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…