Young people do not always equal 'bad character'
Sixteen-year-old Trevor battered 18-year-old Jerome. Onlookers from safer neighbourhoods might describe them as anti-social, ultimately of ‘bad character’. However, in his ‘ends’, Trevor is seen as having ‘good character’ for enacting his own version of justice because law enforcement is paralysed through terrorised witnesses’ refusal to testify. Justice is distributed informally. Trevor beat Jerome because Jerome sexually harassed his sister.
In deprived urban settings, often young people have to be seen to be violent because a ‘rep’ gives you ‘cred’ enhancing your status to one of capacity for harm. The more dangerous you seem, the safer you are. If Trevor had not delivered retribution then he would be considered weak, his sister defiled goods, both therefore victims. Being a victim, in Trevor’s world, is a sign of failure, a loss of honour, therefore symptomatic of ‘bad character’.
Trevor's case highlights the challenge for our inquiry, in which we set ourselves the goal of defining ‘character’ in some useful way and figuring out how one acquires it, as well as how it impacts on individuals’ life chances. Hesitantly, I agreed to participate, wanting to make sure that yet another document is not churned out from an intellectually detached perspective, in which vulnerable young people end up being labelled as having ‘bad character’.
Character capabilities involve self-direction, or perceiving oneself as having reasonable control to shape one’s life; self-regulation, or being able to regulate one’s emotions in order to interact positively with others; application, or the ability to stick at tasks; and empathy, or the ability to be sensitive to others. They are a combination of skills and virtues, instrumental in leading a ‘moral’ life.
The question is, how do you acquire these lovely characteristics? Environments play a significant role. Jerome’s capacity for harm took years to evolve. As a three-year-old he would be dragged into social services by his disturbed mum. The social worker was behind reinforced glass, his mother shouting, threatening and pleading for help. The department’s resources fell short of demand; Jerome’s mum is denied help and eventually security staff escort her off the premises.
To ignore the realities of Jerome's background - to argue that childhood abuse should not be used as an excuse to explain disturbance - is flawed. Ultimately, society is systemic; we all create character in each other and the bad in another is potentially the bad in us. Recognition of this by The Character Inquiry is a welcome, if overdue development.