Looking at the whys is not optional

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, August 9, 2011 12:01 EDT
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Camila Batmanghelidjh has a powerful piece in The Independent about the social underpinnings of the riots in London and elsewhere in England, and how the collapse of the social contract made this violence inevitable. Quoted at length for brilliance:

Working at street level in London, over a number of years, many of us have been concerned about large groups of young adults creating their own parallel antisocial communities with different rules. The individual is responsible for their own survival because the established community is perceived to provide nothing. Acquisition of goods through violence is justified in neighbourhoods where the notion of dog eat dog pervades and the top dog survives the best. The drug economy facilitates a parallel subculture with the drug dealer producing more fiscally efficient solutions than the social care agencies who are too under-resourced to compete.

The insidious flourishing of anti-establishment attitudes is paradoxically helped by the establishment. It grows when a child is dragged by their mother to social services screaming for help and security guards remove both; or in the shiny academies which, quietly, rid themselves of the most disturbed kids. Walk into the mental hospitals and there is nothing for the patients to do except peel the wallpaper. Go to the youth centre and you will find the staff have locked themselves up in the office because disturbed young men are dominating the space with their violent dogs. Walk on the estate stairwells with your baby in a buggy manoeuvring past the condoms, the needles, into the lift where the best outcome is that you will survive the urine stench and the worst is that you will be raped. The border police arrive at the neighbour's door to grab an "over-stayer" and his kids are screaming. British children with no legal papers have mothers surviving through prostitution and still there's not enough food on the table.

It's not one occasional attack on dignity, it's a repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession. Young, intelligent citizens of the ghetto seek an explanation for why they are at the receiving end of bleak Britain, condemned to a darkness where their humanity is not even valued enough to be helped. Savagery is a possibility within us all. Some of us have been lucky enough not to have to call upon it for survival; others, exhausted from failure, can justify resorting to it.

Emphasis mine.  Whenever something like this happens, there's a widespread tendency to shy away from trying to understand why, for fear that doing so will somehow come across as excusing those who commit violence, especially against their own communities.  But refusing to understand the situation leaves us in an even uglier space.  After all, the violence in concentrated in some communities and not others; the link between who riots and poverty is undeniable.  (Not that some people don't try, as one woman on Twitter complained to me that she's totally seen expensive sneakers on the feet of a rioter, which apparently renders the entire problem of poverty in Britain moot.  This, despite the fact that a pair of sneakers is not a job, it is not an education, and what it costs probably couldn't even pay for a week's worth of meals.)  If we pull faces and say that the only moral position is to write off the rioters as thugs and monsters, we're left with the question of why some communities break out into fire and some do not, why some people's children are rioting in the streets and some are not.  If we eliminate, out of the principle of not wanting to make excuses, these are the options left for why rioting tends to be so strongly associated with poverty: The poor are inherently, perhaps genetically inferior people with violence born into them. I personally reject this thesis, as it's never been proven with scientific evidence, and not for lack of trying from those who stand to gain from the discovery that inherent inferiority creates poverty, and not social injustice.  

It's also a more hopeless theory.  If we refuse to look at the whys of these situations, we basically are refusing to look at solutions.  Wriitng off the rioters as thugs and monsters and not asking why some people turn thuggish and some don't means never even making the first step towards preventing future riots.  By looking at social causes, we can at least start down a path that prevents future riots.  

I'm not excusing the rioters.  At the end of the day, each individual has moral responsibility not to stab, throw things, or set fire to the possessions of innocent people.  But the rioters aren't the only people who have flouted their moral obligations here.  The decision-makers of society have the choice not to treat people living in poverty like shit.  Choosing against that is also immoral.  While responding to abuse with abuse isn't morally correct, it's also inevitable if the abuse is large-scale, as it sounds from this essay like it is.  If we're going to cast moral judgments, we need to make sure that everyone who has erred is held accountable, and not just the ones who erred the most recently while being the most vulnerable to the criminal justice system.  

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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