Theodore Dalrymple

Moral panic is the right reaction: we are afraid of our young

True grief is often swamped by the mawkishness of strangers

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Some things don’t change in Britain: the teddy bears and CCTV pictures, for example. First come the teddy bears. A princess dies in a sordid drunken accident, a child is abducted in Portugal, two girls are brutally murdered in Soham, a child is shot accidentally-on-purpose and you can’t open a newspaper without seeing a photograph with a teddy bear in the foreground among the gladioli. The legitimate grief of the people most directly involved is swamped by the maudlin tears of strangers who muscle in on it; and the stuffed toy becomes for us what black-plumed horses were for the Victorians. I look forward to the day when the lions in Trafalgar Square are replaced by teddy bears, as being more consonant with the new, improved British national character.

Then, if the occasion of the outpouring of ersatz emotion — one might call it a griefoid-reaction — is a peculiarly nihilistic crime, the announcement soon follows that it took place on camera.

Of course, the pictures aren’t much good, they are what is known as ‘grainy’, that is to say they need forensically dubious computer-enhancement taking days or weeks in order to produce even disputable evidence of identity, but somehow this reassures the public that capture of the culprit, with condign punishment to follow, is at hand.

But the singular failure of CCTV cameras to moderate the behaviour of the British — unless you take the optimistic view (or is it the pessimistic view? It’s so difficult to tell the difference between them nowadays) that it would be even worse without such cameras — points surely to another cultural trait, namely the ambition of a lot of young Britons to appear on screen while being nothing but themselves, that is to say without any effort. How else but the worship of one’s own banality, combined with a propensity to dream of the unlimited powers of consumption, can one interpret the success of programmes such as Big Brother? The cameras in the street are but a rehearsal for the big time.

Let us examine some of the responses to the murder of Rhys Jones. A family friend aged 17 wrote a letter, mysteriously made public and printed in a newspaper, in which she said, ‘You did not deserve any of this, Rhys. You was a lovely boy.’

That Rhys did not deserve to be shot was a common theme. ‘This tragedy not deserved to such an innocent beautiful boy,’ said one card left at the site of the killing. Let us leave aside the fact that it would be an uncommonly nasty little boy of 11 who did deserve to be shot, and simply remark that the habit of praising the victims of murder has become general. This in itself is a sign of cultural degeneration, and points to a complete lack of awareness of the necessary impartiality and impersonality of the law, an awareness that even an uneducated person would have shared 50 years ago.

The grossly sentimental extolling of victims has, indeed, become institutionalised, to use a word given wide circulation by a fatuous official enquiry into a notorious murder. Those close to the victim of such a crime are now permitted to make a victim impact statement in court in which, with sobs and tears, they recall the departed’s long eyelashes, charming smile, etc. As yet, the judge is not permitted to take any notice of this official invitation to emotional kitsch; for him, the murder of a universally despised misanthropic miser is as heinous as the murder of a saint. The point is that murder is murder, and not a question, as the Peronist put it when asked if he approved of torture, of who is torturing whom.  

Of course, a virtuous people would reject this cynical and demagogic sop with contumely, that is to say with a dignified silence. If they said anything at all, it would be ‘Enforce the laws properly, seriously, and do not condescend to us as if we were patients in need of psychotherapy.’ But a teddy-bear nation is not likely to miss an opportunity to be emotional in public.

It is hardly surprising that football should play so large a part in the debased soft-toy-CCTV culture upon which the response to the murder cast a narrow but powerful beam, with its hideous pendulum swing between sentimentality and authoritarianism passing through deep criminality. A ‘tribute’ left at the scene of the crime read, ‘Rhys, from a red to a blue, love Joe.’ Even I know that red is for Liverpool and blue is for Everton, the other Liverpool team that Rhys supported. What this appears to mean at best is that, now that Rhys has been shot dead, Joe will refrain for a very short while from shouting the vile obscene abuse and from making menacing gestures in fascistic unison at people like Rhys who are kitted out in blue: the indulgence in such abuse and incipient violence being a large part of the enjoyment of football. It’s not just Liverpool of course; it would be the same in any part of the country.

There was no end to the mushy sentiment that so intimately and dialectically related to the brutality of life in modern Britain (J.G. Ballard, in his latest novel, Kingdom Come, has caught this brilliantly). An Everton shirt with the name Connor on it appeared at the impromptu bier, with the following message: ‘To Rhys, When the Goodison crowd roars it will be for you. Any goals that I score now will be for you. Sleep peacefully my great mate.’

