Tonight a small number of this country’s young men (and perhaps a few of its young ladies too – go girl power) will make a decision about whether or not to take to the streets in a display of civil disobedience.
If you’re going to understand what motivates this sort of action, the only way is to try to put yourselves in their shoes. I have a sneaking suspicion that Mr Cameron and the other members of the Cobra committee (one of those occasions that the name was a servant to the acronym, one suspects…) cannot accurately place themselves in said footwear.
Have you ever been on a protest march, knowing that it might kick off? Got closer to a violent crowd coming from a football game to see what it was like?
In writing, I don’t in any way condone or excuse the actions of the people who have caused so much damage and upset. It’s inexcusable. But let’s get this much straight: inexcusable and inexplicable are not the same.
What causes civil disobedience? Anger would seem an obvious target. As my friend Roo observes: strip young people of a future and then bombard them with images of an enviable lifestyle to which they cannot aspire – anger and frustration are the result.
The capacity for violence is within all of us. We’ve all felt our fists clench and the urge to leap at someone (haven’t we?). Some of us, at some time in our lives, may have succumbed to that urge. I know that in the past I let simple rage blot out everything but the intent to cause harm. Whoever you are, your behaviour is just brain chemistry – if you’re the kind of person who never feels that urge to destroy so strongly then you’re lucky, you’ve been born ‘civilised’ but don’t believe that everybody faces the same sort of choice that you do.
That sense of injustice – the haves and have-nots, the disenfranchised frustration can be enough to make people feel resentment towards ‘the system’ and to relish a glimpse of what can happen when the system breaks down.
So what happens when those things combine? From my own experience I know that a lot of people will take to the street simply for a taste of the excitement. No other real intent than to feel alive, to feel genuine peril, to run in the streets and feel the thrill of lawlessness – as we all did as children at some stage; trespassing where we knew that we weren’t allowed; teasing adults; starting fires – practical jokes and small acts of rebellion, testing the boundaries.
Then it gets easy to get caught up in the mob mentality, to raise the stakes. I know this and I’m a civilised man, by nature, these days, a resolver of conflict by nature.
So once out there, it’s easy to see how a small minority, people whose internal self control isn’t there, who have been raised in desperate circumstances, who aren’t surrounded by stabilising influences and who can’t even aspire to the comfortable lifestyle that I myself enjoy, might go a little too far, lose control and get into a downward spiral of destructive behaviour.
The important question, though, isn’t about how or why this rioting is taking place. It’s about how it can be prevented.
There’s one point of view that says that this behaviour is an inevitable by-product of the kind of society in which we live and that this is the price of change. How bad does it have to get before we (and by ‘we’ there I mean society at every level, ministers to voters to garden-fence political debaters) recognise the need to think again about the kind of society that we’re building?
It certainly seems to be that civil disobedience is common in a society with a huge divide in wealth. I can fully understand the urge to throw a burning bin through the window of a bank when I hear of bankers getting giant, yacht-purchasing bonuses as taxpayers underwrite another bail-out.
How do we go about building a society less fixated on material wealth? Again, my personal experience is that the happiest times in my life are nothing to do with conspicuous displays of wealth; I’ve been happiest playing music with friends, sharing good food around a kitchen table, playing softball in a park in the sun. Could we just get Dave Cameron, a group of bankers (collective noun ‘wunch’) and the executive board of BP for a game of footy and a picnic in a park and hope they see the light?
I don’t have an answer right now. I’d like to see a few more people giving reasoned responses to the questions, though.