Cage-fighting kids? The real problem is the kneejerk reaction

Why bother with putting things into context when you can just point and screech?

What is it about the story of "cagefighting kids" is it that we find so shocking? Is it the kids-as-entertainment aspect? Is it the fighting? Is it the age of the participants? Or is it the cage?

Perhaps what's needed here is a way of learning self-defence against a kneejerk -- it's a particularly brutal weapon, when used by an advanced practitioner like the Daily Mirror or the Metro, and fans of martial arts have found themselves on the defensive thanks to headlines like CAGE OF INNOCENTS or CHILD CAGE FIGHTERS. How do you block it? And is there some way of sending in a counterpunch?

Gareth A Davies, the Telegraph's expert on combat sports, shows the value in speaking to experts who actually know what they're talking about. He points out that it was not mixed martial arts taking place in the arena, but jujitsu; and while he condemns the setting, he is irritated by the moral outrage. "Take away the cage, the ring card girls, and put a gi on the boys, and there would have been no interest in the news pages in this story. What it is not -- is mixed martial arts," he says.

Is that needless hair-splitting? I don't think it is. These weren't children punching and kicking each other in a free-for-all. They were taking part in an exercise with strict rules. Whether you think that's suitable entertainment for an adult audience -- some of whom had been drinking, the Mirror tells us in a somewhat pearl-clutching tone -- is up to you. Perhaps there's something, also, about the cage that makes it seem sordid, or wrong. Not that the cage was involved in any way other than to mark the boundaries of the arena, as far as the children were concerned.

Mixed martial artist Rosi Sexton, meanwhile, aims to set the record straight. "As it turns out, one of the boys and his parents are good friends of mine. He's a great kid -- polite, well mannered and dedicated to his sport. His parents are also wonderful people, totally devoted to their son and very upset at the way this is being portrayed," she writes. But is anyone listening?

As ever, though, a bit of context from an expert like that does tend to take the edge off a good tale, doesn't it? Why bother with putting things into context, or explaining the value of combat, self-defence or martial arts to children, when you can just point and screech? KIDS IN A CAGE! Shock! Outrage! CHILD CAGE FIGHTERS! Get angry now!

What that approach does, though, is to dehumanise the participants somewhat. Those are real children in that arena, with families who love them and care for them, no doubt. They're not out vandalising or causing trouble; they're involved in something which requires discipline and hard endeavour in order to bring a reward. Have we heard from the parents of the boys involved? Do we want to? Do we care what they have to say -- or are we just keen to be outraged and upset by what we see, or what we think we see, that it doesn't matter what's actually there?

We see what we want to see, and it seems we're keen to be outraged. But behind the anger and the fury, the real stories are a little less sensational than we're led to believe. If you're going to get angry, at least get it right about why. Otherwise it's just shadow-boxing.

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University