Inside the heads of a generation living without constraints


Violence and suicide among young males are linked to their sudden acquisition of money and freedom.

Sometime in the second half of the 1990s, I had occasion to drive through Dublin city centre at about 4 a.m. It was the first time I had encountered at first hand what was then being described as a new phenomenon in Ireland - hordes of high-spending, hard-drinking young people at large, untrammelled, wandering the streets. It was a surreal scene. Some wandered, seemingly oblivious, on to the road - bottles in hand, arguing. Scuffles broke out in the long taxi queues. Some lay against walls apparently comatose from drink. There was an air of alarm. Nobody seemed in charge. In this almost Hobbesian scene, you felt anything could happen.

In those fateful few years, there was a tipping point in Irish society. What were once isolated episodes of street brawling crossed a threshold and seemed to become contagious, resulting in a near epidemic of violence and public order offences.

In parallel, what were once isolated incidents of young male suicide also crossed a threshold. In 2000, outside Club Anabel, this reached an awful denouement. Five young men, from good families and good schools, with shining futures ahead of them, went out for an evening's entertainment. By 4 a.m., one had been punched and kicked to death and four others stood accused.

How could this happen? Like most people, I know what happened that evening only from newspaper accounts. But this terrible event has caused people to reflect on what is at issue more generally. Adolescence, even the end of adolescence, has always been a dangerous time. The young males of all primate species indulge in heart-stopping risk-taking and experimentation - often for no better reason than to have a good time. At no other point in human history, however, have young men ever been so free of societal, family or religious constraints as they are now. We have forgotten that social structure is what protects males from the volatility of their nature. In Ireland, the transition from a high- to a low-constraint society has brought many benefits, not least freedom from personal oppression. But, in sociological terms, the transition was sudden.

While young men revelled in the new freedoms, at another level of their consciousness, they seemed to register fear at the threat of disorder - and reacted with anger (fight) and depression (flight). Dazzled by the success of the Celtic Tiger, and by the high-achieving, sophisticated and articulate young people who took it all for granted, we took our protective eye off the next generation. We became hesitant about challenging rude and obnoxious behaviour. We gave little thought to the vacuum that had been created by the collapse of the old authority structures.

The peak in offending in young males occurs in adolescence. The peak of aggressiveness and antisocial behaviour occurs in the late teens and early 20s, corresponding to the peak of testosterone at that age. It also coincides with that time in their lives when males are moving out of the close bonds and supervision of family and before they have created new bonds to their own family, workplace or neighbourhood. They are stranded dangerously in a no-man's land, or rather a no-woman land. In the competition for women, testosterone rises, as though to mobilise the male for the rivalry ahead. (Correspondingly, testosterone falls in men who are approaching marriage and withdrawing from the competitive world of seeking a mate.) Studies show that disputes among young males frequently concern access to women, with the majority of homicides occurring in social conflicts between acquaintances, most commonly two unrelated men involved in a public dispute over status or 'saving face'. As evolutionary psychologists point out, trivial altercations over an insult or a small amount of money seem improbable causes of murder to the settled citizens of adulthood. But the loss of status, particularly in the eyes of male peers, carries momentous consequences for young men. Their pride is wounded and they feel shame, catapulting them into a spiral of rage or depression.

Young males compete for dominance. High rank in the male group brings highly valued rewards: they are attended to, they get to control group decisions, and they have the pick of the most attractive females. Males are acutely aware of their own position in the hierarchy. If a male does not know his place and is perceived to challenge a high-status male inappropriately (i.e. the challenger is not regarded as a worthy rival), this can provoke instant rage out of all proportion to the challenge. This jockeying for position is why feelings of pride and shame are so volatile and dangerous in young male groups.

But pride and shame are also the control mechanisms, the regulators of excess in male hierarchies. Traditionally, a young male could feel proud of success, but only if he competed within the rules, within the rigid expectations that govern hierarchies. He would feel shame if he failed, but this shame would be softened if he was seen to have complied with the rules. Once the rules are established - and most importantly, enforced - hierarchies tend to become stable, and aggression is contained.

