SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: 03 September 1994

 

Whipping boys

 

ROSALIND COWARD

 

Perspectives: Unemployable, unmarriageable, criminal and, above all, male -the yob is blamed for a spectacular range of society's ills. Who are the men behind the stereotype?

 

YOB', once a slang insult, is now a descriptive category used by tabloid and quality newspapers alike. Incorporating other breeds, like the lager louts, football hooligans and joyriders, yob is a species of young, white, working-class male which, if the British media is to be believed, is more common than ever before. The yob is foul-mouthed, irresponsible, probably unemployed and violent. The yob hangs around council estates where he terrorises the local inhabitants, possibly in the company of his pit-bull terrier. He fathers children rather than cares for them. He is often drunk, probably uses drugs and is likely to be involved in crime, including domestic violence. He is the ultimate expression of macho values: mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

 

The yob is the bogey of the Nineties, hated and feared with a startling intensity by the British middle class. Janet Daley, in her Times column, describes such men as `drunken Neanderthals', while Jeremy Kingston, also in the Times, reckons they are `crapulous louts'. Simon Heffer of the Telegraph claims, like Peter Lilley, that not even women of their own social class can tolerate such ghastly specimens: `Nobody wants to marry a yob because he is boorish, lazy and unemployable.' The language in which such young men are described - louts, scum, beasts - can be heard across the political spectrum. It appears in an extreme form in Sun editorials and in a modified version in sombre discussions of youth crime, as well as in some feminist writings on contemporary masculinity. Individual men disappear in this language into a faceless mob, or appear only as thuggish stereotypes.

 

The scorn heaped on the heads of pit-bull owners at the height of the dangerous dog scare of 1991 is a case in point. Even quality papers carried sneering interviews with men who called their dogs Kosh or Tyson and `who are usually between 18 and 25, with short hair and tattoos, dressed in shell suits and trainers'. This insistent view of the `yob' as morally delinquent - idle, criminal, unemployable, and (a very Nineties inflexion, this) unmarriageable - would cause outcry if used to refer to race or women. But it has achieved such a consensus that it is now difficult to ask even such obvious questions as who are the yobs? The short answer is no one. Seen close up, the yob dissolves. The yob is never the boy you know - only the ones you don't. As in all bigoted mythologies, the yob is that alien and bad creature by which the familiar and the good is culturally defined: the `them' by which `us' is created. To say that the yob does not exist, except as a cultural fantasy, does not mean that poor and unruly young men are not a problem in British society, nor that the weak and the vulnerable do not feel endangered by their behaviour. The economic guts have been ripped from large areas of the country. In less than a generation, many men have watched an entire edifice of everyday life, built on steady work and a regular wage, crumble. Men suffer, women suffer, families suffer. Children grow up feeling their parents' pain and their own helplessness. And helplessness breeds rage and aggression. In boys, this is often physical aggression, while girls are likelier to remain locked in emotional violence - no less damaging for that. The boys' rage erupts into the streets while the girls' turns inwards - on themselves and their families. The price of this is huge, not for some nameless horde but for individuals whose hopes and frustrations have been written out of the political agenda.

When Roddy Doyle fictionalises the `yob' in his novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, it isn't difficult to feel sympathy for Paddy, even when he pours lighter fluid into his baby brother's mouth and lights it. When he writes, `I wanted to be hard. I wanted to wear plastic sandals and smack them on the ground and dare anyone to look at me . . . I wanted to get that far. I wanted to look at my ma and da and not feel anything. I wanted to be ready,' the links between pain and anti-social behaviour are easy to see. But while press applause has scarcely died down for Doyle's Booker Prize award, the papers continue to hammer out stories of yobs who commit crimes because their brutish macho values are not the same as those of decent people.

It is known that young men, perpetrators of much crime, are also its main victims. It is also now known that England has a lower juvenile crime rate than many other European countries. But the media is wedded to the image of the yob because it seems to encapsulate the real and imaginary fears of our times. The yob is carrying the weight of masculinity which, for a variety of reasons, middle-class society finds increasingly unacceptable, and rhetorically dumps on to the men of the lower class. He is a classic scapegoat: lugging around the sins of our culture while the rest of us look sanctimoniously on.

