Road to hell - or help?
irl, 8, left injured by hit-and-run driver." This was how The Bucks Herald reported the story of Cait Atkins, who had been struck by a car and "landed in the centre of the carriageway", as PC Matthew Waters reported.
But soon this 250-word story had resulted in mass media outrage at what was described as our "walk on by society". The reason for this sudden interest was that six cars reportedly drove past Cait while she was lying on the ground with her leg broken in two places.
Within two days, this local incident had become a story about the whole of today's "uncaring" society or, as one columnist put it: "Have some of us lost touch with humanity?"
Having started with a girl lying in the middle of a carriageway as cars drove past, we were now informed about motorists who "drove around" the "traumatised girl", and given "expert" analysis from a road safety group about how people no longer have a sense of "common decency".
Could this be true? Are we now so uncaring that we would drive past an injured child lying in the middle of the road? I have my doubts.
Usefully, Radio 4 sent a woman reporter to the area who pretended to break down in her car and then later collapsed in the high street, to see what people did. On both occasions, in no time at all, people stopped to help her.
Journalists and columnists latched on to the story of Cait Atkins to express what they understood to be the collapse of community - something they attributed to our "selfish society". One columnist, showing her own loss of "touch with humanity", explained that this was an example of IED - the newly-discovered Intermittent Explosive Disorder, which apparently affects people while driving, making them "unspeakably aggressive ...
ignoring everyone else to get where you want".
I don't know why six drivers drove past this young girl, or whether they saw her, or were unaware of the difficulty she was in. Whatever the reality, I am utterly convinced that it had nothing to do with selfishness, IED or any other cynical interpretation of "humanity".
However, I do think we are increasingly creating a "walk on by society", especially where children are concerned. This reflects not an uncaring outlook but the confusion that exists in a culture that increasingly equates adult interactions with children through the prism of safety and abuse.
Research by Heather Piper at Manchester Metropolitan University, for example, has shown that many adults working with children carry with them a "burden of abuse - a crippling sense of fear regarding how we touch children who have injured themselves or want comforting." Relating to the breakdown of trust between adults, Piper insightfully notes that "in short, we have learned how not to trust ourselves, and to call that safety".
Institutional practices and cultural values that degrade once spontaneous adult-child relationships are felt equally in public where adults, especially men, are learning to walk on by - just in case. And not only are adults now aware of the "dangers" of caring for children, but likewise they are being discouraged from supervising and disciplining them.
Following a leaked Home Office initiative with the slogan "Don't moan, take action - it's your street too", intended to encourage adults to take responsibility for the behaviour of children, there was an outraged reaction by the press. Immediately, Home Secretary John Reid's position was clarified by a spokesperson who back-pedalled, explaining that "the idea that we are asking neighbours or local people to act on their own is complete nonsense".
In our distrustful, risk-averse society, the very idea that adults can and should have a spontaneous and unregulated relationship with children is simply beyond the pale. Given all this, the amazing thing is perhaps not the six drivers who reportedly drove by, but the seventh driver who stopped to help Cait Atkins.
Despite a culture that has lost faith or belief in adults' ability to relate to children, our humanity remains. If only our leaders believed it.
Stuart Waiton is director of GenerationYouthIssues.org