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Home > Politics

Answers on a postcard please: Is society fucked?

From gobbing yobs to policemen having their ears bitten off. Is Britain going to heck in a handcart?

7 November 2003

This week’s Kenyon Confronts contained one of the lamest responses from a politician ever committed to videotape. Home office minister Hazel Blears was told that 44 per cent of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) are breached - a figure considerably higher than government estimates.

ASBOs are an attempt to stop yob behaviour by setting out things known yobs must not do on pain of prison or youth custody. These things include repetition of previous offences and entering areas from which they’ve been excluded.

So what was Blears' response to being told that 44 per cent of ASBOs weren’t working? She retorted that over 50 per cent of ASBOs HADN’T been breached and that 'the [yob] behaviour has stopped'.

Two problems here: claiming a success rate of 'over 50 per cent' in something you're trying to stop entirely isn't really a success rate. A gold prospector who strikes gold 'over 50 per cent' of the time would be successful. But a rail operator with a safety rate of 'over 50 per cent' would be taken to court. Moreover, there’s little evidence that the anti-social behaviour has stopped. It’s more likely that in most cases it's continuing but it hasn't been reported.

The anti-social behaviour in question wasn't just stealing and graffiti. It included violent assault - a brick in someone's face, an attack by a 14-year-old boy on a seven-year-old girl, an attempt to bite a policeman’s ear off and an attack causing head injuries that made one man lose his memory. Other offences
included joyriding and torching vehicles and the old yob favourite: sustained hate campaigns against local residents.

Admittedly Kenyon picked the worst offenders, but anyone who's 15 with more than 100 offences to their name is a problem individual.

Leaving aside ASBOs, the programme raised a wider question to which there has not yet been an adequate answer, despite years of vehement debate: is society going to the dogs?

Many believe it is. Last week, Norman Tebbit wrote in the Guardian:

Even those with no taste for history might contrast the generally peaceable, law-abiding and stable society of the 1950s with the yobbish, foul-mouthed, violent, selfish, irresponsible society to be found in many of our cities today.'

But while estates like the ones Kenyon visited clearly do have massive problems with young-ish yobs, Norman Tebbit isn't the most unbiased source of comment on society’s moral standards. For a start, the 1950s weren’t quite as law-abiding as Tebbit might claim. And if things are as bad as he says, we may as well just kill ourselves, frankly.

But for most of us, the evidence that society has got problems comes in a milder form. Things like these real examples:

- A teenage mum screaming 'You fucking idiot!' at a child in a pushchair who’d dropped a toy, in a scene that would be reminiscent of Ben Stiller’s mental character in Friends, if it weren’t so unamusing.

- A pissed bloke in his 30s on a bus at mid-day shouting 'You smelly old bitch!' at a pensioner who'd had the temerity to ask him to stop swearing. (We're not sure why, but the fact it was lunchtime and the guy wasn't a teenager somehow makes this worse).

- The sheer, unfathomable popularity of gobbing in the street - especially close to other people’s feet. What’s particularly odd about is that spitters seem to believe that constantly exuding mucus, like a pig with a severe cold, is a normal - if not rather stylish - thing to do.

None of these things prove society is going to hell in a handcart, but they do suggest there are quite a few twats on the loose. But the problem with attempting to generalise about trends in society is that you invariably slide into Grumpy Old Men territory, and start believing that everyone in a hooded top is a Glock-carrying gang member.

You even find yourself saying things like: 'When I was a teenager, we didn't hang around the streets aimlessly at night. Er, no, actually we did. But we didn't take drugs. Er, hang on, no we did take drugs. Well at least we didn't go around having irresponsible underage sex! But we’d have liked to, obviously.'

So how can we tell if society is going to the dogs?

We could look at the crime figures. Crime in general is down, violent crime is up, is the orthodox view. But accurate crime figures are notoriously difficult to produce, and of course the general trend has been for more crimes - particularly things like domestic violence - to be reported. Things may not be as bad as the Daily Mail would suggest - but they could be worse, too. (Although only just.) Either way, it’s hard to get a straight answer.

We could just rely on our general perceptions, but these are notoriously unreliable. Try reading the Daily Mail for a week, then not reading it at all the following week. After a few days of not being exposed to the Daily Mail, you’ll probably have forgotten about the Bosnian internet pimp gangs who are smuggling deadly hashish into the country.

It's genuinely difficult to get a balanced view of society's decline or otherwise. And that’s why this article doesn’t really have a conclusion. But if you think you know whether society is fucked or not, why not send us an email? The best email will win a complete set of permissive values.


Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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