Christopher Smith worries that no one wants to grow up any more
Istep out of the gate here at St Alban’s Holborn, and some berk nearly runs me over. Not in a car, nor even on a bike: this berk was on a scooter. I don’t mean a mum taking a child to school, given that scooters have undergone something of a renaissance among children’s toys as skateboards have faded again. This berk was a full-grown man in a business suit, scooting across Brooke’s Market in the direction of the City.
Adults on scooters are not an uncommon sight in today’s London, and they bring out in me an urge to throw soft fruit at them and shout: ‘Grow up!’ Frustratingly, of course, I would have to concede that travel by scooter is a good deal quicker than walking, but no scooter-rider ever goes on the road, and pedestrians are inconvenienced. What one person wants to do, however childish, triumphs over considerate use of public space, and it seems to be a product of the way we live now that people often find the transition to adulthood difficult or uncongenial or both. There are plenty of other behaviours in modern life that seem both childish and selfish.
Not so very long ago, youngsters longed to enter the adult world. Admission to adult company was an important part of growing up, and conversations you had with adults made you feel grown up. I have a very clear recollection of being allowed to stay in conversation with the adults at the post-street party gathering on the day we celebrated the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. It was partly a triumph of knowing when to keep quiet, but I longed to be released from the playground to function in adult company. Music and church life brought me into adult company, and so I learnt to be an adult that way, as others learnt by taking on an apprenticeship or playing sport.
Nowadays, the longing for adulthood seems to have been inverted into a desire to perpetuate childhood, a need not to grow up. It’s not just the man on the scooter, and the fifty-year-olds in the night club. There’s something too about the snowflakes who melt in only the slightest heat, who think that their university or workplace or the state generally really ought to be protecting them from any form of slight or insult. I’ve written previously about the madness descending upon university campuses, and indeed the modern student has slyly redefined himself as a person still not fully grown.
And we have in recent years seen the introduction of a new category of law in this country, probably imported from across the pond, and it will come back to bite us. That new category is something called ‘hate crime.’ It was a thing unknown to English law until very recently, since hating someone is not, in fact, a crime. But, thanks in part to equalities legislation, we have acquired a concept of ‘protected characteristics.’ This, I presume, has arisen from the idea in criminal law, conceived with the best of intentions, of aggravating factors. These are balanced against mitigating factors, which might be that the offence was committed in the face of a high level of provocation, or that the defendant was under pressure from others in a group enterprise. Aggravating factors might be gratuitous damage to property in the course of a burglary, or deliberate humiliation of the victim during an assault. For some time now, racial motives have counted as aggravating factors, and, more recently, hostility based on sexual orientation, disability, or religion. All these factors aggravate the seriousness of the offence, and therefore the severity of the sentence.
But we have now arrived at a point where the Crown Prosecution Service has just put out guidelines in respect of ‘hate crime’—crime where (to quote their press release last month) ‘the perpetrator is motivated by hostility or demonstrates hostility towards the victim’s disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity.’ Well, that may be fair enough if an assailant decides to stab his victim because she is disabled, black, gay or transgendered, but you might wonder whether the aggravating factor would be difficult to demonstrate when the assailant commits the crime without shouting ‘take that, you …’ as he does the deed. The disturbing thing about the new CPS guidelines is the element of subjectivity: the aggravation, the ‘hate’ element of the crime, need only be ‘perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person’s disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.’ And beware the following: ‘There is no legal definition of hostility so we [the CPS] use the everyday understanding of the word which includes ill-will, spite, contempt, prejudice, unfriendliness, antagonism, resentment and dislike.’
Now, I mustn’t leave you with the impression that unfriendliness and dislike have suddenly become criminal offences in themselves. But I do worry about the culture into which all this feeds. Subjectivity is not terribly helpful when we rely on objectivity to give us a fair legal system. Indeed, it brings us back to where we started. We often say that children have a strong sense of justice, but a child’s view of what is ‘just’ is essentially selfish. ‘I perceive that you are not being fair by giving a present to my sister but not to me.’ The adult, having a more objective view, says: ‘Well, it’s not your birthday, it’s your sister’s. You must wait until your birthday comes round’—and so we learn. Perhaps that’s the root of the problem: as adults behave more like children, objectivity gives way to subjectivity, and facts to feelings. And we’ve seen that in the Church, haven’t we, boys and girls?