Wednesday, 10 August 2011

August Riots: Sous les pavés, la plage

I was visiting the US for the first time when the Brixton riots happened, so there's some element of déjà vu as I wonder what future historians will make of our current curiously British evènements. Perhaps it’s too early to say anything until after Thursdays grève generale, but here goes.

No excuses — Violence against innocent people and gang thuggery is a matter for the full rigour of the law, and no amount of sociologizing it away will help its innocent victims — vulnerable people of all ages whose lives are tarnished by fear, who have nothing to gain from what is going on, and whose anxieties and issues are of no interest to the probably surprisingly small gangs driving all this.

I feel very sorry for members of the Police Service, no crew of plaster saints, but by and large good and decent people whose function in British society seems to be either lightning conductors or ham in the sociological sandwich.The only thing worse for them to be seen to be dong than nothing, is anything; and everyone's a ruddy expert on what they ought to have done. So I'll rejoice in my ignorance about the localities and pragmatics, and just voice what I know the vast majority of people will offer, thoughts and prayers for those at the sharp end of sorting the whole bloody mess out.

Some historians of France point out that rioting in nineteenth century Paris sometimes happened because ripping up pavé stirred memories of earlier and more stirring times — a ghost image in the collective mind that bubbled up surprisingly often when the forces of law and order were out of town. But that of course is the French for you.

The adjective the English use is “mindless.” On one level it's true, of course. Generally low levels of intelligence are at work here, and misdirected youthful testosterone, catalysed by a desire for significance on any terms, no doubt. However, as a sage churchwarden used to remind me frequently, things do happen for reasons. Reasons do call for understanding. It seems there’s a youth and gang culture in some urban areas that is deeply disturbing and needs to be understood then challenged at a very basic level.

Two big historic structural questions marks lurk in the background.

One is about social purpose. In the last century, young men derived a sense of larger purpose from progress, then Empire, then war, then having saved Freedom, then the white heat of technology, then help yourself loadsamoney Thatcherism, then celebrity, then... ? There's a vacuum out there. Some wheels are wobbling on the axle if not clean off the wagon.

If the only point of being alive is to have designer things and feed your face and get away with it, and that’s pretty much the only public belief we own up to, people without stuff will pinch it when the constraints come down. Looting offers a radical form of selfishness, banality and materialism. British secular society is profoundly uninspiring. People see those in high places helping themselves, and leaders who have abandoned as obsolete the notion that “Thou shalt not steal” as part of the bedrock of life. If it is no more than a quaint conviction for a minority of religious people, here’s one result.

Secondly, the more unequal a society becomes, and we are currently shooting inequality rates that take us back to the nineteenth century, the more frustrated everybody becomes at one level or another — a point well made by The Spirit Level. Subterranean violence, born of boredom, social humiliation and frustration, will out in bad ways as well as ambitious ones.

When it does criminal behaviour should, of course, be met with the full rigour of the law. But is it too much to hope that someone will pick over the history of the past few days sometime when it becomes possible to do this, address the Moral Vacuum it indicates, and draw from it raw materials for a strategy of reinspiration as well as anger and mere containment?


Ray Barnes said...

Many of us have already had much to say about this situation, but you raise one particular point which, for me seems to be a crucial one.
Your point about the inequality of our society at this time seems to me to be particularly valid.
The rift between the haves and havenots is greater than for many years.
I remember well the immediate post 2nd world-war period and the social gap at that time was immense, with one very significant difference.
There was a commonality of purpose, a feeling that all of us were aiming for a common goal, which is signally lacking in the current series of rioting, looting etc.
Not so much mindless violence as a seriously aimless drifting self-obsessed generation without not only a common goal, but no goal at all.
How to reach these disaffected individuals and give them a sense of self-value and purpose is another matter.

UKViewer said...

Excellent post and breakdown of the issues. I had a start similar to most of those young people, leaving school completely unqualified, working in an unskilled job, but I made a life changing decision and joined the Army.

The Army is not an easy life, it demands much of you, constant separation affects family life, and demanding tours are the reality of life. But it also gives you something back. And Education of sorts (how to kill people, but only in accordance with the Geneva Conventions), self respect, self discipline, self reliance and team work, the essential wheels that the Army runs on. I could also say, obedience, but actually, self discipline covers it better.

You have an aim and objective in life, which is the team, the Regiment, the Country you defend. It has values and standards, which are set higher than the civilian norm, and you give up your freedom to behave as you want, for the greater good.

