I’m being constantly amazed these days by the number of “classic” books that I have somehow never got around to reading. A Clockwork Orange was definitely among these—I’m sure I owned it way back when, but the slang language deterred me from reading it. Eventually, when something sits on my shelf unread for long enough, it gets weeded during a purge. Thank goodness for the public library’s very extensive collection of speculative literature.
It does require a little perseverance to figure out the slang used by the young offender who is “Your Humble Narrator” during the tale—but after a bit of practice, my speed of reading increased substantially and I started to get the gist of the lingo without having to stop, back track and analyze. Anthony Burgess was a linguist and that knowledge certainly shows—I’m not sure a non-linguist could have created such a complete and intelligible slang language. (I actually had fun trying to figure out what sources Burgess had used to create the vocabulary).
Some novels written in the 60s show their age quite plainly. That’s not a bad thing; I think it helps us keep track of how much our society has changed over the last 50 years and to assess where we are now. What distressed me was the amount of recognition that I felt for the whole “juvenile crime” issue explored in Clockwork. Our society is still agonizing over this problem, what causes it and how it should be dealt with.
In one sense, I think Alex (the main character) had it right—we never ask why someone chooses to behave in a law-abiding fashion and that question is just as relevant as the opposite, why someone would choose to live outside the societal contract. It’s like the field of psychology, which since its formation has focused on alleviating suffering, but has paid little attention to the achievement of happiness. (That bias is beginning to be redressed by the field of Positive Psychology).
Criminality is a complex issue—I think we could probably all agree that there is a certain genetic component. Psychopathy, for instance, seems to stem from faulty brain wiring, quite possibly transmitted from parent to child. Even children that don’t have this defect can be raised in environments that either train them in criminality or drive them to it (to escape an abusive home for instance). I have heard it described as genetics loading the gun and environment pulling the trigger. The combination can be deadly—but it needn’t be. A good role model at the right time, the attention and approval of a respected adult, can make all the difference in a child’s life. For example, Gavin de Becker, the author of The Gift of Fear became a threat assessment adviser. When interviewing criminals for insight into their behaviour, he came to realize that he shared the same violent upbringing as the incarcerated, but had a grade school teacher whose interest and encouragement had changed the trajectory of his life. I think this speaks to the importance of our teachers, youth leaders, coaches, relatives and even neighbours in the lives of young people.
Realizing the importance of positive adult attention, it is ironic that we hear so much lately of people in these positions taking advantage of children in their care. The already at-risk are more likely to be targeted by these predators. Just like animal hunters, the predatory adult is looking for a weak and vulnerable child that can be easily silenced and controlled.
Criminal children get disproportionate media coverage—it’s an emotionally charged issue. In actual fact, teenagers are far from being the vicious and violent terrors that we read about in the tabloids. Statistics indicate that the vast majority of crime, including violent crime, is committed by adults and that the incidence of crime is actually decreasing. This is not to say that horrible crimes haven’t been perpetrated by adolescents (I’m thinking of the young Medicine Hat girl who helped her boyfriend murder her family and the young predator who raped an inebriated young woman in a C-train station). But the vast majority of our young people do well in school, have part-time jobs and behave like civilized people.
However, just as in A Clockwork Orange, politicians still like to prey on our fears and convince us that “something must be done.” Tougher laws and punishments seem to me to be tackling the problem from the wrong end—more intervention at the beginning of a child’s life seems like a much more useful exercise. Incarceration seems to be a wonderful training ground to make better criminals as they learn technique from one another. Childhood intervention would mean a lot of investment and will take time to show results. Neither of these prospects attracts politicians—they want to spend less money and want to be able to claim instant results. If positive results will take a decade to appear, the politician will likely to long gone and unable to benefit from them, actually creating a disincentive to taking on such projects. (Why do something that may help your successors instead of yourself?) It is this focus on one’s own political benefit instead of society’s improvement that seems to have us caught in a unresolvable situation.
So far, we are still counting on the same scenario as the last chapter of Clockwork, where Alex grows up and loses interest in his criminal endeavours and starts to long for a wife and child of his own. I’m sure that some young offenders do eventually grow up and adopt more normal life styles, but it seems to be a waste of many years of their lives, which might have been intercepted and directed into more positive pursuits earlier. Of Alex’s gang, one has a normal life (Peter), one is dead (George) and one has become a brutal police officer (Dim). It’s a bit disheartening to realize how little progress we have made on these issues since Anthony Burgess first wrote this tale.