Last night was relatively quiet in London, although the same cannot be said for the rest of the country, but here at least it looks as though things may be calming down. Boris Johnson is back in town, being heckled by some and (bizarrely) cheered by others. Between the interruptions and heckling from residents and shop owners in Clapham Junction, he said that he didn’t want to hear ‘socio-economic reasons for the violence’.
This is a dangerous game to play, and already indicates a dangerous trend that seems to be gaining ground; namely, an unwillingness to talk about the reasons for what has happened. And I will take this opportunity to repeat what I said in my last post, that debate over the reasons of the rioting is not the same as ‘sympathy’ for, or ‘understanding’ those who are taking part.
There has been a lot of talk of ‘returning to normal’, and on the BBC news feed this morning there were several comments from people deploring the media for focusing on the ‘negative headlines’ and ‘bad news’ of the riot itself, and urging them to focus instead on the positive response to them, such as the Twitter organised clean-up operation. This is a dangerous game to play, and one that could backfire if taken seriously.
Yes, it’s unpleasant to see the constant images of violence, the burning buildings and the mugging of bystanders. But ignoring the violence is a dangerous distraction, and solely focusing on events such as the volunteer clean-ups, which, while laudable and heart-warming, are something of safe distraction from the real forces at play here.
It should be clear to everyone now that thousands of people around the country did not wake up the last couple of mornings and spontaneously decide they wanted a new pair of trainers. Again, debating this is not the same as sympathy for the rioters. But this does not change the fact that thousands of people, in one way or another, have become completely alienated from the society in which they live, and the reasons for this need to be discussed.
This violence did not magic itself out of nowhere, and the conditions for it clearly existed before Saturday evening, but to most people they were invisible, simmering below the surface and hidden on housing estates. They were present in the ‘normality’ that commentators are calling for a return to. To return to ‘normality’ would leave these conditions unchanged, and keep them merely hidden again. If we return to ‘normality’, quietly disdaining debate over the reasons of what has happened, nothing will have changed and we risk a re-run of this in the years to come. Pondering when Egypt would return to ‘normality’ was a fairly big feature in the British press when Cairo was rioting during the first stage of the revolution. Egypt did not want to return to normality, normality was what caused the riots in the first place.
Something else that should be avoided would be for the country to be enveloped in some kind of moral panic, indications to which are already becoming clear. There is a lot of ‘what happened to my country’, and, ‘ashamed to be British’ talk going around. These comments indicate the personal level on which people are feeling the force of the riots, but, although difficult, we should try to view them as dispassionately as possible. We should be cold and objective, and not be scared to discuss the implications of this for a long time afterwards.
Perhaps it is because events such as these are a rare occurence in Britain that they elicit such a personal response. The headline of Le Monde’s coverage of events yesterday was ‘the British press dramatises and tries to understand’. We should not be dramatising, and it is to the credit of the French that, due to the fairly recurrent nature of rioting in their own country, they have the ability to analyse them without the moral panic the British press are prone to.
After the nationwide riots of banlieue youth in 2005, a widespread national debate ensued concerning the riots that made no attempt to de-politicise them as David Cameron, and Boris Johnson, with his ‘no socio-economic reasons’ remark, have been attempting to do. Being shy of asking questions of social and political significance is akin to sticking your head in the sand. The French debates covered everything from politics to unemployment, government policy, housing, gang culture, immigration and national identity. We cannot afford to have a right-wing press inspired period of moral outrage followed by silence and a ‘return to normality’. We need a reasoned debate, not panic and outrage.
George Orwell’s famous indictment at the end of Homage to Catalonia of Britain’s impasse to events happening in Europe that would lead to World War II should be remembered here,
‘The huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen—all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.’
The bombs have roared for the past four nights, and the worst thing we could do is to go back to sleep. Something is wrong here, and it needs to be discussed openly. The violence has to end, but we should ignore the calls to return to ‘normality’.