Editorial: bully for that

by The Listener / 24 January, 2013
It’s time for creative thinking about some of our seemingly intractable social problems.

Haul bullies off by the ear and try to teach them a lesson? That’s the unlikely response of the ultra-liberal Dutch to the pernicious problem of intimidation and hate speech on low-income housing estates. It’s a new school of thinking about seemingly intractable social problems that’s achieving global resonance and it deserves consideration here. Increasingly appalled by the misery and fear wrought by a minority of residents on the peaceable, law-abiding majority on its housing estates, Amsterdam has been trialling what have become colloquially – and wildly inaccurately – labelled scum towns. Persistent bullies are forcibly evicted and rehoused well away from their victims in temporary accommodation where they are monitored 24 hours a day by police and social workers. The bullies are obliged to engage in intensive sessions about socially acceptable behaviour and are then permanently rehoused far from those they tormented.

For the Dutch, who pride themselves on progressive and tolerant social policies, to have gay and ethnic groups routinely targeted for abuse by a seemingly untouchable and growing minority has become unbearable. The fact this was happening, as it does the world over, to the most vulnerable citizens, the low-income and the unemployed who are least able to escape crime and intimidation, has made it even less tolerable.

Although civil libertarians will have conniptions over abrogating people’s freedom for what, in this country, would normally be dealt with by criminal harassment notices and the like, people who live in such places as Wellington’s Pomare may champion a fuller debate on the Dutch idea. Residents of Farmer Crescent have been driven out of their homes at times after their safety was threatened by a small group of gang members who associate with three of their neighbours. More than three years on, Housing NZ has spent over $1 million to try to end the trio’s tenancy.

The Dutch response at least has the virtue of relocating the misery and upheaval from the victims to the perpetrators. But although some may rejoice at the idea of packing haters and wreckers off to their own special spot where they can torment one another to their heart’s content, that is emphatically not the way the Dutch trial works. On the contrary, they tried exactly that in the 19th century: sending miscreants to designated dogbox districts, and found the inevitable happened: the problem was ghettoised and exacerbated as the behaviour became normalised. The new Dutch trial seeks instead to isolate and pressure the problem-causers, while giving the long-suffering victims a break.

Whether the policy will work long-term remains moot, as it is full of fish hooks, not least that so much intimidation is gang-related, and gangs make it their business to maintain a climate of fear.

Equally tricky is the question of what level of behaviour should trigger eviction and sequestration. Britain’s notorious antisocial behaviour orders, now more than 14 years in operation, have shown how inconsistent and ineffective “naming and shaming” measures can be. When both threatening stalker-type behaviour and children annoyingly kicking footballs in the street come in for the same legal treatment, scepticism is inevitable. However, several jurisdictions in England and Ireland are hoping the Dutch experiment will produce workable ideas to stop the widespread suffering of society’s most vulnerable. It’s especially hoped the policy can find ways around the ticklish question of ethnicity, which routinely arises in cases of neighbourhood victimisation. The traveller community is often cited in cases of antisocial behaviour, yet like Britain’s ethnically based gangs, they are themselves victims of prejudice.

All crime is part of an enormous roil of cause and effect, making it hard to tackle one facet at a time. Libertarians will deplore that enlightened European Union countries should even contemplate any suspension of rights, but it’s a safe assumption few of them live in neighbourhoods where even inadvertent eye contact with the wrong person can be dangerous.

It’s time to think creatively. An intriguing feature of the Dutch proposal, given our experience, is the popularity of the suggestion that the temporary sequestration of bullies might take place in pop-up container housing, which has been used successfully to house tertiary students in the Netherlands. It may never happen, but those whose lives are blighted by bullies can now at least daydream about a new kind of national Naughty Step.
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