At Everton’s first home match after the murder, the electronic scoreboard carried the following message: ‘Rhys Jones was football mad. If he wasn’t playing football he was watching his beloved Everton play. It was his whole life.’  

The emotional life of which this unutterable kitsch is a manifestation is intense but profoundly shallow, if shallowness can be profound; an emotional life that is given to great whirling gusts of sentiment, but that is lacking constancy, direction or control, and is therefore potentially dangerous. It is the emotional life of people who lack purpose or meaning, and try to find it in the pseudo-communion of the football match or other tribal events.

But what of the meaning of the murder itself, rather than the response to it? Was it simply an isolated horrible event, such as occurs by chance in any large-scale society, or was it indicative of something rotten?

The answer given falls into two main categories: moral panic and complacency. The person given to moral panic sees the whole of society through the lens of an isolated event, believing it to be typical and representative when in fact it is rare, of a type no more frequent than it has ever been; the complacent person, on the other hand, persuades himself that an event that is in fact emblematic of a deep social current or malaise is no more than an isolated and essentially meaningless happenstance.

The person who panics is, typically, a person lower in the social scale than the person who is complacent; that is because his social and economic position is more precarious and because he lives in closer proximity, socially and often geographically, to the kind of event in question than the complacent person, who is often better educated, better paid and more intellectually inclined. The former thinks concretely, the latter abstractly. Confronted by a piece of the rawest reality, the former grows angry or despairing that things have never been so bad, while the latter retreats behind statistics to prove that ’twas ever thus, and therefore is nothing to worry about.

Personally, I prefer moral panic to complacency. In the first place, it is more sincere, and while sincerity is not always a virtue, insincerity of the kind upon which so much contemporary complacency rests is almost always a vice. Moral panic is much less dangerous than complacency because, unlike complacency, it can be corrected by ridicule and sometimes even by argument when time proves it to have been unjustified. Unnecessary laws can be repealed. Complacency, however, is dangerous because it can lead to an irreparable disaster, or at any rate an avoidable situation that takes endless life and treasure to repair.

What of the murder of Rhys Jones, what does it mean or symbolise? The complacent will claim that gun crime is not increasing, that murders of children by children remain very infrequent, and that a crime such as this produces a moral response totally disproportionate to its real significance.

The person who panics, however (and it is only right that we should acknowledge that there is a certain illicit pleasure to be had from panicking in this fashion), points out that official statistics are untrustworthy and manipulated politically to reassure the population, when the population knows how bad things are from its own direct experience. They know that even if crime is not increasing, it already places an intolerable burden on society, particularly on the poor who suffer the brunt of it; but that, in any case, all the indications are that violence has increased, is increasing and ought to be reduced.

I am without equivocation on the side of the panickers. For too long the complacent have told us that it is not crime, but fear of crime, that is the problem; or that the increase in crime in the past three quarters of a century is more apparent than real, because the means of communication and therefore of recording crime have improved; or that the British are simply reverting to genetic type — namely drunken, brutal, cruel and violent.

Let me here offer a few observations about contemporary British childhood and parenting, as I have observed them in a British slum, that may or may not be connected with Rhys Jones’s murder. The first is that children are increasingly the customers of their parents, who regard the provision of gewgaws as the whole duty of parenthood. I have been asked by parents many times why a child should have turned out so horrible when they, the parents, gave him everything, from trainers with lights in their heels to a television in his bedroom. The second is that, thanks to the rise of mass self-importance, and the fact that their children are the extension of themselves, parents regard their children as being inherently beyond reproach and will, for example, take the side of their children in any disciplinary dispute with a teacher or other person in authority. This is linked to the reversal of the direction of moral authority, from adult to child. The word pupil is hardly ever used any more, having given way to student: children as young as three or four are often called students. Mothers ask their children what they want to eat for their next meal, what they want to do next, or what they want to watch on television, with the natural consequence that they, the children, come to regard their own whim as law, which in turn results in an inflamed frustration at the intractability of the world which does not entirely agree with them.

Finally, parents are appalled to discover that their children are not as cuddly or as easy to get along with as teddy bears. They come to hate them, and by the time they have finished bringing them up, by the age of seven or eight, they are right to do so.

So we have become a nation afraid of our own young, as the Eloi in The Time Machine were afraid of the Morlocks. That is the meaning of omerta in Britain.