In response to the riots in London and elsewhere, a number of people have responded by accusing society of simply failing to care about such young people. This indifference on the part of society supposedly leads to disaffection in the youth and the anti-social criminal behaviour that we have witnessed on our television screens over the last few days.
While this accusation is not without a large measure of truth - many people don't care, or fail to care actively enough - it strikes me as ultimately somewhat simplistic and missing important parts of the picture. It seems to me that many within society do care very deeply about deprived and disconnected urban youth, and that there are numerous people who are actively trying to make a difference to their lives. For each group advocating treating these rioters as scum and rats to be eradicated, suppressed, or cynically appeased, there are plenty of others who, although angered by their evil actions, really want to make a positive difference to their lives.
Many of these young people will have been exposed to teachers, youth workers, church leaders and workers, mentors, social workers, and programmes that transformed the lives of many of their peers. They may well be the 10% that slipped through the fingers of the various systems that they belonged to and the people that sought to make a difference in their lives, systems and people that prove profoundly effective in the lives of many. They may be the problem cases that resisted all of the effects of concerned and conscientious people. In many cases wider society can largely wash its hands of any responsibility for their actions: society did all that lay in its power, but they were unwilling to accept or respond to all of the work that concerned parties invested in them.
There are innumerable other cases, of course, cases in which society could have done more. However, as often as not, the key problems here are not simplistically attributable to a lack of care on the part of society, but other matters entirely. 'Care' and 'concern' aren't panaceas for social ills, especially ones that are as deeply embedded in dysfunctional social structures, systems, and patterns as these.
Most of us may want to help and make a difference and some of us may throw all of our effort into making such a difference, without any apparent success. The problem may not be our failure to care, but the fact that we do not know how to make a difference, or when and where to intervene before the problems become intractable. The problem may not be our failure to care, but our lack of training and resources with which to care. In some cases, however, I fear that we must eventually recognize our powerlessness, given the means at our disposal, the limited scope of our potential influence, the profound and early dysfunction of people's backgrounds, and other such factors, to make any great difference at all, no matter how much we may care. It is easy to fail to appreciate how much the odds are stacked against you making a difference in certain individuals' lives, even while the vast majority are proving responsive to your efforts. Of course, this does not excuse us from the duty to try.
Before blaming society for abandoning or not caring about such people, it might be worth thinking about the delinquent youth that you know personally. More often than not you will be able to identify a number of people in their lives who care profoundly, and are even at their wits' end, not knowing how to make the difference that they so wish to effect - a teacher, a parent, a sibling, a pastor, a youth worker. More often than not you can identify members of their peer groups who, although receiving less care, succeeded and made the most of all of the opportunities afforded to them. Also spend some time considering the investment of resources, concern, and intelligence in the systems and structures that seek to reach out to them, and reflect on how effective these have proved in other cases.
I believe that we need to put much more effort and thought as a society into reaching out to such deprived youth. However, I think that we must also resist the assumption (although occasionally justified) that the blame for the plight and behaviour of such deprived youth must lie primarily at the door of the wider society. One thing that we will learn when actually seeking to make a difference in such troubled lives is just how powerless we actually are. The blind trust that some people have in the power of social engineering, government welfare, and education thoroughly to rehabilitate human nature is misplaced. We must recognize that the fallout from the failure of families and the values and moral fabric of certain communities or from abuse will have an effect that cannot easily be redressed by any degree of care or involvement on the part of institutions, private, or governmental agencies.
Recognizing the powerlessness of wider society must go hand in hand with a recognition that there are many places where wider society is powerless, but where other agencies do have power, and consequently responsibility. One of the deepest problems with much liberal social thought is the manner in which it can deprive those it identifies as 'victims' of personal moral agency. When society constantly feeds you the message that your actions are determined by your socio-economic status, your family background, your biological imperatives, the capitalist system, or other social structures, and that you are trapped, you will fail to appreciate what power - and responsibility - you have to make a difference in your own life. Stripped of personal moral agency you could become morally passive, resentful, dependent, and fatalistic, just as many of the rioting youth, abdicating responsibility to forces beyond their control.
The same needs to be said about the moral responsibilities associated with relationships and the need for a committed family structure. Wider society and government will often prove powerless to address the problems caused by the breakdown of a family ethos within a community, and the abuse, alienation, and pain associated with this. However, people have more power than they realize - and, hence, more responsibility - to actually form and maintain loving families, and communities to develop the culture associated with them, all in a task in which wider society will experience profound powerlessness.
My hope is that amidst the salutary reminder of the fact that many of these young people are victims of the failures of wider society and government, and the responsibility that government and wider society has to care and to seek to make a difference in their lives (a message that many conservatives need to take to heart), the liberals who push these points will also be prepared to underline the issue of personal, family, and local community responsibility and resist a fatalistic vision of victims. One of the greatest gifts that we could give such young people is the knowledge of personal responsibility, along with the resources, structures, care, and support to overcome the obstacles to, and expand the scope of its potential exercise.