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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’.