’There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of people in that society, who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don’t have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it.’ Martin Luther King, Jr.
There has been much analysis of the past extraordinary week in London and across the country, as we start to get to grips with several days of rioting, looting and social unrest. In a funny way, it has seemed as if the rest of life has been put on hold as we observe the emergence of an extraordinary narrative, albeit one which we struggle to pick apart given its complexity and variability.
And complex it undoubtedly is. Few people would disagree with the MLK quote above in principle, but whether it should be judged on a micro, personal level or or on a macro-economic or social level, there appear to be a huge raft of factors which need to be considered. Of course, that’s not stopped a cascade of opinion covering all sorts of different angles (and conjecture) pouring out across the debate, even as we are still discovering what has happened, who has been involved, how it has progressed and so on. Let me give a few examples.
Criminologist and ‘youth culture expert’ Professor John Pitts says the looting is ‘fuelled by social exclusion’. Mary Riddell in the Telegraph blames an indifferent political class and in particular the compounding factor of major recession, citing the fact that Tottenham has 10,000 people on Job Seekers Allowance and 54 applicants to every available job. Behind this scenario, she quotes J K Galbraith on the parallel circumstances of the 1929 economic crash: ‘bad income distribution, a business sector engaged in ‘corporate larceny’, a weak banking structure and an import/export imbalance’ and reminds us that Adam Smith ‘recognised…a well-ordered society [cannot] develop when a sizeable number of its members are miserable and, as a consequence, dangerous’. Stafford Scott in the Guardian suggests ‘deep problems in our youth were being ignored as a black problem’ and goes on to point the finger at ongoing historical social injustices, government cuts, withdrawing Educational Maintenance Allowance payments, the raising of tuition fees and high youth unemployment as factors ‘add[ing] to their sense of isolation and lack of a stake in society’. Philip Blond blames social libertarianism and neo-liberalism.
This is only the beginning, though. Graeme Baker, the News Editor of the New Zealand Herald, blames neo-liberal dogma, consumerism and individualism
. Andrew Bower levels accusations at the abandonment of morality and a pervasive culture of ‘human rights’
. Zac Goldsmith MP blames policing policy
. Boris Johnson also blames policing policy
. Steve Brewer, writing for the Huffington Post
, suggests we may be seeing ‘the long awaited proletariat uprising’. Paul Lewis and James Harkin describe what they observed simply as ‘unadulterated, indigenous anger and ennui’
. A friend of mine on Facebook says ‘they just want to get stuff for free’. Danny Kruger, of hug-a-hoodie fame, blames ‘a narrative of unfairness’ emerged from a ‘wider culture…[that] has abandoned virtue and adopted the ethics of indifference, dressed as liberalism’
. Melanie Philips doesn’t let us down by pointing the finger squarely at ‘a three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value’
, and in particular ‘[t]he married two-parent family, educational meritocracy, the punishment of criminals, national identity, enforcement of the drugs laws and many more fundamental conventions’. Not to forget the rise of welfare dependency. Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail blames immigration
. Esther Addley reports anger towards a combination of cuts to youth services and stop and search tactics by the police
. Ed Miliband blames gangs
. David Cameron blames gangs
. Labour councillor Meric Apak blames ‘the minority who simply refuse to accept that wrong is wrong’
. Katharine Birbalsingh blames MTV Base.
The mind boggles. That’s a lot of blame. Clearly, there are a lot of reasons this happened. There are a lot of people at fault. Typically, the reasons and the people to blame are different from those articulating them. Of course, some I agree with more, some less (some not at all). We must problematise each assertion. We must ask questions about what is symptom and what is cause, what is manifestation and what is paradigm. I personally thought that Will Davies’ piece, ‘London riots: the limits of Left and Right’
was excellent, and thoroughly recommend reading it. I also think that we’ve had far too much from everywhere but young people. But those are just my opinions.
Several weeks ago, when Anders Behring Breivik massacred 76 people in Norway, the world watched as its people responded with extraordinary dignity and integrity. Anger was palpable, but talk of retribution was strangely absent. In fact, many people I follow on Twitter and across the media quoted Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg with admiration: ‘Our response is more democracy, more openness and more humanity.’ Examples were given of our own and other governments, past and present, using rhetoric which was quite simply embarrassing and tribal in light of this response.
The issues which have given rise to these circumstances are truly complex and in many ways seemingly intractable. The cocktail of the individual, the local, the political, the social and the societal conflate to create a melting pot in which nobody can be proved wrong, nor can they be proved right. The anecdotal holds more power than the rational, the ability to weave words together more important than the commitment to seek truth.
It is something we are not very good at: reflecting on what has happened, taking personal and collective responsibility, giving the time required to formulate appropriate responses, learning and listening from each other. Our desire for quick fixes and aversion to reflection is matched and compounded by the unhelpful structure and culture of our politics. Our use of language is deterministic, conflictual and closes down debate. Even this conversation evidences the absence of dialogue in a fragmented society.
We must resist the desire to demonise or explain away. We must reject simplistic soundbites and externalising responsibility. We must look inside ourselves and our institutions and our shared life rather than use this as an opportunity to further promote our own mantras and long-held beliefs. This applies to us all, to the 100%. It certainly applies to the voluntary sector, to those of us working with children and young people.
We have caught a glimpse of the ugly underside of reality, and our separate analyses are woefully inadequate. If we take the opportunity to soulsearch together, we may have a chance of a brighter, better future. If not, we will never grow up.