Time to re-visit my blog after a bit of a lay-off. Thanks to a small news item in The Daily Telegraph of 27 June for getting me going. And before you ask about my Telegraph reading habits, let me say it’s the only national paper to publish fell running results. Enough?
Anyway, said article was entitled ‘Why it’s no longer a crime to swear’. The Police have been ordered not to arrest people who verbally abuse them. The justification, it seems, is that the courts do not accept that being sworn at causes them harassment, alarm or distress. I’m minded immediately by the significance of these three words, for they were at the heart of the anti-social behaviour legislation. Testimony that one was harassed, alarmed or distressed by the behaviour of another was sufficient for that behaviour to be deemed by the authorities to be anti-social. Despite the subjectivity in all this, this was enough for ASBOs to be issued. And, on the basis of further transgressions, these behaviours became criminalised, with imprisonment the ultimate sanction. Thank goodness we’re seeing the end of all that.
I’m worried that swearing simply becomes acceptable but I am more concerned about the simplification and de-personalisation of these issues. A few tales to illustrate my point. Not so long ago, I managed a project that worked in a context of anti-social behaviour. But I was determined to reject the orthodoxy behind a whole series of interventions aimed at tackling this problem. All seemed to have one thing in common, they were designed to crack down, to enforce and to punish. It struck me as ironic that these were all intrinsically anti-social themselves: from the Dispersal Order that prevented people gathering to the high frequency emitting Mosquito Box that only young people could hear, and the move ‘em on capacity of classical music and acne lights (as used by dermatologists to identify skin problems) in subways.
Surely a more enlightened approach was needed: the use of pro-social interventions. Getting people together to explore and argue about their concerns; proactively using conflict in order to support its mediation. The active promotion of community conversations no less. A highlight was a philosophical enquiry in which police officers and young people examined the concept of anti-social behaviour. In this methodology a generative phase is employed; time is taken to decide what the theme of the enquiry should be. In this case, swearing was the issue that connected all participants. The police disliked being sworn at by young people; their riposte was that the Police did the same. An impasse? Not at all, the simple agreement that in street-corner confrontations all should commit to not swearing. The outcome? A general holding to account by all, but more importantly the diffusion of tension and the creation of a space where a reasonable conversation could take place. In sum, very effective.
As is the way of these things, I have come across a wealth of commentary on swearing in recent days. I was reminded of a young woman in a Youth Inclusion Programme (YIP) who seemed to use swearing as an everyday language. But when a group of builders turned up one day (a trade she had learnt something about due to her father’s work) she adopted the role of charge hand. Not an expletive all day. Engagement is crucial, it seems.
And expert advice for a verbally abused teacher in a recent TES magazine: excluding the perpetrator gives some pupils an open door to a day at home watching television (the anti-social response). Rather, stay connected to the incident, don’t pass responsibility over. The long-term solution lies in improving relationships with pupils; work toward a world in which we better understand each other (the pro-social response).
Thinking about the civility of civil society (rather than narrow interpretations of Big Society) might be a good place to start, for the police, the courts, politicians and policy makers, and, indeed, wider society.