Last year (2007) Jonathan Matondo, a 16-year old boy was blasted in the head in a Sheffield park in a‘postcode’ war between rival gangs.
What was particularly telling about the community’s reaction to the shooting was the insight of Robert Smith, editor of a Sheffield-based community newsletter, who said that “we have reached a new level in an inner city internal warfare that is seeing young people firing guns as though playing a video amusement game with life.” His comment speaks of the unparalleled and skewed transition between childhood and adulthood that is unmistakably a result of the cyber world that many youth live in.
Barry Sanders in his noted work, ‘A is for Ox’, highlights the social problems in allowing a media that honours images of violence, and favours families in fatuous conversation, to serve as a monitor for children’s moral, social, and spiritual growth. A 1984 study revealed that many youngsters aged ten to fourteen found video characters, for the most part, more exciting and more fun thatn adults.
We can see that the I-empire is certainly a formidable rival in guiding children through the social, moral and emotional gradations and nuances of the world. The brazen negativity depicted on TV and computer games is of a nature that not only has the capability to press on the minds of our young ones the loose construct of a ‘counter-culture’, but the nature of violent youth crime has revealed a disturbing pattern of media influenced replication and imitation thatwhich, whilst should not be exaggerated, must not be rejected.
Advances in mass media have facilitated ease of communication and pioneered new heights in media entertainment, a fitting tribute perhaps to the near-completion of the first decade of the twenty first century. But within the proliferation of entertainment services is something hauntingly sinister; whilst material and technological progression and advancement may be applauded in some instances, the problems that ensue are masked by other interruptive negative factors. Where children decades ago entertained thoughts of sailing the world in a cardboard box, it is now the Xbox that acts as a media-engineered replacement; a new world emerges, one more enthralling that imbues into the child a sense of speed that the floating box would be unable to rival.
A recent visit to the Museum of Childhood in the cultural treasure trove of Edinburgh drew me sentimentally into a better world. Within the confinements of the space that occupied the museum was the yellow-bricked road that led to such prodigious wonders. Photographs of children playing marbles on side streets, a beautifully maintained doll house, entertainment then that was still cherished there. Returning to the pragmatism of ‘home’, not to the space that lay as inspiration for the dolls’ house, but to the collective locale that we identify with reality, the ghastliness of what afflicts children today once again wrenched my mind through the chasm of hope.
Comprehending the mindset of someone who can stab a 15-year-old schoolgirl up to 10 times in the neck, front and back so ferociously that the handle of the knife he used broke off, leaving the blade in her lifeless body, goes some way to explain the wrenching as well as the chasm. The aforementioned is thus reality; Arsema Dawit was stabbed to death on my return, and whilst the details are still emerging, it appears that her murderer was an infatuated admirer. And the paradox emerges once again. Whilst any assumption indicating that the cold-blooded killer was inspired by the violence he sees on computer games lacks veracity – at this stage – the correlation in the method of killing indubitably does not; ‘killed’ or “murdered” are, in fact, not words often used by those who share this mindset, “dusting” and “wasting”, “obliterating” and “annihilating” are the preferred synonyms.
So where do we fit as parents, elders, responsible people in this ongoing saga? Where a death has wide ranging repercussions for so many, then a murder has even more. From one side, we are unable to really appreciate a mother’s immediate loss, a father’s pain and a sister’s silent tears; on another side we too are hurt by the cruelty of others – even though the harm is a distanced one; an emotional injury afflicted against us collectively. On yet another side, a debauchery too exists where murder is gloated and then mimicked. However patronizing it is to remind ourselves and others that a problem exists, we must continue to do so.
