I don’t pretend to have the answers to the rioting, but I do know the right questions

Yesterday I wrote that at the root of the looting and disturbances across our cities lies a crude and simple human emotion: greed. An emotion that has become the key driver of our culture, of our economy, of our personal sense of success, and even of our existential purpose. But greed is mediated through our cultural norms, our intellectual hegemony, and our social structures. As we move beyond licking our collective wounds, we will need to address how to change, and what to do to redirect our social, economic and spiritual (not in a necessarily religious sense) course. To do that, we need to answer the right questions, those that get at the causes and the fundamentals of the malaise that the rioting and looting express. I offer below what I think some of these questions need to be. You will note, perhaps, that among them is not the question, “How can we give greater fire-power to the channels of law enforcement?” That’s both because I do not believe that the question is a very helpful one, and also because almost everyone else is asking it, and answering it in frankly terrifying ways, already.

  • The looting and rioting have given many young people a sense of liberated empowerment, of thrill, of danger, of simple collective and shared excitement. All young people need these things, and they are not bad things to want or to experience. How can we provide these things in legitimate and socially beneficial ways?
  • In a similar way, the gangs and informal connections between many of the young people who’ve been involved in the unrest seem to be providing a substitute sense of belonging, support and identity that, again, all young people need for their health and development. How do we provide these things in a society where for some youngsters the traditional channels of family and community have become disrupted and less effective?
  • Notwithstanding the undoubted power of “the herd mentality”, it is of course obviously the case that decisions about how to behave are taken by individuals. It is clear that the place of personal morality and responsibility in the minds of the young looters is weak or non-existent. How can we address this moral vacuum?
  • The young people taking part in these events have an entirely reckless attitude to their own personal futures and real interests. They feel that they have nothing to lose, and plenty to gain, from looting and mayhem. How can we persuade them that they really do have a future worth pursuing?
  • I’ve been struck by the explanations of their behaviour given by the looters themselves to journalists covering the events. A theme running through these responses has been a brazen defiance along the lines of, “There’s nothing you can do to stop me, and I’ll continue until you can.” I suspect that this is not unique to the young rioters. It’s pretty much the same explanation that politicians gave for their expenses fraud, that phone hacking journalists gave for their activities, that financial markets are giving to governments. Always the responsibility is being batted back to those who want to constrain, and denied by those who seem to feel that unless something is prohibited, it must therefore be permitted. How do we shift the sense of responsibility back?

The last question sums up why I have not included any question here about how the forces of law and order can be beefed up. Unless we want to live in the kind of authoritarian society that North Korea symbolises, it is simply not possible to rely on the imposition of restraint from authority outside our own heads. But if we don’t want a militarised police force, we must all restrain ourselves. We cannot keep 16,000 police officers constantly on London’s streets. We don’t want to see rubber bullets or water cannon, unless we’re unhinged or seduced by the rhetoric of punishment and revenge. The answers we have to seek are those that will instil in our young people self-control, and self esteem. Repression does neither.

And so my message to politicians is to please stop your macho posturing, please stop fantasising about the omnipotence of the criminal justice system, and most of all, please stop repeating the same old platitudes. Instead, have the courage to ask the right questions. Then we might have some small chance at least of finding the right answers.

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8 thoughts on “I don’t pretend to have the answers to the rioting, but I do know the right questions

  1. I Like the post and you seem to at least be asking some sensible thought provoking questions. Personally I am still trying to make sense of what has happened/is happening. I am waiting for the first politician to say it is all because not enough parents get married! I am slightly nervous about the debate in the commons tomorrow – how long will it take before they retrench into the old left / right rhetoric.

  2. I agree with almost every word. My only quibble is slight, but it’s about the idea that it’s wrong to assume something is ‘permitted’ unless it’s explicitly prohibited.

    I think that we *should* be able to assume that something is permitted unless it’s explicitly prohibited. I want to live in a society where I can exercise my agency without the state telling me at every stage what the parameters are.

    But perhaps we’re in agreement anyway, because all the example you have given are of things that are prohibited, either in law (phone hacking) or policy (MPs expenses). So I think I want to live in a society where we can do what we choose unless it is prohibited, but where prohibitions are generally self-policed (i.e. We take responsibility for our actions and the consequences) rather than being enforced by external powers. Does that make sense?

    • Apologies for not responding sooner to your thoughtful comment. And we do indeed end up pretty much in agreement. We are both acknowledging that we cannot constantly rely on someone else to tell us what is impermissible. Permission to act is more a moral issue than a legal one. And we need to police ourselves, rather than be policed.

  3. Pingback: In the long term fear can’t stop the riots: but hope just might « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog

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