In adolescence, the highest status is reserved for the most physically attractive and athletic males. But, in the past, the rules governing high status included putting a high premium on helping others. The adult world encouraged young males to compete to be altruistic, to cooperate with each other, to contribute to others or the group.

By 2000, a survey showed that the proportion of Irish people who would choose to spend their free time helping other people and the proportion who would choose to have a good time had reversed in 10 years - in the direction of less willingness to give to others. So, Irish adults could not have been imposing the same pressure on young people to be altruistic as they had hitherto. Or maybe they were just more unsure about imposing values on this golden generation.

Interestingly, in adolescent groups where adult-imposed social values are weak, for example street gangs, this process of moving towards altruistic competing never comes to maturity. Displays of physical toughness and fighting remain the currency of rank and standing. Displays of physical toughness and challenge are also sanctioned in team sports. That is why, in the testosterone-charged competitiveness of team sports, there was traditionally a heavy emphasis on gentlemanly behaviour. Sporting status had a kind of noblesse oblige attached to it. Sometime in the last decade, that seems to have been forgotten. Instead, a new kind of jock culture emerged - young men treated like gods on the playing fields, surrounded by their followers, took to making swaggering group displays off the pitch, be it in the clubs or on the streets.

We also forgot - or maybe we did not know - that human beings are powerfully and imperceptibly influenced by the situation they find themselves in. Stanley Milgram's classic experiment showed that, in certain conditions, normal, good people administered what they believed to be lethal electric shocks to others. Similarly, in another classic experiment, Philip Zimbardo constructed a mock-prison in the basement of his university department and divided psychologically healthy volunteers into "guards" and "prisoners". The "guards" were told that their responsibility was to keep order in the prison. Within days, the "guards" had imposed such a reign of terror on the increasingly distressed "prisoners" that the experiment had to be cut short.

What is even more sobering is that it is becoming increasingly clear from experimental psychology that inducing aggressive behaviour does not require such elaborate cues. In one experiment, some participants (but not others) were exposed to hostile words from a long list in what they were told was a language experiment. Then, in what they believed to be a separate experiment, participants were told to administer shocks to learners when they got something wrong. Those "primed" with hostile words gave longer shocks to the learners than did those who were not.

In another experiment, one group of participants was exposed to a list of words, some of which were related to rudeness. A second group were exposed to a list that included words related to politeness. A third group were exposed to neutral words. Immediately after the experiment, significantly more of the "rude primed" group (67 per cent) than the neutral group (38 per cent) were observed behaving rudely, whereas only 16 per cent of the "polite primed" group behaved rudely.

If such subtle cues can prime aggressive behaviour, what can we say about the cumulative effects of the hostility-charged atmosphere in which large groups of drunk young men, competing intensely with each other, engage in public displays of dominance and bragging, jostling each other, egging each other on, rallying under the flag of school rivalry, and rehearsing old grievances? In that disordered world, the preservation of self-esteem and warding off threat can seem like matters of survival. Judgment and perspective is lost. And then there is the final condition for loss of control: young males have seen all this before. They have seen street fights throughout their adolescence. They may have had fights themselves. And nothing too terrible happened, did it? And nobody much cared if it did, right? And if somebody got hurt, they could be fixed up in hospital, right? And so they throw themselves into the fray.

In a general way, that is how otherwise normal young people, from good families and good schools and good addresses, can kill and be killed outside a club on a sultry summer night in the middle of a capital city.

Every generation wants to test limits and shape the world in a new way. Every generation has to find out, sometimes painfully, where the immovable limits are. Although it is cold consolation for his grieving family, the Brian Murphy case will set some limits for this generation of young people. It may not instantly reduce aggressive late-night behaviour, but it will change this generation's perception of how much punishment a young body can take. It will alert them to how, cumulatively, cues to aggression can penetrate our sense of moral and personal control. It will warn them about how exuberance and bravado in a group situation can easily turn into tragedy.

Originally published in The Irish Times. 


Posted: 28 February 2004