March 8, 2006
The new face of Irish politics is Wayne. He is fourteen; hair gelled forward and dressed head to toe in a white Diadora tracksuit. His Nike Perseus runners are a bit scuffed. He snarls at the cameras with his middle finger raised contemptuously at the lens. He doesn’t bother to cover his face with his Celtic scarf. He is afraid of nothing, has no self control and knows no discipline. For him, this behaviour is normal. He spends his time mitching school, hanging around and terrorising passer-bys outside the local Tescos. His heaven is cans of Dutch Gold, a bus shelter and a few spliffs. He gets his kicks from threatening and abusing locals, particularly older people. He is the neighbour from hell.
He is brought up, in the main, by his Granny. This is because both his parents are working full-time in relatively decent, but not particularly secure, service jobs. They have no time for him and as a consequence, he has little time for them. At 62 Granny is hardly going to do discipline and anyway, she believes that most of the stories are made up.
At school, teachers will not act. They can’t. Talk to any teacher and they will tell you that a variety of recent welfare acts prevent disciplining disruptive children without facing the threat of legal action. Other teachers, understandably, couldn’t be bothered. They are teachers after all, not community parole officers. Equally, because no school wants to get a bad reputation for having a discipline problem, anti-social behaviour is hushed up. So Wayne carries on.
The emergence of thousands of Waynes in every suburb in Ireland is the single biggest challenge to our political system. I recently spoke to a long-time, left-wing TD in my neck of the woods who told me that his voters’ concerns had changed dramatically in the past few years. Fifteen years ago the complaints were on cases of unfair dismissals, unemployment opportunities, and poor housing and welfare complaints. Today his clinics are swamped with law-abiding people, terrified in their own homes not so much by their neighbours but by their neighbours’ children. The problem is behaviour. It appears that the family – the traditional transmitter between generations of what is right and wrong and what constitutes good and bad behaviour – is not doing its job anymore. For years, the family could be counted on to instil virtues like respectability, manners and thoughtfulness for others. Society and the State depended on the family – not the law – as the main disciplining agent in the country. This is not the case anymore.
Traditionally commentators have tended to see the causes for bad behaviour through ideological frameworks. Leftwing secularists blamed a combination of high unemployment, social deprivation, poor housing and education. Right wing, moralists located the cause squarely at the doorstep absent fathers, the collapse of the Church or on their perception that do-gooders have blunted the legal process by turning criminals into victims rendering the innocent guilty and vice versa.
However, it is now evident that none of these stories explain the story sufficiently. For example, anti-social behaviour has increased while unemployment has fallen. It is also not limited to the poorest places in the country or uniquely to single-parent families. Both Left and Right are explanations are inadequate. The Left view that ameliorating social inequalities and increasing opportunity, would speed up the march to civilisation sounds hollow. We have made great strides in that direction since the 1980s. Ireland, according to the EU, is more egalitarian than Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal – but we still have behaviour problem that does not appear in these less equal and poorer countries.
On the other hand, the traditional Right idea that the full rigours of the law would sort it out appears equally emasculated because the law has not yet been crafted to deal with bad behaviour which lies above annoyance but below full criminality. The law can decide what is bad behaviour and what are the sanctions against it but it can only work effectively if there is an economic, political and social strategy in place to reinforce the virtues respectability, good behaviour and consideration for others. At the moment, Wayne is not receiving any signals from society that anything he is doing is wrong.
Quite apart from the wake up call of last week’s riots or the crazed violence of this week’s drive-by murder in Coolock, politics and its hand maiden economics need to ask the basic question “what type of people do we want ourselves and our neighbours to be”? Do we want to be a nation of me feiners, whose only response to the likes of Wayne is to lock him up? Or do we, in contrast, want to be a society where Waynes’ nihilism is excused away on the basis of some lack of opportunity. This idea – still apparently popular in sociology departments of our universities – blames Wayne’s behaviour on the economic success of other people as if, in some way, the sight of a stranger’s BMW explains why he terrorises old women on his estate.
Before any reader gets enraged by the appearance of a class bias in this article, let’s get one thing clear – the poor suffer most from anti-social behaviour. Data and surveys on anti-social behaviour reveal that it the poor whose lives are made a misery by feral kids and it is the poor that have less chance to escape neighbour’s children. The poor stand most to gain from a reinstatement of old fashioned virtues.
Given that it is impossible to turn back the clock, how do you discipline a society which has rejected in the moral authority of the church, which has enacted laws to challenge the “bata mor” approach of the past and which is largely suspicious of a “nanny state” interfering in private lives? How does society instil old communal values without losing the new spirit of individual initiative which drives the economy?
Every study of human behaviour indicates we react to incentives. Reward me for doing something and I will do it again. Punish me for something and I am not likely to repeat it. But give me something for free and I will not value it. What about instilling a contract of citizenship with each family? The quid pro quo of a kind, generous and helpful state is a set of rules based on acceptable behaviour. It would act like any contract.
When you rent a flat, the landlord takes a deposit and the tenancy is conditional on certain behaviour, such as not trashing the place. If you get an overdraft from a bank, terms and conditions, as they say, apply. All contracts are dependent on acceptable behaviour. If we did not do this there would be chaos, wholesale theft and commercial breakdown. In most aspects of life, contracts govern relationships and force responsibility on individuals.
If we introduced a contract of citizenship, with obligations on both parents and the state, we could use the state positively to change behaviour at home. From the state’s side, there would be a code of the benefits available and the rights enshrined to all citizens below certain income levels to avail of these benefits.
The other side of the contract would spell out for the first time the duties that society expects in return for these rights. These duties would involve general aspirations such as treating your fellow citizens as you would like to be treated yourself. It might also include specifics such as school attendance. If you want to avail of child benefit, for example, your child must miss fewer than five days a year in school. The consequences of breaking the contract would be spelled out clearly. Citizenship based on a contract would make the deal clear to all sides. The state would know what it has to deliver and citizens would know what duties we all have to fulfill to avail of these services.
If Wayne doesn’t get the services it would be because of his personal behaviour and individual choice. Contract-based citizenship could galvanise the nation, create buy-in across the board and reinforce muscularly the idea that we are not a bunch of individuals, but a functioning, interdependent ecosystem, commonly known as a society