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recoil from teaching respect for authority at home or school
I was a student, I took a course in the sociology of deviance.
After weeks reviewing theories about the causes of
law-breaking, the lecturer announced that we were asking the
real question," he said, "is not why some break the
law. It is why we don't all break the law."
last week's riots in Britain, politicians and commentators
have similarly been asking the wrong question. What caused
thousands of (mainly) young males to torch buildings where
they live, loot local shops and attack fellow citizens is a
no-brainer. Kicking against authority is exciting. Being in
the thick of the action when the television cameras are
rolling makes you feel important. And the chance to grab some
designer clothing and a widescreen plasma TV is too good to
many people did not riot, and they are the interesting ones.
Why didn't everyone cash in on the anarchy? The answer lies in
external and internal constraints.
constraints have to do with the likelihood of getting caught,
and the consequences if you are. Last week, many people
calculated, correctly, that they could mask their faces, join
a mob, and act with relative impunity. Police resources were
desperately overstretched, and it soon became clear that even
if the police arrived in substantial numbers, they would do
nothing. The images that shocked middle England most were
those showing the police standing watching as young hoodlums
ran around breaking into shops and setting light to buildings.
There was, for a while, no law, and no serious attempt to
maintain order. Shopkeepers and householders were left to
chiefs accept they made a strategic mistake, that had they
acted sooner and more firmly, the rioting may have been
contained or quelled altogether. The perception that you could
join a riot and get away with it undoubtedly fuelled the
violence. But why were the police so inert?
answer is that, for many years, they have been accused of
being too heavy-handed. Had they acted earlier, and more
firmly, we would today be hearing familiar complaints about
brutality, excessive use of force and institutional racism. By
doing nothing, the police ensured there could be no damaging
images on YouTube and no inquiries arising from their conduct.
The Brits have neutered their police and last week they saw
calculation by many rioters that they were unlikely to get
arrested was reinforced by the knowledge that it wouldn't
matter much if they were. There is a widespread belief in
Britain that the criminal justice system is weak and
ineffective. Blair's ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders)
became a joke and are being scrapped; community service orders
are often disregarded; and Justice Secretary Ken Clarke
insists prison doesn't work and sentences should be cut.
Little wonder youngsters are unconcerned about the possibility
of a criminal conviction.
the external constraints have withered. Even so, most people
did not join in the rioting. The reason is they knew it was
wrong. And this points to the crucial importance of
internalised constraints. Internalised constraints are the
product of early socialisation, in which we learn the basic
norms and values of our society. The process starts from the
moment we are born, so that by the time we reach the
rebellious years of adolescence, basic notions of right and
wrong are deeply ingrained and almost instinctive.
and peer group pressure might tempt us from the straight and
narrow in the teenage years, but a nagging conscience drags us
key agencies of socialisation are families and schools. In
Britain, both are in a state of disarray, so many youngsters
grow up without a strong moral framework to guide their
the schools, there has been a 40-year revolt against
structure. Gone are the rows of desks, all facing the front.
Gone is the concern for spelling rules, the rote learning of
arithmetic tables, the laborious phonic reciting of the
alphabet. Teachers in jeans emphasise creativity, self-esteem
and child-centred learning, which means students' desires are
paramount. In place of the last-resort threat of physical
punishment, trouble-makers are excluded, which means they are
passed around schools, repeating their mischief-making while
attracting no meaningful response.
fortunate enough to be raised by committed parents may come
out of this system relatively unscathed. Commentators have
recently noticed the remarkable success of Indian and Chinese
youngsters growing up in Britain. They easily outperform white
and Afro-Caribbean kids in school, and they also have much
lower crime rates (I saw few Indian or Chinese kids running
riot on the streets last week). The explanation is that they
are raised in strong, aspirational families.
the opposite extreme, about one-third of British children grow
up in single-parent families, most of which are female-headed.
Despite repeated protestations to the contrary, this is not a
viable or desirable way to raise children, especially boys.
problem has little to do with money. A middle-class friend who
is a single mum told me last week how she is finding it
impossible to control her 14 year-old boy. He recently called
her a "f . . king whore" and threatened to knife her
when she attempted to punish him. She is a teacher. Boys need
adult male role models, and (although it is unfashionable to
say it) paternal authority.
should come as no surprise to learn that societies that fail
to socialise their young properly become unhappy, chaotic
places. French sociologist Emile Durkheim warned of the
dangers of anomie weakness of normative regulation back in the
is there any secret about where to search for solutions:
more effective enforcement of rules by authority (including
the police and the schools) is needed to maintain a
predictable sense of order and renewed support for strong,
cohesive, traditional families is needed to sustain the
conditions required for effective, moral upbringing.
trouble is, most Brits don't want to hear this. They recoil
against the language of rules, structure, authority and
personal responsibility. They want the government to do
something, but they are unwilling to examine their own codes
of living. I suspect things are going to get a lot worse
before public opinion resolves to do something effective to
reverse the rot.
published in The Australian
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