6,000 years of antisocial behaviour


"We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect
their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently
inhabit taverns and have no self control."
Inscription, 6000 year-old Egyptian tomb1

"New" menace to society

In 1898, newspapers in England warned of the menace of "hooligans" and of a "dramatic increase in disorderly behaviour". The Times reported "organised terrorism in the streets".2 In every decade of the 20th century there were similar media panics.

Meanwhile, at the start of the 21st century, politicians have (once again) revived and stoked public fears of juvenile misbehaviour. A new Anti-Social Behaviour Act has given British authorities extraordinary liberty-eroding powers.

Mainstream journalists often parrot government press releases. Then, for "balance", they question whether or not governments should interfere in how parents raise children (a side issue at best). They tend not to question the belief that there is some kind of new, unique, escalating menace which requires urgent action.

They don't question the idea that this is part of a distinctly modern malaise – so unlike the good old days, when young people had more respect...

A time of lawlessness & disrespect

"When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint".
Hesiod, 8th century BC

"What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"
Plato, 4th Century BC

"The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint... As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress."
Attributed to Peter the Hermit, AD 12743

In April 1738, the press covered a report from a British Government committee which had been set up to "examine the causes of the present notorious immorality and profaneness."4

In the 1800s, hordes of teens and pre-teens ran wild in American city streets, dodging authorities, "gnawing away at the foundations of society", as a commentator put it. In 1850, New York City recorded more than 200 gang wars fought largely by adolescent boys.5

The Golden Age

"Juvenile delinquency has increased at an alarming rate and is eating at the heart of America"
US juvenile court judge, 19466

In 1992 the Wall Street Journal published two lists, ostensibly of the biggest problems in schools in 1940 and 1990 ("as identified by teachers"). The 1940 problems were listed as: talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, improper clothing and littering. The 1990 problems were: pregnancy, suicide, drugs, alcohol, rape, robbery and assault.

By the time the Journal printed the lists, they'd appeared in hundreds of media publications, books and political speeches. In 1994, a Yale professor demonstrated that the "1990" list was from a 1975 survey in which principals (not teachers) were asked about crimes (not general problems). The sociologist, Barry Glassner, points out that when teachers have been asked about problems in schools, they respond with items such as parent apathy, lack of financial support, absenteeism, fighting and too few textbooks – not rape and robbery.7

But the lists "confirmed" common beliefs – that morals are breaking down, that everything is going to hell, etc.

"In the late 1990s the number of drug users had decreased by half compared to a decade earlier; almost two-thirds of high school seniors had never used any illegal drugs, even marijuana. So why did a majority of adults rank drug abuse as the greatest danger to America's youth?" (Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear)

1 Egyptian inscription quoted in R. Buckminster Fuller's I Seem to be a Verb.
2 From Laurie Taylor's article, Looking with a historical eye, published in the 1995 Channel Four booklet, Battered Britain.
3 Whilst the quotes attributed to Hesiod and Plato seem well-supported, the attribution of this quote to Peter the Hermit has been questioned
by some. Another, similar quote, commonly attributed to Socrates (but not included here) is also questionable.
4 Fortean Times no. 39, p41.
5 Quoted in Barry Glassner's The Culture of Fear, p75.
6 Ibid, p75.
7 Ibid, p75-76.