So August 6, 2011 will go down in English history as the night when, once again, society seemed to disintegrate beneath the flames of street violence, anti-police sentiment, vandalism and looting.
The trouble continued into the following nights and I posted the piece of writing here. Now I’m not one for usually feeling the need to defend what I say or do to any great degree, but some of the emails I have received concerning my poem have been so vitriolic I feel I should write something in return…
I do not defend what has happened; anyone that knows me will know I am a pacifist and believe in the virtues of non-violent protest. But I have been thinking long and hard about why we have seen such an upsurge in violent protest coupled with organised looting.
I don’t think that what we’ve seen on our TV screens these last few nights is the important issue. We’re all familiar with violence and thieving in its many guises. I personally think that the issue of primary concern is that so many people were involved in what was clearly NOT a political protest. That so many people were so disconnected from a commonly accepted civic morality, to consider it acceptable to attempt to get away with whatever they thought they could get away with when an opportunity presented itself, is the important issue.
There was no single clear demographic identity to relate a cause to the symptom except age; the majority of the trouble felt was at the hands of the young. Whatever the reason is for the change in attitude to the idea of civil society, I think its core lies in generational differences.
What is it about the current cultural environment that has produced such a different personal outlook from, say, my generation?
Certainly something substantial drives individuals in such numbers to behave like pack looters. They clearly feel there is a selfish sense of acquisitiveness that needs fulfilling and they also clearly feel that this is perfectly reasonable; I’m sure it is justifiable and supported within their own peer group too. It is a sense of entitlement that the rest of us, particularly those who are older, do not consider right or excusable. What is so different about their circumstances?
I don’t know if they are contributory factors, but I do know that I did not grow up through the seventies and eighties a so thoroughly targeted recipient of consumer advertising. The era of disposable consumerism fed by incessant novelty product was far less intrusive than it has been for the last twenty years. Though there was always a childhood desire to be ‘grown up’ there was still a distinct separation in the mind of children between theirs and the adult world. That has disappeared and now children are just a different subset of consumer.
The celebrity culture that existed in my childhood was distant and tended more to an adult world than a child audience. It wasn’t all pervasive, it was considered trivial and it was never the focus of the news to the level it is now.
When I was a child was there a huge number of hidden children that suffered clinical depression? Or the varieties of eating disorders, suicide attempts or other psychiatric disorders that we generally consider to be (at their earliest) the concern of young adults but are increasingly creeping into the lives of primary-school aged children?
Was my childhood so unusual that until the 1980s the majority of my friend’s parents had stable work and affordable housing?
Was my childhood so unusual that the kids at my primary school only really aspired to occasional passing fashion fads? And is twenty-four hour, multi-channel TV creating a mental environment where everything (both on and off the screen) now has a life of a few weeks at best, creating a perpetual hunger for the next fashionable ‘must-have’?
Is there a more readily accepted culture of entitlement, fed by media pundits, than there was when I was a child?
Is there more common, general public acceptance that politicians are more corrupt, and corruptible, than there was when I was a child?
Are the disparities of wealth between the extremely rich and the rest of the public more apparent than when I was a child?
Is money more central to our ideas of cultural and social value now than when I was child?
I know it isn’t a simplistic case of cause and effect; I know of twins, born within minutes of each other and raised in identical environments from home through to secondary schools who, as adults, are absolutely different in their characters and moral outlook.
I don’t know the answers. I’m not a social scientist. I’m an artist and I just look at things.
I do know that the capacity for theft is a common human trait – driven by opportunity and a perceived personal need. Some of it is illegal and some of it is formalised into our society as being acceptable practise. The capacity for violence is equally reprehensible and justifiable for most people, dependant on circumstance. The responsibility for change is too important to be left to the politicians – we all have a duty to involve ourselves with our communities in a positive way.
But that’s another blog post.
“rest with their children, idealists and fools” 2011