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Wilson Wong

Them and Us

Authors: Wilson Wong Wilson Wong

18 August 2011

Last week after shops were looted and stores burnt, the media, politicians, and many in the chattering classes quickly labelled the perpetrators  “thugs”, “criminals”, “looters”, “brazen”, “arsonists”, “scum”, “hooligans”, “vandals”, “black” etc.

The Prime Minister had his choice line – "This is criminality pure and simple and it has to be confronted and defeated…”. There is no question that the acts of looting and property damage were criminal but the behaviours are far from “simple”. The stereotype drawn by the words above fail to explain why among the names read out in Magistrates Courts, are otherwise respectable citizens from ‘good’ backgrounds’.

In The Deal in 2020, using research data from a Delphi exercise to explore the future of employment, I synthesised a vision of Britain in 2020 entitled “Tribalism”. In this scenario, many developed economies faced a stratified society with the global apex supported by a mobile technocrat/ innovator class who is in turn supported by a working class vulnerable to being replaced by technology or cheaper labour and below these would be an underclass of workers  who drift in and out of dreadful work all through their working lives. This bifurcation of the labour market into good and bad jobs has been borne out by a recent labour market study (Sissons, 2011).

The rest would be the permanently unemployed, victims of the push for productivity at the expense of jobs.This is a society where the lack of social mobility, limited access to opportunity and education give rise to tribes coalescing around issues while maintaining multiple identities and multiple memberships. Tribalism envisions a society of tribes each looking after their own without regard for the traditional classifications of socio-economic castes. These group identities form powerful bulwarks against the traditional integrative institutions of state (e.g. the legal system, school, church, politicians etc.). What we saw in the burning cities of Britain was the expression of such tribes, albeit playing to the incessant beat of material consumption rather than to any political cause.

What we saw last week was group behaviour shaped by context, a very powerful driver as we witnessed with prison guards in Abu Ghraib, and in Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiments where students abused fellow students while in simulated prisoner and guard roles. Framed within a materialist culture, getting something for nothing within the ‘safety’ of a mob is intoxicating. “Criminality pure and simple” belies the fact that the mob once dissipated is a diverse group of individuals, many of whom are deeply regretful of their actions. “They” are not all a mindless, disenfranchised anti-social gang of thugs any more than we are when we support our home team. 

Will policies and actions pave the way for a better future for the generations hence or merely assuage the anger of the moment at the cost of doing further damage to the fabric of our society? It’s too easy and primal to punish the looters. If the Prime Minister and others truly believe that “we’re in this together” then apply the “tough love” to everyone - the bankers, politicians and white-collar criminals - not just to the looters of last week. The research evidence challenges those in power to provide leadership – to admit that all of us have that potential to be anti-social given the context and opportunity. St Matthew wisely said, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”If we are all to live in a civil society, there is no ‘them and us’ just ‘us’.

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 5 Comments)

John Kirkham

18 Aug 2011 10:04PM

This is the first challenging piece I have read on the sorry state of our society, where we can see others motes and not our own beams; and quite frankly, no-one is doing their job properly or being held accountable for our own poor performance.
So the real personal challenge is what am I, personally going to do, which will make a difference.
We could all start by entering this level of debate rather than join in with the simplistic drum beat.

Benny Profane

19 Aug 2011 11:01AM

I love how the obtuse language of the social sciences flourishes in the wake of disturbances like these. The 'verbosity as insight' that usually populates the world of academic journals floods into the real world for a short period of time before a short retreat back to the comfort of the Chesterfield. The inevitable contradictions abound. There are multiple tribes but also just 'them and us'. There is a 'bifurcated labour market' creating lack of social mobility but the perpetrators were admittedly from all social backgrounds. There are 'group identities' but individual choices within a context. We are all potentially anti-social, yet stunningly obedient. There is the 'intoxification of the mob' but 'they are not mindless'. The Chesterfield awaits.


