Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

It's time that we all 'interfered' more
We need to take more responsbility for our communities.

Why did he do it? Why is it so rare for people to help a stranger in distress? These were some of the questions many of us asked when we heard about the death of Tom Grant, a young university student who was stabbed in the heart after intervening in an argument on a train. In a world where acts of anti-social behaviour frequently go unchallenged, Tom's behaviour strikes us as not only brave but, sadly, as also very rare.

All too often, commuters look away and pretend not to notice acts of intimidation directed at other passengers. Rowdy teenagers and aggressive youngsters know that they have little to fear from their elders. Indeed, anyone who attempts to stand up and question such conduct can expect little support from the public. We are expected not to interfere and we are unlikely to be criticised for turning our backs on those who need our help.

The reluctance to interfere also blights the relationship between adults and children. Adults are reluctant to intervene when children misbehave. They also feel awkward and impotent when they see a child who is in trouble. Many adults believe that their attempt to reassure a distraught youngster could be misinterpreted by a suspicious parent. Recently, an inquest into the tragic death of a two-year old girl heard how a bricklayer drove past the infant as she walked through her village. He did not stop, he explained, because he feared that people would think he was trying to abduct her. "She wasn't walking in a straight line,'' he noted before adding that, "she was tottering and I kept thinking, 'should I go back?'." Minutes later, the little girl drowned in her garden pool. This tragedy is in part a consequence of a culture that encourages us not to interfere.

Informal rules about civic responsibility provide the foundation for relations of trust and help clarify the terms on which people relate to one another. Throughout history, such informal rules served to contain anti-social behaviour. Such rules provide adults with authority to intervene and stop young people from misbehaving. Unspoken assumptions about the inappropriate use of foul language or intolerance towards threatening behaviour can help push delinquent activities to the margins.

Such rules can also transmit expectations of mutual solidarity and support. Individuals who, when threatened, can draw upon a network of support, feel very differently to those who are forced to deal with such problems on their own. Unfortunately today we are confused about the rules. We need to gain clarity about them very quickly.

But in the end we may also have to stand up and be counted. That is why we need to affirm and promote the behaviour of the young man who died answering in the affirmative the question: Am I my brother's keeper? We need more people to emulate Tom Grant and take responsibility for the welfare of their communities. Solidarity can not exist without people prepared to "interfere".

First published in the Daily Telegraph, 4 June 2006