The Lessons of Kaikohe
Humankind comes with many different characteristics, and it is sometimes informative to consider how those can be categorised. Some people, for example, will be extroverts, others introverts, some romantics and others realists, some optimists, others pessimists.
I have devised a test that I think can be used to make another – and, I think, important –distinction. Imagine you and your friends or family are on a car journey, and have just eaten a take-away meal as you travel. What do you do with the wrappings? Do you take them home with you or do you throw them out of the window?
If the latter, I maintain that you fall into the category of the socially unaware and irresponsible – that is, those who think only of their own immediate interests and care little, or not at all, for the interests of others or for the standards of the society in which they live.
Mrs Thatcher, of course, famously (or notoriously) maintained that “there is no such thing as society”, thereby aligning herself, no doubt unwittingly, with the litterers. The Thatcherite doctrine was, presumably, that we are all individuals, pursuing our own interests, and that concerning ourselves with “society” is a waste of time.
But most of us know better, and understand that if we recognise the rights and interests of others as well as our own, we will find that the society in which, like it or not, we all live will be more integrated, stronger and happier and that, as a result, our individual lives will also be better and happier, not least because it will be more likely that we will find support from our fellow-citizens when we need it and will need to deal less often with the destructive actions of the anti-social.
Thankfully, in New Zealand, judging by the fairly litter-free state of our roadsides compared with those in other countries, we are a fairly responsible lot – and that is what our own history and culture would lead us to expect. But a visit to any site where travellers habitually stop and spend any time will reveal that we also have our share of the socially irresponsible.
These thoughts have been prompted by the recent reports of literally anti-social behaviour by young people in Kaikohe, acting in gangs to rob stores and break into petrol stations. It is quite understandable that local citizens are outraged and alarmed at such a blatant disregard for the expected norms and standards, and many have described the perpetrators as acting outside of society, or perhaps as living in a social milieu which simply does not recognise those normal standards.
Perhaps it is time to reflect that our membership as individuals of something called society is based on an unstated bargain – that we owe a duty to society and its members because society looks out for us.
That bargain breaks down if society makes it clear that it accepts no responsibility to some of its members. If society takes the view, expressed through the institutions it chooses to represent it, that some of its members are “on their own”, and do not merit society’s care and support, then we cannot be surprised if those people decide to act without regard to society’s interests and standards.
So, if young people find that society takes no action to ensure that they are well-educated, healthy, and well-housed, and that they have good prospects of a productive life in a properly paid job, anti-social behaviour may seem like a rational and morally justified response.
And if the rejoinder is made that these desirable outcomes are earned only by the individual effort of those concerned, then this disclaimer simply confirms the perception that society gives no value to these young people and is not willing to make the effort to help them – and it overlooks the extent to which society decides how the cards are dealt and how far individual achievement – even for the privileged – depends on societal support.
The problem is compounded when a generation that itself feels undervalued then reaches child-bearing age and brings up a new generation whose parental guidance is to the effect that their children owe nothing to anyone and can therefore operate outside normal society.
We reap, in other words, what we sow. Yes, society does matter. It matters whether rubbish is thrown out on to the road. It matters whether society recognises its responsibilities to all its citizens. It matters whether or not all our fellow-citizens have a stake in what we build together. It matters, whether they know it or not, to the young people of Kaikohe.
23 March 2017