Last week the RSA got some publicity for their idea that people should be ‘trained in basic community safety skills,’ meaning dealing with ‘antisocial behaviour and low-level public disorder’. Ben Rogers floated the idea a couple of years ago. It builds on the history of first aid lessons, and would fit into the tradition of adult education. The paper doesn’t acknowledge the fact that community centres have been running self-defence classes for women for as long as I can remember.
As so often with the RSA there’s that uncomfortable sense of appearing to say ‘we could try doing this to people’. Suggestions need to be based firmly on what people are already trying to do for themselves, in their own neighbourhoods. And if policy is to be influenced, it might be reasonable to acknowledge the value of, and strengthen opportunities for, informal and semi-formal interaction in local spaces.
Recalling the ‘respect’ agenda (lots more here, although of course the Blair government's respect website site has disappeared) I’d note that well-meaning ideas of this kind tend to lack appreciation of what it’s actually like to live in an area where the tensions of uncivil behaviour are consistently high; or that people are and always have been working to confront disorder around them.
So we read that the proposed approach ‘relies on training and skilling people to meet social challenges, rather than always resorting to the law or police’.
‘Always’? People aren’t always resorting to the law or the police. False start, immediate disqualification.
Residents almost always are already investing in the co-production of safety, often in a context where the police and other agencies are unresponsive and the law is simply not an accessible option. What's it like living on an estate characterised by civic absence? Draining, disempowering.
Lynsey Hanley, meanwhile, has stepped forward and admonished the RSA gently in this Guardian article. She goes on to point directly at the problem of ‘the true nature of privilege’ which is that ‘it allows you to live an entirely stress-free existence, should you choose to do so.’
‘Having lived for a long time in a poor area and then, for a much shorter time, in a rich one, it strikes me that the main difference is the overwhelming sense of control and "rightness" the rich area had. Anti-social behaviour was much rarer for the simple reason that people generally had better things to do and had no wish or reason to debase themselves in public.’
This is what I think of as the 21st century version of 'two nations'. Lynsey goes on:
‘The point is that we cannot do the work of the state without the back-up of internal as well as external resources. A fragmented neighbourhood of stressed and transient people is not going to be able to police itself as well as a settled area of contented and confident people.’
I'm sure there is scope for Ben Rogers' idea to be grafted on to existing community initiatives. As a movement of its own, I think not.