[This comes with what is often called a 'trigger warning'. Despite the tone I always try to adopt in my posts, the issues discussed here are not mere abstractions. People's past and current suffering can be brought back to the surface by their discussion. Please consider this before continuing.]
Why did they do it?
It’s often said that a society can be judged by how it treats its most disadvantaged members.
It’s equally true that a society can be judged by the conditions it provides for the raising – and socialisation – of children. Adolescence is that moment when the rubber of that socialisation starts to hit the road.
That’s largely because adolescents are good at one thing in particular – seeking out the values of the world they are entering and trying their best to master them. It’s a time for experimentation with those values – a kind of dress rehearsal – to find out how best to emulate and live up to them. In fact, this is what all mammals do as they reach for adulthood.
But how does a society explain to itself what has happened when that process goes horribly wrong?
There’s at least three ways that the ‘bad behaviour’ of children and young people gets explained – or explained away.
The first is to see it as an eternal “age old phenomenon”. ‘Boys will be boys’, ‘Girls will be girls’ and adults, perennially, will, more or less ineffectually, shake their old heads at it all. The solution to the behaviour is that the young people “should just grow up“.
The second is to see it as a personal character flaw, aided and abetted by parents and limited to a dysfunctional few. In this view, bad behaviour is the result of ‘bad apples’ produced by bad parenting.
The third way is to see it as symptomatic – even diagnostic – of deeper pathologies in the social order. In this view, children and young people are the canaries in the best forgotten dark cracks and serpentine passages that writhe beneath a society’s dynamic.
With the emergence into public view of the Roast Busters’ predatory sexual behaviour, the rhetorical stakes surrounding the debate over which explanation to adopt have never been higher.
Not only does the Roast Busters’ behaviour represent a classic case of male on female objectifying exploitation but it also involves peer-to-peer exploitation amongst children and young people and – if all of that wasn’t enough – public boasting about the ‘exploits’.
It’s hard to imagine a brew more toxic with implications for a society – or more revealing of the nature of a society.
Like Hansel and Gretel, let’s start picking up the crumbs dropped by each of those forms of explanation so that we can arrive ‘home’, to where it all began.
There’s actually a long history of rhetoric associated with the first kind of explanation of bad behaviour in youths.
To emphasise that long history, liberally-inclined people often appear to quote Socrates. Over 2,500 years ago, we are told, Socrates bemoaned the fact that:
“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”
A handy quote for those who try to cut off intergenerational ‘moral panics’ at the pass. But, then again, perhaps it wasn’t Socrates at all, but an extract from Kenneth John Freeman’s 1907 student dissertation at Cambridge, in which he remarked:
The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise. …
Children began to be the tyrants, not the slaves, of their households. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table, and committed various offences against Hellenic tastes, such as crossing their legs. They tyrannised over the paidagogoi and schoolmasters.
(The original book can be found here, conveniently turned to the page from which the misattributed quotation seems to have been taken.)
Irrespective of its providence, this rhetoric can be motivated by one of two, twin, desires: Either to show that adults have forever been complaining about young people yet the world has kept turning (and, so, conservative adults are over-reacting); or, young people have always had malevolent inclinations that, therefore, need to be tightly controlled by any society worthy of the name.
Tahu Potiki in his latest column, ‘Roast Busters Not New Phenomenon‘, explicitly falls into the ‘age-old phenomenon’ camp:
These Roast Buster boys have been portrayed as a modern, social-media-driven deviant phenomenon and I would have to say this is incorrect.
They are simply the modern manifestation of an age-old phenomenon.
To rank as “age-old” in Tahu Potiki’s world it seems that references to ancient Greece are not needed. So long as it occurred in his own youth then the phenomenon is apparently as old as the hills:
I found myself in situations where underage girls were sneaking in to our dorms with the specific intent of having sex with the teenage boys who resided there.
I was aware of group sexual encounters with seriously intoxicated girls.
