I recently posted a random quote on this blog from Martin Luther King.
“A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard.”
Before I posted it I had echoes in my head, of a lot of the rhetoric around at the moment, and frankly I wondered at one point if I should find a different quote to post. This last thought didn’t last long, since it seemed to me I should trust Kings wisdom and see where it led me. I think I knew at that point that a longer post would not be far behind, I’m not sure I realised the challenge such a short quote would represent.
On one side of the argument we can say yes this is true, people don‘t behave like that unless something is wrong. Yet on the other we have the demand that in this society at this time broadly speaking things are fair, there is a good welfare system, and what injustice that does exist, pales into insignificance in comparison to human rights abuses elsewhere in the world. So there is absolutely no excuse for such behaviour as was shown in the riots. People are responsible for their actions, the rioters were mindless and bad, and deserve punishment, end of story.
The difficulty for me writing this piece has been that I agree with both of these points of view at the same time. Which poses something of a conundrum for me, so coming to write what I think here, is an exercise in resolving contradictions in my own point of view. I was struck watching the special edition of question time this evening, (11-8-11) that the audience began very much from a hard line stance, applauding the hard line points of view expressed, but that through the program the tone changed, not so much to the opposing view, but perhaps more to an ‘undecided stance’. This suggests to me that I am not the only one with this conundrum. It also suggests to me that resolving the tension might reveal a more integrated perspective.
So what did Dr King mean?
The simple answer is that in the violence and unacceptable behaviour of the mob there is a message. Where there is outright and overt oppression the message is easy to see. Where things are subtler and what oppression that exists, is present more in the form of unconscious and systemic discrimination, rather than individual prejudice and intended discrimination it is harder to spot.
So I thought to myself, if I begin from the assumption that the rioters feel oppressed or discriminated against where does that experience of oppression and discrimination come from, and what form does it take? Since the main theme of the riots, does not seem to have been race, no matter what Griffin thinks, what other sources of discrimination and oppression might there be.
OK bare with me dear reader I will try to describe this in straightforward language as best I can.
The root of all human behaviour is need, it doesn’t really matter if my need seems like a need to you, if it feels like a need to me then it is one for all practical purposes.
Some human needs are obvious, food, water, air and warmth are the four that usually leap to mind, though these are really just the basic biological physical needs. There are other Biological needs which are essential, but which for some reason don’t leap straight into our minds, sleep for instance, and most people will also acknowledge that, at least in childhood that humans need nurture and care. We might also argue that most humans need the company of others and opportunities to relax.
Without getting into too much detail, there are various scholars and researchers who have shown fairly conclusively that the focus of the nurture and care that a child needs, is a close loving relationship with a primary care giver, or if you would prefer, ‘mother or permanent mother substitute’ (Google John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth if you want to get into the nitty gritty.) The quality of this relationship appears to have a very strong influence on how emotionally stable people become as they move into adulthood.
Now before you think it, if you haven’t already, this puts a lot of emphasis on mothers, and it might be seen as psychologists/psychodynamic thinkers/psychiatrists, blaming mothers, for their children’s bad behaviour. I am not going to pretend that mothers do not have some responsibility, but it is not theirs alone. Clearly fathers are also important, not least because they often provide the opportunity for mothers to be nurturing and caring by ‘bringing home the bacon’ so to speak. A secondary care giver also provides care and nurture in other ways that the primary care giver is not always able to do. This is not to say that the ‘role of nurturer’ and the ‘role of provider’ are not interchangeable across the genders, because they are, at all stages, provided the combined care is ‘good enough’ to quote Melanie Klein, (Google her if you want to know more.) The important theme is that there is a primary ‘attachment’ to one significant caregiver, and a secondary ‘attachment’ to another care giver.
“Ah1” I hear you cry, “your blaming the single parent family,” well not quite. There are problems with single parent families, but they are not insurmountable, there are good one parent families, where the primary attachment is good and there are other attachments around, Grandparents, parental siblings, good close friends, ect. There are not so good one parent families, in which either the primary attachment and/or all the secondary attachments are transitory, inconsistent and unpredictable.
