Like many people across the country, I watched many ugly scenes unfolding on my television screen as scores of people vandalised properties, looted shops, burned down cars and tormented the police. And as I watched young people running off with stolen goods, I couldn’t help but ask why these young people felt it was OK to behave in such an uncivilised manner, a question that took on a particular poignancy as these people are not much older than my own children.
Clearly I am not the only person to ask such questions. Already arguments are circulating as to what, if anything, has caused these riots. So far I have heard many people blaming parents, some people blaming it on governmental cuts and youth unemployment whilst others have suggested that it is pure greed, opportunism and criminality that lie behind the riots.
But for all of these different and sometimes opposing views, I do not believe that there is any one reason behind recent events and I certainly do not think that parenting is the sole reason behind the riots. Instead I think what we have seen is the result of many complex and interrelated social and economic issues that are symptomatic of a country that has become selfish and greedy.
Amongst these issues is consumerism and a celebrity culture that places a lot of social pressure on people to keep up with the latest designer clothing, accessory or hi-tech gadget. To not sport a particular type of clothing, mobile phone or laptop risks exposing a young person to exclusion and mockery. As a parent of a teenage daughter, I have experienced first hand the pressure that this teenage consumerism places on her and her peers. It is not helped by those who have the wealth or other means to freely indulge their offspring with all manner of goods in what feels like a game of oneupmanship. To witness families trying to outdo one another with the latest gadget, white good or exotic holiday is one of the ugliest side affects of a materialistic society.
And for those with background of poor education, family unemployment and a sense of hopelessness and boredom in areas stigmatised by poverty, unemployment and dependency upon the welfare state is it any wonder that some people feel excluded and resentful of those who appear to have it all. Are we not surprised therefore that some young people seek an identity through allegiance to another form of community – that of gangs and their skewed norms of social behaviour?
Of course claims of individual rights to the exclusion of responsibility, coupled with a disempowerment of parental and teacher authority has, I think, also contributed towards increasing apathy and lack of respect from certain sections of our society. How often do we hear about, or even experience, young people rejecting authority in our schools and neighbourhoods and causing trouble for residents?
Is it any wonder then that, when the opportunity arose, these disenfranchised youths expressed their anger, frustration and disrepect for society by trashing our streets, our properties, our homes and businesses and stealing the high end goods that are so highly prized these days?
And before you all shout at me saying that I am looking to excuse their behaviour, I am not. To look for reasons behind the riots does not mean that I support the rioters. On the contrary. Like many people I also feel feel anger and disbelief at the scenes of destruction and violence in my society. And like many others, I also believe that the people involved in the riots need to be punished, though I am doubtful whether their punishment will be enough to prevent further antisocial behaviour or address any underlying issues.
However, if we are serious about community then surely we have a responsibility to look carefully at the causes behind these riots and do something to include those young people who feel so marginalised that a criminal life starts to look more attractive.
(Written by me from my perspective as a worker in a deprived neighbourhood.)