On Tuesday morning, my first day back at work, which also meant back to listening to the radio on my commute, I first heard about the London riots. My first thoughts were bewilderment. I didn't know about the police shooting, it had bypassed me as it only can bypass someone who forgets to switch on TV and radio for a full weekend. My first question was "Why?" Yet all there was was people talking about "those kids" how they weren't disciplined enough and they knew no boundaries. There was no coverage of the motifs of the perpetrators, as if they had relinquished their right to voice their views, when really, if you want to tackle this violence it kind of helps to understand why those kids went off the rails. You know, tackling it at the root rather than letting it escalate even further?
It was only this morning that I had a first glimpse of how the young people saw this whole thing. From their words (selective as they may be) it was clear that a) they knew they were doing something wrong b) they didn't think there were any real consequences to their behaviour, c) they could afford the stuff but why pay if they can loot and d) when asked if someone robbed their house and set it on fire what they would think it was clear that this was a totally different story to them.
To me, this demonstrates a few things. First up is an unawareness that the destruction actually harms anyone in any serious way. It's a laugh. It's a bit of fun. The destruction to them doesn't harm anyone they care about and there was no moral barrier to stealing, as it was directed against shops that are big chains and can afford a bit of damage or are insured. Those young people didn't care about what and whom they were damaging. They didn't empathise with the shopowners and other people who were damaged as a consequence of their action.
Secondly, there is the lack of consequences of their actions that are serious enough to act as a deterrent. A criminal record? So what. Prison? It won't be for long. There is no sense that a criminal record may be an obstacle in life. Thinking back, the stuff that deterred me as a youngster were much more to do with worry how I would look in the eyes of my family, neighbours, teachers, and other role models..
Thirdly, underlying is an us and them mentality which in turn got really drummed in through the coverage in the media: Those kids that know no boundaries, they are the minority, we are respectable citizens, our society is under threat by the action of criminal youngsters. Yet really, these young people are our society, as much as you and I are. Underlying this behaviour is an already existing perception of not being part of society, of now owing anything. Disenfranchised young people who have little opportunities to succeed in life, who don't see that in working together and behaving in ways that makes for good living together reaps benefits and is worthwhile pursuing. Their only creed is to their gang, to the cool peer group, fuelled by dare devil behaviour (which in itself is a part of being a young male and perfectly normal).
So what causes this perspective? There are a few reasons that I would suggest. First of all, it's the makeup of our society. While we live in a rich country, the difference between the richest and the poorest is growing ever more, and with it, as research has shown, the rates of violence, crime and antisocial behaviour. A society that is perceived as unjust will create members who do not feel the need to respect the society as a whole. Instead, they will only respect those in their stratum/class/gang - you pick the word (The Guardian's Nina Power has put this part of my point much more eloquently than I could ever do).
The call has been loud that these kids need discipline, smacking, authority figurest that show them boundaries and consequences. But you know what? I think that will be futile because they know they are doing something wrong, they know the boundaries and chose to overstep them! Tough parenting has been called for and parents have been blamed. I agree and I disagree: Yes, poor parenting contributes and allows for children to rebel in such a way and neglectful parenting (i.e. not knowing where your child is or not caring much or worse of course) doesn't help. But discipline and smacking are not going to turn bad kids into good kids. Since when has violence (smacking is violence) ever convinced a child to be good? All it does is to force into submisson - temporarily usually. The same goes with a criminal record or some time spent in prison. When a person has chosen to do the wrong thing knowing the consequences, disciplining or penalising them will have little success.
If the young people involved in the riots demonstrate a lack of respect and empathy for those they have damaged, wouldn't it be a better approach to show our kids respect and empathy, to teach them by example but also by explaining to them why respectful behaviour is important? Explaining to them that people have feelings and we need to be mindful of these feelings? Explaining about property and the real cost of making things, how it's not about just the monetary value but the resources, time and effort that go into making things, which therefore need to be respected? Our aim needs to be to raise children who can distinguish between good and bad AND make the right choice.
What's more I understand that the young people have little regard for material items or the people whose property they damaged. We live in a society where everything is available cheeply and where we are detached from many people (and the more detached you are, the less you care). As one of the youngsters said - he could afford to buy the stuff he stole, but why pay if you can get it for free? In a throwaway consumer society it is easier to steal because material objects don't have real value any more. In a society where only your peer group matters, where you have lost connections to a range of different people, where the only role models are in your peer group or on the x-factor, people's feeling also have no value anymore.
So I'll be radical and suggest to show and teach our kids to make things from scratch. Instil a sense of value, purpose, skill, creativity and effort. And I dare you show me one young person who has been raised with respect, empathy and learned how to make things to set those things on fire. And get that inequality in this country sorted - because even I, well adjusted, peaceloving treehugger that I am, feel rather angry seeing the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Angry enough to imagine throwing a stone into a Mercedes Benz or an iPad.