On Monday, as I drove from Kerikeri to Kamo, on Radio New Zealand Kathryn Ryan was interviewing students from Christchurch Girls High School, who were commenting on vague but serious claims of sexual abuse, with the finger being pointed mainly at Christchurch Boys High School pupils.
It was a discomforting listen, and my passing thoughts included three movies: The Crucible (set in the 1690s), Heavenly Creatures (set in the 1950s), and Clockwork Orange (set in the 1960s). My thoughts also drifted to the Christchurch Civic Creche case (early 1990s), where a number of women and one man were charged with serious and improbable crimes. Then I thought about the 'Roast Busters' case (early 2010s), where the allegations were confirmed, but at least the 'gang' of abusers were identified from the outset, meaning that uninvolved teenage boys were not tarred with the same brush.
This new case, unlike the Roast Busters case, seems to be one demographic group making allegations towards, not individuals, but towards a peer demographic group. Further, in some subsequent news bulletins, the claims made were reported in many cases as objective rather than as subjective facts.
As any economist/statistician would understand, claims should not be accepted as facts until subjected to some kind of robust evidential scrutiny. One trick – commonly used in unscientific statistical surveys – is to include a very broad definition of something (such as 'abuse'), but in the write-up to illustrate the inflated findings with extreme (and rare) examples. Professional statisticians are sceptical of untested claims; many journalists far less so.
Gender-specific echo-chambers by no means represent the majority views of the gender groups who inhabit them. Some rabbit-holes and cults – extreme echo-chambers – may be inhabited by only two people; vis. Heavenly Creatures. It's a daunting challenge to bring people out of cults; I remember concern about The Moonies, who were reputed to prey on young travellers at places like Los Angeles Airport. And in the 1970s lots of ex-Hippies joined cults, which became groupthink rabbit-holes. Some historical echo-chambers were relatively harmless (indeed did charitable good), such as the Odd Fellows. Others, such as the Afrikaans' Broederbond, allegedly drove the South African apartheid regime.
When it comes to age-peers inhabiting different informal echo-chambers, probably the best way out is to encourage them to negotiate truths with each other, and learn and grow from these experiences. As Barrack Obama said in 2019, "life is messy". This is one of the most important reasons why young people should, for a period, take up wage work in contexts where they necessarily mix with people who live outside their thought-prisons. Take the example of Vicky Scott, whose hitherto sheltered life was enriched by her having to negotiate and navigate the male-oriented freezing-works' environment.
As an economic historian, I wanted to know whether the girls' claims were that boys' behaviour is becoming casually abusive (or that unacceptable behaviour is increasingly frequent), or whether the main issue is one of increased sensitivity to a problem that may have existed as long as humans (and their precursors) have walked the planet. The most recent setting for the three abovementioned movies was the 1960s; rabbit-holes and gang cultures are nothing new. There are many objective statistics – eg crime statistics, pregnancy statistics – that suggest teenage behaviour is getting better, not worse.
I did hear, with respect to this new Christchurch case, a suggestion that widespread recent addiction to social media has created a new problem of increased sexual abuse perpetrated by teenage boys; in particular in relation to increased ease of accessing pornography, and possibly an escalation of gratuitous content within the pornography being accessed. Of equal concern is the way targeted algorithms – devised by Google and the like – contribute to the creation of echo chambers; rabbit-holes that make inter-culture peer communication close to impossible, and that create the possibility of certain real events being interpreted and described in very different ways by different peer subcultures.
These are all important questions. Do juvenile males behave worse than they used to behave? And, if so, does the entire male sex need to undergo re-education? Is it OK to project contemporary groupthink onto young males by virtue of their being young males? Would the re-education of young males aggravate or ameliorate the present mental illness epidemic that most affects young men? In Clockwork Orange, the story's central character (Alex) – whose deeds were worse than anything perpetrated by the Roast Busters – was subjected to a form of corrective state abuse that makes me think of the recent Lake Alice Inquiry. (I used to play hockey against Lake Alice, a team made up of both staff and inmates; participation in community sport was a positive aspect of that otherwise negative story of institutional abuse.) Alex became the principal victim of that story. It is not OK to abuse abusers, let alone alleged abusers.
I heard this week from a friend who is a teacher-aid at a high school, that new intakes of young teenagers – of both sexes – are becoming noticeably more difficult to teach. Of course, as it stands, this is a subjective observation; an 'allegation' rather than 'the truth'. The apparent problem is one of ineffective parenting (as opposed to 'bad parenting'). Ineffective parenting results from reduced parental leverage over their adolescent and pre-adolescent children; as a result, parents have to be more cunning to outwit otherwise non-compliant children. If boys are victims of increasingly ineffective parenting, then girls must also be victims because they are subject to the same parenting. It maybe that the recent Christchurch allegations reflect real – and quite recent – differences in the behaviour of both boys and girls.
Let's go easy on our young people. They are burdened enough with expectations that are increasingly unachievable. We may encourage peer-negotiated safe (safish!) and tolerant behaviours, and project fewer older generations' demons and assumptions and judgements onto our children. We need to leave spaces and make opportunities, so that the young – girls and boys and those who identify as neither – may grow and thrive.
Keith Rankin, trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.