August 15, 2011

The Politics of Mindlessness; Or, I Predict A Riot

I’ve been watching in despair as my country goes to the dogs, in almost as much horror at the politicians as at the rioters. I’ve heard the word ‘mindless’ bandied around so much by the powers that be, in an almost Tsarist display of denial at the social reality of the nation over which they preside and sit in judgement, that one truly suspects the word would best be reserved for the politicians themselves. The outpouring of violence and brand-name-driven looting – aggressive shopping, you might say – was frightening enough, but the failure of the authorities to understand its causes is more alarming still.

The segment of this generation of teenagers who saw fit to riot and help themselves is lost to a greater extent than any since the teenager was invented around the turn of the twentieth century. They have no idea of anything greater than themselves. They have been raised to aspire to empty celebrity, sloth, consumption, and all the glistering fool’s gold of post-modern consumerism. They have never been subjected to a meaningful ‘no’, for they have not been raised with a moral code or a moral conscience. Their idols laud criminality, anti-intellectualism, and the acquisition of shiny things. One way or another, English society has spawned a generation of magpies.

I remember distinctly when religious instruction in English state schools was outlawed. It preceded the birth of last week’s rioters by a year or three. Up until the age of about twelve, I used to get my moral education in school through the preaching of Christian values in daily assemblies. Whether one is religious or not, one has to figure that the idiom of this moral education ought not to have been removed without some plan to continue the moral education somehow. It might be considered possible, even useful, to educate people about morality, community, citizenship, without demanding that children make a pact with God. Values are embedded in tradition, in a sense of belonging (civic pride), and are based on human relations (family, friends, school). The instillation of esprit de corps, or the notion of a greater collective purpose than that of any individual aim, fuels self-respect and a sense of mutual responsibility. If people in authority do not provide the foundation for this esprit de corps you can bet that young people with come up with their own. Gangs of rampaging youths organised together through social networking could just as easily have been pulling for a worthy cause. But it’s too late now.

Sure enough, once religious assemblies were outlawed they were replaced by meaningless activities and collective head scratching about what to do. The timing of this pedagogical innovation coincided with the enforced death of Britain as a centre of manufacturing (primary industry was already dead) and of the demise of training in technological, vocational, or artisanal skills. Meanwhile the universities underwent massive expansion so that degrees could be handed out en masse, affording the hordes of the future unemployed a chance at dejection and feelings of under-achievement on a greater scale of self-inflated ego than hitherto. Those unable to matriculate could no longer depend on a trade or a skill, but were glamorised by the laddish lager and drug culture. Their sense of social exclusion was intensified. The ironic anthem of my generation – is it worth the aggravation to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for? / It’s a crazy situation, but all I need are cigarettes and alcohol – became the disturbing reality of the next. The political landscape was squashed into an ugly composite portrait: a set of homogeneous white men distinguishable only by their respective red, blue and yellow ties. The lack of purpose in the individual lives of poor youths was mirrored in the lack of political will to really do anything about social fragmentation and ever-widening inequality. The lack of political choice led to disengagement, apathy, fatalism. Votes, as it became painfully obvious in the last General Election, have ceased to mean anything. Go to Burger King or go to MacDonald’s. In the end you get much the same thing: a bland burger that will kill you eventually.

What happened to the spirit of the Blitz?

These riots were not mindless. This violence did not come out of the clear blue sky. The situation has been produced by the aimless and feckless politicking of a generation and it is time that somebody stood up and took responsibility. There can be all the talk in the world about the future policing of this kind of collective outburst, but until somebody starts talking seriously about how to teach values and virtues, and until somebody starts to think seriously about how communities work, there will only be one certainty: it will happen again.


  1. Sorry to throw a spanner in your works Rob, as this is an interesting viewpoint, but acts of Religious instruction have not been outlawed in British schools. In fact there is still a statutory legal requirement on all schools to provide a daily act of collective worship and in primary schools this often happens. The fact is that most secondary schools don't do this, largely due to logistical issues surrounding timetabling of assemblies for 1000+ students in a hall that only holds 250, but that is not necessarily the fault of policymakers. Certainly an overloading of curriculum and increased pressure on the education system to become a competitive marketplace have been and continue to be government policy, and could be criticised for squeezing religious and moral education out of the curriculum.

    I think to suggest that reintroducing a daily dose of Christian values in an assembly would be a major step towards solving this problem is really dodging the issue somewhat. In fact through weekly assemblies, RE, PSHE and citizenship lessons students at the inner city secondary school where I have worked for the last 10 years students receive a vast amount more "moral instruction" than we did whilst at school. Also as an atheist I do find it slightly offensive to insinuate that people can not be moral without some kind of religious instruction. When I examine my own life I find this to be a patent falsehood.

    I'm not disagreeing with you about the attitude of a small minority of our young people, about the consumerist society, about feckless politicians. The causes of these riots are many and varied, and it is time for a major examination of how our society works but we all must be careful about jumping to narrow conclusions about causes and solutions.


  2. Spanners welcome. The argument does not rest entirely on the point about religious instruction, but outlawed or not you have confirmed that it basically doesn't happen any more. Logistical considerations ought not be the stumbling block to some kind of collective moral instruction. Do RE, PSHE and Citizenship classes really get taken seriously? I would like to see meaningful evidence of their effectiveness. Otherwise I think the causes I put forward are rather broad-based. Of course, I agree with the last sentence of your second paragraph entirely (as an atheist myself). No such insinuation was made. I rather think I implied the opposite.

  3. Doctor,

    I want to point out something implied in your account of education. You suggest being English has come to an end because the young no longer become English.
    Those taken as exemplars of England very likely stopped believing in that for which the others supposed they would stand.
    Adolescents love anti-intellectualism because the intellect and reason were abandoned by England's prominent adults.
    They love criminality because the same prominent adults do not themselves believe in law.
    Barbarians behave this way quite spontaneously, as the riots also have shown: they take what they want, unencumbered by politeness or shame.


  4. Very interesting to hear a native Brit's take on these events. I've been watching this play out in the news, reminded of events similar to this in the U.S. years ago. I'll never understand the looting by people who don't have a true stake in the matter. Being violet for violence's sake. Anarchy.

    But, your senitiments about a privileged youth, who see the world as revolving around them and take folly in joining in the madness, is the same argument I've heard some U.S. news commentators make of latet. What a sad state of affairs - political, social, etc.


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