Even so this is not the end of the story, it is perfectly practicable to provide ‘reparatory attachments’, in other settings, schools, colleges, youth clubs, or in family therapy settings, and if the family has completely broken down, in foster homes, children’s homes, and outright therapeutic placements. Though as the difficulties multiply and the opportunity for reparatory attachments moves into settings ever more distant from the family, the likelihood of failure becomes more and more likely.
One difficulty I have with this model of social care, is that it puts all responsibility for the difficulties which emerge where families fail, onto governmental systems, either local or national. I do wonder if there is too much reliance on formal systems and not so much on extended families, which are often a better long term solution, or even on the immediate community within which the child is raised.
In the eighties, in one of the four sequels to the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, created the ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ or SEP field, which was part of the inspiration for a post of mine on this blog, the fully Functional Invisibility Generator.
Although this is a joke, like all humour it holds an important truth, for example: how many of us have climbed aboard a train, clutching our ticket only to watch a group of teenagers get on, and immediately disappear into the toilet, which then remains resolutely locked until the train arrives at the next station, when said group of teenagers emerges and bundles onto the platform without a care in the world. How many of us do anything, even mention it to the conductor as he checks our own ticket, for which we paid hard earned cash.
Or how many of us in a public place with our children, hear the three youths nearby swearing every third word, and say nothing, allowing our children to suffer listening to others doing something that if they did at home they would find themselves sitting on the naughty step for the best part of a month.
For the most part this kind of thing only happens in public of places. In our own communities, it generally doesn’t. In our own communities we know the parents of such teenagers, and such teenagers know we know. In our own communities we feel we have authority, to speak up, that we don’t feel we have in public places. I wonder how we can move to a situation where we do not just do this in our own communities, but how we move to a situation where the authority of ‘grown ups’ is present and exercised everywhere and all the time? Is it possible for us to have a consensus about what is acceptable, and to challenge others in public spaces when behaviour is not acceptable, knowing the ‘grown ups’ around us will support us. And more importantly that those who flaunt the ‘rules of good behaviour in public’ know that the ‘grown ups’ will stand up to them.
Although I have come about this in a slightly convoluted way, this is in essence my point, the culture which has developed in the UK invests authority in specific individuals in specific contexts. Organisations continually manipulate our attachments, in terms of our loyalties to the organisations we work for, and in terms of our loyalty as customers, there is in operation a culture in which belongingness, and identity has become tied as much to what we do, where we work, what we own, where we shop, as it is tied to our parent‘s our siblings, and even our children.
There are those who argue that broadly speaking we have created an egalitarian, society in which there is essentially equality of opportunity. Anyone can achieve success if they really set their mind to it, if they are willing to re-invent themselves as the kind of people the system wants to reward. They acknowledge that it isn’t a perfect system, and it has it’s flaws, but argue we have essentially achieved the secular goal of an egalitarian society where a Black man From Tottenham is the MP for the area he has lived all his life, and many other examples. The problem is the meritocracy isn’t the paradise they imagine.
The term meritocracy was first coined by Michael Young, in 1958 in a essay entitled The rise of the meritocracy, 1870-2033: An essay on education and inequality. London: Thames & Hudson.
In which he essentially argues that a meritocracy is a really bad idea. For one thing, there is the question about: Who decides what merit is? More importantly, even if merit can be guaranteed to be clear cut, what happens to those who do not live up to the standard? Such people are not in a position to think to themselves they have been unlucky, that they are better than the situation that life has left them in. It’s a meritocracy after all, they are where they are because they are the dregs of society, the failures, the no hopers, the losers.
If that was what society was telling you, what would you do? Would you feel you had an investment in the norms and values of society? Would you believe there was any hope? Might you identify an alternative, such as a gang of other people like you, where you could feel you can achieve something? Find a profession where you might at least acquire the symbols of success that everyone else seems to have, such as drug dealer, of thief? Might you see those who have found success in the meritocracy as somehow thinking they are better than you, as the enemy, as people to be fought? Might you also see the people from your own communities who keep trying to succeed in the meritocracy as fools, and weak? Might you interpret the world as a dog eat dog place where only the most ruthless survive? Might you see a riot as an opportunity to acquire things you might otherwise never have an opportunity to obtain.
This feels like the right point to return to my conundrum. These things are wrong these are ways of giving up and surrendering to a very negative, and to my mind unhealthy view of the world. They harm others and display a lack of a moral centre.