I never got personally involved because it ran contrary to what I was comfortable with.
In that most natural of all human settings – a single-sex (boarding school?) dormitory – young people were just doing what they had ‘always’ done. And just so, the argument goes, it continues with Roast Busters. A grand, very human, historically universal ‘tradition’.
It’s also present in the argument that this is a particularly unfortunate outcome of a developmental phase. That’s presumably the thinking behind John Key’s wish that the Roast Buster boys “should just grow up“:
“These young guys should just grow up,” Key said this afternoon.
“I guess, as a parent, I find the issue very disturbing and abhorrent really.
“I mean, you are talking about youngsters who are at a very delicate age. [Presumably he means the young girls here.]”
“These young guys should just grow up,” Key said this afternoon.
Key defended the work of police.
“It is very difficult to progress this issue, if someone isn’t prepared to make a formal complaint.
“And it’s a very challenging situation for a young woman to put herself in that position.”
The problem, of course, is that it’s not clear that growing older necessarily will involve ‘growing up’ in the sense hoped for by Key. But, nevertheless, it represents an intuition that this is simply part of a ‘normal’ process gone awry and, therefore, with any luck it will solve itself in time (at least individual by individual).
The second type of explanation – ‘bad apples from bad parents’ – may accept the historical recurrence of this kind of behaviour occurring amongst youth but it won’t sit back in some sort of semi-relaxed fatalism in the face of such a ‘reality’.
This second explanation attempts, at least discursively, to quarantine the behaviour to the actions of a deviant few who have been bent towards these acts by ineffective or permissive parents.
Potiki’s column can be referred to once again for illustration as it usefully combines the bad apple/bad parent explanation alongside the argument for it being an ‘age-old’ phenomenon:
Teenage boys of a certain character are prepared to unashamedly use sexual violence and exploitation to dominate and shame women.
This is where the problem really requires action.
We, as parents, need to smash this perception because if my two boys grow up to become perpetrators who deliberately humiliate and degrade women, simply because they are women, then I [as a parent?] am also culpable.
And, presumably, if ‘we’ “as parents” don’t “smash this perception” then there’s an important sense in which failing to solve the problem is all down to ‘us’. That is, if the ‘smashing of this perception’ is truly within our power, “as parents“, then the fact that the perception remains makes us not just “also culpable” but fundamentally responsible, irrespective of the original causes.
Rachel Smalley also has parents in her sights:
Well, here’s the thing – these young men are 17 and 18-years-old. They’ve been involved in this gang now for two years. My bet is that almost all of them live at home. They’ll be under their parents or a parent’s roof. That’s who I want to hear from now – the parents. That’s who I want the police to get heavy with. Where are their children? How have they developed such atrocious attitudes to women? How can their children be so broken?
… And in all of this, where have mum and dad been? One rape will change a young girl’s life forever. One good parent can change the course of a child’s life too.
Once again, parents become – if not the beginning and the end of concern – the central pivot of blame and site of remedial action by society.
An interesting refinement of this explanation – bad apples and bad parents – is presented by Chris Trotter in a column titled ‘Fathers and Sons’:
The mocking expression on these young men’s faces was also saying: “You’re complicit in this because, deep down, you’re just like us. Deep down, your view of women is no different from ours. They’re meat. You chew them up. You spit them out. And if you can organise a bit of a laugh at their expense along the way – then so much the better!”How has New Zealand raised such sons?
That’s a question only New Zealand’s fathers can answer.What sort of example have we set?
“[O]nly New Zealand’s fathers can answer“? According to Trotter, in New Zealand misogyny is passed from father to son as a male heirloom. He doesn’t mention the word ‘patriarchy’ but it is pregnant in the example he uses of how fathers have set their example:
When New Zealand was governed by a woman, did the nation’s fathers indicate to their sons that this was a state of affairs of which they should be proud? Were they outraged on their sons’ behalf when their workmates and drinking buddies stood around the barbecue making jokes about her looks, her voice, her sexuality – or did they join in the ribald laughter?Paraphrasing Dr Martin Luther King, did they tell their sons that a woman is to be judged not by the shape of her body, but by the content of her character?
