The naked shopper

27th May 2005 at 01:00
Labour's crackdown on youths in shopping centres is a reminder of the sense of vulnerability that is driving politics, says Stuart Waiton

There is a scene in The Godfather, Part III where Michael Corleone bemoans his inability to escape the world of the mafia and enter the legitimate world of business. "Just when I think I'm out," he snarls, "they drag me back in". This is a feeling I often get when sitting down to write this column, except for me it's the grubby world of the politics of antisocial behaviour that keeps dragging me back in.

Just when I am gathering material on education issues, up pops the beleaguered PM denouncing yob culture, backed up by his deputy John Prescott railing against the hoody-wearing gangs of youths who intimidated him in a shopping centre.

Following the historic third election victory of the Labour Party, it has not been a new and dynamic political programme that has been presented by Tony Blair to engage us, but rather the issue of "respect". The election now looks like a mere intermission to the far more important business of discussing incivility and manners. Forget politics: if only young people would open doors for old ladies and say please and thank you, the world, it appears, would be a much better place.

The point about this discussion is not that Blair and co are living on another planet from the rest of us, but rather that they are engaging with a real concern we all have about what used to be called polite society. But why does politeness or the apparent lack of it make us so anxious?

The point about good manners, and our desire for them, is that today it is all we have got. In the past, etiquette and politeness acted as a code of conduct, not in and of themselves but as part of a wider consensus between people. Today this consensus no longer exists.

"Are you thinking what we're thinking?" asked Michael Howard during the election. Clearly neither he nor the other political parties had any idea what we were thinking, as they all struggled to engage the electorate with little or no success. But the point is that none of us knows what each other is thinking any more. What values do we really share with our neighbours, our colleagues, or even our friends?

Given this situation, where we feel increasingly distant from one another and yet crave for some connection, each time a hooded youth acts in a typically adolescent and ill-mannered way, we feel undermined. Not because of the act itself, but because it shatters our fragile world of politeness.

Being civil to one another is often the only positive connection we make with other people on a day-to-day basis. When this is not forthcoming, it is not the incivility that creates so much anxiety, but the fact that it reminds us of our own sense of isolation from those around us. If we and the politicians really did know that you were thinking what I am thinking, then the petty incivilities of youth would be of no account.

Of course, there is one accepted value that we subscribe to and to which we must all show respect, which stems directly from this sense of isolation, and that is a feeling and recognition of one another's vulnerability. And this is where the politics of antisocial behaviour steps in.

John Prescott was once an official of the National Union of Seamen - and engaged his audience in relation to working class solidarity. Today he, and indeed politicians from all sides of the House, attempt to make a connection with us, not in relation to our commonality, but through our fear of one another. Wherever we find a sense of anxiety and insecurity in society, without fail we also find the media and politicians following close behind.

Unfortunately, the spiralling effect of this incessant discussion about incivility acts as a never-ending reminder that both we and the emperor have no new clothes. Despite a raft of antisocial behaviour measures to overcome our sense of vulnerability, there is no connection made between ourselves or with our politicians and we continue to feel naked and exposed.

A hoody anyone?

Stuart Waiton is director of Generation Youth Issues.

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