For centuries, poor men and crime have been connected in the public imagination, particularly in periods of economic hardship. But contemporary fears have a new element. There's a growing belief that there is something in masculinity itself which inclines poor young men to anti-social behaviour. In fact, this is a recent twist to an old story.

The yob is not a new phenomenon. The last century has seen many versions of yobbism. Late 19th-century Britain saw the rise of the `residuum', an underclass of the poor whose lifestyle and morals were seen as dangerously anti-social. A half-century later, it was the turn of the teddy boys, mods and rockers who brought an atmosphere of criminal gangland warfare into a society which liked to see itself as cohesive. Motor bikes, black leather and booze signalled young men on the rampage, spitting in the face of 1950s respectability.

Contemporary theories of a social underclass draw on this long history of male-outcast groups. The 1990s image of the council estate, with its gangs of alienated youths, abandoned mothers and violent homes, drug dealing and drinking, and chronic crime, is an update of an earlier vision of the dark side of Britain's social landscape. Today's commentators speak in truly Dickensian terms.

Images of the underclass as a cancer abound, along with representations of the yobbish element as primitive beasts attacking the social fold. A recent advertising campaign, warning car-owners to lock their cars, showed snarling hyenas circling a vehicle on a dark night. The message is clear: the dangerous dogs of the British poor are everywhere.

These images would not work unless legitimated. Two discourses have provided them with a respectable gloss - underclass theory, and a quasi-feminist critique of masculinity. The views on the underclass of the US sociologist Charles Murray are recognised as having had considerable influence on Conservative Party thinking on social policy, reinforcing a traditional view of crime and poverty as moral rather than economic.

Britain, like America, now has an underclass, he argues - a rump group who are unable to escape from poverty. Being responsible for the increase in violent crime, they threaten the very basis of any social cohesion. Murray's `underclass' is an impoverished group which no longer shares the norms and values of the dominant class - it is violent and immoral.

Crucial in its formation is the rise of the single mother. In the lower-income groups, especially those dependent on welfare, marriage has declined and illegitimate births have increased. Children born in such situations are deprived of economic and emotional stability and parental authority, making them more liable to criminality. They perpetuate the cycle, too. Daughters of these families, Murray says, are more likely themselves to have illegitimate children, thereby increasing the numbers who will live by crime and violence.

Much attention has been given to the way Murray appears to blame single mothers for the rise of the underclass - something with which even black men, as in the racist formulation of American underclass theory, but crime, they are disordered and anti-social, sated in the trashy images of a video culture. Murray dubs them the New Rabble, primitive beasts who are civilised only by women and marriage.

Social theorist Professor Jeffrey Weeks refutes Murray's ideas of the underclass as `both pejorative and stigmatising. It reduces very complex changes to a single cause - the breakdown of marriage - and inevitably leads to scapegoating.' Others, like Professor Ruth Lister, challenge his evidence: `Most illegitimate births are registered by both parents, and usually this implies as much commitment as a marriage. It also assumes that single parenting can never be adequate, and that the consequences will be crime and disruptive behaviour - neither of which is backed up by evidence. The concept is also extraordinarily imprecise.' Imprecision, however, never stopped an idea taking hold. And the myth of yobbism exerts its grip far beyond Murray's supporters. Hatred of yobs has become entangled in a wider hostility towards men, a hostility fuelled by a quasi- feminist critique of masculinity. It is the maleness of the yobs, and particularly the hyped-up machismo which they represent, which is often seen as the main problem. Calling on pop psychology or biology, journalists blame joyriding and football hooliganism on testosterone levels. Indeed, decrying men and macho values has become a favourite media pastime. And no doubt some of the less pleasant aspects of masculinity should be mocked. But when this disparagement of all things male gets linked to the poor, in fact to those who are most disadvantaged in the current economy, the result is much more problematic.

Beatrix Campbell's Goliath: Britain's Dangerous Places is a feminist text which reveals many of the worrying consequences of pinning crime and unrest on working-class manhood. Goliath was written in the wake of various riots in 1991 across Britain, and the general thesis is that `the great unspoken in the crime angst of the Eighties and Nineties is that it is a phenomenon of masculinity'. Campbell sees economic deprivation as creating two types of people: `active citizens' - women - and the dispossessed, who are men. Teenage girls have the option of becoming parents, and this automatically leans them towards solidarity. But young men turn against their community, burning down the community centres and shops, burgling the houses on the estate, and terrorising the women.

