Sunday, 06 January 2013

All to himself ‘He never waves when he goes by… He’s all to himself… I think I know why.’ (Tom Waits, ‘What’s he building?’ Mule variations, 1999) In a recent tragic accident, Mark van den Boogaard, a Dutch skydiver, appears to have plunged from the firmament and his body lay undiscovered in a field for over a week. One reason he was not missed was that, according to the manager of the skydiving club, he was "a friendly and happy man, but a loner, someone who did not really talk to anyone and was always on his own". Van den Boogaard was self-employed and ‘was not close to any of his relatives’. In one sense then his demise sadly reflects the apparently severe accountancy of personal relations: if you invest in relationships and take an interest in others, they’ll come looking for you if you go missing; if you don’t, they won’t. When people describe someone as ‘a loner,’ what does it tell us about local social relations? Adam Lanza, the 20 year old who carried out the Sandy Hook School killings in Newtown, Connecticut, was described as such, someone who was ‘very shy and didn't make an effort to interact with anybody.’ And it seems that some people were aware that he was unwell. (Others must have been aware also that his mother was ‘a gun enthusiast’. A WHAT??? A ‘gun enthusiast.’ Apparently, in that frighteningly uncivilised country, there’s nothing exceptional in that). I think the word ‘loner’ is being used here in a sinister way, albeit with hindsight, to imply someone who was not just passively disinclined to socialise; not even someone just actively resistant to engagement with their peers; but one who was pathologically resistant. And in the neighbourhood or, say, the high school context, other people can draw vague conclusions without anything further being justified by way of implication or action. Up to a point, wherever that is, it is not in the group interest to interfere: 'community' has a degree of tolerance built-in for its own defence. ‘He has no dog and he has no friends and his lawn is dying’ croaks Waits. We lament to ourselves the impact that dysfunctional co-residents have, the state of their garden, the impoliteness of disregard, the impact they have on our sense of community. But the community that seizes upon and rejects the harmless dysfunctional is itself dysfunctional. The social democracy of neighbourhood relations, with its contrasting forces of shared interest and rights to privacy, means you can’t simply report someone to authorities for being weird and uncommunicative. (Unh, that doesn’t mean it’s a great idea to leave guns and ammunition around the house). If someone in your neighbourhood is a loner it’s not your responsibility to be any more than a neighbour – which under most conventions means being open to encounter and conversation while respecting their privacy. But still, shouldn’t we expect families to take some responsibility for their members’ mental health? And shouldn’t we make properly-resourced support easily...
Safety and the militarisation of schools A couple of months ago I had to deliver something to a primary school during the day in term time. It wasn't as much of a security challenge as I had feared, which may reflect a degree of comparative enlightenment at the school in question; or perhaps it was in a low-risk area; or that my expectations have been affected negatively by the 'Secured by Design' movement. I certainly dislike the tendency to militarise our schools and see it as consistent with a culture of private car use and the development of gated communities. Fences are a bog standard example of the human inclination to outsource social responsibilities to technology. If you can minimise the supervision of children by constraining their movement, it allows you to get on with other things. But then, wait, other people might be able to reach them: so you have to add a camera or two. And then what? According to the National Rifle Association, that respected forum of balanced humanitarian reflection, in every school you'd need 'a good guy with a gun.' Today there's a new set of papers from those excellent folk at the new economics foundation (nef) on the need to revisit what we mean by 'prevention' with a view to coming up with a positive sense of prevention across social policy. One of the papers, by Anna Minton and Jody Aked, takes aim at the effect of Secured by Design principles on schools. They make the point that there is a significant impact in low income neighbourhoods: 'Schools, in particular, have become high security environments, emphasizing gating, high fences and CCTV. Because Secured by Design requirements for schools and public buildings are based on an audit of local crime risk, higher crime areas, which correlate with higher deprivation scores, are now characterised by public buildings... with a militarised feel to them.' The papers are welcome but I fear too conceptual and theoretical to ensure the sort of debate that is needed. And the time may not be ideal for the encouragement of more open thinking about the Other. I hope I'm wrong about that.

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