Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Individualism, responsibility, and listening I've been puzzled at how reluctant commentators have been to finger Thatcherite individualism in seeking to understand contemporary problems of anti-social behaviour. Just now, most of us are sufficiently detached from the present flashes of gun and knife violence glinting on our news-screens, and probably don't know what to make of it. These are local experiences for which broader cultural explanations are sought. So thanks are due to Josh Freedman Berthoud who in a Guardian article this evening exposes the lasting twisted effects of individualism. He points out that these attacks can be - are sometimes meant to be - indiscriminate and unmotivated: a chilling indication of the kind of society that many city-dwelling British youths now inhabit - a rampantly individualistic society, in which each boy does everything he can to prove that he has no sense of morals or attachment to the society around him. We are finally beginning to gain focus on one of the central social policy issues of our age, in which notions of collective association or responsibility can readily be shrugged off, and behaviour that discounts the humanness of others has swollen grotesquely in the vacuum. Give them credit, government and agencies have spotted the connection here - hence the Respect agenda, among other things - but there's another message less well-grasped: a message about how to hear messages. Certain messages that government sends out - if you do not consume, you have failed as a citizen; you are either with us or against us, so compete or be defeated, and so on - are hard to miss. I'm not sure that messages coming from citizens (or discarded citizens) by contrast, are being processed where government is. A year or two back I heard a government minister refer to the community sector back in 1997, in the early days of 'the New Labour Project' (his words, worthy of capitals on the grounds of pomposity) as not getting the message and being 'somewhere else'. What a hollow irony. Given the inescapabale compulsion towards responsibilisation of the citizen, the possibility that others' views might be genuinely valid and not just there for the purposes of spurious consultation, may finally be unavoidable. Could it be time to stop telling people, from a position of moral bankruptcy, how to behave, and start listening to how they react to one another's behaviour and attitudes? How about this at the simplest level, for example: I've often heard older people, in discussion about kids causing trouble on their estates or in their neighbourhoods, make the point that there's nothing for them to do. It's not unusual to hear older people call for youth clubs and youth work: of course they are frightened by the hoodied clusters on the street corners but they also tend to look for understanding and solutions. So nothing happens for a bit, and then we get ASBOs. It would be nice to think that we could clinch this notion of a conversational democracy, a style of government...

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