Jill Segger

Moving beyond unexamined outrage

By Jill Segger
August 11, 2009

Last week, a woman asked a group of youths in a Leeds cinema to make less noise. Today, it is still uncertain as to whether her sight will be permanently damaged following their vicious retaliation, for which a sixteen year-old boy is now in custody.

The woman had taken her two children to a screening of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, but their enjoyment of this holiday treat was marred by the rowdiness of the youths. Resentful at being asked to modify their behaviour, the offenders followed the family to a restaurant and threw bleach in the woman's face.

I will admit to a Daily Mail moment when I heard of this barbarous action. The phrases “lock them up and throw away the key” and “broken Britain” flashed across my mental screen until the responsibility of subjecting emotional reaction to reasoned analysis reasserted itself.

This was an appalling act of violence. Some form of punishment, reparation and reformation must follow. But nothing is without cause and actions do not take place within a vacuum. Seeking to understand what might lie behind this attack, I asked a consultant psychiatrist for his view.

“Young males are the among the most psychologically vulnerable members of society” he told me. He explained that they are the most likely to be subject to attention deficiency disorders, to impulsive action and risk taking and are more readily influenced by peer pressure than any other social grouping.

The consequent conduct disorder from which many of them suffer and which so frequently manifests in anti-social behaviour, often continues into later life unless it is correctly managed and may decline into a persistent personality disorder. Our prisons are over-populated by individuals suffering from such disorders.

This intrinsic vulnerability in the young male places a considerable responsibility on society as a whole. Where parenting is poor, the responsibility becomes even greater and the window of opportunity is alarmingly narrow. A primary school head, unconsciously reinforcing the Jesuit maxim “give me a boy till he is seven and I will give you the man”, told me that by the age of eight or nine “there is only remedial action”.

For many years I have been writing to a Death Row prisoner in the United States. I will call him Ben. As with the majority of such prisoners he is black, poorly educated and from a heartbreakingly dysfunctional family.

Born before the Civil Rights movement began to ameliorate some of the indignities and injustices experienced by black Americans, Ben's early experiences of prejudice and discrimination deformed his emerging character. He ran away from home at the age of 11 and thereafter lived by his wits.

It would have been a miracle had he not drifted into crime. Almost 35 years ago, he took part in an armed robbery during which a shop assistant was shot dead. Though Ben's was not the finger on the trigger, the Law of Parties obtaining in the state where the crime was committed, meant that he too received the death penalty.

Now in his sixties, Ben is a thoughtful and morally mature man. He has become widely read and takes a keen interest in social and political thinking. Recently he wrote to me on the subject of youth violence and anti-social behaviour.

These words from the shadow of the execution chamber demand our attention. “We need to teach anger-management and conflict resolution as soon as we start teaching the ABC”. Believing that we must equip children to handle rejection and frustration without resorting to violence, he urges “an incremental upgrade of these skills all the way through college.” If this were to be done, Ben predicts the result would be “a reduction in husbands killing their wives, students terrorising their campuses and less blood on the surface of every school-yard.”

This wisdom has been hard-earned and his closing words are particularly poignant: “Unfortunately, no-one wants to hear from the likes of me.”

But it is exactly the likes of Ben to whom we should be listening. His life experience makes him a prophetic voice. He has lived with the consequences of parental failure and knows that there has to be a wider responsibility for in creating the civilising and graceful disciplines which build up human dignity and make it possible for society to cohere. If these are neglected, the social and personal frailties of the young, and of young men in particular, will continue to manifest in destructive behaviour.

The sensibilities which enable us to take up these responsibilities are being eroded . Aggressive language is frequently the default reaction to relatively minor irritations. It is too often heard in the media and in entertainment because to be thought “edgy” is a money spinner.

A more accurate description of this style of speech and behaviour would be “immature and degenerate.” Last summer, Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson – a man for whom puerile irresponsibility is a profitable brand, told an audience at the Hay Literary Festival that people who are late for appointments “should be shot in the face”.

That ugly and intemperate remark reveals the persistence of the petulant toddler in the adult. That we pay for and consume it without protest is to our shame. Highly paid middle-aged toddlers, misogynist rappers, and foul-mouthed celebrity presenters all contribute to a coarsening of the grain of our common life. There should be no place of neutrality when we are faced with this kind of normalisation of the cruel and self-indulgent.

More is demanded of us. When 16 year old Jimmy Mizen was stabbed to death in a London café in 2008, his grieving father reminded us of our collective duty to “look at ourselves and the values we would like”. The values we are willing to tolerate and those we would like, need to be brought closer together. Doing so requires constant examination of our own attitudes and responses. Every time we fail in showing our children how to deal with life's inevitable disappointments and obstacles, we set them up for adverse reactions in later years.

The frustrated toddler, throwing itself on the ground in a passion of tears, does so because it has not yet learned that its desires are not the only show in town. Guidance and example in developing self-control in the formative years is essential to moral self-management in maturity. Every time we permit ourselves to lash out verbally when thwarted or disappointed, we do not simply display a lack of restraint, we become complicit in a growing culture of aggression.

Politicians vie with each other to appear tough on crime. Tabloid papers crusade for longer sentences to already overcrowded and dysfunctional prisons. In doing so, they plug into reactive moments of horror and anger such as that which I experienced on hearing of the attack in Leeds. If those moments go unchallenged and are permitted to coalesce into a world-view, we will continue to fail in our collective responsibility for our most disturbed young people.

The quaintly named “Advices and Queries”, a collection of notes to help Quakers in the everyday practise of their beliefs, offers this challenge: “Bring into God's light those emotions, attitudes and prejudices in yourself which lie at the root of destructive conflict, acknowledging your need for forgiveness and grace.” If we cannot do this, it is unlikely that we will be able to answer the subsequent question,”In what ways are you involved in the work of reconciliation between individuals, groups and nations?”

There is too much at stake, both in ruined lives and in the fragmenting of society, to permit the option of a retreat into unexamined outrage.


© Jill Segger is a Quaker. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is Ekklesia's assistant editor. She is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger

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