So many provisos before I start this post:
– first, it has very little to do with technology or with the future in any obvious way, but rather than start a new Posterous or Tumblr just for this braindump I thought I’d put it here
– second, I am keenly aware that (to my discredit) I know almost nothing about the lives of marginalised and poor young people, and that I am not qualified to speak about them or what motivates them. One thing I do think I know something about, though, is the English language and the ways in which it is used. So I am going to consider mainly the use of political language in relation to these events. Where I do make comments about the rioters/looters, I will try to defer to the opinions of those who actually know something about them – e.g. teachers, people who work with children and teenagers, social workers, etc…
– third, this is not about scoring points, not about raising one ideology over another – ideologies are broken (they have their uses, but they are broken, and break down, in the face of real problems). If I seem to be trying to score points for one ‘side’ or another, feel free to ignore everything I say on the subject. I’m actually not interested in ‘winning’ some imaginary political debate. I’m interested in trying to imagine how we can prevent these things happening again. There are lessons to be drawn (painful lessons) for both Left and Right, and if we fail to be humble and admit that we need to study these events and learn from them, I fear what may come next
– fourth, nothing I write should be interpreted as a justification of, or an excuse for, the riots, the looting or the appalling violence that has been carried out and that has damaged properties and put lives at risk.
– fifth, I am not dealing here with the protests following the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham last Thursday night. Those protests, and the reaction on all sides to Mr Duggan’s death, needs to be separated (though there are links) from a broader discussion of the riots that have taken place since and seem (on the face of it) to have little to do with protesting his killing
Our children and young people are the future of this country. It is incredibly sad and depressing (and a little terrifying) to see so many of them rioting, looting and rampaging through our city centres. It makes me angry to think of the damage they have done, and it appals me to think of the pain and suffering they have inflicted through their selfishness and greed on hard-working and innocent people.
But I start from this premise: without trying to understand why this might have happened, we cannot hope to prevent it from happening again.
If you do not agree with that premise, you will probably take issue with most of what I am about to write. I state the premise quite clearly at the beginning because I want my reasoning to be transparent.
The rhetoric of ‘mindless criminality’ and ‘criminality, pure and simple’ is designed to do several things: to refuse the rioters any explanation for what they do, to simplify (and therefore ignore) the problems that are the background to this behaviour, and to refuse to try to understand any cause these riots may have. It reassures people who want to see the violence and looting go away as quickly as possible. Politicians who use this type of language are doing so in an attempt to present themselves as sources of authority, moral rectitude, and ‘robust’ discipline. Changing the terms of debate from political ones to moral ones also defuses some of the dangers of this situation for them. If people are asking questions about the moral decay of our society, they will not be asking questions about the effectiveness of current policies and the government.
They seek to cut off the terms of debate, to appear dynamic and decisive (qualities that always poll well), not to get bogged down in detail. Detail, in our age of telegenic slogans, memes and permatanned TV sprites, is the devil. Just ask Obama and the Democrats. Watching the President trying to explain the long-term cost reduction benefits of the Affordable Healthcare act was like watching Richard Dawkins explain zygotic fission to a cow. Reducing moral complexity to simple absolutes, to binaries, is a political sure thing. It sounds good. It looks good. It is in fact nonsense.
Moral relativism is used as a slur against liberal politicians as if they are really people who believe in the moral equivalence of all things: drinking tea and blowing up children. In fact all it means is that you don’t subscribe to the idea of categorical imperatives, that you believe there is a continuum of moral goodness. But most of all it means that you are prepared to ask why things happen, not just to believe that they emanate from some absolute ontological pole. Questioning is vital, and we are currently in danger of being led down the path of action without reflection. That is what I’m afraid of. If we don’t ask why, and find out, we will never be able to make things better. If we act in a mood of anger and revenge, before asking why, we risk making things even worse.
But there is another, equally impotent and vapid, language that is appropriated by politicians of the Left to try to get away from confronting a difficult problem. This is the language of the victim, and it denies personal responsibility for acts of criminal damage and violence, and too often covers over a lack of appropriate policy responses to anti-social behaviour and crime. Children need to be given guidance, and they need to have boundaries set for them. Not out of a tyrannical desire to dominate or control them, but for their own good, to prevent them coming to harm or encountering real danger. If they aren’t given this sense of respect for legitimate authority, they may continue to test limits until their behaviour gets them into serious trouble.
