I was In Sydney when the UK riots broke out, and I didn’t hear about it until it had become an international story which showed Britain in the worst possible light. Much hay will be made about this over the coming months, but I thought I’d add my tuppence worth.
Firstly, there can be no justification whatsoever for this behaviour, regardless of your background or surroundings. But it is a good idea to try to understand it, because locking people up after the fact only goes so far. None of what I raise here excuses what we saw on Britain’s city streets, but it does provide a context.
Society is based on the concept that most people will be law-abiding, because it is in their collective interest to be so. It’s one of the defining characteristics of being human that we have the self-control to defer our own short-term gratification in order to achieve longer term objectives, particularly shared objectives. What is happening with increasing frequency is that some people are no longer willing or able to do that – and they’re not all wearing hoodies.
Now, it’s quite easy to point at an obvious example of self-absorbed gratification from the last week, such as someone looting expensive electronic goods from their neighbourhood store. But on a more subtle level, this lack of willingness to defer gratification is something that increasingly pervades our modern society, just at a less visceral level. Our consumer society has for years encouraged people to buy things they can’t afford through the high availability of credit – don’t save up, have it now! Even worse, at every level of society now there is a general attitude that what matters isn’t “what’s right”, it’s “what you can get away with”.
There are myriad examples of this. Politicians scamming their expenses system because it wasn’t strictly disallowed, even though anyone with an ounce of sense should have known it was immoral. Bankers risking all to get rich in the good times, knowing that in the bad times someone else will pick up the tab. Patent trolls gaming a broken legal system to make money from doing nothing at all, by taking it from those that do. Basically, the message at all levels is: if you think you can get away with it, go for it. Even if common sense would tell you that you’re being a dick, it doesn’t matter – law of the jungle and all that.
What we’re really seeing on Britain’s streets is the very ugliest incarnation of this, but it’s rooted in exactly the same attitude, and we can’t pretend they’re separate things. The political or white-collar side of amoral behaviour doesn’t result in houses burning down and people dying, so we don’t notice as much until it goes really badly wrong (like in the credit crunch), but it’s ultimately the same thought process – I know this is wrong, but I’m going to do it anyway, because either I think I won’t get caught, or there’s some clever legal wrangling that lets me off the hook even if I do.
Some might cite the demise of religion as a cause of the lack of moral fiber, but that’s not it at all (the Catholic church is one of the worst perpetrators after all). No, it’s really very simple – more people need to stand up for a singular and easily communicated principle: “don’t be a dick”. And stop pretending that you don’t know when you’re being a dick, or that you have some kind of justification for it. We need to stop looking for technicalities to excuse behaviour we know is wrong, and for ways to avoid getting caught. Laws are there as a distillation of this concept (sometimes they get it wrong too), but the original form is much simpler to understand – you really don’t need a lawyer to tell you when you’re being a dick. All the people involved in the subprime mortgage crash knew they were doing something dodgy, but they carried on anyway. Take this same attitude and put it in the mind of an ill-educated thug with a brick in his hand, and what do you think is going to happen?
If you want to live in a pleasant society, live by example, whether you wear a hoodie or an Armani suit. You really don’t want to live in a society where everyone just does what they think they can get away with. Maybe it took thugs in the street burning and looting to demonstrate the eventual trajectory of this to you, but that’s just the tip of a particularly dirty iceberg that every one of us has a part to play in cleaning up.