Friday, March 14, 2008
The 'Children's Commissioner' has become an easy target for rightist polemic after criticised the use of painful 'restraints' in custodial institution, which are designed to control behaviour with the application of pain. He spoke of the rights of children, and he lamented some of the authoritarian measures used by the government. Melanie Phillips blustered in the Daily Mail: Children's rights? What about the rights of those who live in fear of young thugs? This was only a particularly forceful version of the raised media heckles of 'dimwit', 'who-does-he-think-he-is', 'waste-of-taxpayers-money', 'we'll-smack-our-kids-if-we-want-to', and so on. (These people do get terribly exercised about their inherent right to beat their children. When a smacking ban was first proposed, they went absolutely bonkers. The comedian Jack Dee, by contrast, suggested that it was a good idea to stop beating kids, but "maybe we should stop fucking them first"). For this particular persuasion, children have only one right: the right to remain silent. Here is one 'young thug' who won't be around to bother the nice people. A fourteen year old boy, who suffered enormous trauma due to deaths in his family, experienced emotional turmoil, and was locked up for 'behaviour difficulties' after allegedly wounding a man. He survived a month in his prison until he was violently 'restrained' by officers, who broke his nose, leaving him terrified, as well as sickened and depressed: he hung himself. But that's just one example. There was also Joseph Scholes, a mentally unwell young man given to self-harm, who was imprisoned for a minor street crime, despite multiple expert witnesses telling the judge that the boy would kill himself if he was put in that kind of environment. Of course, even those witnesses couldn't have known that he would be forced to wear a loose garment resembling a horse blanket, and demeaned and driven to his death within a week. Then there is Gareth Paul Myatt, who died four days into a one year sentence at a 'training centre' run by Group 4 following an 'incident'. Shortly after that death, the government announced £16m for more child prisons.
Now these examples are not incidental. Gordon Brown's twee catchphrase is that "children are 40% of the population, but 100% of the future". We can either collectively vomit over this phrase or try to extract some literal truth from it (or both). The truth is that fucked up children make for fucked up adults. Brutalising children is not going to produce a nation of well-adapted citizens. The clinical psychologist Oliver James points out that one of the most alarming statistics of recent years is the discovery that 90% of the prison population was in some way mentally unwell. As he further elaborates, the causes of this are not rooted in the poor genetic stock of the working class, who are vastly over-represented in all penal institutions. Far more often, it is the result of a particular kind of nurture experienced especially but not exclusively in the first three to six years of childhood. You raise a kid in a comfortable bourgeois home with lots of attention, you get a comfortable bourgeois person. You raise a kid in a strict, authoritarian home with parents trying to break his will through the application of regular violence (tough love) all for his own good, you get a young fascist. You raise a kid in a chaotic household with episodic, rather than structured, violence and abuse, you get manipulative people with poor consciences prone to acting out physical or sexual violence. You raise a kid in a tough working class household with a survivalist mentality and regular insecurity, you get Monty Python's bragging Yorkshiremen. Sorry, I've lost my thread, where was I ...? Oh yes. To extend the logic, suppose you raise children in a cruel, aggressive country with: violent, manipulative, sanctimonious hypocrites in charge; a virulent ethos of social competitiveness saturating the culture; underfunded schools with over-worked teachers and kids bored or stressed through banal lessons and routine examination; few and degraded amenities and hostile over-policing in the remaining public spaces such as shopping centres; violent 'control' of children encouraged on the one hand, with violence exalted in the culture as a means of empowerment on the other; with manifest injustice coupled with powerlessness to do anything about it; and so on. Violence, neglect, hypocrisy, wilful manipulation, insecurity, competition as the sole source of self-esteem, abuse, injustice, indifference - it's a recipe for disaster. Yet the program appears to be more of the same: cut benefits, close facilities, install CCTV, impose stricter discipline in schools, toughen policing, lock more kids up in violent penal institutions, threaten their parents with benefit-cuts if they bunk off school, intensify social competition through more testing - and now, on top of it all, Lord Goldsmith wants kids to swear allegiance to the Queen so that they'll feel more British! If Goldsmith epitomises 'Britishness', then our elusive national 'values' can now be summarised as naked corruption, criminality, careerism, arms dealing, warmongering and a facade of blustering pomposity.
Of course, I would be the first to admit that children are awful people. Having a sensible conversation with anyone under nine years old is almost impossible, and they are as a rule unbelievably tactless. The smaller they are, the less they know about anything. As Randy Newman once sang about rednecks, they don't know their ass from a hole in the ground. On the other hand, most population groups have flaws, especially those in the armed forces, and I wouldn't wish the amount of crap kids go through on them either.