Riots point to society's broken moral compass


ONE OF the most surreal accounts of the British riots was written by clergywoman Hayley Matthews in the Guardian. She was accidentally “kettled” (penned in by police) in a riot area in Salford. She was wearing, as she put it herself, her “dog collar”.

Bizarrely, her clerical collar meant that whenever she came in the line of fire from stone-throwers, different rioters went to some lengths to protect her, including escorting her away and physically shielding her, before going back to brick-throwing again. People smashing windows and looting stopped what they were doing when they saw her, or even declared what was going on was disgusting.

She watched in amazement as mothers sent their young kids into dark and dangerous buildings to steal food and beer, apparently because unlike their mothers, they were too young to be charged if caught. She saw teens take televisions from a shop, only to smash them on the ground.

One of the things that struck me most about her account was that she heard over and over again from people involved how funny they thought the whole thing was.

I have heard reams of analysis on why the riots happened. But somehow Rev Matthews, wandering bewildered through smoke and mayhem among people who appeared to treat it all “like one big joke”, seems like a metaphor for modern Britain.

Her presence in clerical garb briefly woke memories of a different culture, and even prompted acts of chivalry, but was not enough to stem hysteria or people taking advantage of a situation to loot and destroy.

In her final paragraph, she asks despairingly what can be done. “[Do we] continue to promulgate the values that have created this deadly cocktail of haves and have-nots, faithless, hopeless people who have been taught that consumerism is a recreational right and all moral and religious education completely nonsensical?”

Britain has been hammered by scandals at all levels of society. The MPs’ expenses scandal affected all shades of political opinion, and “mindless greed” is an as appropriate description for some of it as it is for the actions of the rioters.

Then we saw the depths to which the tabloids sank in hacking murdered Milly Dowler’s phone and hundreds of others. Although journalists exposed what was going on, the media as a whole was damaged.

Now they have had riots that appeared to be about nothing except settling scores with police and getting “fings for free”, to quote one young female looter who enjoyed the “bit of a celebration” she had. It is a pity that the television cameras did not return to her to ask her what she thought about the young men mown down by a car, or the 68-year-old man who died after being attacked while putting out a fire. Or the Malaysian student who was beaten and then robbed by others who were pretending to sympathise, in what has been dubbed the parable of the Bad Samaritan.

The first people charged as a result of the riots are an eclectic lot. They include university students, primary school workers, dental assistants and those referred to as “career criminals”, many of whom were white and held down jobs as well as their main “career”. They don’t fit either the stereotypes of the right or of the left. What many seem to have in common is a very damaged moral compass.

It seems that for some at least, the riots were primarily entertainment, a chance to do something utterly irresponsible without apparent consequences. It doesn’t mean that the other explanations on offer, everything from moral decay, to lack of parenting, particularly from fathers, to a reaction to cuts, deprivation and inequality are all wrong. However, none of them is adequate in itself as an explanation for a society where values are so shallow that watching others steal, burn shops and terrorise people is enough of a reason to join in.

When Juvenal wrote 1,900 years ago in Rome of bread and circuses being used to keep a society passive, he warned of a society in terminal decline, even though it did not fully break up for a very long time afterwards.

In both Britain and Ireland, at every level of society, did some of us substitute consumption and entertainment for bread and circuses? Were they our preferred narcotics? When stripped away, did the lack of deeper values become embarrassingly obvious, and in the case of Britain, violently obvious?

Societies cannot exist without trust and a shared moral code. Both left and right-wing arguments have strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately, neither is a complete explanation.

The right tends to emphasise personal responsibility and strong families, while neglecting the fact that an untrammelled market makes it difficult to achieve either. The left tends to emphasise poverty and inequality as factors in social unrest, but is very uncomfortable with the idea that any particular family form offers advantages to children, or helps to build stronger communities. The right will usually tend to downplay sustainability in favour of a growth model, while the left sometimes acts as if redistribution is the only way out of poverty, ignoring the fact that some ethnic communities with strong work ethics despise the “handout” culture.

The old categories of left and right don’t fit a world where individuals feel impotent, and as if their only value lies in what they own.

It is not a coincidence that it was primarily consumer goods like expensive trainers and electrical goods that were stolen. Consumption is presented virtually as a civic duty, including injunctions to spend our way out of recession. The fact that some people, no matter what their background or degree of privilege, could not resist “fings for free”, even when the price tag was anarchy, is therefore not surprising.

Maybe the jarring shock of the riots will enable people to look again at society’s central values. Maybe, too, there is hope in the hundreds of people who turned up to clean up the mess, mobilised by the same social media that was a factor in the original riots. Maybe this could mark a turning point, a time when a deeper, more compassionate vision of what it means to be human emerges.

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