Campbell thinks unemployment consigns men to the world of women. It denies them institutions and activities where men have previously congregated and escaped. Now they are banished to the same marginal family existence in which women have always lived. But men refuse to share that space. They turn against it in a wave of macho aggression. Campbell sees unemployment as unleashing and endorsing extreme forms of masculinity: `Unemployment reveals a mode of masculinity, whereas the commonsense notion has been that it causes a crisis of masculinity.' In particular, it is the trashy excesses of mass culture which fan their brutality, `surrounded by a macho propaganda more potent in its penetration of young men's hearts and minds than at any time in history - they were soaked in globally transmitted images and ideologies of butch and brutal solutions to life's difficulties.' In other words, unemployment does not fracture masculinity but rolls back the stops to unfettered expression of masculinity.

It is this celebration of masculinity which, in Campbell's view, explains the attraction of crime, criminality being `one of the cultures in which young men acquire the mantle of manhood . . . young men on council estates are engaged in a militaristic culture of crime . . . They celebrate war, force and hierarchies as ways of sorting things out.' While the men turn to `danger and destruction, women's response to the economic crisis is `survival and solidarity'.' But the Government does nothing to help them because `like battered women, the estates have been abandoned by statutory agencies and left to the mercy of their most dangerous elements.' Nor will the police cooperate with the women because the women don't count, and because the police share so many of the lads' masculine values that they mirror and thereby provoke some of the worst excesses.

There are interesting insights here, namely into the effect on men of being consigned to a domestic space without having a role in it, and the shared interests between male hierarchies. Yet some dubious assumptions put these ideas remarkably close to right-wing views. Campbell criticises the New Right for blaming mothers for not managing their men. Yet when Campbell says, `the mothers were all that was between these boys and a riotous assembly. Nothing else was there to stop them,' the echoes of underclass theory are clear. The `lads', no less than Murray's underclass, appear as a dangerous mob redeemable only by the civilising effect of women and family.

While it may be important not to overlook how expectations about masculinity shape responses to economic deprivation, such demonising of men, with its implicit idealising of women, is very simplistic. Male behaviour cannot be understood in isolation from female behaviour. It isn't a question of blaming one sex or another, but of seeing how cultural patterns arise in which the `wildness' of young men often matches the demands put on them by young women, at least before the girls `settle down'. And mothers also play a complex role in the upbringing of their sons. Liverpool poet Brian Patten grew up in Toxteth, which often features in `underclass theory', but doesn't recognise the picture: `These people say that the men are very destructive, but the women could egg the men on. In my experience, if you came home having been hit, your mother told you to go out and hit back, even if you didn't really want to.' And it is not only working-class girls who express a preference for warriors over wimps. Male identity across all classes is still caught in this unhappy divide, with the new man of the middle classes surely the Jekyll to the yobbish Hyde - occasionally drifting perilously close to the wimp side of the equation. `These men are so unappealing, so unaesthetic, so unsexy,' wailed Jo-Ann Goodwin in the Guardian. `We need a campaign to bring back lads. Tough, arrogant, sexy . . .' But not, she hastily qualifies, `a gobshite git with a nice line in love 'em and leave 'em.' In fact, many feminists acknowledge that neither men nor women are innately good or bad.But when writers like Campbell argue that `crime and coercion are sustained by men. Solidarity and self-help are sustained by women. It is as stark as that,' it isn't surprising that right-wing commentators find support for their own hostility to poor lads.

A critique of masculinity, which was originally intended to undermine traditional claims to male power, has now become a way of attacking the least powerful men in our society. That critiques of gender can be used in this way should warn us that they are not necessarily progressive. Women's protests against male dominance have, at times, intersected with, or even reinforced, middle-class efforts to subdue and `civilise' the male `underclass'. And the history of this link between feminism, and efforts to `reform' lumpen masculinity, serves as a contemporary warning.

