Copycats in the news

Posted by on Apr 3, 2007 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments


Funny piece yesterday in the papers, blaming television (again) for the behavioural problems of the nation’s youth and the general slide towards what certain Senior Citizens in my family call “the Barbarians at the Gates” syndrome (world going to hell in handcart, decline of moral and cultural standards etc etc).

Featuring probably the most successful popular comedian in Britain – if popular is measured by how readily members of the public choose to copy the act: Catherine Tate’s Lauren embodies all of the disrespect and disdain for authority that so terrifies Middle England and thus makes her so popular with the adolescent rebellious mindset. (Her recent outings for the BBC”s Comic Relief included the acting debut of our own beloved PM). Her catchphrase, “(am I) bovvered” has even gone as far as being deemed word-of-the-year by the OED.

But yesterday’s piece is based on another piece of cod-research on behalf of the Association of teachers and Lecturers (whose conference is running this week). More than half of a sample of 500 teachers agreed that catchphrases from popular TV shows such as Tate’s and the Simpsons were used regularly by their pupils. Good work by the TV writers you might think – to create a ‘meme’ that works so well…

…but naturally, the point is not to praise such invention nor even to admire the mechanism that lies behind so much human behaviour (copying other people) and muse how this might be used for good; no, the point of the swervey (like a survey but without the open mind and objectivity that researchers insist on) is to blame TV for giving children bad role models (who don’t respect teachers):

One secondary school teacher in England said: “Comments like ‘Am I bovvered?’ and ‘Yeah, whatev-ah’ are terms that are used to insult. There is also too much swearing on television. It is used so much that it has no dramatic impact in a programme so children use swearing in everyday language as if it is normal. (from the Guardian)

And this obviously leads to violence.

“When on the Teachers programme a member of staff was slapped we had two examples of this in our school the next week. We never had this before in 30 years. Where else would this have come from? They acted as though it was acceptable” (from the Evening Standard)

Ralph Surman of the ATL (he teaches in a primary school in Nottinghamshire) sounds a happy fella when he explains what’s wrong:

“All of the violence and all of the issues that run through the soaps – they are the very things that are eating away at the fabric of our society. It creates endemic damage…(characters) always have low aspirations, they are uncaring, they don’t treat individuals very well – you’ve got anger, domestic violence….they are always shouting…” (Standard)

And he goes on…

“Children particularly cannot separate fantasy from reality – that’s why I call it soap opera syndrome. They don’t know what is real and what is not real. They all carry on like they are in Big Brother”

Now aside from the dubious social science (the survey would really be interesting if the fantasy-reality issue were really demonstrated but unfortunately there’s a whole postpiaget literature on the subject and from the little I have read, it would not tend to support this view any more) what strikes me about this is that a representative of the educational elite should have such a poor understanding of key features of human nature, and of how mass behaviour arises and is governed. Perhaps saddest of all is the thought that our education policies are being influenced by folk whose view of causal chains is as simple as:

TV shows disrespectful language + copycat kids = teachers being assaulted.

If things really worked this way, we might be more sound asking why all kids don’t end up in youth remand centres…they certainly see more violent stuff on TV and gaming consoles than we ever did and younger, too and yet very few of them ever get involved in this kind of stuff.

No, copying is what humans of all ages do – copying the behaviour of others around them (in this case of course embodied in a standardised and amusing TV expression which is really good for copying and repeating but it can also be ‘negative copying’ – doing the opposite). Children are particularly strong copycats (both positive and negative), that’s part of their job. The point is that as children try out behaviour they see around them (again a universal) they’re normally checked by the adults around them…and each other…

Seems like Surman is having a bit of trouble distinguishing reality from dvelopmental role-playing himself…

(Oh, and for all those who say mass communication is done and dusted, the example itself might serve as a little case study to shed some light on how mass communication has always worked…some behaviour revealed on a mainstream media channel gets copied because it’s socially useful for that individual in their social milieu – in this case, it’s a two-fingered salute to those in authority)


  1. Lee McEwan
    April 3, 2007

    To paraphrase Morrissey: “Belligerent ghouls
    Run [Nottinghamshire] schools
    Spineless swines
    Cemented minds
    Sir leads the troops
    Jealous of youth
    Same old suit since 1962”

  2. Mark Earls
    April 5, 2007

    Rock on, Lee