Broken children our hideous toll

Last updated 00:00 03/08/2007

Relevant offers

I watched Monday night's televised response to the latest examples of extreme violence against children with a mixture of guilt and despair. The guilt came from knowing that there is much more that I could and should do to confront the problem of violence against children. The despair arose out of the discussion itself. So many well-meaning people: so little common sense. So much heat: so little light.

Bear with me, then, while I attempt to cast some much-needed illumination on the ultimate causes of family violence.

But first of all a disclaimer: What you're about to read is not intended to pander to or satisfy your visceral urge to strike out at and punish the perpetrators of these crimes.

As Bev Adair from the For the Sake of Our Children Trust told the Close Up programme's audience on Monday night: "It's simple, but it's complex." At the heart of the problem lie two closely related concepts: anomie and alienation.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines anomie as: "lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group". Alienation is defined as what happens when we cause a person or a group to "become unfriendly or hostile". It also describes the effect of causing people to "feel isolated or estranged" from family, friends and/or society in general.

Michael Laws describes the anomic and alienated behaviour of the social strata involved in these awful cases of child abuse passionately, eloquently – and accurately.

And, he is almost certainly correct when he asserts that any competent social worker could pinpoint with considerable accuracy the households from which the next batch of tiny victims will be carried away.

That a disproportionate number of those will be Maori households is, sadly, a sociological fact.

But, describing a problem isn't quite the same thing as explaining how it arises – and very different from suggesting a credible solution.

What the Michael Laws and Christine Rankins of this world consistently fail to explain is why so many of these alienated young New Zealanders lack social and ethical standards?

Right-wing commentators identify "welfare dependency" as the starting-point of this group's downward spiral into substance abuse, promiscuity, casual violence and crime.

But, once again, this confuses description with explanation.

What leads people to abandon society's norms is surely a powerful sense that society has abandoned them, just as those who find themselves on the receiving end of hostility and unfriendliness almost always become hostile and unfriendly in return.

Ad Feedback

Alienation is the entirely predictable response to an absence of social solidarity.

There was a time, in this country when those who were sifted out of our Euro-centric, academically skewed career structures could still find dignity and purpose in the world of honest toil.

Tending the vast state forests; building roads and dams for the Ministry of Works; maintaining the state-owned railways; processing our lamb and beef exports in the country's freezing works; working on the production-line in the car-assembly plants: good jobs, with good pay, and powerful unions to make sure they stayed that way.

All gone now. And those on the bottom rungs of the employment ladder are worse off in real terms today than they were before the great experiment in free-markets and free trade began 23 years ago.

Only in the United States is the gap between rich and poor widening at a faster rate.

Locate on a map of New Zealand those communities where "Rogernomics" and "Ruthanasia" bit hardest, and you will discover an alarming correspondence with the communities experiencing domestic violence, child abuse, gang affiliations and crime at their worst.

Entirely unsurprisingly, in this colonial society, they are also the communities with the highest concentration of Maori New Zealanders.

In a society which equates poverty with brown faces and failure, and riches with white skin and success, anomie and alienation – and all the social dysfunction which accompanies them – are inevitable.

Guilt and despair are, therefore, the appropriate responses when we, ourselves, are the ultimate authors of these dreadful headlines: and broken children the hideous toll we pay for our comfortable lives.

And, God forgive us, we pay it willingly.

- The Dominion Post

Special offers

Featured Promotions

Sponsored Content