In this example, misogyny is tied to the politics of patriarchy (as the denigration of African Americans is tied to the politics of racism) and, so, is inevitably expressed – and mined – in the political sphere itself when a possible threat to patriarchal authority arises.
But, is there nothing beyond parents and fathers that might influence how parents parent and how fathers father?
Is misogyny like a random infection or mutation that, quite accidentally and, so, quite unluckily, has taken root in New Zealand and can only be ripped out of the social fabric through individual parents and fathers ‘upping their game’? Is it otherwise inexplicable?
Or is misogyny something more pervasive and resilient to individual efforts to apply social disinfectant? Is it, perhaps, also supported by processes beyond parents, fathers and the youthful victims and, even, the perpetrators?
Or, in other words, does the third explanation – systemic pathology – have nothing to offer?
For many, the existence of the Roast Busters reveals a widespread “rape culture“:
Associate Professor Nicola Gavey from the University of Auckland said the Roast Busters phenomenon was toxic – and part of a growing international “rape culture”.
“Girls who have been abused by these boys are probably facing every day with courage,” she said.
“The boys give an impression – probably a false facade – of Teflon-coated masculinities, powerful, wilful and invulnerable.
Also implicated are “many forms of media, including pornography and music lyrics“, from which “young men adopted the attitude that women were “props” for their sexual pleasure“.
And, in an excellent piece by Rebecca Kamm she argues that, despite all the research evidence – especially about ‘acquaintance’ or ‘undetected’ rape – that should expose the myths associated with rape they nevertheless persist, which is a tragedy because “[r]ape myths shape a culture that breeds more rapists; it’s as simple as that.”
So, how can the behaviour of the ‘Roast Busters’ best be explained? Do any of the three explanations work?
I see the explanation in layers.
Is there something about this behaviour that is “age-old“? In an important sense, I think there is. And it goes right back to the particular kind of social beings we are.
There’s an interesting theory of two basic modes of animal social behaviour, first developed by Michael Chance in work on Macacs (a 1998 article in the journal ‘Evolution and Cognition‘ , 4(1), 2-10, by Chance on these modes and their implications for human ethics can be downloaded here).
The agonic mode relies on a strict dominance hierarchy. As a result, the social group has a marked degree of tension within it. Non-dominant members spend a lot of time attending to the dominant individuals, either to avoid them or respond to their ‘commands’. That is, social attention is based on threat and aggression. Baboon troops are classic cases of the dominance of the agonic mode.
The hedonic mode is far more relaxed. It relies on constant interactions (e.g., grooming, back-slapping, hugging, etc.). Most importantly (Chance, 1998, p. 5):
Rank is determined by a process of social solicitation not intimidation. Individuals “compete” for the attention of others through display behaviors. These are frequently followed by interpersonal rewards such as grooming, play and mothering behavior or by communal activities such as food sharing.
Humans are capable of both modes, with males being likelier than females to shift to the agonic mode. But the hedonic mode tends to predominate within a group.
In 1972, a Welsh writer, Elaine Morgan, put the basic idea far more simply in ‘The Descent of Woman‘ – her deliberately sarcastic take on what she saw as the male-centric popularised accounts of human evolution put about by Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey:
The hedonic mode favoured by the apes is quite different [from the agonic mode favoured by some monkey species]. Here again, a high place in the ranking order is attained by an outstanding ability to command the attention of one’s fellows. But the apes are more advanced than the monkeys, and they have made a discovery which perhaps more than anything else made possible our own dramatic mental forward leap. They learned that you don’t necessarily have to bite someone in order to make him take notice of you. Among gorillas and chimpanzees this type of physical aggression is extremely rare.
