Over the past few days Facebook has turned into a hotbed of reactionary, conservative-with-a-small-‘c’ drivel. I have read post after post of friends and acquaintances condemning the London rioters as “young thugs”, “just kids kicking off” because they don’t have a “plasma TV”. There is even an e-petition entitled “Convicted London rioters should loose all benefits” that has been posted around.
This irritates me in a number of ways. Firstly, because whomever took it upon themselves to start this petition clearly has a blatant disregard for correct spelling. In fact, I am tempted to start my own petition called “People who cannot spell simple four letter words correctly should be forced to repeat the entire school-system again and banned from starting any more petitions until they can provide at least three examples a-piece of the correct usage of the words ‘loose’ and ‘lose’”. But that’s just the snobbery of a pedant talking.
More importantly, however, this e-petition contains some terrifying sentiments. Implied in this petition is the idea that these rioters are so abhorrent, so morally decrepit, that they should be denied access to any state-funded help that may have otherwise been owed to them. In fact, we should just let them rot in their own poverty. They do not deserve our sympathy or compassion any longer; let them die on the streets from starvation or hypothermia, alone and isolated and begging for help. It will be as if they never existed in the first place.
People are far too quick to dismiss the rioters as angry, mindless, thuggish youths who are rioting because they enjoy it and they want that plasma TV. This may all be true. And certainly I am not condoning any of the despicable behaviour that has been broadcast throughout the country – there is not and never will be an excuse for such reckless and, at times, callous behaviour. However, as one coherent bystander on BBC news pointed out, we must ask ourselves why Britain’s youth has turned into mindless thugs. What have we done to make young people act in this way?
Because, whether you choose to believe it or not, there are wider reasons behind these riots beyond the simple desire for a nice television. The participants may not be aware of these themselves; they may indeed just be acting because they want stuff and see no other way of getting it. I would argue that this already points us towards a reason, though.
The e-petition calling for all rioters to lose their benefits (I assume this is what they really mean) unwittingly makes one important point: that those who are rioting are most likely already on benefits. Therefore we are talking about youths and young adults who are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. These young people are, like the rest of us, bombarded with the idea of stuff – of products and lifestyles that are most probably beyond their means. On top of this they are faced with an increasingly dire economic climate where jobs are scarce, education is expensive and cuts to welfare are frequent. Protests earlier in the year against some government decisions have been flatly ignored. Prospects are bleak and people feel powerless.
Is it any wonder, then, that people should see no other way of getting what they want than to go out and take it? Smashing a shop window and taking off with a new flat screen television is only partly about want. If we could explain it purely in terms of desire we might ask why anyone anywhere would ever pay for a television – we may as well just take it, if we want it. Of course, the answer to this is that most people have a sense of right and wrong and therefore recognise that to take a television, which has been produced by someone else’s hard labour, without paying for it, would be wrong. Indeed, the looters themselves know that it is wrong – it is this sense of wrongness that is causing them to loot in the first place.
Taking something without paying for it, or destroying someone else’s property, displays a direct disregard for the rule of law – both legislative and moral. Looters know it is wrong to loot. So doing it is a deliberate “F*** you” to the police, the government and to every law-abiding person in the country. Beneath these riots lies anger, frustration and disenchantment. Young people lack a legitimate voice in society, and yet they are also some of the ones most deeply affected by government policy – the vulnerable often are. They need a way of saying “F*** you” to the rest of society, to the ones deciding their fate, and rioting is proving to be a way of doing so.
These times call for empathy and understanding – fewer petitions demanding the pauperisation of people who are already, in many cases, cripplingly poor, and more effort to try and tackle the underlying issues that have caused so many “mindless thugs” to turn to violence. Boris Johnston has been criticising attempts to use economic and sociological explanations to understand these riots – but this is the only constructive way of dealing with it. These analyses do not explain away or excuse the behaviour of rioters. Rather they are the key to preventing more destruction in the future.
I realise it is easy for me to write this – sitting, as I do, so far away from any of the carnage and terror that has been caused by these events. For those who have lost their homes and livelihoods it is almost preposterous to ask them to feel anything other than anger towards those who have victimised them. But the rest of us should remember that everyone involved in the riots – including the perpetrators – are victims in one way or another. It is our failing, as a society, to deal with issues of inequality that have led to this. And so it is our responsibility to put things right.
So condemn all you like. Only do not let the shouts for retribution drown out the voices of those who need to be heard. If we want to prevent the events of the past few days from happening again, we must learn to listen. Before it is too late.