Thursday, 18 August 2011

The suspension of civilisation: disturbances in England, August 2011 So what have we learned? ‘My clothes stank of smoke and I wanted to weep with rage at a society that has disenfranchised so many for so long while brainwashing several generations of children to want, want, want.’ (Hayley Matthews, Guardian, 10 August 2011) 1. The past week’s disorders in English cities involved a range of different behaviours – collective protest, rioting, wanton violence, vandalism, arson, intimidation, theft, opportunistic looting, and organised looting. A wide range of people of different ages, backgrounds and ethnicities were involved. So it’s obviously rash to generalise. But that wouldn’t stop the dominant broadcast media and politicians from insisting on doing so. TV presenters have been taking it in turns to ask ‘Who’s to blame?’ As if it were a quiz question. The bland insistence on over-simplifying complex issues is irresponsible and contributes to the problem. 2. It’s perverse that anyone seeking to understand what has happened should feel the need to use phrases like ‘I’m not excusing’ or ‘not condoning, but...’. (Will Davies has some words about this). The Kneejerk Right got lathered up quickly in confounding explanation and excuse. They’re best ignored until they’ve worked this bit out. And really, is it too much to ask, for the sake of a healthy polity, that more of those on the right might have made some contribution to the discussion of context and understanding, instead of stamping their feet with the predictable apoplectic response of defiant property-owners, visibly salivating at the prospect of locking people up and blaming parents? For the first few days, nothing but blunt mentalities offering crunch responses. It would have been refreshing to have a few voices from the right showing readiness to think about social issues beyond the principles of condemnation and punishment. 3. Those who were rioting and looting showed complete contempt for moral standards. In this respect, sadly, they can be compared directly with numerous parliamentarians; some very influential bankers; various motley journalists and newspaper editors; an undisclosed number of senior police officers; a sparkling array of corporate executives; empty celebrities (like Russell ‘bang pregnant’ Brand - inexplicably given airspace on this topic by the Guardian the other day); and a scary number of catholic priests. What was shocking about the rioters and looters was that apparently they didn’t pretend to have moral standards. In this respect they differed from the above. It might also be noted that most of them had little or no power or influence in society, nor, in most cases, much prospect of that. Again, in this respect they differed from the above. 4. Sadly, determined to be an international embarassment, our prime minister jumped straight into the ‘simple criminality’ camp. Pointlessly appointing a US supercop for obscure reasons was a masterstroke. Not just an undisguised insult to the police – it should go down really well with the community development workers, community activists and youth workers who could help him and his out-of-depth Home Secretary to understand what things are like at local...

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