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Rioting And The Herd Instinct

‘Why?’ ‘Why are people doing this?’ These are the questions being asked in bewilderment over and over again, in the press and on television, on twitter, facebook and the blogosphere.

I don’t know the answer, of course I don’t.

But I have an idea for a way of looking at the question which may just help us understand something of what is going on.

It has been an extraordinary couple of days, of lows but also of highs. There is universal wonderment at the fact that ‘pray for London’ and ‘riot clean-up’ were the top subjects on twitter for several hours, now replaced by ‘operation cup of tea’. What does this mean? Well, I think it may be easier to understand the violence and looting if we first look at these extraordinarily positive reactions. It is a very practical solution to turn up at Clapham Junction with gloves and a broom. But if you had been the only person to do so, you would have felt a bit of an idiot. A self-righteous idiot perhaps, but an idiot nonetheless. The people who responded to the #riotcleanup tweets must have wondered at first if  they would be a tiny group who responded. In contrast, can you imagine the life-affirming feeling of being in the crowd below, waving their brooms together in the air? That must have been an exhilarating moment! Heavens, it’s exhilarating  just looking at the photograph. What  might have been regarded as a well-intentioned, but slightly dotty, reaction to the violence if carried out by one person becomes instead a heroic feat if carried out by a multitude, who have universally, if unconsciously, responded to Robert Lowell’s poem:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,

And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied…

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.


So this is the good, the uplifting side of the events of the last few days. But if we turn to look at the looting and violence,  can an analysis of those who came to wield their brooms shed any light on the actions of the rioters? Well, to begin with, I wonder whether those who set fire to cars and buses, and threw stones at the police before smashing shop windows and helping themselves to the contents would have done any of these things if they had been alone? I suggest not. I think they too felt that being amongst a crowd who were doing these things as one was an exhilarating and life-affirming experience.

I expect you, like me, studied Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ at some point in your education. Do you remember how easily the crowd were swayed by Mark Antony’s ‘Brutus is an honourable man‘, so that by the end of the speech he had turned the crowd 180°? Have you ever had the experience of standing in a crowd and being swayed by the emotion of the moment? I have, and it was a salutary lesson. In 1977 Indira Gandhi had been prime minister of India for 11 years, but in that election she lost not only the leadership but her own seat. My friends and I joined what felt like millions of people congregating in front of the newspaper offices to hear the result. When it came, complete strangers were hugging each other with joy. I too felt swept up in the elation, my blood tingling, my pulse racing. In a calmer moment the next day, I wondered what I would have been capable of doing if a demagogue had called on us to act.

It is thus that apartheid, Stalinism and Nazism take root. Look at the Nuremberg rallies. Look at Kristallnacht. What one man or woman on his or her own knows perfectly well is an outrage to human decency becomes acceptable, the norm even, when you are one of a herd.




The main photograph is by Peter Galbraith via fotolia. The second is from Lawcol888 via yfrog

13 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

As well as prayer, I’ve tried to think through why in the main, young people are doing this. Lots of commentary about deprivation, disaffection, anarchy, or just, pure, plain criminality. I’m sure that there are elements of all of these, but I can see that something of the herd instinct may be involved.

Another aspect that I perceive, is the prurient interest of those standing and spectating, observing, and perhaps by their presence, providing encouragement and tacit support for the actions of those actually involved. If you are out there, it’s quite easily to either be swept along with what’s happening, or to become a victim yourself of violence, robbery or worse.

It reminds me of the situation in Northern Ireland, where, while not involved in actual violence themselves, many gave tacit or secret support to the terrorists on either side. In some ways, a form of hero worship or even a feeling that they were fighting for their cause?

A telling comment for me, was the one on twitter where someone said “If looters and rioters can afford £100 trainers, designer clothes, and organise their activities with £300+ mobile’s – don’t talk to me about deprivation”. It seems true that many of those involved are in fact affluent and are joining in for the sheer excitement.

I can remember when young, and there was the activities and fights between Mod’s and Rocker’s, WW2 veterans said that what we needed was another good war – conscription and having all the fighting knocked out of them. I wonder if this is some form of substitute for war for these young people?

The sad thing about all of this, it will be the 9 minute wonder, after the arrests, trials, inquiry report, when the headlines move onto the next story, what will have changed?

First, the prejudices held by many of the older generations against the younger generations will have been reinforced and justified. Second, there will be millions poured into services for the young, only replacing those currently being cut. Thirdly, the situation will calm down, but will continue to simmer, awaiting another spark to just ‘blow’ again.

We need a national debate, involving the young, about what sort of country and society we want for them. We need to engage with them, provide opportunities for them and to deal with the many grievances of them, and other groups, who feel alienated form the society they live in.

