If we’re to believe the media, young people are getting worse and worse—stupider, coarser and more violent. However, as a father of two socially active teenage girls, and as an occasional teacher, I have to say that my experience is exactly the opposite: the high level of courtesy, empathy and general good-naturedness among young people continues to surprise me. What makes people behave well?
I once knew a wonderful commune—40 or so people—which conducted its affairs according to strict anarchist principles. All issues were thrashed out over the muesli, and things ran pretty well. Later I got to know a similarly sized commune which operated from almost the opposite philosophy: there was an authoritarian boss, and there were underlings. Oddly enough, it too ran pretty well. All issues were also thrashed out over the muesli.
I surmised that world peace might be down to the right breakfast choices, but now I think the key was scale. Those groups were small enough for everybody to know everybody else, so what really kept them in order was not the particular set of principles they espoused, but the ever-operating human instincts for honour and shame—for reputation. Honour and shame, not law, are the real constraints among people who know each other. So long as there is a tangible community—where everyone knows everyone else—people tend to behave better.
A concrete example is eBay: sellers are rated by buyers, and that rating is attached to their names for future reference. Your reputation as a seller is expressed in just one number. Perhaps what we’re seeing now, with the ubiquity of social networking, is an expansion of this: the globalisation of honour and shame. How you behave, and who you are seen to be, is increasingly a matter of public record. Your reputation follows you—and now it isn’t just round the village.