So how do they do it? Primatologists call it ‘display'; to put it in the simplest possible terms, they do it by showing off. They seek for ways of making themselves conspicuous; they bounce around and shake the branches.
(Elaine Morgan, 1985 (revised edition), p. 194)
Whatever else the Roast Busters’ behaviour is about, showing off is surely part of it, and probably a major part. That’s not to say that the agonic mode could not also have been crucial – as Kramm argues, physical coercion can slip and slide around and within more ‘hedonic’ forms of social manipulation.
But, nevertheless, the ‘roasters’ are clearly boasters.
In fact, when young women friends of the group were interviewed they spoke of the boys’ behaviour almost entirely in terms of showing off:
“They are good guys,” said one. “They can make really dumb decisions but they are being teenagers.
“What they are doing is very wrong… they should not have put this on Facebook. They wanted to be famous, they got their fame but in the worst possible way.”
But the girls, who do not wish to be named, claim the bravado we’ve seen from the Roast Busters is just that – even though police believe the group may have exploited a number of drunk, underage victims.
“People know that they are Roast Busters and they go hang out with them and do stuff [... ] but they’re not rapists, they’re cool dudes.“
The behaviour of the young women in the video that accompanied that article also shows another feature of the ‘hedonic mode’ of socialising. They are interviewed not just as a group but with arms over each others shoulders and, at one stage, in a huddle like a sports team. Yet, they each respond to the interviewers questions independently, making their own points.
This from Chance (1998, p. 5):
When danger threatens the hedonic group, it responds in a completely different manner to that of agonic troops. It gathers: “together as a group, making body contact, slapping and hugging each other, from which activity each member gathers confidence to attach the predator on its own. The group is not the source of common defense as in the agonic mode, but a source of mutual confidence from which the individual makes individual assaults”.
[Australian researcher Richard Eckersley has written this very interesting article on the contradictory strategies used by young people to gain some sense of efficacy in today's world - 'Separate Selves, Tribal Ties, and Other Stories']
Three close friends of the Roast Busters sex gang say the group’s ringleaders exaggerated many of their sexual exploits to impress their classmates
They told Fairfax those in the group made up many of their claims about sex with drunk girls
The Roast Busters associates … said much of what was posted on social media was “a joke”.
“I hang out with them and go to parties with them,” one friend said. “They’re good people, one on one. It’s all a persona, a front, like ‘we’re bad, we get with girls’.
“None of us thought it would come this far. At the start it was a joke between the bros. It wasn’t a big deal but then those two made choices and they have to deal with it. I think making a Facebook page and publicising [the Roast Busters] was the stupidest thing they could have done.”
Human males – like the gorillas and chimpanzees who beat their chests – boast and play to an attention-prone audience. As Morgan (1985, p. 196) tellingly describes the tendency:
whereas the young ape, competing for attention with other young apes, is daily stimulated to search for something new by the troop’s constant unspoken challenge: ‘Etonne-moi!‘
In many ways, this is the hope of humanity – that we are not all agonism, violence and threat. Yet the hedonic mode, with all its promise of cooperative, caring, creative and intricate interactions and relationships still needs the right social conditions to bear its best fruits.
In the wrong conditions it can, far too easily, form an unholy alliance with the agonic mode – characterised by exploitation and objectification of others who become reduced to the ciphers of a dominant threat to be obeyed or a subordinate opportunity for exploitation.
A society can be judged by how it uses this biological endowment.
Which brings us to the second layer.
How a society is structured directly impacts how we interact. If civilisations have been characterised by any particular form it is the form of a hierarchy. Whether monarchy, oligarchy or patriarchy, the point of any hierarchy is to create an unequal distribution of power – in other words, it creates dominance hierarchies.
It is no coincidence that, by contrast, it was in a quite different social structure – the egalitarian and, hence, necessarily democratic social groups of early hunter-gatherers – that our hedonic mode of interaction arose. Within the group, it was your performances (and ability to entertain!) that gained you what attention and status could be mustered. Human capacities for creativity, oratory, elegance, storytelling, innovation and humour no doubt flourished in this setting.