Surely its up to us to make our voices heard, badgering our MP’s and public representatives, including church leaders to speak out openly and frankly about the iniquities in our society.

Finally, our example to the young should be positive and affirmative, not the current, depressing, universal condemnation that is evidenced in the popular media.

10 August 2011 06:16
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, UKViewer, for this thoughtful comment. You and I are both of an age (I remember Mods and Rockers too, but also Toxteth and Brixton and…) where this feels like ‘deja vu all over again’.

But something does feel different this time – it feels synthetic, somehow, as a political protest. Anger and despair at the poverty trap does not feel like the main motivation. One police officer apparently remarked ‘it’s a little late-night shopping’, reinforced for me by the sight of two young women on the glass-covered pavement giving instructions to their menfolk which items they should bring out from the shop they had just broken into.

10 August 2011 06:34
Revsimmy said...

As someone else “of an age”, I agree that this does feel different from the Toxteth/Brixton riots of the early 80s, but it is taking place in a very different political landscape. Although we have a Conservatism that still has elements of Thatcherism within it, there is no real voice of socialism in the Old Labour sense, no powerful Trade Union movement and no credible hard Left as represented then by the Militant Tendency.

My suspicion (and it is only that) is that these flash mob riots are being co-ordinated by a small network that has subversive political ambitions but which is able to feed into and co-opt the naive self-interest of other young people who want “free stuff” and a bit of excitement during the long school holidays – a kind of Toxteth meets Woodstock?

10 August 2011 08:47
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Revsimmy.
I agree with all that you say!
‘Flash-mob riots’ is the right description and it certainly looks as though they are co-ordinated, not just spontaneous ‘Toxteth meets Woodstock’. So the question is, if they are co-ordinated, who benefits? The stuffing seems to have gone out of the old ‘New Left’ (ie Trotskyist) element of the Labour movement, as well as the old, Bennite Left. It would surprise me if this were the source. Similarly, it surely doesn’t come from the LibDems or ordinary rank and file Tories. Is it too paranoid to suggest, therefore, that if there is a master puppeteer somewhere, he or she comes from the Ultra-Right (step forward the EDL)?

10 August 2011 10:35

Anger, resentment (everything from the slashing of ¨social program¨ entitlements to phone tapping and racism/bigotry and plain self-pity/frustration or ¨what´s the use?¨)…I can feel/see the explosive emotions from here. Lord only knows when the streets will overflow with the same type smack-down attempt against the Tea Party elitists/purists not-so-quiet racists in the U.S.A…desperation drives many things, some good and some not…yet I think (and live with) the underlying real ¨issues¨ for resentments that are avoided, snubbed, delayed, rationalized or ignored (reminds me of Rowan Williams ¨omissions¨ as heterosexual women and LGBTI Anglicans/others are tormented/demeaned at various provinces within the Communion…people are humiliated and sometimes even victims of discrimination/hate crimes and everyday demeaning in Uganda/Nigeria/Jamaica/beyond…there will be more ¨stop the abuse¨ times coming if the courage to face the prejudice/lies of the self-righteous oppressors isn´t mustered).

10 August 2011 11:29
Lay Anglicana said...

Up to a point, Leonardo. But, as you will see, even the liberal, normally sympathetic section of British political opinion is finding it hard to support what is happening when so much of it seems to be about personal greed rather than protest. There was one image, hard to forget, of a wounded protester being helped to his feet by two apparently sympathetic passers-by: they then proceeded to empty his rucksack and make off with the contents. He is now in hospital.
The contrast with the Arab Spring in which people were fighting for real freedoms has also not passed un-noticed.

10 August 2011 12:36

Yes, I saw the newsclip of the injured fellow helped up and then robbed–very sad, very emotionally and spiritually disturbed stuff–this is exactly my point as some well-off thieves shake down the poor, the elderly, the marginalized, the infirmed by attempting to smoother/frisk them/us with unjust traditional ¨acts¨ of violation/discrimination on a daily basis.

This is not about the sympathy of ¨liberals¨ or not. I love our brothers and sisters for standing side by side as best we can even with our own/individual ¨standards¨ for accepting one another. I think it´s more about ¨changing/evolving attitudes¨ that ought be changed…it may be painful for society but the decaying but ¨accepted¨ exploitation of others will result in rebellion…greed and discrimination will not promote equality and justice (no matter on the street or comfy in a mansion with the ¨law¨ on ones side) until the ¨disdaining¨of others is ¨treated¨ by everyday society as the deadly illness that it is…I liked the ¨National Conversation¨ idea…perhaps this ¨conversation¨ (everybody) could grow into a larger approach to addressing the publics anger, desperation and resentments. Fear is running rampant along side general distrust for one another (neighbors too)…even amongst us at Church–certainly this must be the ¨spiritual standard¨ that needs addressing first? Overly expecting Archbishops or anyone else to ¨fix¨ underlying fearfilled character is simply wishful thinking but it would be nice if they tried harder…especially at The Anglican Communion (such diversity). Somehow, religious laity/leaders must offer examples, not only in words and good deeds, of ¨loving one another¨ behavior that ¨pewsitters¨ understand and wish to attempt to live out.

