Who's being juvenile?

4th July 2003 at 01:00
It's time to get back to basics and ask what the term 'antisocial behaviour' actually says about children and politicians, argues Stuart Waiton

IN 1982, the term "antisocial behaviour" could not be found in a single newspaper article. By 1992, my search found 46 articles with the term "antisocial behaviour". By 2002, the number had risen to 1,232. Why?

A useful starting point is to look at the changing meaning of the word "antisocial". The first use of the word was in 1802 to denounce the "rebellious, antisocial and blasphemous books" published during the French Revolution. "Antisocial - opposed to the principles on which society is constituted" was a political and moral term used by conservatives to denounce those perceived to be a threat to society. In 1989, the dictionary definition of the word was changed. While maintaining the above meaning there was added "causing annoyance and disapproval in others: children's antisocial behaviour".

Whereas moral and political values were once seen as being under threat from revolutionaries and described as "antisocial", today individuals are seen as being under threat from the "antisocial behaviour" of children.

This tells us more about society's lack of politics and morals than it does about the behaviour of children.

From the French Revolution up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the ideas of left and right have been central to political and moral life.

Today the "great" ideologies and organisations that represented these political traditions have either disappeared or transformed themselves into something new.

Solidarity, trust and the active participation of significant sections of society, both right and left, in political and social life has diminished.

The public has simultaneously become more fragmented and alienated from one another and the sense of individual vulnerability has become endemic.

This fear and distrust can be seen in almost all areas of life. Looking at the "antisocial behaviour" articles mentioned above, the issues of concern stretch from youth crime to air rage and even the behaviour of the American Ryder Cup team. Wherever two or more individuals have a conflict to whatever degree, the term antisocial behaviour is today attached. Indeed the mere bad manners of the individual are now seen as being "antisocial - against the principles upon which society is constituted".

It is clearly the case today that the concern about antisocial young people, antisocial neighbours, and so on, is real. However, this does not mean that politicians are simply reacting to the public when they decide to tag 10-year-olds. Rather, it is politicians who have lost their traditional political and moral bearings and who have systematically politicised antisocial behaviour, especially that of young people.

Interestingly, this started in full in 1993 when Prime Minister John Major attempted and failed to establish a new "moral order" by getting "back to basics". Now "yob culture" was attacked head-on for the first time. Whereas Margaret Thatcher's "enemy within" were the miners, for the Major government, bereft of ideas and lacking an opposition to focus its energies, the enemy became the minors.

In the same year Tony Blair put law and order "at the top of the Labour agenda", and since then new Labour, on both sides of the border, has become the most authoritarian government in the history of British politics.

Today, the Labour-run Scottish Executive, with no clear social, political or moral direction, continues to feed off an atomised and anxious public.

Having only safety, law, order and the regulation of ever more areas of life as guiding principles, politicians are actually helping rather than preventing to create an increasingly anti "social" society.

Stuart Waiton is director of www. YouthGenerationIssues.org.

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