Sunday, 16 November 2008

Putting Young People in Demonised Categories

One thing which is noticeable when talking to the 6-year old who lives in my house, is how his school demonises 'teenagers'. His school only takes children up to the age of 11 so seems to feel free to portray teenagers as responsible for all the crime in the local neighbourhood. This has been done to such an extent that to this boy and his friends the term no longer designates a period of life most of us go through, but has become synonymous with the word 'criminal' or at least 'delinquent'. In the past we clarified our labelling and they were called 'teenage delinquents' to distinguish them from normal teenagers, but that distinction seems to have disappeared. Of course some of the crime in the neighbourhood is committed by teenagers but a lot of it is not. When a bench was stolen from the school playground, teenagers were blamed. If it had been found turned upside down in the nearby park with tags sprayed all over it, I might have agreed, but it entirely disappeared from the district. No teenagers could be bothered to carry a heavy wooden bench for three miles. It is clear it was stolen to order by people with access to a van and able to leave no trace, this does not sound like teenagers. Yet, the school somehow feels it has to be teenagers and not older criminals.

What situation does this leave the 6-year old and I imagine all the other children in the school as they edge towards becoming teenagers themselves? I know in comedy, notably Harry Enfield's teenage character, Kevin, they mutate into a surly, argumentative being. However, now these children also imagine that they turn into criminals automatically too. This has grown to the extent that when the six year old sees teenagers he assumes they are committing a crime. We saw three boys probably ages 12-14 carrying a sofa and he said they must have stolen it. Then we saw them stopping at the house of an elderly woman and delivering it to her. It became clear she had bought it from a nearby second hand store but had been unable to transport it home. These boys were actually aiding their community but the view of the 6-year old had been so distorted he simply assumed a crime was being committed. Becoming a teenager is very tough anyway, you go through puberty and have all the issues of peer pressure, developing interest in the opposite sex (or the same sex) in a sexual way, acne, deciding what academic path you are going to go down, image issues and so on. There is often pressure to commit crime petty or more serious. However, the way that the school has been educating these pupils is that, well of course they will all commit crime because that is what teenagers do, they cannot help themselves. Coming from a Christian school this is a terrible abdication of direction for their pupils.

The bulk of teenagers never commit a crime, just as the bulk of the population never commits a crime. So why is the school not pointing out role models of teenagers who make a positive contribution? In the district there are Scouts, Guides, Boys' Brigade, martial arts, sports, dancing and drama clubs and other societies through which teenagers do a great deal. Why are they not pointing to them so that in the next few years when their pupils are fed along the conveyor belt of life into being teenagers they can see that crime is not the only option and that they can make moral judgements which are surely part of what being a Christian is about, if not simply about being a human in a civilised society. The school offers to alternative to the pupils, it is almost as if they have been damned to being criminal teenagers and nothing they can do with get them away from this predestined path. They do not even do what private schools are and try to create 'young fogeys', i.e. children with middle-aged attitudes, you know the sort, painfully apparent in the UK certainly, and from what I have seen New England too, they are 40 at 14 and miss out on the important challenges and test of character during their teenage years and ultimately find coping with life difficult even if they have avoided the seemingly inevitable criminal path.

Even when young people have managed to get to the end of their teenage years having been condemned as inherently criminal throughout, they are then beaten with the stick of being a 'student'. Of course those who do not continue study can end up in criminal circumstances, but it seems ironic that in the UK those who try to improve themselves are condemned almost as severely as those who try to find unskilled work and are blamed for living off state benefits. This whole attitude seems weird. Where does the population want people aged 13-26 to go for that period? They seem to simply want them to disappear into thin air and reappear in their late 20s. There is a meeting I saw advertised this week in a town in the South of England, it begins with the line 'due to an unprecedented influx of students into this area', which immediately is a lie. The university has been there for a couple of decades and students have always lived near it. The large increase in numbers going to university was in the late 1990s and early 2000s and whilst there are year-on-year fluctuations, there has been no huge leap, it is just the locals are becoming resentful of students. Anyway, they are going to seek a 'solution'. Students have become so demonised in this area that the approach is beginning to smack of persecution. The only tolerable option seems to be simply to drive them out of the town.

It seems that the only council I am aware of who know what financial benefit students bring to a town is Portsmouth. Neighbouring Southampton wants to restrict the amount of student accommodation in the city and Bournemouth farther West along the coast is beginning to behave the same. The attitude towards students is now becoming like that towards prisons or needle exchange centres or even wind turbines. People want more of them to be built, as long as they are not in their area. Britain's development is being slowed by this attitude.

