Humankind exhibits many different characteristics, and it is sometimes informative to consider how those can be categorised.

Some people, for example, will be extroverts, others introverts, some romantics and others realists, some optimists, others pessimists.

There is another - and, I think, important - distinction. Imagine you and your friends or family are on a car journey and have just eaten a takeaway meal as you travel.

What do you do with the wrappings? Do you take them home with you or do you throw them out of the window?


If the latter, I maintain that you fall into the category of the socially unaware and irresponsible - that is, those who think only of their own immediate interests and care little, or not at all, for the interests of others or for the standards of the society in which they live.

Mrs Thatcher, of course, famously (or notoriously) maintained that "there is no such thing as society", thereby aligning herself, no doubt unwittingly, with the litterers.

But most of us know better, and understand that if we recognise the rights and interests of others, we will find that the society in which we all live will be healthier, stronger and happier, and that, as a result, our individual lives will also be better and happier, not least because we are more likely to find support when we need it and will need to deal less often with the destructive actions of the anti-social.

Thankfully, judging by the reasonably litter-free state of our roadsides compared with those in other countries, we in New Zealand are a reasonably responsible lot - and that is what our own history and culture would lead us to expect.

But a visit to any site where travellers habitually stop and spend any time will reveal that we also have our share of the socially irresponsible.

These thoughts were prompted by the recent reports of young people in Kaikohe, acting in gangs to rob stores and break into petrol stations.

Quite understandably, local citizens are outraged at such a blatant disregard for the expected norms and standards, and many have described the perpetrators as acting outside of society and living in a social milieu which just does not recognise normal standards.

Perhaps, however, we should reflect that our membership of society is based on an unspoken bargain - that we owe a duty to society and its members because society looks out for us.


That bargain breaks down if society makes it clear that it accepts no responsibility for some of its members.

If society takes the view, expressed through the institutions it chooses to represent it, that some of its members are "on their own", and do not merit society's care and support, then we cannot be surprised if those people decide to act without regard to society's interests and standards.

So, if young people find that society takes no action to ensure that they are well-educated, healthy, and well-housed and that they have good prospects of a productive life in a properly paid job, - and that it doesn't even bother to police them effectively - anti-social behaviour may seem like a rational and morally justified response.

And if the rejoinder is made that these desirable outcomes are earned only by individual effort, then this disclaimer simply confirms the perception that society gives no value to these young people and is not willing to make an effort to help them - and it overlooks the fact that it is society that decides how the cards are dealt, and the extent to which individual achievement, even for the privileged, depends on societal support.

The problem is compounded when a generation that has itself been undervalued and abandoned then brings up a new generation and tells them in effect that they owe nothing to anyone and can, therefore, operate outside normal society.

We reap, in other words, what we sow. Yes, society does matter. It matters whether rubbish is thrown out on the road. It matters whether society recognises its responsibilities to all its citizens. It matters whether or not all our fellow citizens have a stake in what we build together. It matters, whether they recognise it or not, to the young people of Kaikohe.