Friday, June 24, 2005

In my day, young people had respect

Sometimes I feel the world is stuck in a time warp. Every time I open a UK or Irish newspaper someone is complaining about the so-called wayward youth of today. Typical complaints include a lack of respect by young people for social norms, excessive drinking and a penchant for violence and vandalism. Recently, I scanned a copy of the UK Sunday Times and was overwhelmed by the range of articles focusing on so-called solutions to the perceived rise in antisocial behaviour.

One article focused on a government report apparently recommending targeting potential criminals from the age of three. Another blamed violent 'sheroes' such as Uma Thurman in Tarantino's film Kill Bill for influencing thuggery by girls. Yet another considered reinstating harsh boot-camp-style reformatories to bring young offenders into line. There seems to be a growing trend towards seeing the solution to troublesome youth as being about tougher policing and tighter control. This is typified in the UK by the introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). These are civil orders made against those involved in continual antisocial behaviour. They can result in a person being banned from a specific area or associating with named persons.

A recent MORI poll found that 89% of the public support them. It is no wonder the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner suggested that the UK was suffering from 'Asbomania'. But is antisocial behaviour really sweeping the nation? A recent King's College London study found that antisocial behaviour by young people has little or no effect on the quality of life of the majority of the population. That said, one in five people surveyed felt they were affected. These problems, mainly associated with rowdy teenagers in the street, were described as acute and were highest in areas of social deprivation and inner cities. So the problem is not as bad as the media would have us believe, although, if you are affected, it can be deeply unpleasant and, like most unsavoury phenomena, mainly affects the poor. I wonder if every generation feels the youth are out of control. Think of the hippies of the 1960s, punks in the 1970s, skinheads in the 1980s or, in the 1990s, rappers and Pantsulas in South Africa.

Somewhere I read that, after you lose your membership in it, the younger generation invariably seems pretty bad. Is the older generation in Europe, who are wealthier and more comfortable than ever before, simply out of touch? I know I certainly am. When I see groups of young people on the street drinking and chatting, I no longer know what they talk about or what worries them. We should ask this basic question first before passing judgement. I think this is as true in the UK as it is in South Africa.

Criminalising young people is not helpful. Only 39% of people in the UK feel ASBOs are effective, even though they support their use. Talking about young people, especially black youth, as is often the case in South Africa and elsewhere, as if they are a bunch of criminals in training is hardly useful.

Let us take one step back and diagnose problems properly and build solutions on that. Out-of-control youth do not cause social degeneration, but economic and social degeneration can create out-of-control youth.

If we know anything about young people it is that continual prohibition by adults leads to resistance. If things continue the way they are, very soon having an ASBO or criminal record will be as fashionable as having the latest mobile phone.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 24 June 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Political Apologies and Reparations Website

A new website has been launched focusing on political apologies, which those responsible for the site at Wilfrid Laurier University, define broadly as apologies by a political or social entity (governments, religious organizations, or other bodies) for events that have harmed identifiable groups. To visit this interesting site click here.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Warning - this article may contain nuts

Despite the incessant rain, apparently the summer has begun in the UK and Ireland. People are flocking to the stores to rekindle their passion for the braai, or barbecue, as it is known in northern climes. Recently, I decided to join them and bought a new braai. It came wrapped in plastic with a cardboard picture on the front of the self-same braai garnished with some sizzling steaks. Below the picture was a range of warnings. The first stated that the plastic wrapping should be disposed of carefully, as it may be dangerous to children: fair enough. But underneath, a further message read: "Warning – food not included". How many people have actually returned the braai to the shop complaining the steaks on the picture were absent from the package?

This is an excellent, albeit idiotic, demonstration of what is known as the compensation culture. If a warning or disclaimer is not present on a product then all sorts of legal avenues for compensation are left wide open. Many fear that a US-style litigation system, where you can sue for just about anything, is developing in Europe.

But this is a complicated issue. The British government's Better Regulation Task Force feels that the notion of a compensation culture in the UK is a myth. The UK is nowhere close to the US, and accident claims for injuries, for example, are dropping rather than increasing. Some companies have an interest in increasing the hype around the so-called compensation culture, as it can potentially discourage claims. Some may even try to use it as an excuse to weasel out of paying genuine claims. Ambulance-chasing lawyers operating on a "no win, no fee" basis and attracting clients through adverts offering easy money can be equally dubious.

So, like most things, a balance is needed. We need to accept that the idea of suing for minor mishaps can reach the level of the absurd if not regulated. Tony Blair, in a recent speech in which he attacked the compensation culture, cited the example of a local council removing its hanging flower baskets from a street because of fears they could fall on someone's head.

At the same time, compensation cannot be dismissed as a dirty issue. In South Africa, Paula Howell, of Pretoria's Legal Resources Centre, has commented in the Business Report Online that possibly tens of thousands of compensation claims from the Workmen's Compensation Fund cannot be finalised because employers have not completed the correct forms. Avoiding responsibility in this way is as problematic as making a spurious compensation claim. The law can force people to take responsibility for protecting workers and take to task those who make overstated compensation claims. But the law is a blunt instrument. At the end of the day, the issue boils down to personal responsibility and fairness. Putting workers or consumers in a situation where they may be in danger implies accountability from those placing them at risk. Equally, expecting companies to fork out if you do something stupid or exaggerate injury is hardly reasonable. Warnings on packaging can be useful; take, for example, health warnings on cigarette packs. A few more warnings in South Africa may not go amiss, such as cautioning people of the dangers of carrying workers on the back of open vehicles or overcrowding taxis. But let's not go overboard. As I fired up my new braai this weekend, opened a beer and a bag of peanuts, then came the clincher: "Warning – this product may contain nuts!"

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 10 June 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.