In the analysis and discussion of recent events in England, many have struggled to identify causes, and provide explanations and understandings of behaviour that most hardly recognise. This frustrating search for meaning has seen media outlets, politicians, and by extension ‘the public’, develop a vocabulary for the situation, a slowly consensual (among those who comment, at any rate) set of words for things that have proven difficult to describe.
Who was doing these things? The BBC used the word ‘protestors’ from Saturday evening, when the first gathering of people became violent, up until sometime on Tuesday, after the worst of the violence seemed over. Then ‘rioters’ or ‘looters’ became the norm (as it was throughout with many other media outlets), delegitimising the perpetrators, rendering them, correctly, unjustified. Most blamed things on ‘youths’, describing, roughly, those between 14 and about 20 who seemed to form the core of the violence. The insistent degrading of the word ‘youth’ in the shocked rhetoric of commentary served to extinguish its inherent sprightliness.
But anyway, what about the children who have been arrested, what about the adults, graphic designers and primary school workers and university graduates? None of these sit easily among the ‘youths.’ Neither do politicians, media commentators and most voters.
‘Underclass’ is another term that recurs in the chatter. After falling out of fashion under the previous government, it has returned in the last year or so to cover the unemployed non-participants in what we think of as society. The word betrays far more about those who use it than those it describes. As a catch-all for people who took part in disturbances, it provides a convenient way of distancing ‘them’ from ‘us’. Under what? Metaphorically, a class that sits under everything else, squashed down by it, supporting and being compressed by the rest of the structure. Or perhaps it means that they are not class-worthy: an under-caste, untouchable, as much as an underclass. It’s an ugly expression, dismissive and uncaring, stripping people of worth and value. No one would use it to describe themself.
So, these underclass youths were lawless. That’s an easier one – they were certainly breaking laws with an abandon and carelessness that suggests laws were unimportant or irrelevant. That said, laws can only be broken if they exist, just as communities can only be destroyed if there are communities to be destroyed.
Lawless perhaps they were, but mindless? It’s difficult to imagine mindless violence, especially for those who think they know their minds. Does it mean that the perpetrators were not thinking? That seems wrong. That they were thinking collectively, the folly of crowds replacing the wisdom of the individual? Or that they were ‘out of their minds’? Wrong again, unless we mean that they were caught up in the moment, excited and uncontrolled. This ‘temporary insanity’ defence is no such thing; the word is problematic precisely because it is exculpatory. It allows the perpetrators to be cast as unthinking and without responsibility, rather than just irresponsible and callous. It also lets the rest of the populace off the hook. Mindless violence, almost by definition, could not have been foreseen by those of us with minds – it is incomprehensible as much as reprehensible.
Above all, those who brought violence to the streets were consumers. Indeed, their consumption was as pure as the fires that consumed buildings, an almost logical extension of an impulse that, more than any, could be said to unite the people of this country. That they refused to participate in the exchange mechanism that most people use, of money for goods, is noteworthy, but only in as far as it reminds us that creating the aspiration to own without providing the means to do it can be a dangerous thing.
What were these people actually doing? Looting, a word that carries with it a distant thrill of prizes and spoils, seems to be the most common answer. Too, vandalising, rioting, terrorising, stealing, beating, intimidating, burning, smashing; but also laughing, enjoying, drinking, buzzing, BBMing, running, organising. The shock of some of these words is counterpointed in the wholesomeness, or banality, of others. There is excitement as well. Rioting bears weight, loaded with just revolutions and popular uprising, dragging with it a history of political acts (and Acts).
As the perpetrators of these various acts used social media and electronic text communication to facilitate them, so those around the cities, country, world were able and willing to vicariously experience the excitement, to speculate and gossip on Twitter, to act as agents merely by chatting about the next ‘target’. The fear of violence was kept at bay by the intoxication of it, and even, hidden, the wish for things to get worse (though not, presumably, by those who had first-hand experience of what happened). The crowds became a societal id, darkly alluring, but masked and sub-conscious.
The question of why is perhaps the most difficult of all. David Cameron points to a ‘broken society’, in which parents take no responsibility for their children, communities fail to stand up to unruly elements within them, and swathes of the young feel isolated from the rest of ‘society’. This is a two-way street. They are no more isolated from us than we from them. It ‘is not about poverty, it’s about culture’, Cameron says. That’s a convenient relief.
That word community, and its partner phrase, community leader, prove challenging as well. Communities can take many forms: geographical (though neighbourhood would be better), ethnic, cultural, religious, economic, professional. Were those on the streets part of communities? Did they make a community themselves? Are criminal gangs communities? ‘Dead the colour war’, said one BBM transmission apparently used to organise the unrest, a call to community of exactly the sort employed by those community leaders given media platforms to call for calm.
What is a community leader? Someone who leads a community, no doubt, but not necessarily someone who talks as if they lead a community. There must be a community to lead, and there must be one worth leading. If the perpetrators of the crimes ignored their community leaders, then they were not community leaders, or at least, they did not lead the right community.
What happens now? David Cameron thinks that these events were ‘criminality, pure and simple’, though that seems too kind, too pure and simple. He talks of justice, law and order, rebuilding and repairing, but also of a culture that ‘says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.’ He talks of ‘immorality’, of ‘discipline’, of ‘rewards’. He calls on ‘the law abiding people who play by the rules’ and promises to track down ‘the lawless minority’, who are not ‘in any way representative of our country – nor of our young people.’ These are mostly admirable notions, if often abstract, but they ignore the reality: this ‘lawless minority’ do represent our country, whether we want them to or not. Media coverage alone has seen to that. Dealing with them may require, after all, making deals with them.