"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

Let's between us make the world a better place.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Love a Lout and Hug a Hoodie! Where have we gone wrong?

A young man murdered a teenager in a South London suburb in an unthinking moment of unprovoked aggression. This man has been sentenced to life imprisonment, and two families each lose a son. One was much loved. Nothing will fill the hole in his parents’ hearts. What about the other? In summing up the case on the steps of the Law Courts the police said that these two young people came from different worlds in the same city. One was a decent and loving child. One, he said, was a yob.
That was a few years ago now. Fast-forward to the events of the last few days in English cities and we see that little seems to have changed.
Prime Minister David Cameron returned early from holiday – some would say he should have come sooner - to take charge of what has unravelled as an appalling and frightening situation on our streets. Certain sectors of our society, he said, are quite frankly sick.
So how do we go about healing this sickness?

Five years ago, in 2006, when he was the UK Conservative Party leader, David Cameron expressed his view that kids guilty of anti social behavior needed compassion and kindness from those who worked with them. The press distorted his remarks. Go out and ‘hug a hoodie’ or ‘love a lout’, they proclaimed. His comments were ridiculed.
In fact there is a serious and real truth hidden behind this media scorn!
Cameron was speaking to the Centre for Social Justice on the link between social injustices and crime, particularly among the young. The point he actually made in a thoughtful and balanced speech was that long-term answers to anti-social behavior would be found in a ‘pro-social’ society. We have to get to grips, he said, with the causes of crime. We must understand the social circumstances that so often create the environment for the anti-social behavior in the first place. Of course we need tough sanctions and a sense of justice and boundaries. But if the police stand for sanctions and penalties, then all those who work with the kids must stand for love. Not, Cameron assured us, a soppy love, but a love that is all about relationships and emotional development in an atmosphere of security and trust.
Five years later, what has been achieved? Clearly not enough!
First let me say that neither Cameron nor I are in any way condoning the appalling acts of criminality witnessed over the last dew days. (Although the subsequent clean-ups organized by many decent citizens do reflect the makings of Cameron's Big Society.) But we do all have to ask ourselves what can we do, personally, to help prevent such happenings again. How do we give these perpetrators of violence and looting a sense of worth, a sense of moral values, of right from wrong?
The issues here are several, and complex, and unemployment and poor education, often indeed linked, contribute to a lack of self worth and self- esteem. But this looting is all about materiality, and greed, for consumer goods that are not going to make any of those people happier or more fulfilled in the long run. It will put quite a few into prison, perhaps blighting their lives permanently. And in destroying businesses the yobs are destroying the very hands that could feed them! We have clearly failed many of our own youth.

The Dalai Lama, in Ancient Wisdom Modern World: Ethics for the New Millennium (London: Abacus, Time Warner Books UK, 2000 p.192) stresses that education ‘constitutes one of our most powerful weapons in our quest to bring about a better, more peaceful, world.’ He emphasizes the need to open children’s eyes to the needs and rights of others, so that their actions have a universal dimension, and they develop their ‘natural feelings of empathy so that they come to have a sense of responsibility towards others.’ He reminds us that traditionally it has been assumed that ethical and human values would be taught through a child’s religious upbringing rather than in mainstream state education. With the declining influence of religion and faith in family life this vital part of a child’s education has become neglected. The Dalai Lama proffers three guidelines for the education of our children. First, he says, we need to awaken their consciousness to basic human values by showing them how these are relevant to their future survival, rather than presenting them as solely an ethical or faith issue. Then we must teach them how to discuss and debate, to understand the value of dialogue rather than violence for resolving conflict. That was a skill seen to be sadly lacking over the last few days on our streets. And finally, (although thankfully this did not appear to be in an issue this last week), there is the urgent need to teach children that differences of race, faith, culture, while important to preserve, are nevertheless secondary to the equal rights of us all from whatever background to be happy. (And of course this is best done in the security of a close loving family unit. But that is also another issue for me to take up and write about in another post.)
Regrettably the purpose of education as seen in most of our traditional schools is to train people for jobs, rather than to be the rounded and spiritually grounded citizens of tomorrow, and we are even failing in that purpose for many of our kids. Our education system is shackled by the needs of exams and syllabuses and league tables. And for those of little academic prowess the system does not seem to provide enough suitable alternatives – apprenticeships for learning a useful trade, for example. Wouldn’t it be good if in the future more of our schools come to be judged not only on their position in academic league tables but on how successfully they turn out well rounded, happy, respectful, useful, empathic and spiritual citizens?

And if school does nothing for them, where else can our youth discover a sense of belonging, a sense of value to society, a sense of community? Because it is surely when a community breaks up that we see aimless and marginalized children, where knife, gun and drug cultures flourish, alongside lawlessness, graffiti and a general loss of respect for one and all.

Whilst it seems clear to me that we are failing our children, there are plenty of examples of good work quietly going on beyond the public gaze, where kids are being helped to develop a sense of worth and belonging, a sense of purpose. There are places where families are supported in local networks, where children are made to feel loved and wanted rather than part of a ‘problem’. In the longer term the most effective initiatives will be those that cut across the ‘them and us’ divide, avoid any kind of social exclusion and foster a broad inclusiveness for all.
This is all about building what Robert Putnam calls ‘social capital’, through social networks and mutual assistance. Because this is not a problem unique to England.In the hopeful book, Better Together: Restoring the American Community, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005) Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein tell the stories of twelve such initiatives, from neighborhood groups to a Fortune 500 company, from a
church to a website, but all in their unique ways helping to build real community that has lasted and is respected as such.

So let’s all start looking at the ‘communities’ where we live. Consider your church, your kids’ school and your neighborhood. We can all add to that list our own places of work and leisure. How many real community characteristics are evident? How holistic is your child’s education? Are the kids and youth all valued, or are there dangerous pockets of disaffection. Do we have the opportunity, as governor, teacher or parent, to guide towards a more holistic education, and to love a lout or to hug a hoodie?

Postscript: I am delighted to see that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams speaking in the House of Lords earlier today said that education itself needs to be rebuilt, as the building of "character" and "virtue" has faded over the past two decades. He says there are no "quick answers", but it's not just about discipline but about the ethos of educational institutions. Exactly so!

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