Friday, 12 August 2011

#UKriots: A personal timeline and call for some rationality.

The big news story at the moment, probably in some small part related to but currently eclipsing the global financial "whoops," is the little breakdown in law and order in the UK, where the world is now observing that America and Arab, African and poor countries have no monopoly on rioting and looting.

Human behaviour is never simple, and society is never a simple collection of humans. Perhaps more hopeful than the riots are depressing is the way there has been a flowering of community togetherness in the form of broom brigades and support, with twitter hashtags spawning off to help people coordinate help for the aged, disabled and infirm.

@debcha: Urban rioting existed before social media. You know what didn't? Large-scale community cleanups, organized within hours.

But inevitably there have been arguments over causes and responsibility and what the proper response is.

My own opinions here are informed by having worked with the under- and un-privileged and studying enough Psychology to be very, very cautious whenever anybody emphatically states a simple concept as an ultimate truth.

Ever since the rioting began I have been struck by how everybody has, once again, been talking at cross-purposes with broad, sweeping generalisations and, because I can't help myself, I have been getting increasingly annoyed by the lack of actual debate.

Early on Thursday evening I was inspired to spurt out this frustrated little ditty on Facebook, under the heading:

Riots: The difference between "excuse" and "explanation" is insight

Here is the the problem with the most basic, and common, reaction to rioting:

Saying "They don't have the right to smash up other people's stuff," or "Alienation is not an excuse," ignores the following:

1. People need to know they don't have the right to bash, smash or steal.
2. People need to care about that, and let it drive their behaviour.

From what I'm hearing, a lot of people feel there's an entire generation in the UK (since, oh, Margaret Thatcher was in power) who haven't been given a reason to know or care. This is a failing in society. It's not an excuse, it's not permission, it's not even a mitigating factor, but IT IS A FAILING IN SOCIETY.

It was a development of what I had said to close the previous depressing evening of being involved in the publication of depressing news:

I sometimes wonder what simple change in people's minds would produce the best, most wide-spread, positive change. Tonight I'm thinking it's the ability to understand the difference between "explanation" and "excuse", and start talking about appropriate responses to each.

Throughout the night, I keep up a running stream of tweets and FB updates as instant reactions occurred to me.

A rough timeline of my other efforts looks like this, oldest first (my apologies for not linking directly to individual tweets, mine or anyone else's: I can't work out how to get the link out of Twitter's website right now, useless pack of ----): 

  1. If a society does not provide support to those who need it, it can not expect those people to support it.
  2. The word "draconian" is leaping energetically and irresistibly to mind.   
  3. What depresses me the most about the world right now is not the economy or the riots in the UK. It's the government response to the 
  4. Suddenly, I am beginning to see why Britain tends to produce dystopian SF like 1984 and V for Vendetta.
  5. Someone tell David Cameron 1984 wasn't written as a manual, guide or handbook.  (retweeted four times, by complete strangers)
  6. The country that produced V for Vendetta will use 1984 as a manual because it failed to realise the lessons in Lord of the Flies. #UKriots
  7. It seems UK parliamentarians are proposing to respond to violence arising from extreme alienation and disenfranchisement by alienating people more and de-enfranchising them further.
  8. Fuck humanity, bring on the genetically engineered apes.
  9. The most effective law and order intervention I've ever heard of was an advocacy and support service, not extra laws or police. 
And among the tweets I retweeted, this:

RT @kim_harding: Norway 92 kids killed & they call for more democracy. London riots & the they call for a clamp down on human rights...

I also, flippantly but bitterly, said this:

I am disappointed I have not seen a Guy Fawkes mask on a rioter yet. Mind you, that would require an education ...

Which sparked a discussion including the point that access to education is one of the problems, wherein I clarified that:

What concerns me is problems seem to be arising long before "tertiary" education is even an issue. These people have given up hope before getting to high school.


Maybe if these youth had been given more youth workers and programs they might have produced the next batch of Alan Moores, Sex Pistols and Monty Pythons instead of several billion dollars of insurance bills and a clogged criminal justice system where courts are working 24 hours to clear the backlog.

