Wednesday 10 August 2011

Obligatory post on the London Riots - From Where I Stand

First I will ease everyone's mind by assuring you all that this Not So Quiet American is (so far) safe and well amidst the unrest that is currently plaguing my beloved city. One of the benefits of living in an underground bunker on the edge of a posh neighbourhood at the top of a hill is that most looters really can't be arsed to go so far out of their way to wreak havoc. (Though I am thinking of utilising the situation to convince my landlord to let me get a dog, for protection purposes and all. I have already named said imaginary future dog Valentina Bellissima James, Teeny Billie James for short.)

Anyway, given the preponderance of both news and opinion pieces on the riots, I didn't really intend to add to the pile by writing on it myself. I figured everything worth saying was already being said by someone better at saying it than me. But I was wrong. Because in everything I've come across about the riots, I feel like something very obvious is being ignored: The Middle Ground. Maybe it's because The Middle Ground doesn't make for good headlines, or punchy snap judgements, or nicely drawn lines in the sand that you can stand on either side of. Unfortunately for everyone (myself included) who sometimes wishes things were painted in nice clear shades of black and white, the middle ground is often where the reality of things can be found. And I am pretty convinced that this is the case with the London riots.

Yes, the burning and looting is about chronic economic oppression and community disenfranchisement and inequality and unemployment and slashed benefits. It is about people who can't afford to consume being bombarded on a daily basis with messages of consumerism, overt and subliminal. It is about this tension between societal fantasy and economic reality finally boiling over in a very nasty way.

But guess what? It is also about greed, and opportunism, and violence for the sake of violence. It is about an unfortunate situation being hijacked and used as an opportunity to acquire material goods and vent garden-variety angst. Mob mentality is a well-documented and frightening phenomenon, and I am willing to bet that a good percentage of the people who chose to throw petrol bombs at police cars and torch businesses did so just because they felt like it, and because everyone else was doing it, and because this mob mentality provides invisibility and invincibility. I am willing to bet that a lot of the people in these mobs weren't thinking about social disenfranchisement so much as they were thinking that it might be a good time to anonymously smash up a Curry's and make off with a new flat-screen.

So let's acknowledge both sides. Let's acknolwedge that something is seriously f***ed-up in our society and the time has come to do something about it. Let's acknowledge that slashing public funds and youth programme budgets and health services is maybe not the best way of pulling ourselves out of economic ruin.

But let's also acknowledge that disenfranchisement or not, mob mentality or not, people make choices. Usually, these choices have reasons behind them; there is a socio-psychological explanation for most things that happen and most things that people do. Remembering this allows us to stop ourselves from demonizing the people and the choices they make, because we glimpse the reasoning, however flawed, behind them. But let's not forget that people do, in fact, make choices. The people rioting in the London streets, however disenfranchised or frustrated or ignored, made the choice to smash in the high street windows, set their neighbours' houses on fire, and destroy livelihoods. And the truly sad thing is that the bulk of the effects are being and will be felt not by the upper classes and government officials supposedly being demonstrated against, but by regular Londoners who may be just as marginalised as the rioters. Just because you refrain from demonizing someone doesn't mean you let them off the hook. The people wreaking havoc in the streets of London are not innocent victims of oppression, whose actions are to be defended at all costs; nor are they mindless, soulless perpetrators of violence at which we should feel free to direct or project our own anger and fear over the occurrences of the past few days. They are people: people who made choices to destroy and take things that weren't theirs to destroy and take, for various assorted reasons which humanize but do not vindicate.

So let's acknowledge that the riots of the past few days are indeed symptomatic of a greater societal ill that desperately needs to be addressed; but let's not kid ourselves into thinking that this great societal ill has somehow eroded free will and left rioters with no other choice than to burn and steal.

I don't doubt that this Middle Ground approach is going to attract a fair amaount of ire from both sides of the Line in the Sand. And to said hypothetical ire, I say: Balanced, greyscale viewpoints are often not very popular. They tend to avoid demonization and offer no scapegoat or easy answers. But to be quite frank, I don't think any easy answers exist here; and from where I stand, looking for them is bound to lead to one extreme or the other.


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  2. Lookit you being all eloquent and opinionated and what-not. "Not just a hat-rack my friend!" Well-said. You should write more like this!