If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Enlightened Commentary

Last week, I wrote a post about Hayley O'Neil, who had complained about her 'insulting' treatment at the Job Centre when she went for an interview. Hayley has a mass of facial piercings and visible tattoos, and the adviser asked her if she thought an employer would be put off by them. Hayley went off in a huff about this, and the Daily Telegraph took up the story.

I was a bit hard on Hayley in my comments. I have been involved in quite a bit of recruitment myself in the last few years, and young people who seem to think they can look and dress how they please and still have a 'right' to be employed where they wish irritate me somewhat. One of my regular commenters took me to task on this, and made some valid points about youthful rebellion and deeper reasons why some people feel as Hayley did. We had a bit of a to-and-fro in the comments, and his last comment brought a lot of good ideas together. I thought it deserved a post to itself so, with a slight amount of editing to preserve the flow of ideas, here's the view of endemoniada_88:


Sorry, but I'm going to have to stick up for Hayley in this. She's not up there in my top list of well-decorated women, but I'm not sure that entitles people to be needlessly rude to her.

As far as I can see, she isn't guilty of anything except somewhat poor taste. Not a crime, otherwise men would be prosecuted for wearing pink shirts and ostensibly character-neutral - clothes, really, do not maketh the man. Nor is there any proof that she's determined to end up a third-generation welfare burden with hordes of indeterminedly-parented sprogs, or that her hobbies include hanging around street corners intimidating old ladies.

Painfully naive as her "lifestyle choice" comment may be, that's youngsters for you. It's what they do: kick off against the establishment, shock their parents, rattle the cages of ordinary citizens, try to look edgy and cool and protest against "the system" that oppresses them. Then they grow up a bit and realise that a collection of mediocre tats isn't much of a force for social change and doesn't really define them in any meaningful way. Or they hang up their kaftans, get a haircut, give their mum back the safety-pins - whatever the herding instinct of their particular day was - and get on with the rest of their lives. And each time that happens, the next rebellion has to go incrementally further to make an impact.

When I was her age, wearing a black leather jacket was still reason enough to get banned from pubs, clubs and Harrods. It was also a tribal allegiance that opened biker-friendly doors. And, to the vast majority, who neither noticed nor cared, it was a matter of complete indifference. I wore mine regardless, and let people pass whatever judgement they chose. It would be hypocrisy to slate others for doing the same thing, whatever their chosen medium of expression.

So: Hayley. Doing her own genre thing, because she feels it's who she is. Hardly an unusual attitude, given that the liberal rush towards freedom of the individual and any lifestyle being a valid one has been in play since well before she was born. We even have laws to prove it: rafts of them to enshrine the rights of everyone and their dog to exercise any religious, sexual or ethnic mores without discrimination. What we don't seem to have is much to offer a young woman signing on in a deprived post-industrial northern city. Free market policy and the labour pool it requires saw to that 30 years ago, and the state has been steadily expanding welfare support to compensate ever since. Unless she has a hidden ace to play, she's no doubt staring down the barrel of a future where a job is no longer a given, lifetime on welfare is a very real option and minimum wage offers no hope of ever reaching the great consumer dream of a nice house in a leafy suburb.

It's no surprise her values are unlikely to coincide with mine. Except, perhaps, in the idea that she should be allowed to poke holes in her face if that's what she really wants to do. It may not be big and clever, but it's legal and not harming anybody else. I doubt if it's seriously giving the overall state of the economy much competition in keeping her out of work, or that a few metal trinkets make her irrevocably unemployable.


To be fair, I do also have sympathy for Job Centre employees. I signed on, briefly, after leaving university and had to share queue space with some people who could have done with a good hard slapping, never mind just a talking-to. I can believe it's a pretty thankless and frustrating old job.

I agree entirely, too, that I wouldn't have been touting any insults I might have received to the national press, even if there had been a market for it back then. Or threatening to sue all and sundry for being mean to me. I've always believed that house rules apply and if they don't happen to accommodate your personal wishes, tough - you can choose to comply with them, or find somewhere else to be.

But that's the whole point of being rebellious: it has to come with a cost to have any meaning. Choosing to buck the social norm, by definition, requires mainstream non-acceptance to validate it. The part that the entitlement generation fail to grasp seems to be that the negative consequences are an essential component of that validation. Really, they should be pleased with the success of their individual statements, rather than feeling insulted, if their appearance is declared unsuitable for a traditional role. (As long as that declaration is made in civil manner, of course - I still don't believe rudeness over appearance is appropriate).

My main issue, really, is more about social evolution over the past few decades. Not that I've had much say in it and I voted against most of the manifestos that have been enacted in the last 25 years. Still, there's a sense of guilt that I am a part of the generation which has let things become the way they are. In many respects, it seems genuinely unfair to expect the youth of today to know any better. Many of the things we complain about are all they've ever known - they've had to grow up in increasingly shallow, cotton-wool-wrapped, materialistic, self-obsessed times with no point of reference from which to find alternatives. It's our society that's failing to give them a realistic framework of discipline, effort, prospect and reward to work inside and then demonising the results rather than the causes.

It's quite possible, of course, that that's the way every generation feels about the next one and this is just the natural conservatism that comes with getting older. Maybe the youngsters are quite happy with the way their future is shaping up and I simply don't understand their worldview enough. Maybe, even, the continued abdication of personal responsibility (for example) is a step towards a more genuinely egalitarian form of civilisation, rather than one that is merely lacking in values. But it doesn't seem to me to be an improving state of affairs, and there is a sense of national disintegration that wasn't present when I was coming of age. That's why I'm disposed to be sympathetic to the likes of Hayley: because I feel that, through no real fault of their own, they've been given far too much scope and far too little guidance on their lifestyle choices.

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