3 min read

Editor's blog Tuesday 9th August 2011: A riot of their own - empathy-cripples, criminals, bystanders and suggestibles

It's a public policy thing, so the riots of recent days and nights can get a mention.

The reactive instinct is to think in simplicities. H L Mencken had it right: "to every problem, there is a solution that is neat, simple and wrong".

Simple things may be part of the solution. Simplistic thoughts will not.


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I was struck today by three pieces of writing about the riots.

The best is Camila Batmanghelidjh's outstanding analysis for The Independent: unsentimental, analytical and empathetic.

When someone who knows as much about the most damaged members of the underclass as the founder of charities The Place To Be and Kids Company, it is behovely to listen to them.

Batmanghelidjh is excellent and clear-eyed on the alternative moral universe of some of those behind the riots. Society and social norms are of no relevance to these people, owing to the level of damage caused by their upbringing. I find her points highly persuasive. They do not tell every bit of the story, but they do explain a great deal of it.

A public policy response must understand that something exceptional has happened: this underclass, which has successfully atomised communities into postcodes or even council housing estates (the 'ends'), and mimics language and behaviours from gang-infested poor African-American communities, has united in the cause of rioting.

These people have an alternative economy: largely drug-related, supplemented by mugging and robbery. Turf wars may ostensibly be about upholding the honour of the estate or the postcode; in reality, they are almost entirely about defending drug-dealing territory.

One instinctive response is to view the rioting - and in particular the looting - as telling us more about consumerism than about politics. That analysis betrays a superficial understanding of politics.

It also imputes a degree of rationality and thought to the rioters' motivations that isn't there. When I heard Batmanghelidjh speak at the Wellards conference two years ago, her presentation about the neurological damage that extreme trauma can cause in young childhood was fascinating. Apparently, neural pathways of people who have undergone such abuse develop differently: their brains are effectively rewired to short-circuit the bits that do empathy.

Yes, the riot kiddies have had their nights of riotous adrenaline; their confrontations with the police (dubbed the 'feds', pathetically enough); and maybe have acquired free of charge a new flatscreen TV or trainers.

On the down-side, they've reamed their own neighbourhoods, in which they are even more stuck than they were before. If they didn't like it much before, then as the businesses and residents that can move elsewhere do so, they will probably like it a whole lot less.

Rioting and looting is the intrinsic failure to learn the lesson perfectly expressed in the Lancashire argot, 'don't piss on your own front doorstep'.

But of course, this is the world being perceived from my perspective, which associates actions with consequences. Those of the rioters described by Batmanghelidjh may be unable to make such links, without much expensive specialist help such as her charities offer.

Riots are for criminals too
Batmanghelidjh's empathy-crippled young men and women were a big group among the troublemakers - but there are always other groups out on a riot, too.

The obvious one is criminals: not all of whom come from bad upbringings (just as not all who come from bad upbringings become empathy-cripples). This offered a chance to load up on other peoople's stuff with apparently even less chance of being arrested by the policy than normal. We should be relatively unsurprised that criminals took such a chance.

Then, there are bystanders and suggestibles: two distinct if somewhat interchanging groups.

Bystanders were out for a bit of 'news tourism', grabbing their own mobile phone footage or just for the sheer experience. Not going to break, burn or steal anything themselves, of course, but not going to hinder anyone from doing so either, thank you very much.

Arseholes, in other words. Directly harmless, but indirectly a source of passive harm through acquiescence.

Suggestibles are the reason football riots happen. They're not leaders, but they like a bit of a shout and a singalong to terrace chants; and they'll never pick up and hurl the first chair or table - but they'll maybe pile in if they see the numbers make it look safe enough.

Suggestibles quite often get caught up in the heat of the moment, and thus get caught more easily (and probably frequently) than more seaasoned, professional troublemakers.

Suggestibles are also arseholes; but non-harmless arseholes, given the right circumstances.

Public policy needs to find responses that will be effective to address these four groups: empathy cripples; criminals; bystanders and suggestibles. It's a tall order, and for today I don't have any answers. Mary Ridell's thoughtful opinion piece in the Telegraph persuasively locates some of the problems relating to a political system that has scant concern for the underclass.

I do have some renewed faith in human nature, though. The same social media which reportedly brought the rioters into acting in concert to such destructive effect has been used by people in cities affected by the riots coming together to help with the clean-up.

These people, and that impulse, are why the underclass of empathy cripples, criminals, suggestibles and bystenders will never prevail.

Which leads me neatly onto the other thing you should read about the riots, from satirists The Daily Mash: a bit of simple, reactive fun to raise a much-needed laugh.