In the late 19th century, many philanthropic feminists joined their voices in concern about the underclass - the residuum who embodied middle-class fears about urban poverty. Fears of the `residuum' reached a peak when, in the 1880s, the industrial revolution badly affected many of London's traditional industries. As factory production grew in the North, London's industries found it difficult to compete. The main effect was increased casualisation of labour as industrialists, faced with falling orders, tried to stabilise or maximise profits. Combined with large-scale movement from the countryside and the absence of any welfare except charity, the conditions of the urban poor were dire.

Responses to this crisis varied, but overall it was agreed that the problems of the residuum were due to their own deficiencies - both physical and moral - rather than structural underemployment. A theory of urban degeneracy emerged, blaming the enfeebling dissipations of town life for creating weak and ineffectual paupers who had no work and were not fit for it. Coarse, drunken, brutish and immoral, such men were best weeded out of the social system entirely, either through emigration, or home labour colonies or sterilisation. This would leave a respectable or deserving poor. `It is a shocking thing to say of men created in God's image, but it is true that the extinction of the unemployed would add to the wealth of the country,' said one leading philanthropist. Historian Gareth Steadman Jones, who wrote the definitive study of this period, Outcast London, says, `I was not trying to suggest that these people were lovable or that they were easy to feel solidarity with. They led short, miserable, awful lives. But then, as now, the discourse created them as a sort of `other' whom no one respectable could identify with. That creation serves a conservatism born of fear. The main difference is that this `other' was seen as degenerate and pathetic rather than violent. But they were still seen as a menace right across the political spectrum.'

For the middle classes, the menace was of urban riot and socialist revolution. Trade-union leaders dreaded the army of casual labour standing outside the gates, a constant threat to union organisation. Philanthropic reformers worried about the degenerate morals of the residuum because many lived in common-law marriages and many were in over-crowded conditions which they believed encouraged incest `the promiscuous sty' as one called it. It was this group which contained many women, particularly charity workers, and housing reformers whose attitude towards the poor was often moralistic and coercive. Octavia Hill, the leading housing reformer, believed that the best way to reform `the destructive classes' was through moral retraining offered by lady visitors. They would intrude into working-class homes to instruct their inhabitants in their duties. The exertion of this `moral force', as Hill described it, was seen as particularly suitable for well-bred ladies with a philanthropic bent. The aim was to raise the residuum through a training in middle-class norms - sobriety, hard work, thrift and sexual continence. Hill was not a feminist, but many reformers were. By and large, they were equally patronising and even more emphatic about the degeneracy of the underclass man. Feminists often forged alliances with `respectable' working-class men in civil-rights campaigns.

Historian Judith Walkowitz emphasises that `feminists of this period were part of a general movement to construct a new model of masculinity: a model of self- control, chivalry and self-restraint.' One of the main areas in which such reforms were sought was domestic violence. Men of all classes beat their wives, but, as far as Victorian feminists were concerned, the problem revolved entirely around the brutishness of the proletarian male. Frances Power Cobbe, a leading campaigner for the 1882 Wife Beaters Act, based her struggle on the assertion that all working-class men were violent louts. Similarly, feminists in the Social Purity Movement, while apparently condemning all male sexual licence and brutality towards women, were particularly punitive towards the underclass.

This hostility to the outcast poor was partly class anxiety - young,able-bodied men always represent a real threat to established interests -but then, as now, there was also a fearful animosity towards aspects of masculinity and male sexuality. Christabel Pankhurst once wrote: `The normal woman regards the sex act as the final pledge of her faith and her love, and the idea that her husband may take a lower view of it is repulsive to her.' This `lower view' was widely seen by feminists as a primitive lust which man ought to control. Since men of the lower classes were the lost primitives, their ability to control themselves was seen as correspondingly reduced, not helped by alcohol, overcrowding and moral fecklessness.

The `battle against lust', as another Victorian feminist put it, thus became a battle to impose a civilised middle-class family life on what was seen as the erotic disorder of the poor. And while it is unlikely that anyone would now put it in such terms, there are startling similarities with the perception of contemporary poor men as promiscuously irresponsible, incapable of family commitments and greatly in need of moral reform in favour of `womanly' values. Obviously then, as now, women's response to men was conditioned by the fact that men of all classes pose problems for women, particularly in a country whose institutions and law remain firmly male-dominated. But that response can very easily be swamped with class concerns.

 

 

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