Friday, August 6, 2010

It's inappropriate to be judgmental

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, August 3.)

IT SEEMS that in the 21st century, the worst thing anyone can be accused of is inappropriate behaviour.

We seem to have forgotten words like evil, wicked, outrageous, immoral, scandalous and reprehensible. They might as well be erased from the dictionary. They have been replaced by that one all-purpose weasel word “inappropriate”.

A policeman who beats up a suspect is accused of behaving inappropriately. A paedophile teacher admits inappropriate touching (whatever that may be). A politician who watches blue movies at the taxpayer’s expense confesses to inappropriate use of his ministerial credit card. A developer whose building mysteriously gains an extra three storeys acknowledges an inappropriate breach of the district plan. A Hollywood celeb caught snorting cocaine with one of his mistresses tearfully breaks down on television and admits it was an inappropriate lapse for which he hopes his wife and fans will forgive him.

This linguistic contamination has now spread to sport. New Zealand cyclist Julian Dean, head-butted in a sprint to the finish line during the Tour de France, said his assailant’s behaviour was “really inappropriate”. No doubt Springbok lock Bakkies Botha’s head-butting of All Black Jimmy Cowan was inappropriate too.

At this rate it can only be a matter of time before murderers like Clayton Weatherston stand accused of acting inappropriately toward their victims and Adolf Hitler is condemned in the history books for inappropriate behaviour toward the Jews.

Does it matter? Of course it does. “Inappropriate” is a mealy-mouthed word, a namby-pamby word. It is a prissy euphemism devised by schoolteacher liberals who don’t want to seem judgmental. It is a word that diminishes the gravity of bad behaviour and in so doing, subtly conditions us to excuse all manner of sleaze and vileness.

* * *

MY LOCAL paper recently published a photo taken at the opening of a newly established “hub” for a variety of community services.

The accompanying story announced that the offices would be shared by a plethora of organisations including Career Services, Workbridge, Supporting Families, a free budgeting service, Family Planning, addiction services and gambling help, a couple of Maori community organisations, Child Youth and Family and Work and Income.

The picture, which showed a predominantly female audience listening to a speech by government MP Paul Quinn, illustrated a striking phenomenon of our times.

A vast network of taxpayer-funded, or at least state-subsidised, community agencies has sprung up, all operating in similar fields and with functions that often overlap.

Their proliferation seems unrelated to whichever political party is in power. Labour governments create them in the belief that there’s no problem that can’t be solved by state intervention, and National leaves them alone because dismantling them is just too much hassle.

But who knows how much good they are doing? What scrutiny are they subjected to? How do we know we’re getting value for money?

No doubt some of these organisations have the ability to transform people’s lives, but it’s odds on that others are an utter waste of time, space and money. Trouble is, how do we know which is which?

A sceptical view, based on our stubbornly dismal statistics for child neglect, poor health, drug and alcohol addiction, teenage pregnancies, welfare dependency and family violence, is that they’re making bugger-all difference to anything. But they certainly provide careers for a lot of well-intentioned, middle-class women.

An even bleaker view is that these organisations may be part of the problem rather than the solution, discouraging people from taking greater responsibility for their own lives in the knowledge that helping agencies are always on hand to sort things out for them (in a non-judgmental way, of course).

* * *

AT THE core of the increasingly hysterical debate over liquor abuse lies a choice between a free society – in which we accept that a minority of people will behave criminally or irresponsibly, and take reasonable steps to control them and minimise the harm done – and an un-free society, in which unreasonable constraints on the responsible majority are justified by the need to control the behaviour of the irresponsible minority.

Of course, in the un-free society, much of the criminal minority disregards laws and controls anyway, so that the burden of compliance largely falls on the law-abiding and responsible. One example was the proposal (now on hold) to lower the legal blood alcohol limit to a level that would trap many safe drivers, but do nothing to deter potential killers who repeatedly drive while grossly intoxicated.

Other examples include the compulsory microchipping of dogs, which subjects law-abiding citizens to unnecessary compliance costs but is totally ineffectual against rogue dog owners; and the criminalisation of smacking, which puts good parents at risk of prosecution but does nothing to deter real abusers.

These are kneejerk laws passed to create the illusion that something is being done. They simply scratch a political itch.

The best that can be said of the people agitating so evangelistically for restrictive liquor laws is that they are convinced they are acting in our best interests. Like the Labour government that New Zealanders tossed out in 2008, they don’t think people can be trusted to make their own choices.

1 comment:

Richard McGrath said...

Well said, Karl. My eyes start to glaze over every time I hear the word 'inappropriate' being used in the mainstream media.