The hidden face of modern Britain

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
A ban on hooded tops cannot disguise the breakdown of respect in society, says Ewan Aitken

News that a shopping centre was banning hooded tops but had not stopped the sale of them was for me a parable about modern Britain. We want both the individuality of consumerism and the respectful relationships of the common good. But when the consequences of the second breaking down challenges the first, we go for the easy option and simply make a fashion statement.

Others before me have made the comment about the apparent mixed message sent out by the shopping centre's decisions, although the truth is it's not that mixed. The challenge is not to the wearing of a hooded top in itself but to the destructive actions of some who then use it to seek to evade being held responsible for their actions.

Here the actions of individuals affect the common good, so we challenge the fashion statement they make instead of engaging the more fundamental problem of the lack of respect from all sides.

For me the problem here is not the mixed message about hooded tops.

(Edinburgh is in trouble otherwise - hooded tops form part of the uniform in a number of our schools.) The problem is the more deep-rooted one about how we, as a society, respond to the destructive actions of a small minority who seem unable or unwilling to engage in a sense of respect for others or even themselves.

The public responses to this conundrum have been either the authoritarian big stick or a more nurturing diversionary activity.

Proponents of the first mock those who propose the second as wishy-washy liberals. Those tainted as liberals respond with the challenge that making criminals of the young and demonising the next generation will create more problems than it solves. The debate usually progresses to one about rights and responsibilities, with the young accused of having all the rights and no sense of responsibility and adults being the opposite. The word respect is bandied about as a lacking in some and a demand from others, but with little indication as to how it can be rediscovered.

In among all this, schools are often cited as evidence of where the problem manifests itself and the cause of the problem (they don't teach them respect these days, bring back the belt). Often the same people maintain that they are the place for the solutions to be found. Recent debates about discipline in schools have reflected this dichotomy.

The truth is that none of us has the answer but we are all part of the solution. The oft-quoted statistic that school-age children spend 15 per cent of their time at school and 85 per cent elsewhere is highly relevant here.

In building respectful relationships, school can only work with the raw material parents bring to the playground gate. Schools can have a huge influence but only if they work with an understanding of the world shared by the adults that young people meet outside the school day.

Respect is a reflection of relationships. Banning the wearing of hooded tops from a centre that continues to sell them will not earn the respect of those who want to wear them. It avoids the relationships that need to be rebuilt not simply between the centre and the young people but between those young people and the world in which they find themselves.

Francis Hutchison, one of the founding thinkers of the Enlightenment, argued that we find contentment in the quality of our relationships with others. We seek our happiness through helping others to be happy. In working to meet the needs of others, we earn their respect and they in turn respect us.

This view of the world was challenged by another early Enlightenment thinker, Lord Kaimes, who believed that we are driven by an urge to possess everything we can and that, as a society, we create laws to protect our property from others and to protect other people's property from our own urge to possess. Through respecting those laws we both learn self-respect and earn the respect of others. The tension between these two views remains today.

The Hutchison view understands that those who make others unhappy are unhappy themselves. The Kaimes view is that those who make others unhappy should simply feel the full force of the law. One begins with the individual, the other the common good. To understand how to respond to behaviour that does not respect others, we need to decide as a society which world-view we believe to best describe the human condition.

Our response needs to be framed to reflect that world-view, a response that will dig much deeper than a banning order about a fashion statement.

Ewan Aitken is education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council.

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