The London Riots by Matthew Allison

Over a month has passed since the August riots exploded across the country. As memories of those August days fade into the recent past, one might expect the beginning of a dispassionate reflection on the apparent causes and potential lessons to be drawn from the shocking violence and disorder which characterised those events. Over the past week however, debates over the riots have reached a new tenor, largely as a result of the comments of Justice Secretary Ken Clarke writing in the Guardian (05.09.11)

The crux of Clarke’s argument is that the rioters involved in those August nights were drawn from a ‘feral underclass’ of society; a catch all definition for repeat offenders whose only desire in life is to wreak damage and destruction upon their communities. His comments were made in the wake of the revelation that 75% of those convicted over the age of 18 were previous offenders and in this sense his analysis may seem justified; despite previous encounters with the judicial system, the core of the rioters were unrepentant and unreformed; ready to commit crime again.

The desire to apportion blame to a distinct and identifiable group is both natural and unavoidable. As Monday’s Home Affairs select committee revealed, the bill for the damage caused by the riots extends into the hundreds of millions of pounds. In the context of such a financial burden, scape-goating is bound to occur. What is alarming however is the extent to which both the public and politicians are prepared to resort to lazy and discriminatory diagnoses of the riots as the actions of some lower order of society, sadly removed from our community of values. Ken Clarke’s odious comments are perhaps the most public and transparent example of a prejudice which is hardwired into our society.

The attempt to saddle a section of society with sole responsibility for the riots-and in doing so to dehumanize them and portray them as outside our system of values-  is fundamentally the wrong way to respond to events which were symptomatic of the whole of society and its ills, not just one section of it. More unhelpful still is the alarming use of base animal metaphors for the perpetrators of the riots. Clarke’s ‘feral underclass’ remarks are just one example of a phenomenon which has manifested itself across all sections of society. Social media in particular were an alarming source of such comments. Depictions of rioters as ‘dogs’ ‘rats’ and other subhuman categories (some of which hardly bear repeating) were disturbingly prevalent in tweets and status updates on the part of the online community. These responses are unhelpful in two regards: most obviously they serve to reinforce discrimination (often overtly racial) and prejudice against broad sections of society. The normative assumption that ‘this is the way young/black/poor people behave’ was common to many such comments. Secondly to dehumanize the perpetrators of the riots and portray them as beyond (or rather below) the sensibilities of the mass of society is to fundamentally excuse them from responsibility for their actions. If we are to expect criminals to be reformed we must expose them to a universal system of moral standards and ethics.

Moralizing over the breakdown of individual responsibility amongst the’ feral underclass ‘is the easy option. The difficult fact that we must confront is this: the rioters are members of our society, their actions (deplorable though they may be) are symptomatic of deeper social problems which we cannot insulate ourselves from, try as we might. Society as such is not an essential object: it is the product of the actions of and interactions we all perform on a day to day basis, sustained by commitment to shared norms and values. Thus when society breaks down momentarily, as it did over the several heated nights in August, we must all share in the task of its learning, reconciling and rebuilding.

The hard-line response of the government, epitomised by Clarke’s recent comments has squarely failed in this regard. Responsibility for the riots has been apportioned to a criminal minority who do not share in mass society’s moral code. Tough penalties have been meted out and police numbers have been reinforced. These measures are visible political expedients, aimed at eliminating the symptoms, but not the disease itself.

Tough sentencing and castigation in the media will serve to reinforce the alienation and despair which led to many being tempted by the prospect of violence and looting in the first place. Instead we should enter into a process of dialogue with the communities involved in the riots, demanding genuine engagement on the part of our police forces rather than heavy handed, punitive tactics which have led many in the community to view the police as an enemy rather than protector. The tone of the debate set by Clarke can only be damaging. To make out that the section of society involved in the riots was somehow psychologically different from the mass of people who weren’t will only reinforce negative stereotypes and prejudices, whether they be based on age, race or income.

If a proper process of healing and reconciliation is to occur we must avoid the tendency to portray the riots as an act of mindless violence on the part of a distinct social group, disconnected from the majority of the population by their feral or animalistic instincts. The acts of violence, although committed by individuals, cannot be extricated from their social context. If this type of societal breakdown is to be avoided in the future we must look beyond one section of society in searching for explanations and solutions and focus on the wider picture: our culture of materialism, the legacy of generations of deprivation in cities, the failure of schools to provide children with as sense of aspiration and the legacy of cuts to welfare programs. The ‘feral underclass’ evoked by Clarke is a convenient and lazy excuse for social problems which extend beyond individuals and beyond one particular group.  If society is to get better, the public and politicians alike must face up to this fact.