A smack in the eye for sense

15th August 2003 at 01:00
Forget the liberal society. Today's curtain-twitchers are if anything more reactionary and distrusting than their predecessors, says Stuart Waiton

GROWING up in Newcastle in the 1980s, figures like Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers' and Listeners' Association epitomised everything that was reactionary about British society. The ban everything, hang 'em and flog 'em brigade was represented by the blue rinse, curtain-twitching old women whose nimby mindset meant their lives were spent watching us playing football in the street to see if we damaged their rhododendrons.

Today, as a parent just about to let my children free on to the streets, I would like to propose a different group of people as the new middle-class reactionaries of the Noughties. The anti-smacking lobby.

A friend, who lives in London, phoned me last week, exasperated following his pre-interview meeting for a social work post. This consisted of three social workers trying to discover whether my friend Bob (name changed just in case) had been smacked as a child. Bob was unclear whether this information was so important because they wanted to know if he had been smacked (read abused) as a child, or if they really wanted to know whether he smacked his own children. Cleverly, Bob lied and said he hadn't been smacked as a child. He got the job.

Judging from this it seems clear that, despite smacking not being "illegal" (yet), it is being treated as such in certain circles and practices institutionalised to this effect. So confident is the anti-smacking lobby in its case, that MPs feel free to link the death and torture of Victoria Climbie with everyday smacking - "one thing leads to another", and so on.

Almost no one except, ironically, the blue rinse brigade, will actively argue against this development. The anti-smacking lobby appears to be so progressive, caring and child friendly that few will challenge its ideas without a certain amount of embarrassment.

However, as the Victoria Climbie example suggests, the progressive nature of this lobby is in fact a myth and the view of human beings that lies behind it is fiercely debased.

Rather than being predicated on the interests of children, I would argue that those who campaign against smacking do so first and foremost because of a loss of trust in adults. Like the ever-rising fear of crime and the ever-growing demand for more regulations and laws to protect us the "yobs" on the streets, the anti-smacking lobby see ever more abuse and likewise demand that "something be done" to protect children from the "yobs" in the home. The very concept of abuse, which is so freely used by those campaigning against smacking, is a loaded concept predicated upon a deterministic view of young people as both vulnerable and weak. By simply defining a smacked child as an abused child, the child in question immediately becomes a victim, damaged goods, scarred for life and in need of counselling (note that the NSPCC would like to see a counsellor in every school).

That a child may be unaffected by or cope with being smacked is simply passed over or seen as impossible by these campaigners. Indeed, so feeble are children seen in today's self-esteemed times that the idea that a child may learn and develop from any difficult situation is in danger of extinction.

Finally, like the old curtain-twitchers who were scared of the young people who hung around their streets (especially working-class boys), the anti-smacking lobby in reality fears the children and young people it appears to be so concerned about. The "violence" of one generation is seen and understood as something that will be - Pavlovian like - passed on to the next. Thus "violent" dad equals "violent" son and so it goes on.

So beware the modern day curtain-twitchers who are, if anything, more reactionary and distrusting than their predecessors as they're not only peering out on to the street - they also have a glass up against the wall.

Stuart Waiton is a director of the youth research group www.GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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