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Posted by Philip on 6 June 2013, 8:00 pm in , , , , ,

Neo-freedom. Licence or lax?

It's often that I struggle to know the answer. I'm used to it and, mostly, I need to work out the next question.

This week, I've floundered to know what I think and that's been disquieting. In fact, I've had to discuss this issue with several people in order to feel clear enough to write this.

Even as I write, I'm not sure I'm right. But, as I said to one of those with whom I engaged in discussion, this is a difficult conversation – one that someone has had the courage to start it and to which I would be cowardly not to respond.

My grapple has been with a blog post written by a gay man (the author) about his friendship with another intellectually disabled gay man (his friend). Purposely, I'm not using names here, because the naming and description of his friend is something with which I have problems.

In an attempt to very briefly summarise the post (but you'll need to take the time to read it, though it's fairly long, to get the true nuance):

The author first came into contact with his friend when his friend rang a telephone counselling service with which the author volunteered.

The author "liked talking to him" and ended up having "to ask my partner ... to deliver [a bigger cage for his friend's budgies] because by the rules of the service I was permitted no ‘real-life’ contact with our callers. Somehow, at the job’s end, when I no longer had to obey the rules, [his friend] continued on in my life."

The author has gone on to have a 14-year relationship with his friend. During this time, he writes, they have talked "on a daily basis."

The author, to his credit, has supported his friend emotionally, practically and financially. In particular he has stopped his friend from being "ripped-off financially with frequency by a number of commercial organisations which saw an intellectual-disability as something to be exploited." Good on him.

But here's where it gets troubling. Over the course of the 14-year "friendship", the author became aware that his friend had been sexually abused by the institution where he lived as a child. He was also aware that, during the 14 years, his friend had sex with men responding to a flatmate ad. The author was also party to his friend being patched into conference calls, by another friend who was and by all accounts still is a journalist, with politicians and celebrities, who consequently swore at him.

The author has revealed, in a response to his post, that his friend has no comprehension that his very sensitive story is published, in quite graphic detail, without, it seems, his expressed consent, on the net, for the world to see. From an editorial perspective, I wonder if it is ethical, as you will read, that the author outed his friend as a rape victim/survivor, without his permission.

As I've said before, I'm left with more questions than answers about the blurry space of the author and his friend's relationship.

Fundamentally and philosophically, for me it points out the inevitable tension between safety and freedom and many writers, Rich Dad, Poor Dad's Robert Kiyosaki to name one, have written that to have more of one is to have less of the other.

The author's stance has been to allow his friend pretty much complete freedom to exercise his own agency independently. That is admirable when faced with the history of people like his friend having no free agency at all. The questions I have, though, are referred to (albeit in a different context) in this Stanford University piece on Doing vs. Allowing, and particularly when considering Causing and Not Causing Not to Occur.

While the author did a lot to help his friend overcome some life problems, you have to ask whether he allowed (or didn't cause not to occur) things that were not in his friend's best interests. I'm not out to blame and shame the author, but since he chose to put his story in the public domain, I think have a duty to express my concerns.

As I said, I have more questions than answers, so let me frame my concerns as such; and focus mainly on the two issues that cause me most concern - the flatmate ad and the phone calls. I should add, with due respect, I'm surprised at the comments, on the author's post, of and about parents of disabled daughters and sons.

So, my questions:

  • Overall, how ethical was it that the author made contact with his friend through his role at the counselling service, albeit indirectly via his partner, and even though he waited until he was not associated with the service to make direct contact?

