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From Buses to Blogs, a Pathological Individualism Is Poisoning Public Life
Our shared spaces have become a bear pit. This ever-crumbling civility risks our wellbeing and points to a bleak future
A grey weekday morning at 7.40am in Edmonton bus station in north London, and it's teeming with schoolchildren. As the bus arrives, a crowd surge forward to squeeze their way on. People get knocked over. The children, screaming and pushing, panic. Small ones, horrified by the melee, hold back. The ones with the sharpest elbows make it. The rest have to go through the ordeal again with the next bus and the next - and get bad marks for being late when, battle-scarred, they finally make it into school.
When I recounted this incident to my 12-year-old, hardened by 18 months of secondary school travel, she smiled at my naivety. Being pushed, sworn at and squeezed on to overcrowded trains and buses is already routine to her.
Trivial personal anecdotes, you might say, with some justification. But what I saw at Edmonton bus station left me enraged. How can we complain about children's antisocial behaviour when we show such dereliction in developing in them any understanding of social behaviour? Where are the buses, the stewards or bus conductors they need? Why are transport services in poorer areas so under-resourced? Treat people like animals and, chances are, they will end up behaving like them. Every morning, these kids are getting a crash-course in how aggressive self-assertion is your passport in life.
Edmonton is the latest in a series of nasty experiences in different parts of Britain - this is not just an urban or London phenomenon - that I've witnessed (or of which I've been the object) that have left me shaken. It's the sheer gratuitousness of the aggression over minor driving misdemeanours or the fuck-you indifference of those whose behaviour is affecting others. Every time, children were present, sometimes aping their parents' gesticulations - learning how to abuse.
It's not just a run of my bad luck. One-third of respondents told the British Crime Survey, published last week, that they were worried about antisocial behaviour. Crime may be falling, but something more intangible and just as important is moving centre stage: a pervasive anxiety about a deterioration in the everyday interactions between strangers. Typically, the aggression erupts when someone gets in someone else's way. It's a pathology of individual entitlement. What's crumbling is the civility that is so essential to wellbeing, to trust and to the conviviality of our lives. We have failed to invest the resources, both material and cultural, in the places where we interact with strangers. Antisocial teenagers are simply playing out their own version of the aggression and indifference that has been meted out to them.
Take a big jump and switch from the shared physical spaces of streets to a very different shared public space - the internet - and a related phenomenon is being played out. Aggression, abuse and contempt are now the normal currency of debate among strangers on blogs. Last week two prominent columnists, David Aaronovitch and Linda Grant, added their bewilderment to the growing chorus of those arguing that public debate on the internet is being strangled at birth by the quantity of personal abuse and bullying. The response from bloggers was fascinating. One argued that "the internet is good therapy. People can use it to voice their opinions, anger, fears and worries in anonymity, instead of penting it up [sic] leading to violence or suicides", while another argued that blogging is an "internal monologue ... spilling over into the public domain". Several contributors to the voluminous debate Grant's column spawned on Comment is free online admitted revulsion and shock. One asked: "Is human nature as awful as this?"
The thinker who predicted all of this with remarkable prescience was Richard Sennett in his book The Fall of Public Man, published 34 years ago. He argued that the distinction between the public and private realms was being eroded as we elevated the self-absorption and narcissism of "knowing oneself" into an end rather than a means by which to know the world. The public sphere - where we encounter strangers - becomes a canvas on which we play out our own emotional preoccupations and neuroses. Sennett sharply warned us that "because every self is, in some measure, a cabinet of horrors, civilised relations between selves can only proceed to the extent that nasty little secrets of desire, greed or envy are kept locked up".
What makes Sennett so pertinent is that this concept of privacy, of concealing thoughts, is exactly what is under assault. In some vain search for authenticity and honesty, all those horrors in the cabinet are now hawked around the blogging sites. Debate has become so gladiatorial that it generates its own mechanisms of exclusion; anyone who doesn't want verbal fisticuffs withdraws. Some participants, intoxicated by absurd interpretations of freedom of speech and individual entitlement, suggest people should be able to say whatever happens to pop into their heads, that there should be no space for reflection before speech. Martin Amis gave some intellectual credibility to this notion last autumn in the controversy over his remarks about Muslims, saying that he couldn't edit his thoughts. Yet deciding which thought to give voice to is precisely what all of us do all the time - and so it should be. What relationship, either public or private, could ever be sustained on any other principle?
A century of psychoanalysis and its derivatives and misapplications has legitimised parading our cabinets of horrors. Sennett describes this as having been a "trap rather than a liberation". The self-referential frame by which all is measured is "what does this person, that event mean to me?", he argues.
Amid such cacophony of attention-seeking "me, me, me", two things are in danger of being lost: first, the ability really to listen - rather than just wait with varying degrees of patience for your chance to spout off; and second, that grand old etiquette of liberal debate, the option to agree to differ. Both are vital ingredients of public debate as a process of learning and negotiation, both are much needed if the unprecedented diversity of our public spaces now is to produce civility or even conviviality.
Sennett's concern was that narcissism projected on to the public realm would strip us of our dignity. Reality television illustrates his point perfectly, and it's true of other media that scrutinise the painful private lives of the likes of Amy Winehouse. It's also evident on many blog sites, as some bloggers themselves lament. Dignity is as essential to human wellbeing as food and shelter, but in the public spaces of our lives it is in increasingly short supply.
That prompts frustration and disillusionment and a retreat into our private worlds as we disengage even further from the brutal bear pit that so many aspects of our public life have become. The danger is that we withdraw into bunkers of the like-minded, vacating the territory of solidarity and common purpose. That's a brutally bleak picture, and that is exactly what the children in Edmonton bus station were being taught last week.