The Left does not help itself by ignoring these problems, by simply looking to explain these events in terms of deprivation and exclusion without also acknowledging the role of personal responsibility and discipline. All of these things, or the lack of them, play a role. In scenes reminiscent of the debate over immigration in which the Labour party I believe has been too complacent about growing concern in certain areas over levels of immigration linked to lack of jobs, we have seen many figures of the Left talk easily about the combination of poverty (financial, spiritual, emotional) and lack of opportunity, and inequality, that creates the circumstances in which young people feel compelled to act out, to commit crimes and attack the police.
There is much evidence, not least in ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, that more equal societies (in terms of income distribution) have lower rates of crime. But it is a temptation we should resist to believe that only by reducing income inequality can we prevent riots and criminal behaviour. The Left needs to develop not only a credible way of talking about discipline and responsibility, but also appropriate policy responses to reassure the public that they can be trusted to deliver improved security and safety. Simply blaming ‘the cuts’ feels like an exercise in naked political opportunism. I disagree with the government’s fiscal policy very strongly, and I think cuts will have a severe impact on many poor and deprived communities, but we cannot feasibly lay the blame for these riots at the door of the Treasury alone.
But even within this discourse of personal responsibility there are many nuances. How much easier it is to talk about ‘taking responsibility for your actions’ and ‘moral correctness’ when you have never been faced with any difficult moral choices or any real hardships in your own life. I should know, being serially privileged myself. Too many people on the Right, I find, do not have a keen enough sense of the difficulty of growing up poor, in a depressed neighbourhood, with parents who don’t care about you or who simply are too mired in their own problems to support you.
And again, on the Left, too few have real sympathy with the aspirational self-employed small business owners or entrepreneurs who risk their entire livelihoods and their families’ financial stability on a small venture they only sustain through their hard work every day of the week, sometimes every day of the year. Aren’t these people ‘entitled’ to be treated fairly, to be safe from the threat of gangs and home made petrol bombs?
Nii Sackey, whose excellent charity Bigga Fish works with young people in Hackney, and whose offices were smashed up in the violence on Tuesday night, gave this very interesting interview to Sky News. Nii, who actually works with young people every day and hears their concerns and what is going on in their lives, was able to walk the fine line between explanation, seeking the causes of the violence, and condoning the wrongdoing. It must be doubly frustrating, and ironic, for him, having spent so much time and energy trying to give people better opportunities and prospects, to see the damage done to his property. But he was not interested just in revenge or recrimination. He stood back from that and tried to explain, with great dignity, what he thought might be going on.
Watching Newsnight last night I was truly astonished by the conversation between Michael Gove and Harriet Harman. They both sought to attack each other, using disingenuous arguments and polished phrases, never once trying to talk about what had actually happened on the streets of London or Manchester or Birmingham. It was as if the only thing that concerned them was their self-presentation, their reflected image in the camera’s glozing eye, in the newspaper columns and pointless instapolls. This was truly frightening because it revealed a political class that has become so utterly detached from ordinary people and their lives that it has simply ceased caring about them. Everything is advantage or disadvantage, up or down, blue or red (or murky green).
True authority depends on respect, just as good policing relies on consent. Leaders gain authority by earning our respect. Tyrants impose authority on their people by exerting force and instilling fear. I hope that our politicians think about how they can earn our respect by working with us, trying to understand what has happened, and help us solve our problems.
This week, many of our leaders have looked like alien beings, be-suited technocrats photoshopped into the picture at the last minute, airbrushed sylphs flitting into our vision just long enough to deliver a prepared soundbite. They don’t look natural standing beside ‘real’ people. They look awkward, distant, as if they don’t quite fit. Occasionally they have had to be whisked away, for fear of being confronted by the voters, the people, and asked embarrassing or difficult questions. These are not leaders, they are cowards.
For real leadership, we need to look to men like Tariq Jahan, the father of Haroon, murdered in Birmingham, whose extraordinary dignity and courage should be an example to us all. He called for calm, for reflection, for an end to the violence. We should listen to him.