No matter how critical is personal responsibility, and not matter how inexcusable it is to bash other people, rob them, damage and loot stores, any discussion needs to come back to: Why are people doing this? Why are they not stopping themselves? What bit of their brain is not stepping in to say "Hang on, that's not on"? What's the difference between the looters and the broom brigaders?

On Wednesday night on Lateline, lifelong Tottenham resident and youth worker Clasford Stirling (isn't that a great name?) said:

You know, and this tension has been going on for a very long time. So, to see the youths acting in that way was not a surprise to myself and some of the workers that work with young people.

And in the last eight months - a year to eight months, there's been this added pressure of services being cut, families - people in families losing their jobs, and just the whole pressure of society.

And I think it's all come to a head now, because the unemployment, especially in Tottenham, is absolutely horrendous for young people. And if you're a young person who has, for whatever reason, got yourself in trouble, you are not going to get a job.


Well, I'm glad [UK prime minister David Cameron] said that: that they think the world owes them something. Well, I'm telling you, David Cameron, that the world does owe them something.

These are young people. They want to work, they want to be educated - all these things that we have to do to make them better citizens. These things are being taken away bit by bit.

Please note, before accusing him of defending the indefensible, he also said:

I'm not for one saying that myself or anybody condones what a lot of them have done as regards to burning people's property and looting. And I think the people that I've spoken to in my community have echoed the words that I hope they're dealt with severely.


I think, yes, we do have to get tough with them. I don't agree with now that people like myself and other people's got to pay for all this damage. I think come down heavy on those looters that are caught, and even if it takes their whole life to pay back some of the money, that's what the Government should be looking at. Yes, come down tough.

Two ends of the issue: Give people an opportunity to become a "productive member of society", then be strict if they reject it. But who's going to be surprised if, not given an opportunity to do good, they do bad?

Then, a different perspective, from sociologist Professor Ellis Cashmore on Lateline Thursday night:

I would actually call it cannibalism more than [rioting] ...


I really do think that this is commodity-driven kind of phenomenon at the moment. I stress again: it is not rioting. It's young people eating up their own neighbourhoods.

It disappointed me, I have to say, that Lateline host Tony Jones didn't ask a sociologist why social behaviour was breaking down, what was enabling this - particularly as Tony had interviewed Clasford Stirling just the night before.

However these two perspectives really do highlight what for me, as you may have gathered if you've actually been reading all the way down, is the issue:

People are cannibalising their own neighbourhoods, beating their neighbours, and even telling people "This is my banker's bonus!"

Why are they not not doing this? Anything can spark a demonstration, particularly among the bored and the angry, but what sort of absence of moral opinion or presence of huge resentment has lead to this? 

Let me be very clear: I have worked with the unprivileged and the angry, the mental health patients with nothing and the drug addicts with self-induced mental health conditions, and we saw negative behaviours and we tolerated none of it. We understood, we identified the sources of their frustrations and, from outside unable to help, shared many of them, but we tolerated none of it on our neutral territory.

If I come across as ignoring the criminality in the search for an explanation, it's because I was feeling overwhelmed by the anger and by kneejerk reactions. The behaviour I have seen sickens me and my first reaction is to lock the lot of them up. I just don't think it would do anyone any good at all - not the looters, not the UK taxpayers, not UK society.

So don't go shouting you can't excuse this behaviour by looking for any explanation beyond David Cameron's crashingly bone-headed "pure criminality": We're not trying to.

Clasford Stirling, not the best public speaker, not the most coherent or the most considered, talked about a struggle to provide young people with any sense of hope and future at all. Professor Cashmore waved away suggestions of real poverty by talking about the welfare state, but try telling that to someone who find themselves unemployable and needs food stamps to survive while all around billboards advertise nice cars driven by the well-dressed to the Michelin-starred restaurants.

It's all very well pointing out the inanely obvious "They have to help themselves up!" but they need, at the very least, a fucking ladder.

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