November 5, 2006

A society with too much money and few values

Posted in Ireland · 15 comments ·
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What would you do if it was your daughter? How would you feel if your little girl was attacked so violently by that coward, to the sickening chorus of cheers from other teenage girls?

What would you do if it was your daughter? How would you feel if your little girl was attacked so violently by that coward, to the sickening chorus of cheers from other teenage girls?

The so-called ‘happy-slapping’ episode in Ballymun — which was exposed in the mainstream media this week – but has been doing the rounds on the web since February, is a challenge to us all. This type of outrageous behaviour, which was coveted, lauded and disseminated widely, constitutes a new low.

Last week, we saw computer-literate feral teenagers, using modern expensive technology, dressed head to toe in expensive branded gear with top-of-the-range camera phones, beat up a girl and then upload the evidence onto the net. It was also revealed that this happy-slapping outrage has been downloaded by thousands of others for the laugh.

The first thing to establish is that the kids who uploaded and downloaded this material are not mired in poverty; they have too much money and no values.

This episode is a watershed for our system because, for years, we told ourselves that, if we fixed the economy, the society would follow. We convinced ourselves – both on the right and left of the spectrum – that if people were given a stake in society, they would value it and change their behaviour accordingly. Last week’s news from Ballymun kicks that theory in the face.

Since the 1970s, it has been fashionable to blame bad behaviour, thuggery, vandalism and low-level violence on poverty.

We were told by sociologists that if these lads were not poor, they would not act violently. The dominant philosophy was that the bad behaviour of others was, in some peculiar way, our fault.

Had most of us not got on with our lives, made something of our chances and tried to instal a set of values in our kids, these guys would not feel resentful, isolated, unloved and prone to violence. So the violence of the underclass would not happen if there was not so much inequality.

The big idea governing western Europe since the 1970s was to ameliorate income inequality and people would behave in a civilised fashion. This could be seen as an unspoken bargain in society: we deliver our side of the bargain and you behave yourselves. Or, to put it another way, we make sure you have a stake in the place and you respond by making the best of your opportunities. In this way, all boats rise. Now this has been achieved in Germany, Austria and most of northern Europe. You rarely see casual violence in these societies and, when there is, this carry on is not tolerated by the police. The police feel within their rights to clamp down, because inequality cannot be cited, nor society blamed, for any bad behaviour.

We now have a dilemma because we have done a good job at reducing inequality, yet we do not have the security on our streets that is the other part of the bargain. According to the EU, Ireland is smack in the middle of the EU average when it comes to the gap between the rich and the poor. We are considerably more equal than Britain, Italy or Spain. Our incomes have been rising across the board at a rate not seen in any European country in 40 years and, with unemployment at 4 per cent and immigrants flooding in to satisfy the demand for labour, anyone should be able to get work.

In short, the system has become inclusive – to the extent that it can. In addition, social welfare is amongst the most generous in Europe and will be increased by more than inflation in this budget.

All this should have delivered the other side of the bargain, which is that those who would be violent would have more respect and they would behave themselves.

But the lads who kicked that girl in the head and then laughed, while filming the whole thing, were not poor by any international measurement. They probably have more disposable income than their parents ever had.

So what are we to do? The happy-slapping episode and anti-social behaviour in general poses a unique challenge to both left and right. The centre-left believed that making society more equal would speed up the march of civilisation.

How hollow that rhetoric seems now.

But equally, the right, which argued that the full force of the law could be used against anti-social behaviour, stands similarly naked. Recidivism indicates that the law seems incapable of instilling basic respect in these teenagers. So where do we start? The first thing to realise is that it is the people in their own communities who are terrorised by local thugs. Survey after survey shows that young men in poorer communities are both the victims and the perpetrators. Liverpool trackie typically beats up Liverpool trackie, rarely an Abercrombie sweatshirt. So Ballymun terrorises Ballymun, not Howth.

It is hard, therefore, to suggest that it is resentment against the ‘haves’ by the ‘have-nots’ that is the issue. Therefore, any solution needs to come from the communities themselves. In addition, with houses in Ballymun going for €300,000-400,000 and unemployment in the area at less that 7 per cent, it is difficult to pin the blame on economic failure.

One idea is that we reinvigorate citizenship.

We re-shape society so that each citizen has a type of contract with the state, whereby rules and responsibilities are set out clearly. The state will deliver such-and-such and, in return, you have to behave in such-and-such a manner.

So maybe welfare is dependent on good behaviour at the lower end, and similarly the benefits that accrue to middle-class people, such as free university education and so on, is dependent on tax compliance. In short, we have a system of contract-based citizenship where each of us has a responsibility in return for rights.

After some time, this contract forms the parameters for what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. If you break this, it is transparent and the penalties known.

If you try to beat a girl to a pulp and film it on your camera, you should have nowhere to hide, your access to the good offices of the state should be indefinitely suspended. Because the contract is well-known and freely signed, the system would work efficiently.