20 Aug 2011 12:44PM

Mr Benny, it is perhaps a better method to proceed by a paradox of the social rather than to deter it into a finality which serves our blood lust. Are we all lawful people? Yes. Do we not all dream, for better or for worse, of the revolution where we get a chance to impose our own way? This is the nature of ideology surely. The media spasm that still accompanies this 'event' is more like a phantasm than an analysis, a phantasm of 'hard' justice, of innate evil, of sacrificial reciprocity in social flogging. All things that are lost in this society, as far as ritual is concerned, but non the less fascinate us in their discourse.


21 Aug 2011 1:40AM

The immediate reaction of government was not so much a measured response, but designed largely to calm and appease the law abiding public, many of whom lives and livelihoods have been very much affected by the riots. It is an expression of outrage that, during the riots, people wanted to hear.

There are things in this blog that are good, but those are boring to talk about. Instead, the two things I would like to argue are: that there is or will be a strict bifurcation of the workforce because of a lack of access to opportunities and education; and that the behaviour that we saw in the riots can be accounted for by that observed in the Stamford prison experiments.

On the lack of opportunity and education, I would like to point out that, despite the economic downturn, access to basic education as well as jobs opportunities in Europe and the developed world at large has never, in history, been easier.

Many obstacles to climbing social and corporate rungs have been lowered or removed entirely. I'm not saying that things are good, and cannot be improved, but instead that strides have been made over the last few decades to level the playing field, and hopefully we will continue to see more improvements on this front.

I would attribute this partly to globalisation of peoples and businesses, that in a fluid workforce, the balance on the scale between 'who you know' and 'what you know' is now tipped towards the latter.

As a concrete example consider opportunities to women in the workplace. Here, we are still some way from equality, but have made good progress in starting to equalise pay and providing more support towards the work-family balance.

As for education, even discounting the steadily growing number of students getting 'A's in their GCSE; it is clear that basic education up to A-levels as well as other froms of tertiary education is now a staple in the UK for those of want it. Again, I do think that many vast improvements can be made, particular in the quality of eduction provided, but surely access to basic education is not the problem.

The second point I would like to make is that I don't think that rioting has anything to with the mentality seen from the Stamford prison experiment. The key point in this experiment is dehumanisation of persons towards their peers, induced by subtle and incremental steps aimed at displacing ethical boundaries. I would like to point out that I don't think that rioters consider the businesses, local or chained, peers; neither was it a systemic moving of boundaries. Their behaviour, it seems to me, was driven by opportunistic urges; or even primal mass action like those explored in Golding's 'Lord of the files': lead by a small hand full and copied by others.

The worrying questions remain: how do we account for the actions by youths in the riots and what can we do about it? The actions of any single person may be difficult to explain, but the anti-social behaviour displayed happened up and down the UK over 3 days, en mass.

The rioters seemed to have no particular agenda, but rather were motived by opportunism with a strong undercurrent of frustration towards the establishment. So much so, that I glibly told my friends that this is probably as close to true anarchy in the UK as we will ever get.

I suspect that we will find no single underlying cause, but a multitude of accumulated issues. Underpinning this is an identity, both individual and social, that the police, the government and even rest of society seems to be largely out of touch with or have ignored.

To me the thought that this has happened is vastly worrying; for in this instance, there is no enemy.

What I do hope to see after the dust has settled, and the courts have been seen to dole out punishments, is that the real work begins. As with any form of good parenting, putting a teenager in the corner, or even giving him a lashing is never enough. The careful and difficult task of trying to understand their behaviour, getting them to understand why it is unacceptable and from that instilling a new sense of purpose has to start. And this with the most troubled of youths, at the most awkward time in their lives against a challenging economic backdrop.

There hasn't been an explicit effort towards 'social parenting'. In the past, perhaps because of a more a cohesive and uniform social and family structure, it has never been necessary. Maybe now it is?

I don't know what form this will take, but hope to see various facets of society, including the police, social services, local community centers and groups, businesses both large and small, and crucially the public in general, instigating lines of communication; and eventually evolving this into a network of support and encouragement, providing boundaries and stability to lives that do matter.

