What is the difference between a gang and a group of friends? I'm not sure I know the answer to that question and, according to a joint report by the chief inspectors for prisons, the probation service and constabulary, published in June last year, probably nobody else does either.
"Despite a growing pool of research in the UK", they concluded then, "there remains a range of definitions and explanations of what constitutes a 'gang' and 'gang culture'." Obviously, though, point of view is going to play quite a large part in how the word gets applied and to whom ... a truth underlined only the other day in Morgan Matthews' fascinating documentary about youth murder, Scenes From A Teenage Killing.
Matthews' film covered in some detail the fatal stabbing of a young teenager outside a Bristol pub, an incident that, much to the indignation of the young man's friends, was reported in the national press as a gang-connected crime. They had never been a gang, they insisted, they were simply friends – and they didn't have anywhere except the pavement to meet up with each other. I found myself thinking of that scene when I read of the Government's new "toolkit" for tackling public disorder, described in some quarters as "gang injunctions", a modified kind of Asbo which can be used to prevent people from visiting certain neighbourhoods, from walking aggressive dogs or even from wearing "gang" colours.
"This is a targeted tool to deal with serious gang violence," said the Home Office minister, James Brokenshire, explaining the measures on the BBC. "This isn't anti-social behaviour – you are talking about shootings, knife incidents, serious youth violence."
Which rather begged the question of why existing laws are insufficient to deal with such problem – and whether these new measures might have as many unintended consequences as Asbos themselves. Again, at least one highlighted contribution to that 2010 report suggested that the stigma of gang membership might look rather different from the other side. "The label 'gang' ultimately creates an image of glamour and power that as an establishment we would not wish to reinforce," said one respondent.
But it is quite hard to see how the banning of a certain colour of clothing would not greatly enhance the outlaw allure of that particular badge of identity, and all too easy to imagine that a "gang injunction" might almost become a test of gang loyalty – a kind of state-sponsored initiation rite.
Indeed, the use of such injunctions seems as if it might be quite a good way to convert what are actually just groups of people who feel secure in each other's company (possibly brought together by geographical locality or a sense of exclusion) into the real thing, a criminal association of resentful teenagers who feel they have been unfairly stigmatised and decide that they might as well retrospectively justify their punishment.
As the epigraph on that 2010 report runs – quoting a young person's admiring attitude to gang membership – "pain is temporary, pride is forever". The challenge is to find a way to satisfy teenagers' pride which knits them into society at large, rather than one which is defined by their separateness and self-enclosure. I think it is fanciful to hope that a gang injunction is going to achieve that.
An incredibly overused word
We have encountered the word incredible (and its variants) a lot in the past few days – several otherwise sober reporters clutching for some way to convey the scale of the events in Egypt. It is particularly striking when it occurs in a television reports ("incredible scenes here in Cairo"), since the footage in the background effectively undermines the adjective being used to describe it. It might be justified, for example, as a way of captioning footage of an orange Tyrannosaurus chewing off protesters' heads, since we would have reasonable grounds for doubting the evidence of our own eyes. But footage of angry people taking to the streets surely doesn't qualify.
One understands, of course, that writers and reporters want some kind of intensifier and that the options are a bit limited. "Unprecedented" might do, but for the fact that the Egyptian protests are only occurring because of a recent Tunisian precedent. "Highly unusual" would be accurate, but might not entirely satisfy a journalist's wish to convey just how big his or her story is. "Extraordinary" and "remarkable" work too, though you might object that since news is, by definition, an account of events that are out of the ordinary and worth remarking on, these words are strictly redundant.
Whatever journalists select, though, I think they should steer clear of "incredible". Gobsmacked astonishment at a turn of events isn't really a quality that you can value in a reporter.
PlayStation: pain relief for teenagers
Last night's report on BBC2's Horizon programme about the use of a video game as a form of pain relief for patients with severe burns offered confirmation for my own informal research into the analgesic effects of virtual reality. "They basically become oblivious to what's happening in the hospital room," said a doctor who had tried out the system. "It isolates the patient from the real world, unlike any other media that's ever been tried."
Take out the words "hospital" and "patient" and it is a perfect description of what happens to my own teenagers when they power up the PlayStation. Almost complete anaesthesia at the push of a button. Complaints about homework barely impinge; parental sarcasm goes unnoticed. The effect is so powerful that we have decided it has to be locked away in an opiates cupboard during term-time.