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Saturday 26th May 2018

Taking responsibility for ourselves

25th January 2007

26072006_angryman1.jpgLiving in a litigious age, we are under increasing pressure to seek others to blame when things go wrong with us.  This is having a corrosive effect on our social and economic life and the evil trend must be reversed if we are to return to a healthy society.

For many years, sociologists, alienists then psychiatrists and others have been seeking the true cause of criminal behaviour.  Cesare Lombroso, the Italian alienist of the nineteenth century, saw a causal link between criminality and physiognomy. Coarse features, large ear lobes, eyes too close together were a sure sign that if you hadn’t yet done something wrong you were just about to.  More recently, criminologists of the twentieth century have conducted huge cohort studies that have demonstrated powerful connections between criminal behaviour and demographic variables including family size, race, relative deprivation and so forth.  They have then gone on to make the mistake that Lombroso made, to see apparent statistical connections as indications of causality.

Today I have just heard on the wireless that a report on the law on murder is recommending that those under eighteen years old should be allowed to argue that there may be social or environmental factors that impaired their judgement when they decided to kill their unfortunate victim, and so have their punishment mitigated.  I have never heard the likes!

When I was a boy, being relatively poor did not mean that you inevitably wanted to steal those things that you could not afford to buy.  Our first colour television was rented when we could afford the increased fee, not when my father felt the urge to break into the TV shop.  So why today are we prepared to see poverty or other social factors as a reasonable excuse for criminality?

Because we are no longer prepared to work on the basis that we each need to take responsibility for our own behaviour.  Excuses are there for almost every mistake, accident and unpredictable happening.  The Health and Safety Executive, the National Offender Management Service, and increasingly the courts seem to want to provide every fool, knave and crook with a fanciful excuse and then compensation for the consequences of their behaviour.  People fall down in the street because the pavement is uneven, and the fact that they have taken strong drink makes no difference when they seek compensation from the unfortunate council which has the job of providing miles of perfectly smooth footpaths.  The “elf and safety? mantra that “all reasonable steps were taken? to reduce the risk is usually not enough to satisfy the inspectorate. Only full scale debasement will do.  Drug addicts are awarded damages because they are not provided with their fix in prison.  “Victims? of medical accidents caused by ill-advised plastic surgery are rewarded with substantial cash payments rather than sound advice on their folly in seeking the ludicrous operations in the first place.  “Caveat emptor? as a reasonable piece of advice has been replaced by the new slogan “no win no fee?.

And the same applies increasingly in the criminal justice system.  More people, and more possessions will inevitably lead to more acquisitive crime, and if we throw in an increasingly envious, materialist ethos amongst our young people, fuelled by advertising and the magazine culture, why do we somehow expect the prison population to decline?  Of course it will increase!  And why not?  Because the liberal consensus seems to demand a reduction in overall rates of incarceration, on the grounds that somehow depriving bad people of their liberty is illiberal; indeed, defining people as bad is illiberal in itself.

How long can this nonsense last?  I am hopeful that we are already seeing the signs of deliverance from this liberal lunacy.  There is an increasingly powerful discourse emerging on the overall theme of “self-help?, the doctrine first promulgated by the great Samuel Smiles in the book of the same name first published in 1883.  The psychoanalytic discussions developed by organisations like Opus, an “organisation for promoting understanding of society?, seek to force individuals to face up to their responsibilities for their own behaviour and that of their dependants.  It is refreshing to see an increasingly vigorous debate about the need for parents to take responsibility for the behaviour of their children, encouraged by the advent of the police community support officers (PCSOs) who patrol neighbourhoods ready to deliver children to their families with a proverbial “clip round the ear?, although a literal clip round the ear is now illegal of course.

There is however a long way to go to get back to a balanced position in society.  Mental health of the community depends on well defined, regulated boundaries on behaviour.  Laissez faire attitudes have become ingrained and their corrosive influence will take several generations to overcome.  All we can hope for is a continued shift towards more old-fashioned beliefs in courtesy, manners and good conduct being managed by well-intentioned individuals overcoming the liberal social hegemony.  Last week I had a chat with a taxi driver.  He told me of the following incident.

“A fare got into the car. He had been waiting longer than he had expected. “where the f*** have you been?? he said.  “Take me home now, and as you are late I won’t pay?.  The driver asked the fare to get out of the car and try again, this time in a polite way.

He tried again:  “Where have you been? Take me home, and as you were late I won’t pay the fare.?  Again, the driver asked for a more courteous response. “Get out of the car, try again, and if you can’t be more polite this time, I will drive you to the nearest field and I will take you out and kick your face in.? 

The fare was dismayed. “You can’t talk to me like that.?  Driver:  “I just did. What’s it to be??  Fare:  “OK, please take me home, how much??

Driver to me; “Why do we have to go through this nonsense, just to get people to behave properly??  Why indeed?

The answer is because those of us who care about decent behaviour have to train the rest, every day, every hour, tedious as it may be, to prevent the ultimate breakdown of society and mental health.  Or maybe it is already too late.


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