King Hits and the fear of death

The O’Farrell government’s incoming lockout and sentencing laws in response to “King Hits” are ill-conceived and groundless. They are ineffective solutions to a problem that barely exists. And, just like other moral panics throughout the ages, they bring out the worst in us.

You can always tell the media is brewing a bullshit story when it describes the reaction to a couple of deaths as an event of national mourning. Perhaps this is a good place to begin this critique- death. Conservatives are driven by that irrational force present in all of us- the fear of death. While many have learned to harvest that sentiment as a motivator to engage in beautiful and ethical projects that will outlast their lifetimes, the conservative sensibility responds to it by controlling and holding ever more strongly on to those things in which it places value, in blind belief that death is something that one can guard against. There must be some way to hold back these marauding skull-crushers; one’s life does not depend on the whim of uncontrollable forces.

The problem is that in this age, our lives often rest on such whims. Globalization, along with the greater interdependence and specialization of global economy and society, have brought with them risks that are often almost impossible to quantify or even respond to. In the face of this disavowed helplessness, conservatives adopt ever more specific and vindictive policies to assume a semblance of control over their lives. Or else they hoard wealth, and cultural and social capital, as a way of refining their semblance of immortality, like a first-class passenger enjoying the deluxe service as a temporary reprieve from awareness of the 10,000 metres to fall between the aeroplane and the ground.

Unprovoked acts of violence by rowdy groups of drunk, (mostly) young people fall somewhere in between an uncontrollable consequence of rapid changes in urban structure and sub-cultural dynamics, and poor decision-making by particular individuals that can be vindictively punished. So it is the perfect target for older conservatives seeking refuge from the multifarious risks of modern life and from their own frailty.

And it is no coincidence that this fear is directed against the young, who are, through their contemporary personal development, more adept at engaging directly with the uncontrollable forces of modern life, yet are viewed as having a less refined and more precarious relationship with death, like zombies attempting to crawl up one’s ivory tower. These policies are directed towards them as collective incentives which appeal to an assumed order of moral righteousness and discipline, without addressing the irrational decision-making processes that lead to such violence. These policies target young people as little more than faceless populations, assuming the structure of what Foucault calls biopower.

Adam Brereton, in one of the best articles to come out of this scandal, frames this most eloquently as a case of conservative disapproval of young people’s enjoyment outside of set boundaries. Conservatives insist on demonising a form of enjoyment- that of young people- which takes place irrespective of whatever futile boundaries we draw around our normal lives, as it threatens their form of enjoyment in gilded cages sheltered from death. Their only natural response is to redraw the boundaries, which of course bears little change to youth culture and its mode of enjoyment, other than to provoke more instances of its occasional excesses as its violent elements are pushed even further from those areas where they can be mitigated.

Yet the reaction in other sectors has been just as appalling. The idea that we can change something simply by giving it a different name represents the greatest arrogance of the post-modern left, and it is most clearly exemplified in the re-labelling of “King Hits” as “Coward Punches”, regardless of any pretenses of bringing about a long-term cultural change. All this does is concede ground to conservatives who insist on labelling people instead of focusing on the values that should drive our behaviour in these matters. We must accept that these acts of violence and the individuals who perpetrate them are not some exception that falls outside our way of life, but rather an unfortunate consequence of forces largely outside our control. Once we come to terms with this aspect of the modern world, maybe we’ll be better equipped to deal with the forces we can control.

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