“If the rioting was a surprise, people weren’t looking” – Stafford Scott
Of all the articles and blog posts I’ve read ever since London exploded, one of the best was Penny Red’s, in which she argues that people riot because they feel powerless; rioting gives them a sense of power, even if just for one night. The youth in Tottenham felt powerless, as did all the other rioters/looters around London felt powerless. Camila Batmanghelidjh makes a very poignant argument for why this is the case.
The thing is, from a very early age, young people learn that if they want to get their power back, they have to take it from someone – or somewhere – else.* This is evident during playtime in kindergarten, when toddlers fight over who gets the best toy; at recess when one group of students take over the playground and won’t let anyone else use it; and in the hallways of high school where, over the course of a just a few weeks, one student can easily take away the self-esteem and sense of worth of another.
As they get older, young people learn that there are other, less obvious ways to take away the power of others, as Peter “He Who Stole My Thunder” Oborne pointed out:
A few years ago, my wife and I went to a dinner party in a large house in west London. A security guard prowled along the street outside, and there was much talk of the “north-south divide”, which I took literally for a while until I realised that my hosts were facetiously referring to the difference between those who lived north and south of Kensington High Street.
Most of the people in this very expensive street were every bit as deracinated and cut off from the rest of Britain as the young, unemployed men and women who have caused such terrible damage over the last few days. For them, the repellent Financial Times magazine How to Spend It is a bible. I’d guess that few of them bother to pay British tax if they can avoid it, and that fewer still feel the sense of obligation to society that only a few decades ago came naturally to the wealthy and better off.
In other words, then, this – the looting and destruction in Britain’s underprivileged communities, the stealing and hypocrisy of its overprivileged communities, all of it – is just part of what people do.
It’s in our nature.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should treat the uprisings in and around London as “no big deal” because such behaviour is innate. I’m suggesting that we be brave enough to be honest about the fact that these events were not anomalies. They were not the result of some “defect” in the biological programming of low-income youth whose parents are all welfare rats who don’t care about their kids’ education. Rather, humans know, instinctively, that taking power from someone else feels good. We live in a society that rewards some people for this behaviour, but punishes others if they dare to emulate it. To ignore this as we judge – before the courts and in the media – all those directly involved in the UK rioting, is to consign ourselves to perpetuating this hypocrisy. Which, in turn, will only lead to more violence and destruction the next time someone in a marginalized community has had enough.
*There’s a different conceptualization of “power” that considers it to be a relation, not a possession… but that’s a discussion for another post.