I enjoy reading discussions on the internet, political, philosophical, abstract, whatever. The presence of a ubiquitous, anonymous, hugely varied community makes for interesting (if not always erudite, coherent or intelligent) debate. The BBC have a couple of good discussion boards that I read from time to time, and over the last week or so, during my few brief free moments at work, I've been glancing through this particular debate on anti-social behaviour, and how to fix Britain's youth.
Reading through the (incorrectly apostrophised) Readers Recommended listing, which sorts the posts by the number of users who have registered their 'agreement' with the contents of the post, a couple of things become clear. Firstly, that the vast majority of highly rated posts have not only a distinctive right-wing slant to them, but also a distinctive anti-liberal slant. I don't want to get too much into my personal politics and any left vs. right business, but I felt that it was an interesting distinction to make. Secondly, the majority of people who top the readers' recommended list are ones proposing simple solutions. Among the most often suggested solutions are:
- Punish the parents.
- Punish the kids properly (inc. bring back capital punishment)
- Zero Tolerance
- Make prisons more undesirable places to live
You can't treat people like animals and expect them to then behave like humans. To train animals, certainly in the traditional sense, you reward them for doing the right thing and punish them for doing the wrong thing. While this method is in general the basis of teaching anything to behave in any particular way, it is too simplistic to really be applied in the same way to humans. The complexity of human interaction and human society along with heightened feedback (you can ask a child what they are thinking, but you can't ask a dog) mean that simply providing rules and then enforcing them with a carrot-and-stick mentality can easily fail.
If a child talks out of turn in class and is caned as punishment, the child will probably not talk out of turn in class again, certainly in the short term. However, the child will also pick up the message that to stop someone doing something you need to cause them pain.
If a teenager steals a car and gets sent to a prison for 6 months, where he is treated like an animal by the other prisoners (and possibly the prison authorities), all he learns is that he really doesn't want to get caught again. The only thing that has changed when he emerges from prison is that he has more fear and hatred for authority. He has the same life situation that drove him to steal a car, the same group of friends and family that failed to prevent him stealing a car and the only difference will be that next time he gets caught with a stolen car, he'll be driving twice as fast to get away. I'm sure that's something we all want to see.
If the child's parents have their benefits cut (assuming we bend, for the moment, to the stereotype that his parents are on benefits), they will be less able to provide for themselves and for the child. This change will not make the parents more likely to teach the child good life lessons, it will not make them spend more productive time with the child. It will almost certainly lead to a decrease in the child's quality of life, in the same way that any legal punishment would, but with the disadvantage that the 'punishment' goes on behind closed doors and without any regulation.
More importantly, by the time the child has turned 11 or 12, if they are already causing trouble and behaving anti-socially, it is very difficult for their parents to actually have any effect on them. By the time a child becomes a teenager, it is almost certain that their friends will have more of an influence on their actions than their parents will. Punishing the parents in this situation is unjust and detrimental to both them and the child.
I'm already starting to waffle, so I'll try and wind it up now.
'Zero-tolerance' is a term that sounds comforting: we've seen what'll happen if we give these kids leniency, so let's get tough on them now. If we're talking about teenagers (or even younger children), however, then we are talking about people who are still changing and learning as they grow. To teach them at this stage that they are so different from the rest of society that they need to be seperated from it; that there are no scales of grey surrounding acceptable behaviour, only legal and illegal; that the way to deal with a problem is to punish the person creating the problem; that there are easy answers to any social problem; even that the idea of 'tolerance', in whatever context, is an undesirable idea, is to push them even further away from what we want them to become. Assuming, of course, that we want them to become contributing members of society, and we don't just want them to go away.
That last paragraph was quite long and poorly constructed. In which senses it mirrored the whole of this post. I blame the late hour.
As a final point, I'd like to confirm that I'm not offering any easy solutions of my own (or indeed, in this post, any solutions at all). I believe there are things we can do to help reduce anti-social behaviour, but I don't think any of them are quick or easy. Maybe I'll even write some of them on here at some point.
I want to try and write more about this kind of issue (and other issues), and any future posts will probably overlap with this one and with each other. For the record, my views are complex and changeable. They will not be encompassed by any one thing I write on here, and they may change in the futue. Whatever I currently think, however, I'm always up for a debate.