April 12, 2006


It occurs to me that I, and sometimes others, have been talking a great deal on these 'ere blogs about responsibilities. It is a common observation, I believe, that many of the younger generation have the constant urge to shirk their responsibilities, even going so far as to deny things they have been seen doing (I have lots of first-hand experience of this). I personally think this attitude is becoming a real problem.

But why is it happening?

Another modern phenomenon, which seems to be linked, is the increase in numbers of individuals suing companies for apparent negligence, or for the emotional results of bullying or prejudice. Now of course I would never advocate maltreatment in any form, but some of the recent cases do seem a little ridiculous: the deputy headteacher who tried to claim £1,000,000 for the emotional scarring left after having, in her office, a chair which made farting noises; the guy who bought a bike from Taiwan and was badly injured because the Taiwanese wire their brakes the opposite way around and he put on the front brake instead of the back when going quickly down a hill (apparently the manufacturers didn't make this quite clear enough in the instructions, despite detailing the wiring of the brakes).

Is this attitude a logical result of the regulations that are being put in place to try to make things more rigid? Essentially, when a company writes a list of instructions, they are declaring that they take responsibility for the safe working of a product when following them. When they begin to consider common sense as part of the required instructions can it not then be inferred that the user is not expected to use any common sense in their approach, other than that detailed? It also occurred to me that there may be a link between the regulation of teachers and the attitude of pupils. Teachers are now having to follow incredibly strict instructions regarding everything they do. They are being observed and checked up on constantly (some schools have even installed CCTV cameras with sound feedback and two-way mirrors), and they have to document every tiny incident to cover their backs and all punishments have to be standardised and approved. If you take away the responsibilities and independence of teachers how can they instil in their pupils the need for accepting responsibility? If teachers lose more and more authority (for example, parents can refuse to let their children stay for detentions) how can we expect them to be respected?

Is this change good for us? Health and safety regulations are dictating that we now need to put instructions on the back of bags of nuts to say 'may contain nuts' and on clothing labels to say 'please remove before washing'. I'm sure, a few years ago, these things would have been dismissed as being far too painfully obvious to bother with. These helpful hints are, I assume, supposed to assist users in being safe. However, we now have a situation where companies have to cover all ridiculous eventualities and yet still get sued because they missed just one loophole.

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  1. Visiting Atheist

    I think you'll find tons of these sort of stories, a favourite of mine being the one about the guy driving a Winnebago who turned on the cruise control and then got up to make a coffee, and successfully sued when the Winnebago unaccountably failed to stay on the road at the next corner (because it didn't say anything about it in the instruction manual)... How many are anecdotal and how many are true, I don't know, but I think much is down to a loss of application of common sense amongst the general population because of a lack of common sense being applied by lawyers and judges – due to them becoming more and more wed to the letter rather than the spirit of the law – or a sense of popular opportunism due to the same.

    If you can sue for silly things in the courts then it's hardly surprising that guidelines, regulations, codes of conduct etc multiply allowing for ever more and more loopholes to be exploited by enterprising lawyers/parents/customers… forcing some food companies to cover themselves by printing warnings on packets such as 'should not contain nuts but prepared in a factory where nuts are also processed' which, at the end of the day, is useless.

    12 Apr 2006, 15:39

  2. James

    I think as with many a good thing, too much concern for risk aversion and health & safety is a bad thing. As Sarah points, out we are becoming as one with America in respect of ludicrious litigation. I know of one personal injury case successfully brought against school by a teacher who had slipped on a chip on a school stairwell. In addition to the examples she gives about claims for stress, I would mention that claims have also been made by policemen who alleged they had suffered stress through non-promotion, or from wrongful sexual harrassment suits (I wonder what those police given the task of clearing up dead bodies at murder scenes or confronting armed robbers think of such complaints).

    This type of 'victim' mentality spills over into other areas too, such as the regular cries for restrictions on speech by supposedly wounded individuals, including religious types as has been written about on other posts.

    The most dangerous area where risk aversion has crept in, however, is the armed forces. We went to war in Kosovo with a refusal to commit ground troops for fear of casualties, we refused to allow planes to fly below 30,000 ft and we declined to hit 'non-military' targets such as roads, bridges and power stations. The war was only won (I don't think it should have been fought at all, but that's for another day) because the Serbs became convinced that NATO would after all commit ground troops. The reluctance to do so ab initio was a result, no doubt, not simply of our squemishness at the prospect of casualties but some realism on the part of generals who knew that soldiers raised on European working hours, health and safety at work and the like were not the sorts to engage in some gruesome hand to hand combat on mountainsides or in cities. (Fortunately for the British, they had an exception – the Ghurkhas – but they've been criminally run down over the past few years.) And in Iraq we spend the time berating ourselves over supposed brutality of a few soldiers here and there while we are facing an enemy quite prepared to cut off the heads of innocent civilians and record it on the internet.

    I find all this particularly ironic since the current generation feels very smug about knocking our forefathers. While we should be proud of not having coal miners working in dangerous conditions for all hours of the days and nights, the Victorians might wonder why they could rule a quarter of the globe but we are struggling with one small province in one small country. They built great railways – complete with glorious bridges – across the world whilst we can't get one rail network to work properly in Britain and have long since lost most of the manufacturing industries.

    I find our current propensity to indulge in historical self-flagellation particularly annoying and so (I know I'm diverging here sorry, and indeed I'm self-publicising) wrote to the Times about this: link

    Some think otherwise: link I'd be interested to know what Warwick bloggers think. Perhaps that's a point for another blog.

    Visiting Athiest is right that the courts take some responsibility for this, but they are by no means the sole cause. Lawyers reflect society as much as shape it. I think you are crediting them with too much influence. Rather, the lack of respect taught by parents or schools is eqaully responsible, as Sarah says, as are the media, politicians and chattering classes in general.

    13 Apr 2006, 11:10

  3. James

    This is of course the Sarah Nicholson Blog, certainly not the James Blog, so I've no wish to deluge everyone with my ramblings, but this particular thread raises subjects I'm quite interested in (and, truth be told, I'm killing time waiting for a friend to finish so we can go to the second best curry house in England & Wales), so I thought readers might be interested in the following: link

    While I respect Bennion's view, I think he makes the same mistake that Visting Athiest does. We should remember that – like it or not – lawyers and courts are part of society and can't be blamed wholly for it.

    13 Apr 2006, 12:07

  4. Hmmm, I'm intrigued – which is the second best curry house in England and Wales???

    Another facet of this subject is the extent to which we feel to need to explain away every physical and psychological problem by labelling it as another medical disorder. There are many who feel that conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder are merely an official label to excuse a badly-behaved child. There is a current story on the BBC website about drugs companies overemphasising the prevalence of some disorders and inventing new ones so that the public will feel they need the medication produced to treat them: 'disease mongering', as New Scientist's editor puts it.

    13 Apr 2006, 14:42

  5. James

    Temple Bar, off Fetter Lane in London. It's been knocking around various addresses in the vicinity for decades, according to my sources. Ever reliable menu, quick service at lunch and they've even a special place to put a noisy group on a Friday night. Other contenders: Bengal Clipper by Shad Thames, just by Tower Bridge, and its companion restaurant by Liverpool St; and the legendary Dulwich Tandoori on Lordship Lane.

    13 Apr 2006, 16:05

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