“Hey mister, that’s a lovely hat you have there”.
“Actually it’s a woolly cap, you moron,” I say under my breath, while I say “thanks” out loud, as neutral as I can.
This scene will be familiar to many people in this town. You are passing a group of youths on a Friday night. Rather than mind their own business, they decide to amuse themselves at your expense.
You don’t know how many cans they’ve drunk or how friendly the banter really is. You sense menace even though it could be dead innocent. Don’t provoke them, you tell yourself. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred you walk on and there’s no more about it.
I have to tell you about my woolly cap. It was hand-knitted and it looks a bit like a scull cap that comes down at an angle. I have to admit it looks a bit naff. A bit silly. Even a bit odd.
So it attracts comment in these circumstances. You couldn’t expect otherwise, could you? Anything a bit odd is bound to.
The funny thing is that I’ve passed hundreds, maybe thousands, of young lads on their own while wearing this cap. No one, not a single one, has ever commented on it.
Yet when a few of them get together, with or without a few jars, a pack animal instinct seems to take over. It becomes them against the world. Bravado surfaces: “Look at this prat with the stupid hat. Let’s see if we can get a rise out of him”.
I know how this works because I’ve been there. Every young person gangs up at some point. And it is by no means all bad. Some of the best times of your life spring from your adventures with your mates.
Some of the best human values too. Loyalty, sharing, friendship, a sense of the collective which can be exhilarating and liberating in your teenage years.
But the problem with gangs is that for some to be in, there must be some who are out. People bury some of their individuality in the gang and give themselves over to the gang ethic. For the vast majority of young people it’s pretty harmless.
But for too many now it is sinister and menacing. The pack animal looks for the weakest to prey upon.
In some estates, I have been told, single mothers have been targeted. Their houses are stoned. They are threatened and harassed. Faeces and the like are dumped in their letterboxes. A single mother has to mind her child – she’s unlikely to be much of a match for those waiting outside in the dark.
A woman on the radio last week talked about how her children had been abused and ostracised – for having red hair. “Ah, for god’s sake,” I said to myself. When she was finished you could see that it was no trivial matter.
And on it goes. This was the case long before the recent immigration phenomenon. But now there are all sorts of odd people to target.
My gut feeling about the Beaumont killing is that it is not primarily a racist murder. That is – it is not violence brought on by racism but racism as a pretext for violence.
I’m not interested in excusing this behaviour but I am interested in why it happens. I don’t believe in simple badness and I think this behaviour can be defused before it does damage.
There are many elements to the problem – drink, drugs, dysfunctional families and communities, a lack of support for communities and so on.
One of the elements I think contributes is the very idea of youth culture. The leaders of this culture are not young people themselves but industry executives in music, fashion, TV, magazines and so on.
Young people are set apart from the broader community; the market cannot abide fuzzy boundaries. The emphasis is on indulgence, image, acceptability and cool. This last elusive, much sought-after value probably shifts more clothes, records and hairstyles than any marketing campaign could ever hope to.
It also robs young people of their individuality and puts it in boardrooms in London, Paris and New York. This is where the seeds of alienation, self-loathing, the threat of personal failure for young people and the targets of unattainable cool are set.
I was going to headline this column as ‘Why are young people so angry?’ but I wanted to address the racist issue first. If you can answer that question, you would be well on the way to solving the racism problem too.
As well as that…
Multi-culturalism is anything but a failure
I heard Aine Ni Chonaill of the Immigration Control Platform saying that Britain’s experience with multi-culturalism was a failure.
She thinks that people of different colour, religion and nationality can’t get along.
Well now, Aine.
London is one of the greatest cities on the globe. There is every make of human from every reach of the planet. People from all walks of life live and work and play together.
I had the great fortune to live there and I found the place absolutely exhilarating. I made friends with people of every race there is and I found that their individuality was far greater than any negative racial characteristic attributed to them.
London is probably the greatest example in the world that multi-culturalism does work.
Aine says that she is not a racist. It’s just that she does not want to live with people of different races. You figure out the difference.