As you may have noticed, there’s been rioting in certain areas of London, which has spread across the UK, for the last couple of nights.
Vehicles and buildings have been burnt, windows have been smashed, shops have been looted. People have died.
It’s been horrible.
So you’ll be pleased to know that I’m here to explain exactly why it’s all been happening and what we can do to sort it all out.
In fact, there may not even be a question to ask. Maybe we don’t need so many Guardian-reading bleeding-heart liberals asking why these violent scum do what they do. Perhaps they’re just evil, and these constant attempts to excuse evil is why liberalism is the greatest blight on modern society. The Prime Minister described the destruction as “criminality, pure and simple“. Maybe that’s all there is to it.
What we are seeing in London and other English cities is an outpouring of evil. To try to explain evil as the result of something else is almost always a mistake. The urge to do evil is a primary motivation, not the indirect consequence of something else… The British riots, like similar events in any time and place, are a reminder that while the existence of God may be debatable, the existence of the Devil is not.
Theological sound-bites aside, the message is clear: some people are just plain bad, evil, rotten to the core. Nothing provokes them to their evil actions except their own twisted purpose and selfishness, and any response except to forcibly restrain their capacity to inflict their malevolence on the rest of us is futile.
As an explanation for what’s going on, it’s reassuringly easy to understand, and provides a satisfyingly retributive solution for dealing with those rampaging hoodies out there. They’re probably all hoodies, aren’t they? And chavs. And other bad sorts like that.
Very satisfying. But it raises some awkward questions.
If some people are “just evil”, with no prior root cause except an inbuilt and irreparable inhumanity, you’d presumably expect them to be evenly distributed among our species, by whatever chance or unknown force systematically removes some people’s empathy for their fellow man. You wouldn’t expect this evil to occur mostly in socially disadvantaged ethnic minorities, where unemployment is unusually high, benefits are being cut, and residents have long since been complaining of having no prospects and being treated unfairly by police.
It seems odd that this inherent evil seems to be so demographically weighted. Almost as if social demographics played some sort of role in social unrest.
It seems even odder that so many separate incidents of rioting broke out in so many different parts of London, and then in further-flung parts of the UK, in such quick succession. It would be a tremendous coincidence for so many evil people to decide it was time to do some evil in such close succession, if they weren’t in some way responding to external events. It’s also strange that Bromley, which had had some looting the night before and rumours of an escalation yesterday, ended up being so quiet last night. Could the evilly motivated evil-doers have been steered away from all that evil by the large police numbers on the high street?
And there seems little doubt that a crucial catalytic factor to the riots was that Mark Duggan was shot dead in Tottenham a few days ago. He was a local resident, and there was no evidence that he fired any shots himself, before being killed by a single bullet fired by police.
That so much evil – which, remember, is not a result of anything else – would suddenly burst out in Tottenham, a relatively disadvantaged area with a large population of ethnic minorities, who have already complained of feeling antagonised by the authorities, such a short time after a young black man is deliberately killed by the police… well, it’s almost too tremendous a coincidence to be believed.
It must be, though. I mean, you can’t allow for any external explanation of any of these violent actions, or let yourself understand how a sense of frustration and disenfranchisement and political impotence might have arisen in some people. If you go down that road, you’re basically absolving all blame and justifying every stolen TV and incinerated bus in the country. Right?
I’m losing track of my own use of irony here. It may be time to stop being disingenuous.
Here’s my main thesis, for want of a less pretentious word:
“Evil” is the political equivalent of “Goddidit“.
It saves you from having to think any further about what’s happening, and provides a nice uncomplicated explanation for everything that seems scary and uncertain. But it rests on an immeasurable, unverifiable assumption, which stops any potentially fruitful discussion dead in its tracks.
It’s neat and tidy, but shouldn’t we care if it’s also true?
I can’t imagine anyone arguing there were no external factors at all that influenced the exact details of the recent rioting. The geography and timing of the various incidents make it impossible to write them off as a series of isolated, independent events, simply evil things done by evil people for evil’s sake. However evil they are, the rioters are very likely to have been influenced by factors such as the presence of police, the availability of suitable targets for aggression, the prevalence of other rioters, and so on.
It also flies in the face of everything we understand about human psychology to assume there was no impact at all from the broken windows effect, the bystander effect, or deindividuation in crowds, to name but a few fascinating and well established nuggets of research into human behaviour. Anyone passingly familiar with the field of psychology will be aware of Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority figures, which gave alarming insight into how far people can be persuaded into performing immoral acts they would never usually condone, if the surrounding circumstances are conducive to it.
And if you can acknowledge this, then it hardly seems implausible that some rioters’ behaviour might have been influenced by less immediate factors, perhaps present in their social background. That the extremely well-off and secure are less likely ever to break shop windows and assault passers-by is supported both by reality and common sense.
It’d be very, very strange if the kinds of social factors I’ve mentioned didn’t play some part, in some people, in fomenting a sense of injustice and anger. The kind of anger which might build, directionless and impotent, toward some kind of boiling point, a threshold of poorly expressed fury and manic, stupid delight at watching destruction reign.
If the problem is simply one of evil, the solution is comfortably simple to understand – but also limited. It means we can reassure ourselves that the perpetrators are “not like us”, but it means they must be abandoned as being beyond hope of salvation. It also means that there’s nothing we can do to prevent more truly black souls from arising in the future; we just have to wait until they can be identified by some sufficiently evil act, like mugging an injured man, or throwing a brick in a public venue to the cheers of their friends, or whatever other unquestionably evil criteria can be agreed upon.
On the other hand, the paradigm that allows for the effect of social factors, although it requires a more complex human psychology to be considered, offers hope for the future. It says that there are circumstances which exacerbate and promote the kind of dissatisfaction that leads to such civil unrest, and that these circumstances can be changed so that fewer such events are induced in the future.
Understanding does not equal condoning. There have been acts of vandalism, violence, arson, and thuggery committed, and there deserve to be arrests made and prosecutions brought. I expect some people will and should be jailed for what they did. But it’s a fantasy to imagine that the yearning to angrily set fire to buildings was with them since the womb. If we want to make our society better for everyone, we need to figure out how to do exactly that: make it better for everyone. Even the ones who sometimes seem to want to make it worse.