The scenes of rioting and looting that have unfolded in the UK this week have been so shocking that they barely seem real to me. If I’m honest I have felt quite stunned by it and have taken some time to fully form my opinion on the situation. I started to write a post on this subject yesterday and then I changed my mind because I was struggling to articulate my feelings on the subject. Then I read the following quote and my thoughts suddenly became clearer.

There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of people in that society, who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don’t have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it. ~ Martin Luther King

We all want and need to feel part of something and as I dwelled on this quote, in my mind I saw an image of children with their noses pressed up to a window on the outside looking in at the rest of society and it got me thinking. That’s why they are smashing glass. I suppose you could call it envy but that doesn’t quite fit. I don’t think they want stuff just because it belongs to other people. I think they want stuff because they’ve been told they can’t have it, because they have been told they don’t deserve it.

Good vs Evil?

What I’m struggling with this week as I read the comments in the press, TV and social media is the polarization of our society into good and evil. Almost every article I’ve read either focuses on the evil, violence and mindlessness of these youths or the kindness and goodness of the people helping to clean up the mess left behind.

My fear is that we can clean away every last shard of glass, every broken brick and re-build every wall but the real mess will still be there. There will still exist a whole section of society that is disaffected and separate from the rest of us. I can’t help feeling that the more we vilify these people, the more we can expect them to behave in ways worth vilifying.

Stereotypes aren’t helpful

If you are a youth, who wears a hoody and live on a council estate in London, then the prevailing opinion of you by the rest of society is likely to be pretty low. Our expectations of what a person fitting that stereotype is likely to achieve in life is not going to be particularly high. So it comes as no surprise that their achievements match our predictions. That’s just basic psychology. If you tell someone all their life that they will never amount to anything then you shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t.

Initially when I listened to some audio on the BBC website of two girls talking about the riots, I was shocked by their attitude. Especially this section of it:

Reporter: Why is it (the rioting) targeting local people, your own people?

Girl: Cos it’s the rich people, the people that have got businesses and that’s why all of this has happened because of the rich people and we are just showing the rich people we can do what we want.

I couldn’t believe it when I first heard it and kept thinking why don’t they understand that if they work hard at school and put the effort in they too could have businesses and money one day. When I listened to it again after having read Martin Luther King’s quote, I started to get it. I believe that these kids don’t feel any compassion for the people whose homes and businesses they are destroying for two reasons. Firstly, they feel completely removed from these “rich” people and in no way connected to them. Secondly, they don’t care about these people because they don’t believe that these people care about them.

Are they right about that? Are we guilty of abandoning a whole section of society in the hopes that they’ll destroy each other through drink, drugs and gang warfare? Maybe, I don’t know.

Time to stop and think

I don’t profess to have the answers here and I’m certainly not condoning the behaviour that we’ve seen in England this week. But I would encourage us to stop and wonder what it all means, why this is happening. I couldn’t help laughing when I read in one broadsheet that a reason for these riots is the school holidays and the fact that these kids have more time on their hands.

I think it’s time to get real and to accept that as a society we can’t stick to these neatly formed groups of “good” people and “bad” people. As long as we do that, then the so-called bad will just get worse. Perhaps if we instill a sense of community and self-worth into our ‘disaffected youth’ then we’ll start to see some change. If this has happened because these people feel that they have nothing to lose, then surely a solution is to give them something that they wouldn’t want to lose. Self-worth and self-respect might be a good place to start.

Do you have an opinion on the riots? If so I’d love to hear it.