Rant: ain’t nobody’s business…

November 11, 2013

It’s not often I get filthy-mad after watching current affairs programs. I don’t watch a lot of TV. 60 Minutes is the exception, mostly because Sunday night is my night off and it has a good mix of human-triumph stories and the hard-hitting stuff, plus the odd prod to my social conscience.

Last night’s combination of stories Justice for Thomas, Chloe’s Law, and Island of Youth did my head in (to be fair, another real-life story has been banging around in there since I heard it on Friday and I was already feeling fragile). We have Thomas Kelly, whose life was taken with one punch, and a flawed legal system that meant his killer had to be tried for the lesser charge of manslaughter to ensure conviction. In Chloe’s Law, a beautiful young lady took her own life following a lengthy bullying campaign, physical assault and threats on social media. On the Island of Youth, human connection, a vegetable-based diet and lashings of red wine (and distance from westernised civilisation) is possibly the secret to happiness and long life.

I’ll begin with the story I overheard on Friday. When I go to a Tupperware-style party I expect a cheese plate, a glass of cheap wine and to spend money I don’t have on something I don’t need in order to ensure my lovely host reaches her sales target—I don’t expect to have an epiphany.

A guest (let’s call her Mandy) was recounting her recent experience in a busy shopping-centre food court; a mother with two children had vigorously belted one child (not a smack) in full view of hundreds of people. Mandy and her daughter were the only onlookers who tried to protect the child—at risk to themselves—as the mother stood, abused them and took photos of their faces so she could ‘get’ them later for poking their noses into her business. Mandy told the woman over and over that she made it her business when she abused her child in public. Hundreds of people present—and only two women were prepared to get involved.

When security came they tried to diffuse the situation. The guards repeatedly said they would call police, as if the threat alone would end the stand-off. Mandy refused to sit down until the police were called and reminded the security guards that they had a duty of care, that an assault had been committed. Their reaction was along the lines of: it’s her child and maybe Mandy was overreacting.

When the police finally came, an officer asked if only one child had been hit, why were there bruises and welts on the other?  Mandy was worried that she might have made things worse for the child but she committed to making a statement to the police. She is still furious that there was no support from the other patrons.

My epiphany came when my 11-year-old daughter (having overheard part of the conversation) asked if I would have done something. She has witnessed me intervene before during an incident of animal cruelty and seemed baffled when I answered, ‘I don’t know’.

I really don’t know. I hope that I would. Our society has become fractured to the point that we exist in separate bubbles; your business is your business, and nobody has the right to tell you how to bring up your children. I learned my lesson early by telling off someone else’s child for hitting another at a birthday party. No other adults were present; he’d raised the cricket bat a second time and I reacted strongly to stop it from happening again. The child burst into tears and told his mother. I received a public dressing-down and the air outside the classroom was decidedly chilly after that (and the child was decidedly smug).

I was raised by a village, and by that I mean I had aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and neighbours who were all appointed guardians. Trial and punishment was meted out by any number of hands or wooden spoons and public shaming was a rite of passage. I won’t advocate the cane, but at least back then (there, I nearly said ‘in my day’) teachers were not simultaneously stripped of the tools of authority and expected to carve our future leaders with nothing but a procedure manual and a beatific smile.

So what’s my problem with last night’s 60 Minutes footage? It’s not a criticism of reportage, as such, but an accusation of hypocrisy aimed at society.

My problem lies with a scene in Chloe’s Law where former police officer and cyber-safety consultant Susan McLean addresses a group of students. She says, ‘If you see it, if you find it, if you observe it, you MUST act’.

Really? We expect our children to stand up for victims and expose bullies? As a society, do we act? We dither and toss up the likelihood of litigation, maybe bitch about people behind their backs, occasionally whine about how badly-behaved children are these days.

What if our society allowed for the collective frown, what if a mere acquaintance or a complete stranger saw your child do something criminal, dangerous or worthy of a mouthful—would you be okay with that person saying something? Or would you say that the job of parenting your child is yours alone?

It was interesting to see the reaction to two recent incidents of bully-shaming (I won’t link here because I don’t want to add to the furore): parents have copped equal parts flak and praise after making their children stand on street corners holding signs that read ‘I am a bully’. The naysayers piled on, criticising them for shaming their children publicly and for using humiliation as a tool for rehabilitation. Their tactics could be seen as part of the bullying culture—children do live what they learn— but there was praise, too, for standing with their children, for taking responsibility and a hard stance against their behaviour.

Yeah, kids deserve many second chances. I’d hate to think my childhood mistakes somehow ‘reduced’ my character to a point beyond redemption—I prefer to believe I learned, changed and moved on. I have been bullied, physically assaulted and emotionally wrecked during my teenage years. I’ve also been a bully.

Last night I couldn’t get the image of Chloe out of my head. On the afternoon she was bashed on the street by a group of girls, I wonder, what did the adults do? Were there witnesses? What if there were adults present and they did nothing, either out of fear or indifference? What if some adults had hauled those girls off Chloe, stood them up against a wall and told them, publicly, that what they were doing was inhumane and that our society won’t stand for it? What if someone had taken Chloe into their arms and told her she was safe?

Then came the story, Island of Youth. It was a feel-good pick-me-up story about a place where people routinely live into their hundreds, dance in the streets and quaff wine with every meal. But all I could see was the village.

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