People might say that this would not work, how could it? But we have contracts every day with landlords, banks and insurance companies. We rarely break them. We know the penalties. The thugs who filmed this probably have a contract with O2,Meteor or Eircom. If they do, they know that if they don’t pay, they lose their phone. Simple, so they pay their bills.

The citizenship contract would look the same. At this stage it sounds radical, but so do all interesting ideas at the beginning.

Our system is in need of fixing, so all ideas are welcome.


  1. Paddy Flood

    I’d like to know where you got your figures for social inequality ? I found this : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality , which shows Spain as being more equal than Ireland. That page, unfortunately, is fairly out of date and does not compare like with like timewise. I was under the impression relative poverty is still fairly high in Ireland ? I think we have a lot of structural deficits to address before we can start comparing ourselves to the likes of the Danes, Swedes and Germans. In the past decade, we have been more comparable to the Americans ….

    This social contract idea doesn’t go down too well with me. Besides being a bureaucratic nightmare, I think it’s better to tackle the root cause of problems than to punish wrong doers. People shouldn’t be discouraged from engaging in animalistic behaviour just because there is some rule or regulation against it. They should instinctively have respect for their peers. Creating a more inclusive society is the only way to approach this.

  2. Aesop

    David,
    I agree with eveything that you say in this article. One only need look at the thuggery engaged in over halloween to realise we are a lawless society that is biased in favor of the rights of a thugs over the justice for a victim.

    1) Greater legal responsibilities for parents for the actions of their children. (community service, any kind of social welfare being stopped)
    2) Reform of our legal system which seems incapable or unwilling to deal with thugs (underage or not)
    3) Greater resources for Gardai and greater presence of Gardai on our streets

  3. Aidan

    I think national service should be introduced where every young person both male and female should be required give up a year and contribute to the country. It doesn’t have to be in the army but can be in any area of public service. Of course the public service unions would kick up stink if something like this was introduced. The government has to face up to the vested interests in this country who are holding up necessary change. Alot of these northern european countries with low crime levels also require a year of national service from their citizens

  4. Dan Hayes

    David & Co.:

    Here’s the bottom line – the Irish People have made a faustian bargain with materialism, and they are now reaping its “benefits.”

    A rejoinder might be that we in the States have done the same thing. True. But our bargain was made in a different time – and, anyway, it too may ultimately turn out the same way.

    Enjoy the ride on the Materialism Express – it’s going to be quite an experience!

  5. Enda

    Speaking of responsibility, I’m a bit puzzled about the need for a referendum on the rights of children. It’s not that I disagree with the principle of children’s rights, but writing this into the constitution would seem to move the burden of responsibility for their children from parents to the state. This is unbelievable when you consider the state’s record of dealing with cases of child abuse, not to mention it’s failure to deal with juvenile offenders.

  6. Michael

    Interesting idea, it brings back childhood memories of “eat your vegetables or there’ll be no sweets after dinner.” This may be appropriate for childern but I wouldn’t expect the same treatment in my favourite restauraunt!

  7. Paddy Flood

    You have a point there Dan. David, see the front page of the Irish times from yesterday (Friday 10th). Ireland has been ranked a great place to live, but with lots of relative poverty. I think this justifies my stance. It is naive and narrow sighted to judge the progress of a nation solely by economic means.

  8. 20 years ago I drove a taxi (on the night shift ),in Dublin city.
    On more than one occasion I was hailed by a young couple in Oconnell street or nearby in obvious signs of distress.Many taxi drivers will not stop at the scene of something unusual and less still will allow two people into their vehicle if one of them is holding a blood soaked hankerchief to their face-even if his partner is a well spoken and respectable looking young lady pleading earnestly for help..
    Driving to the nearest casualty department, I learned that there were gangs of animals abroad-even then- on the streets of Dublin whose principal “kick” or “High” was derived from a sudden random,vicious,unprovoked assault (with stanley knives) on one of two teenagers walking down our main thoroughfare,minding their own business, on their way home from a film or a nightclub.
    You can analyze social deprivation and a thousand other things which may have a bearing on some kinds of criminality until you grow long in the tooth.
    The evil that is loose on the streets of every large town and city,(Ireland is no exception ) in the form of these beasts,such as in the Ballymun incident, has no rationalizing.
    By all means cut off their welfare payments or whatever. Then again I have studied judicial decisions on similiar assaults in recent years and the state is less likely to imprison one of these savages who inflicts grievious bodily harm on an innocent victim -than the breadwinner of a poor family who do not pay their TV licence. Pop into Mountjoy sometime.It may surprise you.!

