The other day I saw an earnest journalist explaining on television her ‘amazing’ insight gleaned from research into why teenagers turned to crime. They had told her, she said with an air of bemused wonder, that it was because they hadn’t been taught properly to read and write when they were 6 or 7; and so when they turned 13 or 14 and realised they were illiterate they felt so ashamed that they believed they were unfitted for anything else than stealing, stabbing, mugging and drug dealing. The good lady seemed to think that this explained the whole juvenile crime problem, and that poor teachers are primarily to blame.
This brought out my customary ‘Duke of Wellington’ response of “If you believe that, you’ll believe anything”, and reminded me of the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” from West Side Story. These kids have obviously convinced themselves that they are the victims of a social disease - the notion that they are, in fact, like everyone else, responsible for their own lives and actions has clearly never entered their heads.
We do indeed live in a moral quagmire, and it isn’t surprising that when youngsters are surrounded by adults – some of them in positions of power and privilege – who refuse to take responsibility (Hi there, Baroness Scotland!) they blame everyone else except themselves for their delinquent behaviour. It is, in fact, news to me that illiteracy is to blame for crime; I hadn’t realised that all literate people are, ipso facto, model citizens.
Blame isn’t the issue, anyway. Responsibility is. The refusal of almost everyone nowadays to take proper responsibility for themselves, their families, their neighbourhoods, the social climate they function in, the quality of their political representation, and their country’s behaviour in the world is the cancer which eats away at the fabric of what used to be a far more decent society.
No-one is irredeemably stupid unless they suffer from physical brain damage. Some are more naturally intelligent than others, but everyone can improve themselves by education and application. To refuse to do so is a choice. And the consciousness of choice – ‘free will’ in old-fashioned terms – is what distinguishes humans from other species.
Today, we have largely lost the freedom to choose in many aspects of our lives. We are over-governed, over-regulated, over-policed by presumptuous and often incompetent nanny-persons who automatically assume that they ‘know best’ and that we, the citizenry, cannot be trusted to take sensible decisions about our own lives and are also mostly dishonest given half a chance. This expiring New Labour government is the worst offender in this respect, and it unfortunately looks as if any alternative won’t be much of an improvement. Because of what Frank Furedi has labelled the ‘culture of fear’, we seem to be drifting largely unawares into a Stasi-type State where people are encouraged to spy upon, snoop and snitch about their neighbours. To someone as old as I am, who grew up during Hitler’s war when we all knew that it was this type of tyranny we were fighting against, the current social scenario is deeply dismaying.
As for the feckless youth who drift into crime because they are too ‘ashamed’ to try anything else, they need to be taught – as Linda Creed’s moving song, written when she was dying of cancer tells us – to love themselves. There is, however, one very misguided line in that song: “Whatever else they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity”. That, alas, isn’t true. They do it at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib; they do it in our sink schools and cesspits of prisons; they do it with their lies and evasions and their refusal to take responsibility.
Hi again there, Baroness Scotland! Are you listening?