About the flatmate ad:

  • If his friend were a woman, how would people respond to a friend not realising that an ad for flatmates for an intellectually disabled woman would not lure men looking for sex? Is this the action of a good friend, or one who lacks responsibility, albeit out of "naivety"?
  • Is the author projecting an out-dated, fantasised ideal of gay sex - anonymous, seedy and non-heteronormatively edgy - "terrible – [with] a baby-seat in the back of the car"?
  • When the two visited the institution where the author's friend lived, he described the places where he was raped and punched, then said, 'We were very happy here.' The author observes the "disjunct between his descriptions and his state if mind" as "a revelation." That seems to trivialise the fact. Would not someone, particularly, as the author was, trained in phone counselling, have the presence of mind to reflect back that incongruency, to say that, for most of us, that would be an unhappy experience. And should not someone with knowledge of this fact report it?
  • Given that his friend had a history of sexual abuse, an incongruent sense of its meaning and an impairment which affects his judgement, is it reasonable to justify leaving him to run the ad because "...who could blame him? The ad provided sex, human contact, and drama"?
  • Is the situation between the author and his friend not analogous to a friend insisting on driving drunk? Would you not intervene, against their protests, and take their keys, not allow them to drive, because they were not in a suitable frame of mind to make a rational decision about something that could to them harm?
  • And what of the men who had sex with the author's friend? Would they not possibly be guilty of sexual exploitation of person with significant impairment under s138 of the Crimes Act, where "[e]very one is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years who has exploitative sexual connection with a person with a significant impairment"? Did the author have a moral, if not ethical, duty to report these occurrences and to intervene and prevent them? Should these acts not be brought to the attention of police and investigated? Or doesn't it matter because the author's friend is disabled (and gay) and by putting the ad in the paper, he asked for it?
  • It is also food for thought that s195 of the Crimes Act prohibits a person who has actual care or charge of a vulnerable adult to omit to discharge or perform any legal duty the omission of which, is likely to cause suffering, injury, adverse effects to health, or any mental disorder or disability to a vulnerable adult  if the conduct engaged in, or the omission to perform the legal duty, is a major departure from the standard of care to be expected of a reasonable person.

About the phone calls:

  • Would a good friend allow another friend "himself diagnosed with ADHD and ‘poor impulse control'" to consistently over 6-7 years humiliate his friend and allow his friend to be sworn at, and then justify it as "some sort of Rorschach Test, where you could judge people on how they handled an unexpected call" from an intellectually disabled person.
  • Wouldn't you let it happen once, maybe twice and then call it quits, because it's not funny, it's just perpetuating bad attitudes towards intellectually disabled people. Or was it a cheap form of entertainment for the author and his journalist friend? (The blog editor has said that the author tried to discourage the phone calls and they were entertaining to both his friends.)
  • But what journalistic ethics was the author's journalist friend breaching by allowing a third party access to people to whom he had contact due to his profession?

To reiterate, I'm not discounting the author's acts of kindness towards his friend. They were generous and deserve recognition. Nor am I trying to scare people with and without intellectually disability from befriending one another.

But in this time of social change, where we are acknowledging the value of people like his friend, I believe we have the responsibility to act in people's best interest and be aware and brave enough to intervene to prevent harm, rather than grant freedom without boundaries. The author's post seems to undermine this.

(In fact I think we should all be reconsidering how we look out for each other across the board.)

Otherwise, are we not creating some sort of neo-freedom? Do we allow those who are more vulnerable, due to their impairment, than the rest of us, the licence to act with their own agency, because to be free is to take risks? Or is this asking for a get-out-of-jail-free card for acting in a lax and irresponsible manner in the name of, as the author says, "treating [people] as much as possible like [we'd] treat anyone"?

It seems to me that, in some ways, the author's friend's experience in institutions didn't change much with the author in the community. Sure he had his money problems sorted, but the institution would have done that too – by taking his money from him. But was his risk of abuse, humiliation and exploitation reduced? I'm left unsure.

I'm also left with the exact opposite feeling I imagine his friend may have felt when the author revealed the difference between fiction and fact. I feel like I've read some questionable facts written as though they were some dark fiction – the kind of novel one might read and finish, relieved but chilled by the dark side of heroism.

I think there's a space in between, where we value people enough to allow generous freedom but respectfully set boundaries to ensure taking risks doesn't become out of control and risky.

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