'Youth violence is not about race'

We are failing miserably to provide Britain's teenage boys with meaningful occupations, worthy role

I had not wept in an advice surgery until a few weeks ago, when a distraught mother and father came to see me after learning that their teenage daughter had been subjected to the most brutal assault I have ever heard about. A group of young men had subjected this girl to a violent sexual attack, first raping her, then pouring acid over her body.

It seems futile to try to rationalise this act. How can such disregard for humanity be explained? Almost certainly it cannot. Yet there is something that links this horrifying example of male aggression with so much of the violence that society has witnessed this past year. We are not just seeing young people attack one another on Britain's streets; the common theme is that it is predominantly young men who are doing so. This may be a statement of the obvious, but it is one that we cannot ignore. Had this stream of violence been perpetrated almost exclusively by young women, gender would rightly have been invoked as one of the factors. The same must be done in relation to young men.

Alarm bells have been ringing for some time. In classrooms, boys are being outperformed consistently by girls. Recent results show that girls are overtaking boys by the age of 14, and by 18 are far more likely to achieve an A or B grade at A-level than boys. In adolescence, too many young men develop unhealthy attitudes towards sex, money and violence. In adult life, three-quarters of all suicides are men. The prison population is overwhelmingly male - indeed, men comprise almost 95 per cent of those in custody, and this number continues to increase compared to women. Boys, young men and grown men are struggling to find their place in society. It is time to ask ourselves why.

In recent weeks, politicians have gestured towards this issue. When David Cameron raised the responsibility of some fathers in the black community, he covered no new ground. We know that loving parents and male role models matter. We know that 59 per cent of black Caribbean children are looked after by a lone parent. But I winced as another round of banner headlines tarred every father in the black community with the same brush. And, like others, my reaction was that more back-to-basics speeches won't get us very far. The questions that need to be answered for children of all races and social backgrounds are: what can we do when there is no father in a young man's life? And how can society nurture the development and socialisation of young men before a culture of violence robs them of their futures?

Gang culture

The discussion about fatherhood needs to be seen in a wider context: the place of masculinity in modern societies. Because many young men who carry knives or guns do so not because they hope to use them, or even because they fear they might need to. They carry them as symbols of status and power. The issue is one of self-image. In the warped world of gang culture, carrying a weapon has come to be associated with being a man. Rather than being seen as a risk, the knife confers "respect". Understanding the roots of this must be at the heart of any realistic strategy to put an end to the violence.

The reasons are many. Some of the old images and expressions of masculinity are disappearing from society. Most obviously, the relationship between men and their work has undergone a revolution. When coalminers marched against the closure of the pits they were worried for their jobs, but also for their identity and way of life. A model of work built on physical endeavour is slowly being replaced by an emphasis on intellectual and emotional labour. Women are beginning to break through the glass ceiling, displacing men as the principal earners for the first time. Britain is becoming richer and fairer because of these developments, but is also experiencing a big challenge to many traditional notions of masculinity.

In society, the fetishisation of money and the growth of consumerism add new pressures. In a "bling" culture, criminality easily becomes a short cut to symbols of wealth and power that will otherwise take years of hard work to achieve. Inequality plays its part, as young men from poor backgrounds feel they have the least to lose. Why, one boy asked me, was I worried about his grades at school, when he might not live long enough to get a job? This is the world of "get rich or die trying".

In peer groups, interactions between young men in groups are so often based around conflict. Too many boys never learn how to relate positively to other boys, let alone girls. And it starts early. Men make up 44 per cent of secondary school teachers, but fewer than two in ten primary school teachers are men. When I look at my own childhood, I realise that although I grew up without a father, I did have a very responsible elder brother, a local priest, teachers, uncles and youth workers able to fulfil that role. Masculinity is largely made up of learned behaviour and without a model of that behaviour emphasising an ability to express emotions, young boys have to look elsewhere to make what mark they can. Violence - or at least the power to inflict it - becomes a displacement activity. An aggressive street culture replaces success in other spheres of life as an expression of masculinity. Young men become attached to gangs, which reinforce this subculture, rather than families or workplaces, which work against it.

