Mindless, crass, materialistic, and, probably most unforgiveable by those on the left, apolitical. Those are the common descriptors of, principally, the young people involved in last week’s riots.
Unsurprisingly, they are the words most commonly employed to describe young people even in the absence of rioting. When the people I interview want to blame someone for society’s problems they tend to turn to one of three trusted foes: young people, racialised others, or bad mothers. This week, we had all three bundled into one neat, simple package.
The reasons for this bad behaviour are also simple and threefold: lack of moral training, too much commercialised, celebrity-focused TV, and the crumbling of authority. Social scientists like me who study people and their beliefs collect and share startlingly similar stories told in similar tones by older people about young people whether in the US, the UK, or Australia.
They run like this: ‘when I was young, we would give up our seats on buses to older people/never talk back/say please and thank you/and if we got into trouble picking apples from a tree in the village the local policeman would haul us by the ear home where our fathers would give us a good hiding’. And what’s needed now, we are told, is: jail/military service/uniforms/the death penalty/more police on the streets. In anthropology, we call these shared explanations ‘tropes’: they are the myths, the nostalgic legends, passed on through generations of how life apparently was and, more importantly, how it should be.
What we need to do now is stop circulating those myths through simple headlines and start listening to the people involved. Of course what they did was wrong, of course they know better and of course they should be held accountable – but many of them are children and a disproportionate number are young adults. Sending them to jail will ruin their lives.
If what underpins their actions is disrespect for authority, we need to start asking: what are they angry about and who, precisely, don’t they respect? In my research, I have never found cases of young people disrespecting authority for its own sake: they have favourite teachers, youth workers, faith leaders, family members. They believe that some forms of authority are more legitimate than others. Young people have values and strong beliefs: they believe in people with whom they feel they belong – people with whom they have emotional, respectful, trusting relationships. That’s usually not going to be a father who beats them or a policeman who cuffs them around the ear, or a politician who jails them or cuts their EMAs or chances at college or university, or a banker who laughs all the way to the bank.
Kicking off and grabbing loot is perhaps not a politically mature form of protest, but it may be the only way those involved felt they could act out and communicate their disrespect and anger. That form of articulation needs to be deciphered and understood with time, empathy and, yes, respect. Fortunately, there are many well-qualified researchers in many disciplines, including anthropology, theology, geography, sociology, political science, and psychology who will be doing just that.
Dr Abby Day, Research Fellow, University of Sussex