Monday, April 20, 2009


There are reports today that New South Wales Police are under siege from criminals who attack them, break into their cars and damage their stations. The reported figures add up to three incidents per day, ranging from such things as spitting at a police officer through to the theft of fire arms and body armour. The Shadow Minister for Police, Mike Gallacher, says that such criminals not only have no respect for police, but also no fear of being apprehended. The problem however is much deeper than that, because it’s not just hardened criminals who have no respect for authority, it’s a big proportion of the general community. Many of the incidents involve abusive drunks who are not criminals until they pick a fight and find themselves guilty of assaulting a police officer.

The problems confronting police are only a symptom of a much more widespread contagion which has seen an elevated level of aggression in the community. It is often said that young people today grow up lacking discipline, but that is a cheap and easy explanation to a more difficult social problem. The same thing has been said of young people since the days of Socrates, and not all young people turn out badly, in fact most don’t. Equally, it’s not just young people who are capable of hostility, aggression and violence. It is instead a cultural phenomenon where more and more people are quick to anger, and feel entitled to express that anger in an offensive manner. Self righteous indignation has become the default response to almost any perceived slight, whether it is intended or not.

The rise of road rage has been followed by a variety of different of forms of rage. Car park rage. Shopping trolley rage. Phone rage. Sports rage. Random events seem to spark massively disproportionate outbursts of rage where the slightest mistake in traffic can see a motorist subjected to a barrage of vocal abuse in language that would once have been cause for arrest. In extreme cases, a driver might be physically attacked.

There has also been much discussion of alcohol and drug related violence, especially at or near late night pubs, clubs and bars. While there have always been some people who become aggressive when they drink, it now seems that violence is becoming so widespread that the alcohol is being blamed for what is really a behavioural issue. Whatever happened to the people who could enjoy a few drinks, even a few too many drinks, and still have a laugh and be good natured? It would seem that the alcohol is unmasking a more deeply held attitude of hostility.

There are many reasons why this problem of obnoxious behavior is becoming more widespread. One of them is a mass media entertainment industry which promotes a stereotypical image of the anti-hero, while at the same time making foul and offensive language so commonplace that some kids growing up today don’t even know that such words are actually considered rude. Another contributing cause is the mentality of entitlement which has sprung up from well intentioned social policies which championed the importance of rights without sufficiently reinforcing responsibilities. Then there’s the education system that teaches children that getting the right answer isn’t as important as feeling important. There are laws that prevent parents from intervening if their teenager goes off the rails and decides to leave home at fifteen, even though the first question asked when it all goes wrong is inevitably: “Where are the parents?”

All of these factors are complex, and there’s no simple right or wrong, but the end result is that courtesy has disappeared, tolerance is wafer thin, and the slightest misunderstanding can lead to abuse in language strong enough to strip the paint off the walls. The end result is that respect has dried up, and for whatever reason people no longer respect authority, they no longer respect each other, and in many cases they no longer respect themselves.

The thing about respect is that we often labor under the misapprehension that it is everybody else who must earn it while we ourselves should be entitled to it without question. The worst abuses occur when someone takes it upon himself to “teach some respect” to someone else, when the reality is that the one doing the “teaching” is without any respect himself. Instead, taking the opposite view that everybody else should be entitled to a basic level of respect, while we ourselves must earn it, is an approach which could transform the world, because if we all followed such a path it would guarantee that we all receive the same in return.

Is that naïve? Perhaps. But unless we start somewhere we become part of the problem.

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