What are the reasons for the riots? It's too early to know which of several possible factors were the decisive ones in turning our streets into arenas for violence and looting. Tragically lives have been lost but the main focus seems to have been property. The reasons that are being given are
- criminality - but why? and why now?
- breakdown in family life and the morality and discipline that good parenting and schools provide.
- rampant consumerism - an attitude that pervades the whole of society and which says 'I should be able to have what I want now.'
- disenfranchised groups in society - people brought up in a consumer society with little opportunity to make choices and become legitimate consumers themselves.
- reaction against the police and against law and order - a desire by the voiceless to take power by showing that they can break the law if they choose to.
- the atmosphere created by government cuts and the threat of the breakdown of our whole economic system which lurks behind our present lived reality.
- the new era of tweeting, twittering and facebook and other forms of messaging which allows riots to be spontaneously organised with hundreds of people gathering in one place at a particular time - something that could not have happened until recently. This is the more sinister side of Internet democracy, perhaps akin to what we have witnessed recently in Middle Eastern countries.
Probably, the true reasons for the riots are drawn from all these and from other factors that have not yet been identified. The court cases yesterday and today show that plainly this urge to violence and anarchy is not a problem confined to young people or to people who are unemployed or uneducated. Politicians seem to be falling into two camps - on the one hand, those who want to attribute it all to criminality, brook no excuses and deal with it through punitive measures and, on the other hand, those who want to find the social causes and who are fearful of punitive measures such as long prison sentences, stopping benefits and withdrawing housing as these will fuel discontent. I saw Harriet Harman on Newsnight vigorously trying to argue that both approaches are needed - a response that punishes lack of individual responsibility and a response that looks at the social forces that have made this possible and, for once, I agreed with her!
Well, it is too early to make judgements about why all this has happened - summer madness of the most sobering kind. The worrying question is, 'Is what we have seen just the tip of a very ugly iceberg which now underlies the waters of normal social dealings in this country?' Three things which have been concerning me for a while are not, I think, unrelated to what has happened.
Firstly, there is now greater disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest in Britain than in any other country in Europe. People are living in real poverty cheek by jowl with those who have vast resources. In the parish where I served in the early 90's in Nottingham, I can take you to places where teenagers live ferral on the streets, the care-home system, never mind their families, entirely unable to contain them, young children are so hungry they hang around the chip shop bins and eat discarded food, and homeworkers do menial jobs like assembling hangers - a house full of women working all day for perhaps £15 to be divided between them. These people are not lazy. Prositution and the drug culture are rife and are a normal part of middle class life but destroy the lives of those who are unemployed or poorly educated and who often service these habits. Within sight of parts of the parish are hotels where you can spend £800-£1,000 for a night's stay. Poverty was not the direct cause of the riots, but huge disparity between the resources available to people generates anger and lack of respect in different ways from different parts of society and the riots have played into this. The fact that groups within society are living with poverty, hunger and lack of opportunity that most of society does not acknowledge or appear to care about points to a deep degree of unhealthiness in our social order. It is wrong when we simply care about what we have got and whether we have got what we want, right now. The rioting and looting demonstrated that, in fact, this is exactly how some people from all parts of society think today.
Secondly, in many familes and communities right across the social classes we seem to have lost the ability to exercise discipline with quite young children; the seeds of an attitude that says 'I am entitled to whatever I feel like...' are planted well before secondary school. At the same time, adults, apart from professionals who work with young people, often don't seem able to engage in conversation with and listen to youngsters - you have been able to see that in some of the interviews over the last few days where rioters and their supporters have been asked their opinion only to have it dismissed and shouted down. Where respect and real listening don't occur, problems cannot be solved. Even if someone has committed a crime, we have to try to understand what the world looks like from their perspective if we are going to take measures to prevent the same thing happening again. There is a worrying lack of willingness for different age groups to listen to one another and I think this is a growing phenomenon.
Thirdly, we do not yet have systems of politics, government, law and order and communication that have adapted to the presence of the Internet. We do not yet realise the degree to which the Internet has changed, for ever, the nature of authority, democracy and control in society. People can now circumvent much of what formal education, politics and even the media have to offer and they can form local and global alliances which have nothing to do with recognised social or political structures; they can just as easily disrupt conventional alliances and systems. They can do this very speedily and in unpredictable ways. I suppose all this is one reason why I blog. I think it is important to learn, first hand, about the power of the Internet and of digital communication. We are all on a very steep learning curve to discover how power operates in a world where, if you just hit the right tone, you can bring 100's or 1,000's of people of all ages and backgrounds together to achieve something very noble or something very ignoble...and the outcome may indeed be frighteningly unpredictable.