Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Problems with the youth in modern cities

Of interest is a BBC report (June 2008) about the recent increase in violence committed by youths in the UK. Knife stabbing led even to the unfortunate killing of a young actor appearing in one of the latest Harry Potter’s films. Apparently he wanted to protect his younger brother when a fight broke out in a bar. Before he knew it, a knife was stabbed into his body. That sounds like what happened in West Side Story. Only now media reports and real reactions no longer match since a lot more needs to be analysed before some conclusions can be reached about the increase in violence.

Of interest is, however, the main conclusion in that BBC report, namely today’s youth hardly knows how to communicate. It seems at home they rarely experience during dinner good conversations. Instead they withdraw to their rooms where they eat their food alone while watching television. Implied is that this type of behaviour – social withdrawal, over exposure to virtual reality and no social discursive practice – would lead them astray. With their minds filled with almost only images of violence as the only way to settle a score, they are always close to despair when confronted by real challenges. None of the media films show how dialogue can resolve conflicts and never can be seen that non violent behaviour would lead to success. Above all there seems nothing in culture that could reach them to show that failure means to be human, provided there is a willingness to learn out of these failures.

As far as life in cities is concerned, no ‘human language’ can be heard if they reproduce only a ‘poverty of experience’. This special poverty leaves the youth unable to interact with their parents and peers; if at all they do so, then only by means of a heavily guarded code as shown by how they dress and to what music they listen to. The main aim seems to be not to reveal how lousy they feel. They tend to hide a concrete fear not to be successful at school and generally in society. It leads to masking their real feelings while discovering to their own disappointment that their parents have been practicing that all alone. Much is sacrificed for the sake to appear different from their parents or adult models, but then not to be successful prevails as a set form of fear. Above all they suffer under lack of recognition. With all kinds of projections not questioned, they face a still unknown future.

A youth without concrete perspective will always feel to be an absolute failure but this is not unique to these times, but no one tells them this to be a natural part of growing up. Left alone, they will develop feelings of guilt. Things are made worse if no true happiness can be experienced or is not communicated to them. They are too ready to doubt themselves, especially if things go terribly wrong in an early love life. They are lost as well once they believe no adult can be authentic. Their hatred of the adult world will make them respond like any adolescent to mere overt things missing in the world when in fact they need to take risks in order to go forward. If everything is false what adults say and claim, then they would have nothing to go on. Without any valid reference, they are exposed to the only new like a ship in the midst of the ocean to an approaching storm but without rudder or motor functioning.

There is a tendency which makes youth transform culture into a cult geared towards certain ends e.g. the gothic cult over emphasizes death by use of the colour ‘black’. No wonder pessimism and scepticism can take on new forms of even greater derailment and disillusionment if they hardly experience during daily encounters with their parents, teachers and other adults any good exchange of information. Robert Musil in ‘Man without attributes’ explained Nihilism by the simple fact that the worst thing which can happen to the youth is if they send out their ideas into the world but do not to get any reply; it is far worse than criticism. They need something which gives them some recognition, something to go on learning. Without a culture capable of giving both orientation and concrete feed-back, young people remain disorientated. Once unable to articulate themselves and no longer able to know real needs, society has no meaning to them. They resign like those unemployed who have fled into one of the ghettos of the city.

If there is added the growing gap between rich and poor in cities, making it most apparent where those left out tend to hang out, namely in districts with poor housing quality and no community services, then it should not surprise anyone when in modern cities many highly volatile situations exist. For those without financial means cities turn into a dangerous trap. Yes, they can enter them but they discover once inside to be unable to leave them again. It costs too much money. As a result the shanty towns or urban ghettos which developed out of the illusion that cities could offer an escape from poverty remind daily that something has gone deeply wrong.

When something is deeply amiss then it is because cities face constantly situations threatening to become quickly uncontrollable after just minor incidences. They can spark off riots like the ones which erupted in France in October 2005. Alone the continual wrong handling by the police of juveniles stemming from peripheral social groups can make these squalid suburbs into power kegs. The unfortunate death of two youths who had been chased by the police sparked off a chain reaction of events. A youth went rampant. They burned cars, overturned rubbish bins and smashed windows of almost everything linked to the system e.g. banks. They were not only very difficult to control but could not be protected against themselves. In those wild chases down the streets many things are lost, trust in themselves just one thing.

Once they believe their community has no longer the ability to counter the pressures of the system, the radical part of the youth is willing to go all out. They vent their anger but also fear to be so helpless. That infuriates them the most. In what they express is but an extension of their view that the system lies outside their grasp but still has the authority and capability to inflict harm upon them even if they do not want to get entangled. There is no justice, no one there to ask for advice and no one to ask for support. To them the system is too close for comfort and equally indifferent to their needs and ideas. They feel all the more the heat because they see no chance of integration while time is running out for them. As youth they know time moves on merciless. Albert Camus said about the Algerian youth, they burn out very quickly by trying to live everything within two or three years where others need a whole life and still that life span is not enough for them.

Various measures in response to a rebellious youth are taken by cities. They reflect a general tendency towards mere punitive ones by answering violence with more state violence e.g. police patrols. Too readily use is made by police and administration of arrests and expulsions, especially of those without any legal papers. The hard measures reflect a society unable to come to terms with social and cultural issues such as providing integration chances by facilitating open ended learning methods for both officials and youth to do something for the life in the community. One immediate measure would have to be to alter the concept of providing cheap social housing but without any community structures in place. Any effort would have to involve especially the youth in order to give them a chance to create an environment which is conducive to their needs. A joint effort must be to work out together plans by which they can organise life themselves. It would be a way to give to the youth a chance to qualify for future work and to let them enter further going socialization processes.

One common mistake being made repeatedly by many cities is that no real integration is strived for. Only once the city opens up to cultural diverse groups, then a variety of cultural actions can facilitate integration. If only a rigid cultural code is imposed, then this becomes in reality a demand for conformity. It gives the wrong alternatives, when every newcomer has only one choice, namely to adapt to the official culture or else to get out again. To an Algerian youth living in the suburbs of Paris it does not make sense to embrace solely the French culture. They need to validate as well their own cultural background as well as gain in European and international orientation. Offering such a fake alternative serves no purpose; in reality, it does not resolve anything since no cultural space is given to work out alternate solutions based on integrating elements from various cultural sources. Such demands lead to mere political confrontation and reflects that the political authorities from President down to mayor give in merely to an overall social demand, namely to resolve the situation as quickly as possible and therefore to make that problem of the youth become again ‘invisible’ so as not to tarnish the reputation of ‘la grande nation’. That blocks not only European integration. These national frameworks for culture make it nearly impossible for cities within that territory to pursue any sensible cultural policy.

There is a general tendency in society to over simplify things while administrations of cities tend to overlook the complex nature of modern urban ghettos. They remain under serviced in all accounts. By approaching dysfunctional social structures with wrong concepts, the city risks to reproduce and to deepen another cultural crisis. Easily tensions can unload themselves in street riots leading to such confrontations between youths and police that things can turn really ugly. Of interest is here a pattern of failure being repeated by failing to socialize young people from an early age on so that they can attain self esteem and thereby integrate themselves into society. The most telling fact is that the youth regards itself as having no perspective for the future and thereby no desire to relate their creative potentialities to what is needed by others living in the same world.

Hatto Fischer

Athens 2008

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