I’m watching what is happening in England through a computer screen which removes me somewhat from it. Much of it horrifies and alarms me. I’m watching youtube clips of men arrested for smashing windows with golf clubs who are then saying ‘what reason do you have to arrest me?’ to the police. I’m watching cars being smashed, businesses destroyed.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb – author of one of the most powerful books of our time – might not say this is a black swan event – but there’s a bit that seems to fit for me – the posthumous rationalising of events as if they were predictable. Lack of jobs, poverty, lack of opportunity, a trigger event initiated by the police – all being used as reasons for the behaviour we’re witnessing. The media are to blame for spin. The shops are to blame for putting stuff in view. Labour are to blame because they created this culture and made policing weak. The Tories are to blame because it always happens on their watch because they give the police too much power. It’s the fault of the police. It’s the fault of the parents. It’s the fault of the schools. It’s the fault of new technologies allowing all this to happen.
The problem with all of this rationalising is that it doesn’t take into account personal accountability and morality. And this is what we have: a mass of ungovernable people who have either lost their sense of personal morality in the heat of the moment (not unlike so many other people who get caught up in the heat of the social zeitgeist, where genocide becomes acceptable, at the far end of the spectrum, or where far right parties get voted into power) or a mass of ungovernable people who can’t think for themselves because they are so overwhelmed by greed and moral indignation. Sociology tells us to group people, to link social events to social causes. But it doesn’t look at the individual, as if the individual has no free-will whatsoever. To me, social explanations such as poverty or unemployment is a problem for one great big reason: they see us a mindless herd. Maybe we are. Maybe that’s where it all went wrong.
Where are we as individuals if we have no sense of right or wrong, or no sense of consequence?
I can rob this shop. I can get carried away by the heat of the moment. I can subjugate my values for the brief euphoria of lawlessness. I can smash its windows because it feels good. It gets rid of some of that anger about ‘The Establishment’. I can steal all the things I never could afford. I can finally have the thing I wanted for so long. What I covet can be mine. In my miserable life, I can finally think someone’s handed me a lottery ticket to get those trainers I wanted, a new laptop, a new blackberry.
I can think. I can rob this shop, but this guy who owns the shop – he’s going to suffer. Maybe his insurance won’t cover it and he’ll end up out of pocket. Maybe everything he’s worked for will be destroyed. I can imagine the guy’s face as he realises his living has been destroyed. I know he’ll never feel the same again. It’ll take a while for him to get the insurance, and they’ll look for every opportunity they can to rip him off, because they’re a business and that’s what they do. He’ll suffer, whilst I’ve filled my pockets with his cigarettes and his cash. Maybe he won’t be able to pay for food tonight. Maybe he’ll break down. Maybe this will push him over the edge. Maybe he’ll sink into depression. His insurance premiums will go up, through no fault of his own. He’ll put prices up. Either that will drive people to cheaper places where they can soak up overheads, or he’ll have to live in poverty. If insurance goes up, prices go up. My own friends and family will have to pay more. I might steal this £200 from the till now, but every time I buy a can of coke from this guy in the future, I’ll have to look him in the eye and know I did wrong by him.
And I make the right choice.
I can square up to the police and throw a petrol bomb. But that man is just a man. He’s protecting the country because he’s paid to. I might not like what he stands for. I might disapprove of their politics, but he’s just a man. He’s a man who maybe doesn’t believe in how the police operate all the time, but he knows overall they do more good than bad. By a long shot. He himself remains dignified and composed and doesn’t launch a petrol bomb back at me. I allow my emotions to run free, but I don’t expect him to have emotions. Or I expect him to control them. He’s just a man. He might disagree with my politics. He might have come from Irish immigrants forced from Ireland due to famine. His ancestors might have been born in workhouses. His family might have pulled themselves out of the gutter. Maybe he wants to petrol bomb me because he thinks I’m disrespectful scum and I’m creating a world that he doesn’t want his kids to grow up in.
So I do the right thing.
I remember that this is my community – my home. It might not be much, but it’s what I’ve got. It’s what my family fought for. It’s what they tried hard to get right. This is the park I played in as a kid. How devastated would I have been to see it ruined? This is the church I went to. I might not believe in God, but it’s where my Mum goes every Sunday and I respect that. It means a lot to her.
So I protect my community, my home. I take personal responsibility not to commit a crime and I know that if I steal, if I vandalise, if I destroy, it’s myself I’m hurting. Because I am part of this community and what I do to it will hurt me. I know I’m part of a bigger picture and I know my part in it.
Where is this kind of thinking? Where is empathy and insight? I can blame the big things, the institutions and governments, education, parenting, community, religion. But at the bottom of it all, we are individuals who make choices. At some point, sociology forgets that. The media forgets that.
When I was face to face with the teenager who stole my camera, he was full of excuses of poverty and being wound up by a group. He was too poor to repay me, so he said. He didn’t want his picture taken. Allah (!) didn’t believe in it. Society and sociologists and religion gave him ready-made excuses which he trotted out. It took a while to cut through these social excuses to make him see what he’d done. He’d damaged the good work his mosque had done to integrate. He’d let down his family. He’d victimised a woman who is the same size as his mum. He’d stolen a camera full of ebay stuff I was going to sell, so I didn’t make money that week. He’d been part of a hundred-strong group who were inciting a fight in times where people carry knives and heaven knows what else. He cried at the end.
But the worst thing is, despite him crying , I know he’d do it again. That voice that I provided for him is missing or else he wouldn’t have done it in the first place. And that’s the real problem. There have always been people without their own moral voice that says stealing is wrong (because it hurts someone else) but that’s what’s wrong, to me. All these people with no moral voice to tell them what they’re doing is wrong. They cite poverty and unemployment and tension and police brutality as if they are living in Syria. They are not. I look at other news and see the world falling apart – so it seems. Famine in Somalia. Civil dispute in Syria and Libya. Economies in free-fall. I know we’re not going to get through this with a smash-and-grab mentality. So why don’t more people think like I do?
What’s missing seems to be two-fold: altruism and empathy. I see so much anger, so much rage and so much selfishness in the news reports about London – there’s one solution. Empathy. When you empathise, your anger dissipates. When you empathise, you want to help others. When you empathise, it allows you to balance the needs of others against your own and then be altruistic. But this is down to the individual, not society. Society can’t be responsible for teaching everyone to empathise. I can imagine the scorn with which that would be greeted: National Programme to Develop Empathy. You can imagine the derision from the media. I can imagine the derision from myself! But that’s what we need.