in Everything Else

Has England lost its rhythm?

"Still silence"

Amid all of the dogmatic and cocksure explanations following last week’s rioting in English cities was an excellent BBC News magazine article giving an overview of 10 explanations for the protests, violence and looting.* They are presented in the article as ‘competing arguments’ but, as ever with these things, it seems clear that each was a causal element in an bigger problem. Simplistic explanations may be alluring but, historically speaking, are seldom accurate.

What strikes me is that people are quick to blame some kind of decline in morality, discipline or community spirit when what they really mean is that (post)modern life lacks a rhythm. Let me explain. Without getting into whether the following things are objectively right or wrong we have had a complete breakdown of what many have seen as ‘traditional’ ways of life: nuclear families with 2.4 children, church attendance, strict discipline in schools, etc.** What these things did (again, for better or worse) was to provide a rhythm to the everyday life of people in the country. They often came at the price of quashing individuality and diversity but they did provide structure. What we need new non-repressive and inclusive societal rhythms instead of harking back to old ones.

You don’t have to be right-wing, reactionary and authoritarian to want society to have a rhythm. And you don’t have to be a hand-wringing wet liberal to want more toleration and social justice in society. Governments cannot impose morality on a population, nor can the police arrest their way to solving an an endemic problem. What the authorities can (and should) do is legislate in ways that encourage justice and cohesion in society: the answer to a crisis is not to try and turn back time but to look forward together.

Unsurprisingly, not all of the ways in which English society has lost its rhythm are to do with a decline in the moral fibre of young people. Take, as a seemingly-trivial (but actually quite important) example, the changing ways in which we watch television. Some young people watch barely any TV, whilst the rest of the population is able to view not only a multitude of channels and programmes but at a time which suits them. Conversations starting with “did you see X on the TV last night?” are increasingly rare and the chances of people from different generations having the same stimuli these days are few and far-between. What we need, therefore, are social objects, things to talk about that are provided by people other than advertisers. Discussing an advert does not count as positive citizenship.

Rhythm comes through consensus but also through respecting diversity of opinion. It doesn’t come through top-down imposition of ‘values’ or by marginalising and excluding people from society. We need to move away from a blame culture and combative politics towards more consensus-led policies. We need to find new ways of talking about important things. We need, above all, to find new ways of including people in a sustainable debate about identity and nationhood.

Image CC BY GollyGforce-crunch time at work…

* I’ve saved the article as a PDF at archive.org in case it goes missing at the BBC website.

** To a great extent this rose-tinted view of a ‘golden age’ is a myth as any social historian will tell you. Government propaganda and censorship during the Second World War, for example, prevented reports of opportunistic burglaries due to people keeping their doors unlocked. That’s not the story my grandmother will tell you though…

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  1. You are making a valid point by saying the society lacks rhythms. On a slightly larger scale – or call it the hour hand of the clock that keeps the rhythm – many youngsters today lack “rites of passage” that mark the end of a stage in life and entry into another. Schools play their role, celebrating the achievement of each stage and bringing in the caregivers to celebrate with the community. However, these celebrations tend to be less meaningful today. Religious education used to play a role with “rites” associated with it. My home country, Finland, is very “non-religious”, yet over 80% of youngsters today opt for either confirmation training organized by the church or the Prometheus classes organized by an NGO. It is curious how this rite of passage has stood the test of time in a completely secular society. At the end of the training (or the camp) there is a ceremony and a reception at home, however small or poor – marking yet another milestone in the youngsters life (the ripe age of 15 years and confirmation!) – and yet another opportunity for the community, friends, even more distant relatives to gather around the young person and celebrate his /her step into the next phase of his /her life. Needless to say it is also an opportune moment and a good age to engage in  discussion on philosophy and their own relationship with the judeo-christian tradition. It is a good age to start thinking about your own values and increase your understanding of the values of others.
    The next big milestone for most youngsters is the graduation (high school or vocational school) and then for the young men (still) mandatory military duty that is subject to heated debates, but widely supported. 
    These are the biggest landmarks and passages most young people still regularly go through and where their age, achievement, or other aspect is highlighted and celebrated within the family and larger community alike. Another important factor is role models, rather the lack of role models. Many young people today do not have an éminence gris in their lives who would provide guidance, love and discipline and act as the “last stop”. It would be good for them to have someone who is above the daily quarrels with parents or caregivers, or the tests of will at the school and whom they would want to refrain from offending at any cost. Sadly there are youngsters today whose “next of kin” is the police.These seemingly simple things help youngster to really connect with the family, attach themselves to the society and help strengthen the gossamer weave that gives these youngster a feeling of belonging.
    The million dollar question today is how and when the society let this kind of social capital degrade in value and where and how do we start the attempts to bring it back? That is worth another discussion.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sirkku. :-)

      I think your point relating rites of passage to rhythms is a great one. Thanks for illuminating your thoughts with reflections on Finnish society – most interesting!

  2. I’m currently staying with some friends in Sunnyvale, CA and have been amazed at the sense of rhythm here. There is an expectation that people volunteer to help each other. The wife of the couple I’m staying with is volunteering at her local co-operative nursery – an expectation for all parents. The husband is volunteering as a Saturday soccer coach for the same soccer club that his son attends. They are both member of a co-operative swimming pool.

    And people talk to each other all the time too – they actually seem to like each other.

    A friend of mine from my own church back in Birmingham has recently launched a charity to help people who want to get their streets working together. It’s http://www.uturnuk.org/restoring-community/street-associations-initiative

    On my street we’ve signed up and we’re holding our first meeting in September – maybe it’s time we stopped talking to each other so much on twitter and blogs and actually started talking to our neighbours.