Somewhere, I can see things that are missing from the lives of today's youth. The question I ask myself, is how we can bring them into their lives, without conscription, but someone said on another blog, that Compulsory National Community Service would be one way of achieving this. I wonder..... Conscription for anything means involuntarily giving up freedom, while we have a Volunteer Army, who choose to give it up. A hard question, but, it might be some sort of solution. And, would fit in very well to DC's Big Society Ideal.

Where could the Church fit into this? I think that with some imagination, the voluntary sector could really work well in this area. It would need resourcing, but surely that's better than keeping people on benefits, with no prospect of a future.

Hope is the only thing we have, hope that our country will become a bit more enlightened and reach out to the young and disadvantaged in our society.

Laura Sykes said...

"needs to be understood then challenged at a very basic level."

I think the first reaction of all Christian liberals to the riots has been a bewildered attempt to understand - the many eye-witness accounts suggest that the rioters are not poor (except perhaps in comparison to the world of 'Hello' magazine). 'Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner' is in our bones.

But of course you are right that the next stage must be to go on to challenge that culture. And that is the difficulty. Knowing that it needs to be done is not the same as knowing how to do it, but at least it gives us something to aim for.

Thank-you for your leadership.

Erika Baker said...

It's hard to know where to start when Hazel Blears pops up on the news after the Salford riots lecturing on appropriate and responsible behaviour. And no-one bats an eyelid.

But the broom people - they were there too. I was hugely encouraged by the passion and positive attitude especially of the young people there.

That, at least, is grounds for hope.

themethatisme said...

The 'how' is relatively simple. What is not nor ever has been is the political will for the wherewithal to enable the how.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post - and I hope we can have a real informed debate about the damage this selfish, greedy, vain, materialistic culture is doing to us all and the damage caused by inequality. We need to pray and then work for a better society rather than grapple fro easy answers as in parliament yesterday,

Robert Dimmick said...

Yes, it is accurate to classify much of what has happened as "criminal". But there are reasons why this has happened now. As you say:
People see those in high places helping themselves, and leaders who have abandoned as obsolete the notion that “Thou shalt not steal” as part of the bedrock of life.

For a minority of people, what matters is getting hold of stuff, regardless of how you do it or whose stuff it is or who pays. Some of this minority break into shops. Some of them run banks. Some of them are captains of industry who set their own salary or bonus, or have it done by a friend whose back they scratch. Some of them fiddle their expenses (and if they aren't MPs, probably get away with it).

If you want stuff, the proper way to get it (if you can't inherit it) is to work. But for some people that's just not an option. There are no jobs. Or the jobs require more education than they bothered to get. Or the jobs don't go to people who have a record. And the government's policies are designed to reduce the number of jobs.

They also cut youth services, so young people have less to do. They cut education maintenance allowance, so they have less chance of higher education. They push up university fees. They set up "free" schools that will drive down standards in the schools that are already struggling.

With all that going on, it's not surprising that people are angry and frustrated. Of course they shouldn't take it out by rioting. They ought to join a political party or write to a newspaper.

But hang on, the parties and the newspapers are doing all they can to destroy each other's credibility.

God knows how we get out of this!

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Many thansk for shar and perceptive ways forward. I think we have to distinguish "what needs to be done" from a systemic anaysis of what's gone wrong, although those two realities are closely related. I wonder, Robert, about the whole extent to which we have very few jobs now which people either want to do, or achieve anything tangible. So much is funny money and spurious economic activity, schemes, bandaids. I also read a challenge in your reaction about putting life back into our political processes rather than just seeing them as "them" who ought to sort it out for "us." I wish I knew, Laura, the most helpful points at which to challenge some of the culture's assumptions. I suspect we will reveal them by enacting something better rather than reacting negatively to their emptiness. UKV I often felt exactly what you say when I worked in a prison. We were spending (in those days) 20K a yr turning out designer criminals, when a decent experience of corporate responsibility, often not gained from home, might get us far further. Ray, I come back to the Spirit Level point because it works directly and provably, not only between nations but even more accurately between states of the US, with comparable data collection. Equality is not some soggy Liberal being nice to people; operating within a Nordic style distribution curve seems to be a basic discipline for social functioning anywhere near our best!

Erika Baker said...

The comment that has shocked me most came from a magistrate who said that only 1 of the underage people before her court for rioting was accompanied by a parent. The parents of a 14 year old girl were "too busy" to be there.

How is this linked with money? Where does that level of alienation between parents and children come from?

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