Home Page This level of disorder is so new we don't know what to call it 11/03/11

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

Anyone who has ever been to a public meeting will know that the ability to express yourself clearly and, preferably, succinctly is very advantageous.


However, organisers have got wise to this at last and a new sort of meeting is coming into vogue, which we saw in action in Haverhill this week.


It calls itself a public meeting, but there is very little opportunity for individuals to speak in public. Instead, those attending are divided into small groups to raise issues which are then summarised by one member – often a facilitator such as a councillor – in a session of public feedback to the chairman and the officials who called the meeting.


This effectively emasculates the barrack-room orators who used to dominate any such meeting, often despite the best efforts of the chairman.


Suddenly, everyday language is removed from the debate, unless it is imported in the form of a slightly patronising quote – for example: "My group of residents say their lives are being made a misery”, or "one resident has gone as far as to say the situation is a disgrace”.


It distances many of those present, but particularly those responsible, from direct criticism. No longer do they have to face up, eye-to-eye or even toe-to-toe, to an irate resident accusing them wildly of incompetence or self-interest.


The Safer Neighbourhood Team public meeting in Tesco cafe on Tuesday was, to be fair, an effective one because those relaying the information did manage to put a bit of passion into it and ram home the salient point that residents wanted more police action, particularly on anti-social behaviour around and along the railway walk.


The problem, as it was relayed from the residents, had only started since the arrival of Tesco. The conclusion that it is somehow Tesco’s fault was left unspoken, which would almost certainly not have been the case in an old-fashioned meeting.


Of course, it isn’t Tesco’s fault. Tesco has just been the catalyst attracting the offenders to the area. We were promised Tesco would be a catalyst for the town, but of a rather different and more beneficial kind.


But the importance of language was highlighted more than ever during this information session – one couldn’t exactly call it a debate.


People think language is just a conduit that can be moulded to the needs of each generation, like electricity, but it can similarly give you a shock if you don’t use it properly.


We heard a lot of pussy-footing around a variety of terms to cover rowdiness, under-age drinking, litter, dumping of bottles in gardens, urinating in bushes and hurling food at houses, and also the perpetrators of it.

The reason for that is that we don’t have an exact term to cover it. English is quite an exact language if you use it properly, which most people don’t any more, and it usually has a particular word for things unless they are completely new.


But groups of youngish people hanging around with no definable object, becoming noisy, drinking alcohol and engaging in low-level untidiness must presumably be quite a new phenomenon.


We have invented this horrible expression ‘anti-social behaviour’ or ASB quite recently – or rather the police have and we use it in dearth of anything better.


The perpetrators are often described as ‘youths’, although they may be anything from ten upwards. Sometimes we call them teenagers but the age range has spread a lot further in both directions.


They are said to gather in ‘groups’, probably because the alternative of ‘gangs’ implies a greater degree of organisation than is apparent among them, and is also rather more frightening.


This is all very sad because ‘youth’ has always been a very positive word. It is something we all hanker after, particularly at my age. It should represent the very best part of humanity and, of course, in reality it does. We are justly proud of the vast majority of our young people.


So we may search for other terms such as ‘yob’ (straight out of the 60s when the word was invented), ‘thug’ (but that implies violence), ‘hoodie’ (but that can be perfectly innocent), lout (a contraction of layabout, so not intimidating enough), or ‘hooligan’ (I guess this is originally an Irish word, but now forever linked with football).


Language tells us that this, for all we may protest against the thought, is a relatively new phenomenon. Young people lacking any constructive ambition, and parading that in public, must be the products of something that the post-war generations have done.


Young people rebelled against the drabness of the 1950s, but many of them did not know what to do with their new-found freedom.


The world where people gathered together in clubs and groups to do something entertaining and constructive to brighten up their lives has deteriorated into a world where ‘group’ is the best term we can come up with to describe a number of these aimless people gathered in one place whose single achievement is to darken everyone else’s lives.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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