The Herald undertook a survey that showed the degree of disunity felt in New Zealand. It found that the country is feeling increasingly divided. Could this be related to recent spikes in crime?
The distribution of wealth, the inequalities in the housing market, and our Covid response are players in a growing sense of a country deeply divided. But if we look back at history to the 1970s, we can see another period when we were equally divided as a country. Although there were different issues then and now, there is one thing in common - increasing crime.
Underpinned by the flagging economy and oil shocks during the 1970s, the country was awash with protest movements. Anti-nuclear, apartheid South Africa, the feminist movement, Māori land issues, the Vietnam War. Many were local concerns, but reflected wildfires of social change that were burning across the world. Even seemingly unique issues like the Māori renaissance were parallelled in international issues like US civil rights.
As protest movements spread throughout the western world, respected conservative commentator William Buckley described it as a “contagion of protest”.
This was in part because technological advancements in jet air travel allowed for greater movement, and the widespread availability of televisions brought international events to New Zealand and made them feel more real. Just as it was then, new internet technologies are now driving a deeper consumption of news and events, connecting people around the world.
With exceptions around Covid and transgender issues, many of the current protests happen in chat rooms online rather than on university campuses or public places. But they are happening, and many are quietly violent.
The movements in the 1970s were largely left-wing notions, and the issues today are more on the right. This makes no difference to my thesis, that unhappy - even militant - elements are highly destabilising.
When I reflected on the 1970s during my research on gangs, which were growing strongly during the 1970s, I concluded that the increased social unrest was perhaps bolstering the gangs’ anti-social outlook. With waves of people across New Zealand confronting the police, calling them “pigs” and railing against the Government in hostile ways, the anti-social views of the gangs were validated, and therefore fertilising their behaviour.
This was a time when the gangs were primarily made up of young people, and youth crime generally during the 1970s was on a tear upwards.
Today, after a two-decade long downward trend, we are seeing an uptick in youth crime. In some communities where there is great anger at the Government as well as notions that shady elites are manipulating things against them, a green light for crime is given. Just like a specific crowd that builds a certain tension will riot, so too do communities. When people don’t feel invested, are suspicious of others and feel put down, they have little reason to conform to social norms.
I’m not saying that a fraying of social cohesion is entirely to blame here. Far from it. Many of the factors that have bred that lack of cohesion are almost certainly driving forces of the crime issue. Growing inequalities in a cost-of-living crisis and the housing market locking people out of something previous generations took for granted are real issues that have merged with conspiratorial thinking that entered the mainstream in the wake of the Covid response.
It’s quite the cocktail. And this is leaving our society feeling fractured, and many elements angry, which is likely, in my opinion, simply having an amplifying effect.
Where all of this leaves us is a little unclear. Societies tend to move in cycles, and this one, like many, isn’t just local but international. But one thing is quite certain: no amount of ankle bracelets or prison cells will solve it.
Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the Director of Independent Research Solutions and a sociologist at the University of Canterbury.