Friday, August 12, 2011

Why are people surprised by the riots?

Since the start of the British riots I have been reading lots of comments about social decay in Britain. Commentators seem to think that there must be some sickness in British society to inspire such degenerate behaviour.

Yet every burst of recreational violence for years has been accompanied by this kind of hand-wringing and introspection by decent folk who can't understand the motivation of their predatory neighbours. Really the motivation seems pretty obvious: you get to run around with your mates all night, throwing rocks at police, vandalising property, robbing fancy electronics or a nice pair of runners and get away with it. What's not to like?

The upset introspection of social commentators reminded me of this dark comment in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, as the lead character sniggers to himself at the attempts of good people to understand his deviance:

But, brothers, this biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick . They don’t go into the cause of goodness, so why the other shop? If lewdies are good that’s because they like it, and I wouldn’t ever interfere with their pleasures, and so of the other shop. And I was patronising the other shop.... But what I do I do because I like to do.
Perhaps Burgess knew that there needn't be a deeper explanation for depravity: recreational violence is inspired by the pleasure it gives to its particpants. His main character here thinks it as pointless to ponder his own wickedness as it was to ponder the goodness of others.

I grew up in a fairly safe rural area, with low income inequality. The population was too low to create rich or poor sub-communities, we all ended up going to the same school and relatively poorer children from the council housing suffered no stigma in our adolescent peer group. But petty crimes like vandalism were commonplace. When the county council planted dozens of new trees on the way into the town, many were hacked down by bored teenagers, simply for the pleasure of destruction.

In school I had to sometimes help run a little tuck shop, selling sweets and soft drinks to the other students. There, some of the boys would often try to steal sweets, making a large order, dropping a few coins on the table and leaving before we had the chance to insist on the correct payment. These boys weren't hungry. They stole for profit, for fun, and for the social respect they won by cheating the system. These were the same boys who would spit on the handrails on the stairs so other students or teachers would run their hands into the saliva. Or grab the PE gear of the weakest student and throw it onto the roof of the changing rooms just to see him humiliated.

On Halloween we had more minor irritation or crime: teenagers throwing eggs or breaking windows. The children had an innocent-sounding tradition called 'kicking cabbages' in which they, well, ran about their neighbours' gardens or farms and kicked the cabbages growing in the soil.

Little things, but a sign that my adolescent peers were itching to destroy, rob and humiliate.

Would my old classmates have looted and rioted if they thought they'd get away with it? I think many of them certainly would have. I imagine the chaos if one night it was made clear to the teenagers and young men that the police were not going to intervene if they ripped apart local businesses.

So I am baffled only by the bewilderment of others. To me there is nothing surprising about the behaviour of the rioters. They get fun, excitement, and profit all at the same time, with police too overstretched to stop them: no wonder they riot! It makes me wonder what incredibly kind and gentle adolescents other people grew up with. The ones I knew were prevented from outright barbarism only by fear of repercussions.

True there must be cultural differences from place to place: Japanese did not riot or loot after the disastrous tsunami, for example, nor did my old Japanese students vandalise their classrooms when left there every morning unsupervised before the start of class.

But the real miracle is that riots do not happen every day. That complex societies with millions of strangers can survive in relative peace and security is remarkable. Occasional breakdowns are probably inevitable and need not baffle or upset us too much: police and private security will probably adjust their work to better suit future risks and life goes on. We share society with opportunistic predators, it's not surprising that sometimes they slip their leads.


  1. I don't know. I don't think it's truly remarkable that complex societies with millions of strangers can survive in relative peace and security. It's inherent within our species to be altruistic, altruistic enough to form societies. Forming societies is crucial to our advancement. It's not just luck. We depend on it. What's remarkable is that we've evolved to this level, but that it works is not remarkable. That's my opinion anyway.

    I can see what you're saying about rioters and how they just find rioting to be fun. It kind of looks like it, but I assume you're NOT saying that an attitude of wanton destruction is our default position?

  2. Not "our" default position, no, not the default of ALL humans. But for some, yes, probably. This would vary with age. 69% of those arrested are between 15 and 25 years old, 95% are male: what a surprise!

    I remember when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans people talked about how dysfunctional American society is. Then the riots broke out in France and they discussed how dysfunctional French society is. We had that daft riot in Dublin for the Love Ulster parade and people discussed how dysfunctional Irish society is. Now there are riots in Britain and they're discussing how dysfunctional British society is.

    Maybe none of these societies are particulary dysfunctional! To me it seems obvious that there will inevitably be SOME cynical dickheads in society, which is why we need police. And I remember my own teenage years being surrounded by absolutely LOADS of them! Haha, hopefully most of them have grown out of it by now! But yeah, these dicks would loot and fight for fun: just waiting for an opportunity.

  3. I wonder what would happen to the rioters 10-15 years from now.people always feared for the future when they saw teenagers and the youngsters indulging in violence and looting but that never seemed to have any profound and long lasting impact. Most of the young Provisional IRA rank and file of the early 70's would now be grandparents who like to watch east-enders as far we know. :P

  4. Great point Rohan, and sorry, I only saw your post just now. In the future these retired rioters were wring their hands at the new generation's violence and insist that it was better in the good ole days.


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