Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dysfunctional and violent teenge boys? Surely not!

Three times in the last month teenage boys have insulted or threatened me near my home in north Dublin City. All three times the attention-seeking lads initiated some kind of verbal aggression while I was walking past on the street. One boy flung some kind of biro-sized hollow plastic tube at my face, leaving a blood-oozing graze. Another simply lunged towards me as I passed and said, absurdly, ‘yeh bastard!’

I lived in Dublin from 2001 to 2007, without ever experiencing this kind of behaviour, and I have been wondering if something has changed about my appearance (or age) that is attracting this negative attention. Still, I am living in a different part of Dublin now, much nearer the city centre, and perhaps I am dealing with a more aggressive youth subculture than that which was prevalent in the northern suburbs.

Dark Dublin
This bad behaviour has dismayed and angered, but not surprised me. I had long sensed an underlying menace in Dublin (and other Irish cities to a lesser extent), a sense that this violent machismo was widely taken for granted as a means of gaining respect by young males. I saw boys no older than eleven flinging litter out of the top deck of a double-decker bus at pedestrians. I was in a train while it was pelted with stones by a crowd of children. Dublin firefighters told me of kids dropping concrete blocks from pedestrian bridges onto the windscreens of ambulances. Irish rivers and canals are clogged with litter.

Some Irish graffiti is better than others

In 2004 I lived for a while near the centre of Sydney and Australia - with a reputation for boisterous and macho males - seemed to lack the swaggering gangs of teenage boys I saw at home. It simply felt safer there, more civilised.

There was violence occasionally, of course. My Irish housemate told me one morning that he and a passing Chinese man had stopped to intervene in a fight between two young men, when one of the combatants shouted back in a strong Irish accent: ‘It’s all right! We’re friends!’ My brother claimed the only violence he had witnessed in a year in Australia was on Saint Patrick’s Day when the local Irish visitors disgraced themselves with some drunken destruction.

I have warned against using anecdotes without statistical evidence before so these stories tell us little about the true extent of violent crime. The 2004-5 International Crime Victims Survey asked respondents in 78 countries if they had: 'been personally attacked or threatened by someone in a way that really frightened you, either at home or elsewhere, such as in a pub, in the street, at school, on public transport, on the beach, or at your workplace?'

In Ireland 4.9% of respondents said yes - one of the worst results in the survey - compared with 3.8% in Australia (or 3.9% in Dublin versus 2.8% in Sydney). This seems like a fairly small difference. Perhaps I simply didn’t recognise the danger signs in Australia.

Turning Japanese
I taught in a high school in the south of Japan where some of my teenage male students were disruptive, attention-seeking and rude – but not violent. The same macho guys who interrupted classes and mocked their teachers and peers still carefully tidied away their litter on the streets. Littering was unknown; the streets were dotted with unsupervised vending machines, which young Japanese men failed to rob, write on or destroy. I did see the word ‘homo’ written phonetically in Japanese script on a bus seat once but graffiti was very rare.

In Japan only 0.6% of respondents to the International Crime Victims Survey reported assaults or threats over the previous five years. Japan felt like a futuristic Utopia where people had forgotten how to fight: it simply didn’t seem to occur to young men and boys that they needed to throw their weight around to get respect.

The final solution?
This just shows that there is nothing inevitable about the violent machismo I noticed over the last few weeks. It’s not youthful high spirits, it’s verging on criminality. I’m not sure if it is related to some of our other social ills – the ridiculous extent of littering and vandalism for example – but we needn’t think it has to be this way.

So I don’t know why this seems to be particularly prevalent in Ireland and largely absent in Japan, and I don’t know what is the best way to tackle it. Any suggestions? Feel free to leave them in the comments section below.

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