Mayor of London, Boris Johnson announced to the assembled crowd in devastated Clapham that he had “heard too much sociological explanation and not enough condemnation”. That is too much “explanation” of the protests, riots, looting, and violence in the wake of the as yet unexplained shooting of Mark Duggan by Metropolitan police officers. This belied an emerging dichotomy in popular media and everyday discourse in England. We are being told that the ‘Right’ are condemning violence, while the ‘Left’ are justifying it. The ‘Right’ want law and order back and they blame the individual and bad parenting for these events. As David Cameron tells us, “this is a moral problem” and it illustrates the “lack of responsibility” shown by individuals. On the other hand, the ‘Left’ in their efforts to find causes for and meaning behind seemingly random and meaningless chaos are being labelled apologists on 'neutral' radio phone ins and the notorious online comments now widely attached to newspaper articles. Presumably the ‘Left’ then includes Emeritus Professor at Leeds university and pre-eminent Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who claimed that in today’s Britain our identity revolves round the mantra “I shop therefore I am” such that “these are riots of defective and disqualified consumers”. The participants are not starving but many are the disenfranchised in a society where status and prestige are acquired through displays of spending and consumption (Social Europe Journal, 9/8/11). Dr Sean Carey, research fellow at Roehampton University argues that “what we are witnessing is a significant symbolic statement about the way power -- the power of life and death exercised by police officers as well as the power to consume -- is arranged in British society” (New Statesman, 9/8/11). Carey is not claiming that the individuals involved necessarily or consciously seek to make symbolic statements but that the overall patterns of these actions nevertheless do.
In one sense these diverse responses reflect the understanding of human beings by the ‘Right’ and the ‘Left’- atomistic individuals versus social creatures. The ‘Right’ thus need not look far for causes of behaviour because all responsibility lies with the individual. The ‘Left’ on the other hand look for social origins, primarily the socio-economic, in seeking to explain why we do what we do. However, in another sense this can also be framed as a straight-forward categorical error pitting two ideas against one another which are not about the same issue and cannot be compared. Seeking to understand why people do what they do does not amount to condoning it. Otherwise all social scientists are of the ‘left’ and I dread to think what that would say about myself, a student of authoritarian politics and ethnic boundaries in China’s north-west. One can be an existentialist when it comes to morality but still seek to understand why people do what they do. Sociological explanation and moral evaluation are not mutually exclusive. Or as Professor John Brewer put it, sociologists seek to explain social behaviour not explain it away (The Guardian, 12/8/11). If we want to solve problems in our society, and presumably everyone now admits there are many, we have to devote time and resources trying to understand, explain, and address their causes. Moral outrage and calls for retributive punishment are understandable, particularly towards those who destroyed small scale family-run businesses. However, rising passions should be the spark of a rational enquiry not the end. Boris Johnson's outrageous call that he has heard enough "sociological explanation" is tantamount to saying it is wrong to enquire into the causes of these events.
Since the first night of rioting the phrase ‘mindless criminality’ has been heard across the airwaves, in print, and on the street. As have statements such as “this is not political, it’s just pure opportunism”. We certainly have seen a lot of opportunism and criminality in the last few days but we still have to ask why. Why is this happening now? What makes it happen at all? And what can we do so it doesn’t keep happening? The answers won’t come overnight and certainly not in dismissals of further enquiry. Whether we explain social phenomena in terms of atomistic individuals or social groups, or a plethora of other alternatives which will hopefully emerge in the coming days,months, and years, we still have to explore why people do what they do. That is indeed if we are serious about addressing such problems rather than releasing media-friendly sound-bites in a political game to be elected. The answer that “because they are bad people” or “their parents are bad people” is not enough. Why are they bad people and what has made them behave in that way? These events have involved different types of people doing different things for different reasons. This seems evident in the first convictions including a primary school teaching assistant, an undergraduate student, and the “daughter of a millionaire” to quote the tabloids. However, there are patterns already emerging that are highly symbolic- every city affected had their centres of consumerism, their shopping centres attacked by gangs of young men wishing to seize what they understand to be high status goods.
We also have to ask why we are encouraged to immediately and without equivocation condemn the actions of un-convicted individuals. The shooting of Mark Duggan and the nature of the police involvement remain under investigation and as was reiterated on Radio 5 live (10/8/11) whenever the subject was breached, “we can’t talk about that”. Of course this is couched in terms of respect for an ongoing investigation and how we are yet to have the full facts but this respect is not accorded to ordinary people. It belies the hypocrisy and inequality inherent in social relations in Britain today which is certainly not the only problem here but it is a particularly glaring one. Bonuses for bankers, Vodafone’s tax scams, and unaccountable tabloids are all topics which have recently provoked great anger across the UK and all which threaten the legitimacy of the very idea of equality before the law. Is there anyone left who actually thinks that material wealth and political power don’t afford people greater legal rights?
Educated at Eton and Oxford David Cameron will have little if any first-hand experience of the social environment in Britain’s most deprived areas or those where gangs are as much social safety networks as they are a form of ‘criminality’. This in itself is not necessarily a problem but he like all of us ought to listen to those who do live in such areas if we want to understand them. However, our Prime Minister is yet to show that he wants to listen to the big society he claims is his “passion”. He is yet to respond to the claims of inequality and police brutality on our streets. Riots on the scale we have seen reflect deep-rooted problems. If you want them to go away, the carrots of inclusion are as crucial as the sticks of exclusion. So Minister of State for Housing and Local Government Grant Shapps will have to seriously think through the consequences of his proposed plan to evict from social housing any family who had a single member involved. It seems unlikely that making rioters homeless will make them less likely to steal or make Britain safer.
An anonymous 25 year old involved in rioting in Liverpool shows us how the supposedly mindless participants understand the causes behind these events as nothing new. This is despite the political drive to represent these events as something no one could have predicted: "Fuck the police, man. They are not all bad but most of them are. No-one around here has got any liking for the police. Fuck them. Police patrol these streets every night of the week and we only get to riot every few years. They can't come here laying down the law like they do all year round. People are rioting because the riot is finally here" (The Guardian, live feed, 10/8/11). Let us ask those who commit such crimes why they do what they do not because we need to ‘pander’ to their every whim but because their perspectives will help us understand what is happening more than those of people whom have never even been to where they live.