However it seems to me that people from families where attachment to good enough care givers was flawed, living in a society that is telling them they are failures because they were not good enough, and a zero tolerance for the kind of anti social behaviour a riot represents, are themes which are fundamentally tied together.
For me this hinges on one question: What is good enough nurturing?
The easy things to think of are the meeting of all those basic needs I outlined above, to which we might add love and affection, which sounds very straightforward. But it isn’t, when human beings think of love and affection we think in terms of hugs and cuddles, tears when we say goodbye. We think perhaps of loyalty, sadness at a loss, spending time with someone. How often do we think about rules, and being told ‘no’ you can’t do that? How often do we think about the times our parents broke up a squabble we were having with a siblings? How often do we think of the times when we did something we were not supposed to as children and got caught, and lost our privileges? Do we remember how angry or sad our parents were about our behaviour? Do we think of how hard it was for our parents to remind themselves we had to learn our lessons, even though every ounce of their being was ready to forgive us just to see the happy child they loved?
Rules and boundaries are a part of love, when someone breaks rules and boundaries, they are looking for a love that is not frightened by their anger, by their fear, by their loneliness. They are looking for a love that will stand up to them, control them, and which will not be overwhelmed by the intensity of their feelings and either retreat or respond with anger or retribution. I wonder how we can move to a situation where we do not just do this in our own communities, but how we move to a situation where the authority of ‘grown ups’ is present and exercised everywhere and all the time? Is it possible for us to have a consensus about what is acceptable, and to challenge others in public spaces when behaviour is not acceptable, knowing the ‘grown ups’ around us will support us. And more importantly that those who flaunt the ‘rules of good behaviour in public’ know that the ‘grown ups’ will stand up to them.
To me, this is unheard message which is being sent by the riots. A cry of omnipotent anguish from a ‘class’ of people who feel utterly unloved, and worse than this who feel unlovable. A ‘class’ of people who are so alienated that they have no real idea of what love is, and so see it in the collusion of a gang, or the mass hysteria of a riot.
There is an idea from Christianity, that there are three forms of love: Passionate Love, Familiar Love, and Charity. Most people understand the first two, the third seems to be less well understood. Often it is to most of us a matter of giving funds to causes we support. More correctly it is care, compassion and a will to nurture other people about who we know nothing, without thought of reward. This seems to me to be very similar to an idea from Islam about things given, being given in the name of Allah, and no one else, not to glorify the giver.
It is tempting to think of those participants in the riots, who are even now being arrested, brought before the courts and sentenced, as getting their just deserts. But is revenge, or retribution Justice? From what I have already said in this piece, there is a need for consequences to actions. There is a need for those who behave badly to know that they will be stopped, that society will not accept disorder. Such punishment however must be delivered with the intent of correcting the error, not compounding it.
Dr King, and MK Ghandi, from whom he appeared to have learned a great deal, would I think recognise that physically containing those who would do harm is necessary, but that doing so should cause them no further harm, and should rather help them to learn that to harm others is to harm themselves, in the end despite the awful behaviour of racists against Dr King and his followers, and the treatment Ghandi received from the British, somehow they continued to find a way to express forgiveness, perhaps The British people should find a similar forgiveness in themselves for these rioters. Such forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences, or boundaries, or Prison sentences, it is something that comes from the heart for the person, even though thy suffer the consequences of their actions.
Usually I try to keep my longer posts in the ball park of about 1000 words, this is close to three times that, and if you have read this far I thank you for your patience. I have struggled to write this piece, and this is at least the third version that I have written, but then what did I expect taking on a single line from Dr King?
In the end the unheard message of those involved in the riots is one of feeling unloved by their networks and by society as a whole. Unloved can be interpreted as: ’undervalued’, ’unrewarded’ or as ‘lacking a sense of investment in society’, but these just feel like words to distance ourselves from the painful thought that being ’unloved’ is possibly the worst thing in the world to experience. A distancing which might contribute to the inclination to see such people as ‘bad’, or sometimes ‘mad’.
This raises another question, which I won’t try to answer here as yet: How does a secular society physically contain unacceptable behaviour, through restraint and imprisonment, but also communicate charitable love to those of it’s citizens who don’t really understand what any kind of love is, in a way that feels real to those people?
A part of the answer of course is how society talks about them, what stories it writes about them, their behaviour and their futures.