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Professor Peter Saunders

Professor Peter Saunders

Brits recoil from teaching respect for authority at home or school


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When 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 wrong question.

The real question, he said, is not why some break the law. It is why we don’t all break the law.

Following 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 pass up.

Yet 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.

External 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 defend themselves.

Police 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?

The 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 the consequences.

The 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.

So 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.

Hormones and peer group pressure might tempt us from the straight and narrow in the teenage years, but a nagging conscience drags us back again.

The 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 actions.

In 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.

Those 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.

At 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.

The 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.

It 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 1890s.

Nor is there any secret about where to search for solution

s: 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.

The 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.

First published in The Australian