The August 2011 riots in London and across England’s major cities have come and gone. Like a hurricane, they swept through our communities leaving death, destruction and despair behind. In Southwark, several incidents of looting, torching and violence erupted – in Rotherhithe, Walworth and most dramatically in Peckham. Peckham residents responded to a drama company’s invitation to post their thoughts by creating the Wall of Hope from post-it notes. And the community came together – not just in the immediate practical clean up but by establishing new mechanisms for dialogue and shared action.
The national media is still full of the stories of individuals going before the courts and being sentenced to harsher then usual punishment. The press focus on the youth of the offenders, their apparent unblemished background or their unusual lifestyle. The blame machine went into overdrive once the uprisings were quelled. It was all the fault of the parents, the police, the politicians, the press; everyone it seems was partly culpable for this serious human tragedy.
Seeds and norms
But the sudden and unexpected seeding of disturbance across the city and the country has no real explanation. Discontent, poverty, lack of opportunity have all been amongst us for decades or longer but now they have emerged in looting for consumer goods, violence against the police and property and apparent thugery. Individuals were caught up in crimes of the moment and of crowd behaviour that points to deeper ills in the culture and norms of their community.
It seems too that those who fulminate against the perpetrators of havoc just do not understand the rioters’ actions, still less their motivation, values and world view. They call them feral and thugs and focus on gangs and curbing the mob. It has always been so but the modern aristocracy of politicians and other powerful interests work within a completely different frame of reference. Their lives are so exalted and privileged that their values and norms seem completely alien to most community members. Wealth has robbed them of their ability to create compassion or work for the common good; the rhetoric of the elite is all about revenge and punishment without pausing to ask what forces are at work propelling these citizens to such criminal actions.
Values and frames
The incomprehensibility of the disturbances remains the principal mood music at Whitehall and amongst our leading intellectuals. I wonder how far we are willing to entertain the thought that we might be living in parallel but mirror worlds, each fed by the same deep unease. The reality is that the rich and well-connected have focused the attention of our media on a lifestyle replete with fast cars, expense accounts and endless holidays in the sun. These same values – of live-for-today, get what you can when you can and hang the consequences – are those that are evident in the riots and looting. How do you make a point when you feel completely powerless and ignored by society? If your values and frame are about a consumer lifestyle, taking first and asking second with no regard to the impact on others or on the planet, then the riots become more explicable.
Consumer or Citizen?
We live in a society in which we hold up for worship the lives of celebrities of the arts, politics, media or business who express just these same selfish values. TV and the magazines are full of the lies about happiness, love and fulfilment coming through material goods and ‘lifestyle choices’. At heart we know these do not sustain individuals or create a sense of community. When this is the frame which our society holds dear, the result is community disintegration and rampant individualism. We know the answer is to replace this frame with one that emphasises the common good and shared values of tolerance, respect and equality. But we are a long way from that in our national culture.
An alternative comes from grassroots organising that focuses on building mutual relationships between citizens, sharing the work of making tough decisions together and shaping a culture of accountability at all levels. But more of that next time.
Do you agree that our materialist culture and moribund democracy makes the riots more understandable?
Do you think that community values are lacking or should we be working on better parenting or stronger police responses?
Can we ever hope to shift the balance of a profit-driven media away from lauding the privileged and more to keeping people in touch with each other?
The Common Cause Handbook (2011) Puts the case for working with values and frames across different campaigns Available from http://valuesandframes.org/downloads/
George Lakoff (2006) Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know your Values and Frame the Debate Chelsea Green Publishing