And, in this post-Thatcherite generation more than any other, young men struggle to control their own emotions. An inability to delay gratification - whether with food, alcohol, money or sex - is becoming a hallmark of our age, reinforced by advertising and media (by the age of ten, the average British child recognises nearly 400 brand names). But while materialism and a consumer culture cannot be wished away, its impact on children can be restricted. The centre-left must govern markets in the public interest and it is right to look at advertising and its impact on young people.

Family support

There is a danger that those who cannot discipline their own lifestyles and learning will lose out in future educational success. Yet these things can be learned when young people are given the right structures, support and opportunities. Government and society need to recognise that the most precious resource in this battle is not money, but people's time.

We need to support parents enabling them to spend more time with their children, well beyond maternity and paternity leave. How are we helping families during those tricky times of transition from primary to secondary school, and through later teenage years? While there may be young men on estates missing fathers who left them, there are also children in Middle Britain whose parents become strangers in a culture of long working hours. Where there are no fathers, single mothers should be supported, not demonised. As someone who grew up in a single-parent household, I understand how difficult it can be for a single mother to raise an income and a family at the same time.

While the state must provide financial support, the community must provide male role models for young men to learn from. Corporations should be encouraged to offer mentors to young men, not just sign cheques. One of the best projects I have seen is the City Gateway youth inclusion project in Tower Hamlets, a borough in which almost a quarter of people are deemed to have skills too low for business and where one in five 18- to 25-year-olds claims unemployment benefit, although there are two jobs for every person. The project is run by an Oxbridge graduate who could be earning vastly more in the City, but instead brings volunteers from some of the biggest banks to help develop the skills and job-readiness of young people. We need to find ways to make sure such brilliant projects are more than one-off success stories.

In the US, federal and state governments have used incentives to encourage firms to invest in the inner city. In Kent County in Michigan, a state blighted by some of the worst urban poverty in America, schemes help local businesses offer discounts to people who volunteer as mentors. The Clinton Foundation was established in Harlem as a symbol of solidarity with that area, and in inner-city DC, the Washington Post funds and supports job training for low-income residents.

British workers in the public sector need to be given similar opportunities to become actively involved. Kent County Council, for example, gives its staff two days off every year to engage in voluntary or community activity. We need to decide how we can do this on a much bigger scale.

Strong values

There are other ways we can do more to support the personal development of young men. Addressing youth culture issues must move beyond giving young people "something to do". Young men need something purposeful to do, so that they learn to share, co-operate and produce, not just consume. Youth services, too often an afterthought in the past, must be taken seriously at a local level - whether that is through music, drama or sporting activities such as boxing clubs.

The National Lottery should start delivering projects that are more than the sum of their parts, such as new civic institutions on the scale of the Scouts or the Boys' Brigade, which are grounded in strong values and part of a wider social movement. A national civic service to benefit young people on a personal level and society as a whole is widely supported, but now needs someone to grasp the nettle of compulsion. I am passionate about a universal entitlement to apprenticeships for many of the same reasons. This is about more than learning a skill: the value of apprenticeships is that they establish the routine, structure and contact between generations so often missing.

This list will grow longer and others will add to it, but the crucial point is this: a resilient economy cannot substitute for a good society. And providing young men with the love and opportunities for personal development they need cannot be left to the accident of birth or the whim of charity.

Politicians who grew up enjoying structure, consistency, responsible male role models and an abundance of opportunities for education and enrichment need to do more than lecture others when they reach adult life. The community must play a role in providing those essential ingredients where they are lacking. This takes more than a vague recognition of "society"; it requires an active state. These are ways in which we can act as progressives - and act we must.

Boys under pressure

Research by Adam Lewitt

  • 97% of juvenile offenders aged 15-17 are boys
  • 13% of boys aged 11-15 suffer from a mental disorder, compared with 10% of girls
  • 76% of boys aged 11 achieve government-set literacy levels (85% of girls do)
  • 57% of boys achieved A-C grade GCSEs in 2007, compared with 66% of girls
  • 75% of all suicides occur among young men aged 15-34. Suicide is the second most common way for a male aged 15-34 to die
  • 70%+ of males aged under 18 who are charged for one offence go on to commit further crimes
  • 9 out of 10 gang members are male

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge