Deborah Orr: A statement of the bleeding obvious

Surely it must be possible to discuss this negative aspect of black-influenced popular culture?
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What a flurry of "young people today" coverage there has been in the media of late. Last week, anxiety about the hoodie managed - via a ban in the Bluewater shopping centre - to penetrate to journalists and politicians, who with their indefatigable good sense decided what was needed was the usual massing of ranks in a left-right split, and in pursuit of the usual hype.

What a flurry of "young people today" coverage there has been in the media of late. Last week, anxiety about the hoodie managed - via a ban in the Bluewater shopping centre - to penetrate to journalists and politicians, who with their indefatigable good sense decided what was needed was the usual massing of ranks in a left-right split, and in pursuit of the usual hype.

Hoodies, therefore, were either one of two things. They were the apotheosis of an ever more criminal teenage mindset, worn only by those who wished to conceal their misdemeanours from the penetrating gaze of CCTV cameras, or who, at the very least, wished to discomfit and intimidate all those decent citizens who crossed their path.

Or they were a potent symbol of how young people were continually stereotyped and demonised, as they had been since youth cultures was born: through teddy boys to mods and rockers, skinheads, punks and so on. For good measure we were reminded once again that hooligan is a Victorian word and graffiti is named after the destructive habits of Roman centurions.

But what eventually strikes one about the demand that these things be seen in the context of their more detailed social history, as opposed to the demand that they must be seen as the latest degeneration in an never-ending slide into the inferno, is that both approaches actually do the same thing, which is to create a distance from what the contemporary experience of young people might actually be.

This week, "happy slapping", is about to hit media centre-stage via the auspices of Trevor MacDonald's Tonight programme on Thursday. "Happy slapping" is billed as a teenage craze which began on the dance-floors of the UK Garage scene and has spread to the playgrounds, streets, and public transport systems of the land. It involves hitting an unsuspecting victim while an accomplice films the incident on his mobile, then distributes it for its entertainment value.

If one wanted to place this nasty trend in its socio-economic context, one could wax lyrical about the old days, when children found it hilarious to pull chairs out from under each other, slide schoolbags at great speed at the feet of other children negotiating icy hills, or - in an extremely painful craze that went round in the 1970s - to ram hatpins into the bottoms of unsuspecting passers by.

A nod ought at this point be aimed the direction of the Tango carbonated drink advertisements a few years ago, which prompted a similar craze among children when a fat, toxic-orange personage was seen smacking people in the face and announcing they'd been "tango'ed". One could even - if one was really bonkers - talk about the slapstick tradition and the way instant DIY technology has given such dubious pleasures a new lease of life.

But that would be somewhat dignifying what has been reported as a rather disturbing spate of assaults, seen by the schoolchildren I have spoken to about it as scary and menacing. Amazing to relate, but most children dislike being punched in the face for the entertainment of others just as much as adults, which, as I recall, is very much how I felt about the hatpin thing.

This, of course, is very much a statement of the bleeding obvious, just as so much that is written about the subject of "youth" generally is. But forgive me, because I have become increasingly confused about what, exactly, the bleeding obvious is. For example, I think it bleeding obvious that the youth subculture that has popularised both the hoodie and the happy slap in Britain is UK Garage, a subculture that draws partly but by no means exclusively on US "gangsta" rap.

I think it's bleeding obvious that since the latter subculture has a huge influence and typically venerates a repulsive caricature of masculinity - relying on guns, drug-dealing, misogyny, homophobia, conspicuous consumption, the gang and "the ghetto", it's not likely to be the fountainhead from which gushes milk, human kindness or any combination thereof. In fact, placed in the context of a culture that promotes the shooting dead of those who show the most minor "disrespect", "happy slapping" looks much more like a harmless piece of fun than strictly speaking it ought to.

There are cautious people around - sometimes perhaps the same ones who now like to think of teddy boys as being cuddly rather than as being carriers of cut-throat razors and sharpeners of metal combs into points - who find such observations uncomfortable and say that such a negative portrayal of a vibrant sub-cultural influence is racist.

Actually, I think it's a lot more racist to carry on marginalising the problem, as we have been doing now for a couple of decades. The people who fall victim most often to this ghastly influence, after all, are young black men, who not only trail all other groups in educational attainment, but are most likely to fall victim to the violence they are encouraged to promote, in the form of a bullet in the brain.

Surely it must be possible to discuss this negative aspect of black-influenced popular culture, without the assumption being that all black-influenced popular culture is being targeted. Of course it's fantastic that this long-standing and only recently acknowledged wellstream of creativity has stepped out from behind the scenes and into the limelight. For many decades black culture was appropriated by white ambassadors before it could be sold to the masses. Now, in fashion and music particularly, such subterfuges are happily unnecessary.

Yet an ugly corner of this creative explosion has continued to exert a destructive influence. Since all of the masculine youth cultures focusing on violence have tended to express, not confidence, but insecurity about masculinity, then maybe the violence involved in this nasty little corner of R 'n' B expresses extreme insecurity about masculinity.

Just as gay men retorted to criticism of effeminacy by dressing in costumes of exaggerated masculinity, so the young black men who adopt the lifestyles that confirm the fears of racists, make a retort of their own. (Young white men do this too, but it could be argued that their motivations are less obvious because they're a little less clearly defined by the vicissitudes of modern history.)

By refusing even to admit to noticing that this desperate acting out is occurring, society may be inadvertently demanding ever more flamboyant displays. "Happy slapping" appears a vile pantomime of callous violence, by young people excited by the suffering they impose upon others. The pity is that while the schoolyard fad will pass, the underlying desire to hit out in blind rage is not much closer to being acknowledged or tackled.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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