By contrast, and in the terms just used, hierarchies inevitably encourage the far more unimaginative and socially dampening agonic mode of social relations.
New Zealand, like most modern states, has been, right from its colonial origins, patriarchal in form and values. The quintessential Kiwi for most of its short history has been the male pioneer/farmer. Women gained the vote in 1893 but it took more than 100 years for the country to have its first female Prime Minister.
Other hierarchies were also entrenched: Pakeha over Maori; boss over worker; heterosexual over homosexual; the wealthy over the poor.
In the lacerating briers of these hierarchical arrangements it’s always going to be hard to raise young people who are respectful of others and empathic to their suffering. It would always be hard in that environment to contain, let alone eliminate, the kind of misogyny that we now find – at least publicly – abhorrent. Departures from the patriarchal norm would have been met with harsh treatment, as hierarchies encourage.
There’s one very revealing example of how hierarchies can persist and dominate – and distort outcomes – despite the capacity of humans (male and female) to operate in the hedonic mode: leadership.
There’s a lot of concern, here in New Zealand and globally, over the continuing under-representation of women in boardrooms and government. As this opinion piece by the amazingly named British psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in the Huffington Post noted, there’s any number of explanations as to why this is. But there’s also a non-obvious one that, when pointed out, starts to seem all too obvious.
In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.
This is consistent with the finding that leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and that these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women.
In short, our ‘unspoken challenge’ of ‘Etonne-moi!‘ is taken up – disproportionately – by men with various displays of (over)confidence and hubris; so we reward them with leadership.
The idea has a neat and intuitively interesting appeal. The opinion piece goes on to say that,
The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group. Indeed, whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble — and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men.
[The links in the quotes are well worth a read. The questions it raises about leadership may be the stuff for another post!]
Data on thousands of managers from 40 countries shows that “men are consistently more arrogant, manipulative and risk-prone than women” and that,
the mythical image of a “leader” embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders, such as narcissism (Steve Jobs or Vladimir Putin), psychopathy (fill in the name of your favorite despot here), histrionic (Richard Branson or Steve Ballmer) or Machiavellian (nearly any federal-level politician) personalities.
Interestingly, narcissism in young people (well, in the United States at least) may well have been on the rise in recent decades. But, even for those sceptical of the claim make the point that, irrespective of actual narcissism, today’s world may well be ‘narcissist-friendly‘.
Which brings us to the final layer – social hierarchies have been with us for a long time; they are not the last word.
As Rebecca Kamm pointed out,
We have all the resources in the world at our disposal. Let an intelligent, empathic society be our model. Accept nothing less: not from our broadcasters, prime minister, police force, friends, family or colleagues. Demand re-education – do it yourself wherever and whenever possible, even if it’s uncomfortable. Especially if it’s uncomfortable. Rewrite social narratives.
“Let an intelligent, empathic society be our model.“? “Rewrite social narratives.“? “Especially if it’s uncomfortable.“?
Think about those three phrases and then think about today’s New Zealand. Ask yourself why present day New Zealand may now need to let an “empathic society be our model“? Ask yourself what our current ‘social narrative’ might be and why does it need to be rewritten? And, finally, ask yourself just what it is that makes doing something feel “uncomfortable“?
The last layer is the revolution – political, economic, ideological, technological – that the last 30 years have wrought in New Zealand society. We can call it neoliberalism, for short – and it comes with its own set of values.
And, even in the ‘full set’ of values, empathy no longer gets official recognition.
Here are two of the more revealing studies of ‘modern’ attitudes. The first is reported by Jean Twenge in an article titled ‘Are we justifying cheating?‘ and concerns a study of attitudes towards cheating.
