Here at The Evangelical Liberal we (okay I) like to be ahead of the game, first with the news, on the ball and the button. So, if you’re somewhere on a time zone three weeks behind Greenwich, UK, this is breaking news – there’s been some rioting here in England. Who knew?
Okay, okay, it’s ancient news. Though at least it’s not quite as ancient as the scrap of 1854 newspaper we unearthed on holiday in Wales, protecting some historical (if slightly dull) family documents and, as a sideline, reporting on the Siege of Sevastopol and advertising patent remedies for flatulence. So let’s just call this a historical comment piece rather than current affairs.
I did of course have lots of highly fascinating things to say at the time of the riots, which came within 5 minutes’ walk of our house, with the Tesco Express and Staples superstore at the end of our road looted and smashed up. And we saw the clouds of smoke drifting over from the Reeves’ Corner furniture store blaze, about a mile from where we live and on our kids’ daily route to school. We even had church connections with the family who’d owned the shop for 100-plus years. So yes, I had plenty to say, but I’m actually glad I didn’t say it – it would have been largely knee-jerk, minimally-informed reaction – and we had plenty enough of that in the mainstream media, particularly my old friends the tabloids.
In fact, looking back it’s the reaction that has interested me far more than the riots themselves. I don’t know why the riots happened, or who or what was primarily to blame – I suspect it was a complex mix of factors, and that the Mark Duggan shooting simply acted as a flashpoint to unleash a whole lot of unrest and anger – and blatant opportunism – that had nothing directly to do with the original event. I’m not even sure I know what I think of the looters, if indeed you can treat them as a homogeneous mass given that they seemed to come from so many different backgrounds and walks of life.
What interests me is that all the media commentators – and most people you talk to – do seem sure that they know what caused the riots and exactly who’s to blame. And they all disagree entirely. One of our leftie friends gave us a Socialist Worker (extreme left-wing revolutionary paper) which blamed Tory cuts, Tory crackdowns and police brutality, and which took the angle that the riots were understandable, justifiable and even laudable revolutionary-style protest. Interesting, but not entirely convincing given that most of the ‘protest’ rapidly descended into mere raiding of consumer goods. (One headline I did have a little sympathy with though was ‘Currys is not part of anyone’s community’ – arguing that the big, faceless electrical-goods stores were fair game because they’re basically capitalist intruders rather than a true part of the local community.)
Another friend send me an article from the right-wing Spectator, which blamed Tony Blair’s Labour government and the ‘nanny state’ for the creation of a society in which people expected everything done for them and handed to them on a plate without having to work for it. The columnist argued that the rioters were ‘Blair’s children’, people who’d been born and grown up in the New Labour years and who were therefore the product of the Blair and Brown governments. Again, one or two interesting points, but far from the whole story.
Then of course we had Tudor historian David Starkey putting in his somewhat bizarre tuppence-worth, tactfully quoting Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech and explaining that the riots were somehow the result of ‘white people behaving like black people’, for which he blamed an imported Jamaican black culture of gangs and violence. Others took a less blatantly racist view but still suggested that immigration and multi-culturalism were the prime culprits.
And then there were those who blamed a perceived decline in the nation’s morals, or the break-up of the nuclear family. I was just waiting for Richard Dawkins to come out and blame the Church of England. It was patently obvious that no-one really had a clue or (in some cases) actually cared what or who had caused the riots; it was just a wonderful opportunity to make political capital by blaming the other side, the old and predictable enemies, the usual suspects.
Blaming the other
I wonder though how much of this was sheer cynical politicking, and how much was something deeper and darker, though equally human.
Firstly, we all have an inbuilt tendency to divide into groups and to define ourselves against the others, the outsiders, the opposite side – right-wing against left, lower-class against higher, white against black, north against south, young against old, Protestant against Catholic, Christian against Atheist or Muslim.
Combined with this we all to a greater or lesser extent – consciously or unconsciously – tend to project our own bad feelings, fears and shame and darkness onto the ‘other’, turning them into the scapegoats, the ones to blame for all the evils of society and all the problems in our lives. It doesn’t matter who they are, what they’re really like or how patently they aren’t to blame in any particular instance; self-blinding prejudice will always find a way.
And in an interesting twist on this, we’re also very good at making monsters of ordinary people who behave in taboo or unacceptable ways. One of the fascinating features of these riots was how many ‘normal’, ordinary, generally respectable middle-class people were involved in the looting. Yet most people who weren’t involved just wanted to lump all the looters together as scum, louts, thugs – moronic sub-human villains with no social conscience or moral sensibility. I wanted to do the same. But in truth, many of the looters were (are) generally decent, thoughtful and law-abiding citizens in their normal, everyday lives.
We all have a dark side; under certain circumstances, certain provocations and temptations we can all abandon our normal moral principles and the constraints of societal convention. And we’re all also capable of justifying to ourselves even our worst actions, on almost any flimsy basis. I know I for one have done some stupid, selfish and destructive things in the course of my life, along with some immoral and even mildly illegal ones. Haven’t you?
Which brings me to the politicians and the media. I’m far from the first to point out that many of the politicians who are expressing moral outrage at the looting were not long ago convicted of cheating on expenses – merely a more refined and underhand form of theft. And though David Cameron may believe in second chances for the likes of Andy Coulson, he clearly doesn’t apply the same standards to looters, many of whom are now receiving disproportionately tough sentences. The tabloids too are predictably fulminating against the rioters, conveniently forgetting all their own recent wrongdoings.
None of this is to condone the looting and vandalism, which was clearly selfish, destructive and wrong. It’s just to say that maybe we don’t have quite as much right to point the finger as we’d like to think; ‘let whoever is without sin cast the first stone’. And secondly, maybe our desire to apportion blame for the riots to some particular segment of society, or even to some particular political party, says more about us and our problems than it does about the ones we wish to blame. Plank in your eye, anyone?