Lay Anglicana said...

Sorry for the delay – couldn’t log in to my own site for a while! – you seem to be suggesting that we might look at the model of South Africa’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’? I think you may be on to something – although many people are crying out for the punishment of these young offenders, I doubt that doing so would redeem them. I am really proud of the way that our clergy on the ground have reacted – and bishops in the areas concerned have spoken out. However, I do think the Archbishops should take a lead (and wield a broom?!) to show solidarity – as bishops are very much regional leaders, the two Archbishops are the only national leadership the Church has – apart from the Queen.

10 August 2011 19:56
10 August 2011 14:16
UKViewer said...

It’s a strange thing, that being abroad during the 1980’s, I have little memory of Toxteth or Brixton, I was to busy engaging in keeping the Russian Hordes from sweeping over the German plains to bring their version of Consumer socialism to the rest of us. But I hear what RevSimmy says. Also what Leonardo says.

My grandchildren are now coming into their teens. The eldest is sixteen, in the Army Cadets and has been away on Camp, isolated from the news and events.

On her Blackberry phone, she took with her, she is getting texts and tweeps from age group friends (or not friends) about joining in. She’s worried about her family and what happens when she gets back. She finds it all frightening and something she couldn’t contemplate. Which, I believe is the reaction of the vast majority of youngsters.

If there is a conspiracy going on here rock our democracy, its quite a crass way of going about it. Alienating the old from the young won’t work, it’s already happened in many places!

Perhaps we are in one of those ‘Long Hot Summers’, where, with little to do and to much time on their hands, and no prospects, a situation was brewing in Tottenham, which, given the killing of Mr Duggan, just exploded.

As far as I can discern, much of the other riots, looting, violence and general mayhem, is to the greater extent, copy cat, opportunistic events, but I don’t have any evidence to support that idea.

I go back to my original contention, there’s something intrinsically wrong in our society, which needs a national debate, not on party political lines. One led with compassion and care and real listening to try to tackle the obvious failings in how we’ve allowed some of our people to feel disenfranchised and alienated from our society.

Lay Anglicana said...

‘there’s something intrinsically wrong in our society which needs a national debate’…I wonder whether you too would support a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’? Perhaps we should at least give those involved the chance to air their grievances?
I do tend to think, I must say, that with stories of people communicating with Blackberries and having accomplices turn up in smart cars to collect the loot, ‘society’ is to some extent being taken for a ride and for mugs! Not that I think the answer is punishment…we need to find a more constructive solution than that.

10 August 2011 20:05
10 August 2011 14:18
Revsimmy said...

Laura, I haven’t yet seen or heard any evidence that suggests that the EDL or other ultra-Right groups would be responsible. There does not appear to be an obviously racial/ethnic element to the riots as reported. The only involvement of EDL I have heard about was their attempt to organise the anti-riot patrol (vigilante) groups in Eltham last night.

My hunch is that the “puppeteers” are more likely to be the kind of anti-capitalist anarchist groups that often seem to be behind hackers, Wikileaks, the G8 and G20 protests etc.

UKViewer: I am rather sceptical about “national debates”, since there seem to have been so many on various subjects over the years. Almost always they become co-opted by the political parties – not too surprising, since they are usually initiated by governments in time of perceived crisis. Our adversarial political culture seems to militate against conducting such debates with compassion, care and listening. Nevertheless, some public enquiries do seem to make a difference when there is a will to implement their recommendations so maybe all is not lost.

10 August 2011 15:23
Lay Anglicana said...

Mmm, puppeteers… of course my suggestion that the Ultra-Right might be involved is verging on paranoia: we would be talking about a ‘black’ operation, which I am not sure the EDL would be up to, in any case.
Violent anarchist groups have been involved in aggressive street protests, as you say, since at least the early 1980s with the ‘Stop the City’ campaign. However, my understanding is that they would wish to associate themselves with the ‘direct action’ in order to attract any ‘kudos’ (as they would see it). Wouldn’t they normally liberally paint the anarchist ‘A’-in-a-circle symbol? Of course, I could be wrong…

10 August 2011 20:11

[…] Lay Anglicana has pointed out, as political protest this week’s riots have a different, slightly synthetic feel to them. […]

12 August 2011 13:01

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