  9. deco

    Seen the program on TV last night (14.Nov) and same last week. I think you should be commended on the work you have doen to help Irish society understand itself better.
    Concerning the increase in thuggery – I think it has a cultural basis, from the current culture that is about self gratification, living for thrills, and selfishness etc.. In other words the real problem is the cultural mores that established themselves as a result of consumerism and popular culture. I think that the loopholed nature of Irish Legal codes, and the arbitrary nature of the judicial system is another factor. And on the streets there is a feeling that the Gardai are not interested or equiped. There is a joke going around in some parts of the country – the only time you see a garda is when there is a house for sale. Gardai have effectively withdrawn from parts of suburban Ireland. I think McDowell is the only Minister for Justicce in a generation who is trying to fight crime. The others gave us soundbites, and tried to work on the old Irish need to be totally reassured, realxed and nonchalent in the face of a desperate crisis. Years ago an Englishman told me that men would die rather than change, and that this was the source of much of the traedy that existed in the world. It seems that few people are listening to your wake call about the issues that need to be addressed in our society. It is like as if it has to reach a crisis situation first. And wew have many people who want to downplay everything that is wrong in order to keep consumer spending high. This is not a nuiquely Irish phenomen I think. It exists in the US and the UK for large proportions of the population also – the porportions that are heaviest involved in the consumer debt industry. It seems that a mindset fits economic behaviour. Which is what we see on your program.
    I reckon you should team up with Eddie Hobbs, and a psychologist like Dr. Anthony Clare and mayeb a writer, and write a volume about Irish contemporary society…

  10. Glen Quinn

    One of John D Rockerfeller (Senior) quotes is “Recession is good for the soul”

    During a boom Mr Rockerfeller saw the morals of people spirraling out of control with drug use, alchohol, prostitution but when recession hit everybody flocked to the church.

    Ireland needs a good old recession to bring back moral values.

  11. David, I like your suggestion.

    To me it’s clear – people will behave according to the incentives/disincentives applicable to them. These scum who “happyslapped” that young girl have absolutely NO disincentive to deter them from carrying on like this. Our patheticly feeble justice system will offer them a mere slap on the wrists…

    A system which provides a viable “carrot and stick” is the only way to fix it. And, if we can fix it in boom times, it will surely be right for bust times too – maybe we don’t need a recession to fix it. Right now, instead of the “carrot” we have a “cheesburger”, while instead of the stick we have a red-faced Mc Dowell unable to get out of his cosy BMW quick enough to kick those guys butts…

    The system in Germany works very well in this way. You often see both shoes of a pair on a stand outside a shop. You’re welcome to try, but if you get caught stealing, do not expect sympathy – you will get fined very heavily and will be an absolute pariah amongst your peers.

    I believe people in Ireland are too recluctant to participate in chastising others for anti-social behaviour. I remember my Granny standing in the doorway of her house shouting at younglads to get down off a wall which ran behind the hedge to the rear of her house. They always scattered when she shouted at them. There is no counterpart to that today…

  12. Karen

    David,

    When in a state of affairs stricken by poverty, it is perhaps only natural to deluge in the fantasy that prosperity will render the world a better and more hospitable place to live. However…as the Ireland of recent years has come to realise – reality bites back, and with wealth and all the joys materialism has to offer, new, more intricate, and perhaps uglier social problems have arisen.

    Thuggery and other such irrational anti-social behaviour may just represent the tip of the iceberg. Think of all the other newfound issues that many people find they have little to no control over – the rising epidemic of eating disorders, promiscuity among both kids and adults now spreading STI’s at the speed of light, stress-related illnesses (anxiety attacks & insomnia etc) following in lieu of financial strains at trying to keep up with an overly consumptive society…

    Granted, some night argue that some of these problems have always been in existence but were previously masked due to the over-riding priorities of poverty – or financially incapacitated – problems that were forced to the fore in times of a “poorer Ireland”, never-the-less, the bottom line is that we are living in the now and these problems exist and need to be addressed.

    I have to agree with Enda and Paul in saying that to abdicate responsibility for youth culture to state bodies does not sound like such an appealing option. What happened to the issue of people taking on board personal responsibility? What I would ask is where are the authorative and disiplinary figues that should be impacting directly on the lives of such thugs on an everyday basis? Should modern-day parenting not be called into question? Paul is right, children, for whatever reasons parents may have, are no longer chastised and punishment is rarely carried out effectively enough for them to realise there are consequences to actions. I also agree with Deco in that this is not a problem for any one body to address alone, rather it calls for economic, psychological, sociological and governing viewpoints to be amalgamated to come to a realistic solution.

    One point that I would like to criticise is the notion that sociologists assume that if violent offenders were not poor they would not offend. This comment is both ridiculous and out-dated. Any recent sociological thought advocates the notion that, like most fundamental issues in society, the roots at the cause of the problem tend to like in the power balances of people within that society. Readdressing the power-balances between parents and their own children may just be a helpful starting point…

  13. Glen Quinn

    If there are problems at home then there will be problems in society.

    I blame equal rights or children rights for disallowing parents to chastised there children properly. We are now seeing the effects that this has on our society.

  14. You are observing the outcomes of the psycho-babble that has replaced and denies common sense and historical experience. As for the mutants, if the lads know how to give it, they ought to take it – good and hard. Singapore has good models for this.

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