circus and bringers of consequences (police, judges, social workers etc) with the confusion that one has whilst in the act? While he did put up a very well structured argument, I don’t think that he made any allowance for their being a distinction brought on by realisation.

    With out going into the whole debate here though, I am very surprised that he was in favour of the censorship, little disappointed too.

  4. People almost always refuse to talk about this case, and other cases, in any sort of sensible way. So often there is no thought about justice or the law but just revenge and malice. I missed Question Time this week but might watch it iplayer now.

  5. Will Self’s comments are ill informed, inaccurate nonsense. If you actually *read* the transcripts of the interviews you can see that for yourself that there was very clearly malice aforethought. Thompson and Venables knew exactly what they were doing – they had deliberately gone looking for a child to kill. They had been planning to push a child in front of a car on a busy road before abducting James. They left James’s body on the railway line to make it look as if a train had killed him – You simply don’t cover up a crime if you don’t realise that it is one. Further more the prolonged, sadistic torture and eventual murder was by any definition an evil and despicable act. Anyone who had actually read the transcripts would see that.

    Based on Self’s nonsensical comments I can only infer that he hasn’t actually read the transcripts at all. Will Self should worry less about appearing clever and point scoring and more about simple and plain facts.

    I can’t think of a more clear example of either malice aforethought or evil.

  6. Fraser, wasn’t the point that beneath all the horrific intricacies of what they decided to do, they didn’t understand the simple humanity of the person they were going to (and did) kill? Isn’t what you describe here the details of planning itself – so, yes, forethought, but without malice? The ‘child’ you describe was in their eyes an object?

    I’m not saying that as fact – don’t know enough about it of course. I haven’t read the transcripts (and don’t intend to, although you raise legitimate questions), I trust Self’s interpretation, after being very moved by (as I see it) the humanity and clarity in what he said: that a 10 year old child who has not been able to learn ‘humanity’ is surely not responsible for their inhuman actions?

  7. May I ask how would you define malice other than feeling a need to see others suffer?

    What they did was expressly manifested as the deliberate intention to unlawfully to take away the life of a human being. Not to smash up an object, break a window or some such – they waited for hours to select a child to abduct. When they were questioned by passers by they claimed “he was their little brother”, clearly this indicates they saw him as an infant child.

    I would also repeat that they were calculating enough to try and cover up their actions. They knew what they had done was very, very wrong.

    To answer you question, I believe if a person is capable of such planned, prolonged and horrific brutality then yes, they are responsible and their actions are inhuman (possibly at any age…)

    I do very much admire Self’s work and his views on most things but I don’t see any humanity or clarity in his comments here. He said “maybe didn’t really know what they were doing” – but they clearly did. I actually find it quite repulsive that he would try and score points in a debate by misrepresenting the facts like he did.

    What really puzzles me is why many people seem so ready to take an off the cuff remark of an *author of fiction* against the considered opinion of the police, the CPS, a jury and a judge.

    I agree that there is a point in general terms – but we are talking about a specific case.

  8. Fraser,
    just out of curiosity – would you say that the following situation implies malice (active ill will)?
    – a two and a half year old has a favourite doll. they treasure this doll and, therefore, attribute very human qualities to it (e.g. giving it a name, feeding it, putting it to bed, having conversations with it, and so on). one day, they get very angry (for one reason or another, as all humans do) and they throw this doll down the stairs with the ‘intent’ of releasing frustration upon the (non-threatening) doll.-
    Should this child be prosecuted (since, as far as they were concerned, the doll was ‘real’ to them)?
    I think we have to consider that the boundaries of what is ‘person’ and what is ‘object’ (in the minds of youngsters, never mind adults) is something that is very blurred and ‘police, CPS, judicial bodies’ are very much concerned with sorting behaviours into neat, concrete boxes (guilty/not guilty, 0/1). Isn’t debate about this healthy?
    There was and is a lot of focus upon the act itself and very little on the antecedents… From the Guardian *The author Blake Morrison obtained notes from an NSPCC case conference on the Thompson family. “The Thompson report is a series of violent incidents,” he reported, “none of them in itself enough to justify the kids being taken into care but the sum of them appalling. The boys, it’s said, grew up ‘afraid of each other’. They bit, hammered, battered, tortured each other.”*
    Why are we not discussing the sickness in *our* society? It seems that is what Self was trying to achieve… opening up dialogue, in my mind, is not point scoring.
    (sorry to be all depressing as, actually, I came here to comment ‘loving Nintendo BTW’)

  9. Kay,

    To answer the question of your thought experiment I would simply say no. A doll, no matter how much one attributes human qualities to is still an inanimate object. The child here clearly shouldn’t be prosecuted because their is no statute that would possibly cover this behaviour. The very fact that they attribute rather than perceive these qualities is the telling factor.

    Many studies show that children are very acutely aware of the difference between the two classes (animate/inanimate) even in the first few months of life. Contemporary developmental theories are pretty clear on this. Indeed it could be said that no categorical distinctions are as important to young children’s understanding of the world as the animate/inanimate distinction. Some even go so far as to say that this class of distinction is innate.

    I totally disagree that we need to consider the boundaries of what is ‘person’ and what is ‘object’ for exactly these reasons. Indeed it could be argued that the knowledge of this distinction is one of the core attributes of being human.

    We can debate the reasons of a perceived sickness in our society – thought experiments like the one you outline are incredibly useful for this. What Self did however was to use a real example of a horrific murder to make a trite, unfounded, illogic point.

    I wholly agree that the antecedents should be focused on and discussed. However knowing why they committed such a horrific act doesn’t change the fact that they committed it. Knowing why they were/are evil doesn’t reduce the horror of what they did.


    P.S. I would encourage you to listen to Melvin Brags recent “In Our Time – The Infant Brain” which gives a very good outline of animate/inanimate distinctions in children’s brains http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00r2cn4

    P.P.S. Nintendo is ace 😉

  10. F,
    Thanks for the link:) I haven’t had a chance to listen yet (and I will) but, from reading the synopsis, it seems like it discusses modern review/research of Piagetian theory. I have to say that I admire your style of thinking but, though I cannot dispute the outcome of recent research that has questioned the validity of Piaget’s ‘animism’, I believe it to be just that: a style. My style of thinking, and the reasoning behind my thought experiment, stems from a psychodynamic/ psychosocial perspective (see Melanie Klein’s internalising good and bad objects), which I believe to be a more interactive (but, yes, less scientific) approach to studying the development of the mind.
    I think cognitive developmental theory has an important role to play in understanding human nature (especially attachment theory) but its analysis of it is, at best, objectively ‘detached’ and, at worst, dehumanised ‘black box’ theory. Discussing the antecedents, yes, are important as, in my view, they *could* help us to prevent future wrongdoings such as this.
    I think you may be falling prey to demonising (as Self suggests) as you utilise the emotive strategy of labelling the perpetrators with their surname (to depersonalise) and the victim with their first name (vice versa). I’m not suggesting that their actions were not horrific and despicable but I am hoping that they will be analysed in the context of a still-fairly-unevolved society. The boys who committed these acts were both known to have learning difficulties, which could explain their inability to empathise or register (fully) the gravity of their actions (for a cogdev understanding of this – see Baron-Cohen’s ‘Theory of Mind’).
    After all this, I, myself, am unsure as to how I would feel if Bulger were my child and believe it is a luxury that I am discussing this logically because of this fact. You do have a point though; I appreciate a standpoint like Self’s could appear cold and callous.

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