We are charged as parents to be schools for our young ones; it is normal for children to grow into and be shaped and clothed by the environment that surrounds them. A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark, as the Chinese proverb notes. If our notions of love in the competitive consumer culture we live in has come to equate spending money on children with loving them then the value of love and what we see of it may be diminished because of our neglect. If, on the other hand, we do not have enough to spend on our children as we would like to, we must still engrain within our children the value of what they have, ideals of patience, gratitude and essentially that it is better to be a hard worker than steal and fight for what we may want. Sometimes what we want is what others may barely have; we remember the sad day that saw the murder of Kieran Rodney-Davis, a 15 year old who was killed in Fulham when three teenagers confronted him and took his designer cap – which was a birthday present from his mother. When he demanded it back he was stabbed once in the chest, and his attackers are said to have walked away laughing, wiping the knife clean on leaves. Have we reached a stage, a state where our conscience can also be simply wiped clean on leaves?
The increase in stabbings affects us all. The year 2008 has seen more than 27 violent teenage murders. The stabbings epidemic has of course intensified other serious problems; a growing numbers of children say they carry knives and bottles to defend themselves against bullies and are afraid of being stabbed at school. A February 14th 2008 TimeOnline report entitled, ‘Children carry knives to fend off bullies’ held that ‘media coverage of children and young people being shot or stabbed in towns or cities, together with a fear that serious bullying is becoming more common, are creating a climate of fear in some schools, the research by Roger Morgan, the Children’s Rights Director, suggests.’ As the aforementioned report suggests, many youth see fit to carry a knife because of the insecurity they experience in the face of a threatening presence. Of course a gang formed to protect itself from another gang’s violence will certainly become a gang whose presence necessitates the formation of another. The circle of gang violence thus seems unstoppable. It will certainly take time for things to become better but we can surely assist the process by playing our part. Distancing our children from patently negative influences; murder, profanity, carelessness that they see glamorized on TV is indispensable. Many people blame the waywardness of their children on the glamorized dissipated lifestyle they see on TV where their young minds are unable to demarcate harmful effects of what is glamorized and notwithstanding that what is imported are images of course, and not ideals. And here lies the dichotomy, the non-overlapping features of dreams and illusions. Perhaps a correlation exists here and it would be true to say that a mere existence with children devoid of essential moralistic education is our way of importing images to our young ones rather than ideals.
An ideal expressed, as a case in point, by Muslims for example who, in their illustrious history of governance, were particularly concerned about injustice meted out to others, human and animal, and the social repercussions that would ensue, is illustrated in the following example. The son of the Muslim governor of Egypt once had a horse race with a Coptic Christian man, which the Christian won. Angry, the son of the Muslim governor lashed the Copt with his whip. The Christian subsequently brought his case to the Muslim caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khattab at the time of Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage. In front of the general assembly of Muslims, Omar gave his whip to the Coptic man, saying, “Beat the one who beat you.” Then Omar scolded ‘Amr, the boy’s father and governor of Egypt, saying: When did you enslave people while their mothers have given birth to them as free men? It is this fairness and recognition of the human spirit that should collectively pervade our considerations.
Youngsters today are beset by family and community breakdown, an education system that fails to provide many students with the right opportunities and negative peer pressures. Whatever our socio-economic condition, may we never enslave the minds of our children, born pure and unsullied, to a lifestyle that has helped to create what a top judge, following the death of 16 year old Ben Kinsela, described as an ‘epidemic’.
Our youth have so much to offer our society. We can become positive role models and educators, but must realize that we will forever be inundated by our own illusions if we allow our children to be inspired by pseudo-celebrities, events and images. We must educate our young that racism, street wars and blind imitation of pseudo-celebrities has no place in the world. A gang member who will ardently defend and stab or shoot someone for a street that does not belong to him or her, a street that is not interested in his or her opinion or views, a street whose population the gang member is unable to control or even regulate, is an individual who is fighting for no cause at all.
We must aim to inspire not only our own but all children we encounter with commendable ideals of good will, respect and love. It was with this manner that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) called the young of his kindred and society and inspired them to embrace upright tasks aimed at the betterment of society and not its moral degeneracy, tasks befitting the joie de vivre of a child’s pure spirit.