A friend of mine, since the riots, has decided to help by donating her time to a private charity. She will befriend 8 to 12 year olds from inner city London. I think that she is one of the few people who has her ear to the ground and by instinct understands why this is happening. She feels the need to contribute and has taken a step in the right direction.

Jonathan Wilson

26 Oct 2011 6:34PM

An insightful blog prompting interesting reflections. Thank you.

I don't think David Cameron believed what he said about "criminality, pure and simple" for a moment. He is far too subtle a thinker to believe that criminality is ever "pure and simple". But he needed a sound bite to appease and appeal to the simple-minded in order to seem to be in control. Riots demand instant revenge. Imprisoning rioters at all, let alone for “punitive” periods will do little to reduce rioting, but it will expensively educate and condemn many people to a life of crime.

A striking feature of the blog is its timeliness. As another has noted, it was among the very first to start to think critically about the glib explanations. Recent revelations about the rioters have shown that they are a remarkably ordinary and diverse group of ages, residences, employment and now prison sentences.

I wonder if riots provoke such visceral judicial responses because they evoke such deep fears about the fragility of society? And they are so visually compelling, especially when things are set on fire, especially buildings and symbols of authority like police vehicles, or of salvation like fire engines, or even (god forbid) ambulances. They are also powerfully dramatic violent stories i which we don't know the outcome, but we do see the archetypal struggle between good an evil, between law and disorder.

In 1841, in “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds”, Charles Mackay commented that “The follies of the mankind are not unique to the modern world” and the most insightful text I have read about riots is Gustav Le Bon's "The Crowd", first published in 1896 that draws on examples from ancient and modern history.

More than a century later, Le Bon is still relevant, because he describes atavistic aspects of people's character. He notes that the crowd is fundamentally different from the people who comprise it. He says too that violent crowds are symptoms of deep shifts of social thought and that the power of the crowd is only ever destructive. Riots are very extreme example of the violent crowd behaviour that Le Bon describes.

Le Bon writes that crowds are notable for
1. the feeling they give people of invincibility
2. the contagion by which notions surge through them
3. their suggestibility and impulsiveness
4. their irritability and speed from gaiety to anger
5. their mobility and fluidity, spreading, dispersing and reforming remorselessly until their energy is as suddenly spent as it was ignited.

The riots last August did not happen for any single, simple reason. They were no more caused by the shooting of an (unarmed) gunman than the Great War was caused by the shooting of an Austrian arch-duke. To do damage, a trigger needs a detonator, explosive and fuel. Much fuel for riots has been laid down over years by different parties and classes. Politicians with their secrecy, expenses frauds and systemic lying and erosion of trust that borders on treasonable (e.g. Blair's War, Brown's boom) have made ordinary people feel powerless. Bankers and major plc board directors with their "heads or tails, we win, you lose" greedy irresponsibility have focused people on money and possession, bit not responsibility, or stewardship or care. Global corporations with their apparent total disregard for the value of community or nation relative to tax and cost minimisation have set spurious superficial examples to everyone. Why should anyone care?News media firms valuing only the sensational story, without compassion or ethics or thought for the human consequences have eliminated most if not all trust in the news we see, while watching TV itself corrodes feelings of togetherness.

These and other factors have relentlessly, over time, contributed to a UK in which many people feel utterly “rootless, voiceless and powerless” as the UN millennium report put it. They do seem to be possible precursors of the possible Tribalism dystopia that Wilson Wong foresees as one possible scenario for The Deal in 2020.

Out of that frustration, in the environment of the crowd, inflamed by the temptation of anonymous celebrity on TV, behind a scarf, hoodie, or pulled-up collar, the greatest surprise to me is that the riots once they had kicked off, did not last longer.

The Daily Telegraph used to (maybe still do) have a joke sociologist, Dr Henz Kiosk, whose coment on anyting was “we are all guilty” In this case, I think he’s right.