In Bournemouth the university suggested that it buy and develop a derelict retail site be turned into a new student hall even though it is a number of miles from the university campus. It would hold 7-800 students, equivalent to, say, 160 households of students removed from houses across the town. However, complaints have been raised about this scheme too. So what do people want? They do not want students living in their streets and they do not want them in an area away from residential houses. Again they simply want them to disappear into thin air. If they did, suddenly a lot of the shops that those people like would lose a great deal of custom. Bournemouth University has 16,000 students who literally pump millions of pounds into the local economy, but the local population would rather forego that and gripe about young people. They will neither assimilate the students nor ghettoise them, they just want them gone. I can understand that the seasonal pattern of students do disrupt the nature of a locale. Partly this is caused by landlords simply buying up as many properties as they can to rent out to students. I know one road where six houses in a row are owned by a single landlord and rented to students, they lie empty all Summer. Of course no-one would dare say that the patterns of purchase of landlords should be restricted, because, that would be restriction of free exploitative capitalism, so, instead the blame has to be put on the tenants (as always!), who in this case are students.

Of course there are students who behave badly. Then again there are people aged 18-21, students or not who behave badly. A lot of that stems from Britain's appallingly immature approach to alcohol consumption which marks us out sharply from our European neighbours. Every weekend though I can see men and especially women in their 30s and 40s vomiting into gutters just like younger people, in fact often worse, because they have more money than the students trying to work their way through university. In fact in a pub these days the student is far more likely to be behind the bar working than in front of it consuming as almost all UK students now do many hours of paid work each week to keep down their vast debts. So, I accept there are bad students, but as with teenagers they remain the minority. The ironic thing I have found over the past few years is the sharp criticism of students during the Summer and around Christmas. People portray them as 'outsiders' coming to their town and causing problems, without thinking that at those times of the year, the students around are actually the children of the local population who have come home from university for the vacation. Of course, the reality never gets in the way of demonising young people.

The UK population needs to rethink how it interacts with teenagers and students. At the moment the approach is to condemn them all as criminals and rowdy louts. No positive role models of young people that accept that it is hard being young especially in these times when so many opportunities are being snuffed out and young people face so much pressure to behave in ways that are deemed 'tolerable'. Even when they behave perfectly fine there is no credit given, which produces a terribly nihilistic attitude among the young people. Why should they bother to try if they are still going to be lumped into a huge demonised category? That is not going to resolve tensions in communities. You might as well say, that because old people move slowly and smell, and take up the pavements with their walking frames and their electric wheelchairs, and because they play their television so loud you can hear it doors away and yappy dogs, that they must be banned from town centres. This is the ridiculous level to which young people are being categorised negatively. The UK police and local authorities have more powers to prevent 'anti-social' behaviour than probably any other state in the EU (possibly excepting Germany) and so if there is wrong or disruptive behaviour by people, no matter what their age, it can be stopped, there is no need to keep rubbing in the complaints, which generally impact most against the teenagers and students who are not behaving badly. Being a teenager or a student is not a bad thing in itself, it is individuals who decide to behave, to say otherwise is no different to the Nazis saying that Jews were evil, or apartheid South Africa that blacks were stupid and lazy. See individuals for what they are, do not simply read the negative label you assign all the people of that type.

P.P. 18/11/2008 I posted this just at the right time. Today I read a report on the BBC website which highlights a Barnardo's research which shows young people are 'casually condemned' with 54% of adults thinking children 'behave like animals', 43% said they felt adults needed to be protected from children and over a third thought the streets were 'infested' with children. Comments on websites of national newspapers said teenagers were 'feral' and should be 'shot'. Taking up this line, Barnardo's is running an advertisement in which adults are shown as hunting down 'vermin', i.e. teenagers. There is no denying that there are young people who do commit crime. However, whereas people think teenagers commit 50% of crime, in fact they only commit 12%. You are at more danger by far from adults than from teenagers. The United Nations last month highlighted Britain's intolerance to young people. This is unsurprising given that even schools who should be highlighting the achievements of good children are simply putting out the same negative stereotypes. Consequently it is unsurprising the attitudes shown up by this research suggests that the only solution many adults can think of is violence. None of them take responsibility for the fact that some children end up this way. The whole response is irrational, you cannot eliminate a whole generation and in fact they are far less of a problem than is assumed. Alienating young people just exacerbates the problem. Adults who can make their voices heard are just scapegoating young people who cannot.

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