I wish this were an isolated example [A news report featuring comments 'explaining away' cheating by students on college entrance exams]. Apparently, it’s not, according to a large and in-depth study done by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and reported in his new book, Lost in Transition. Smith and his colleagues report widespread moral relativism, and what they call “moral individualism,” among Americans age 18 to 23.
You may have heard of ‘moral relativism’, but ‘moral individualism’? Here are some of the question and answer sessions from the study that Twenge reports and Twenge’s conclusion:
Q: Is it okay to break moral rules if it works to your advantage and you can get away with it? A: Break moral rules? I’m sorry, what do you mean by moral rules? I would have to say in some cases, yeah, it would be okay. It just, it would really depend what those rules were. It’s on a case-by-case basis.
Q: What about helping people in general? Are we as a society obligated to do something? A: I really don’t think there’re any good reasons, nope, nothing. Q: What if someone just wasn’t interested in helping others? Would that be a problem or not? A: No, I don’t see why that would be a problem. Q: And why is that? A: Because I mean is that really our duty, to help others? Is that what we’re here for? I mean, they can help themselves. … Q: So if someone asks for help, we don’t have an obligation to them? A: Yeah, it’s up to each individual, of course.
The end result: Everything is up to the individual. If things are competitive, and it will help me get ahead, why not cheat? There are no rules, and who cares about how it affects anyone else?
And yes, this bares a striking resemblance to narcissism. Sure enough,there is a link between narcissistic personality and cheating in school
What strikes me about the answers given to these questions is how often I’ve heard the same views expressed here in New Zealand.
Intentionally or not, neoliberal values make way for this ‘moral individualism’.
Think ‘blaming the victim’ for the so-called ‘choices’ they make (even if they are only 13 years old).
Think ‘suck it up’ and ‘harden up’.
Think ‘tax is theft’ and boasting about paying none.
Think ‘personal responsibility’ but apparently no counter-balancing ‘responsibility to others’.
Think flash cars, big houses; think materialism and mega-malls.
Think ‘image management’, think brands, think ‘spin’, think ‘All Consuming Images‘ – think boasting.
Think winning is what matters. Think ‘aspiration’. Think success.
Think ‘why wouldn’t you if it’s legal?'; think ‘Why wouldn’t you if you could get away with it?’
And here’s another study with an apt title: ‘Why Neoliberal Values of Self-Enhancement Lead to Cheating in Higher Education: A Motivational Account‘ (only the abstract – article behind the paywall).
The study asks, “Does adherence to the neoliberal values that underpin our economic and academic systems predict acceptance of cheating?”
Four studies revealed that adherence to neoliberal values of self-enhancement—power and achievement—predicts the motivation to gain social approval; this motivation, in turn, favors the adoption of context-specific competitive performance-approach goals, which predict the condoning of cheating.
Most important, a classroom-based study addressed the core question of cheating behavior, revealing that adherence to self-enhancement values indeed predicted actual cheating behavior. These results point to the relevance of diagnosing societal values as social causes of cheating.
Neoliberalism ramps up – massively amplifies – the need to boast, to ‘perform’ (in the sense of a ‘performance’). In the process, any moral responsibility to others risks being left by the wayside.
Worse. Others become mere objects, props for the performance.
I’ve come a long way from the first layer – our evolved sociality. The story didn’t have to end like this. But it has.
Our society is fertile ground for the worst to flower: Some boys brutally abusing young girls and then publicly humiliating them for all their ‘admirers’ to see.
A morality tale for our time brought to us by our own children.
Time to roast the boasters – by roasting our boasting society.
Postscript: Here’s another link to a Twenge article, this time about ‘Social Media’ – “It’s a Narcissism Enabler“.
Narcissism clearly leads to more social media use, social media use leads to positive self-views, and people who need a self-esteem boost turn to social media. It is less clear whether social media directly causes narcissism, at least in the short term. With narcissists having more friends and posting more frequently, however, social media sites are clearly influenced by those high in narcissism at a rate higher than their fair share.
I don’t think Kamm’s “empathic society” will be found online.