The Riots: Pay More Attention to Nature and Less to Morality

The Riots: Pay More Attention to Nature and Less to Morality

By J.R. Kuwanski


I don’t condone what has happened on the streets of London over the last few days. I don’t think it can be justified. I do think beating people is wrong. I do think looting a corner store is wrong. I do think burning a flat, with people in it, is wrong. It’s abhorrent.

Looking to explain something, or find the cause of it, is not excusing it, it’s not justifying it. In fact, to the contrary, if one believes something is wrong, horribly wrong, then surely the concern is to make sure it ceases and make sure it doesn’t happen again. To simply condemn it, label the perpetrators of it as “animals” and demand bloody revenge, is in effect saying “I really can’t be bothered thinking about this, someone just fix it all, and quickly.” Well, I’m sorry – unfortunately, no, someone can’t just fix it all, and, no, it can’t be done quickly. And, more bad news, if you want it fixed, you’re going to have to think about it. But you are right about something, yes, we are, indeed, all animals.

And that’s a good place to start. We’re all shocked when we see this seemingly mindless barbaric behaviour – for, we’re humans, and more importantly civilised humans, not savages! But maybe we shouldn’t be so shocked. What we realise when we see the events, and what is becoming realised by despotic leaders in the Middle East, is that our society is, by-in-large, reliant on an implicit agreement, nothing more. That agreement is referred to as the ‘social contract’ – which is simply, each member of a society agreeing that they will forgo their freedom to rob and kill in exchange others reraining from such acts also. That way we’re both all better off. If we all refrain from robbing and killing, we can produce goods and services, exchange them and create and share in the wealth. It works for us, or at least most of the time.

Now with this mind, let’s consider another aspect of society. Humans are animals and we are subject to many of the same tendencies. These include some noble ones, like empathy and perseverance and resilience. They also include some less noble ones like greed, violence, selfishness, conformity and laziness. There is another one, a more complex one, perhaps the most captivating. It can can sway us either noble or nasty – pride. We all possess these propensities within us. Some of us express them, some of us restrain them, usually depending on our circumstances.

Let’s now bring these two ideas together: one, our civilized society is based and reliant on an implicit agreement and condition that we’re going to act civilized because it should benefit all of us; and two, we’re animals that are subject to various tendencies depending on the situation.

Younger people especially, particularly adolescents and even young adults, are very swayed by instinctual behaviour: conformity, violence, and pride, as well as a strong desire for immediate gratification and stimulation. Combine this with the fact that for certain younger people the whole social contract isn’t working out too well. Kids from deprived neighbourhoods aren’t really getting their piece of the civilisation pie and  aren’t being told how to get it. They are however being told there is a hell-of-a-lot out there, that other people have.

Now I know that that has set you off. The blood is boiling and you’re yelling “Yea but it is working for them! They’re rich compared to most Indians or Africans! And what about all the other poor families whose shops are being robbed, who work 80 hours a week! They’re not looting and beating!”

Well, you’re right, they are a lot better off materially than most Indians or Africans. But remember, these kids don’t live in India or Africa. They live in London. In fact most of them have never been out of their boroughs. So what they care about is how they compare to other Londoners and other Westerners that they see on TV, billboards and in the movies. Remember, we’re animals, and we have pride, we vie for social status, we know if we’re at the bottom of it, and we don’t like it. And, when was the last time you really compared yourself to an Indian or African? We don’t, we compare to our own, those considered within our ‘tribe’. We are animals remember.

If people don’t see people they can identify with, people like them, elevating themselves socially and materially, if they’re not encouraged to do so, if they’re not enabled to and not told how, then they’ll give up and they’ll be angry about it. They’ll lose their connection with mainstream society which is continuing on without them, and they’ll lose respect for it. Then if the only time they come in contact with it is in the form of disrespect, in the form of complete disregard for their most basic dignity – either at the arm of the law or politicians or media or immigration – they’ll resent it.

Secondly, yes, there are many poor families and teenagers that are not out rioting and many who are in fact victims of it. So why is that? Why would one group of poor people riot violently, seemingly mindlessly, selfishly, and the other, seemingly civilized. Well it could be hypothesised that these families, parents and children, that are not rioting have retained a sense of hope and values, to participate in civilised society, and a hope to elevate within it. Why would one group have these hopes and the others not? Well, again it could be proposed that one group, those that are looting, are mostly off-spring of a group that has experienced low social status, social dislocation, unemployment and poor housing for most of their lives, for a generation. And hence the off-spring have grown up in this environment of hopelessness and deprivation. Maybe they’ve seen that if you work hard you don’t necessarily escape poverty, sometimes even fall further into it. Where as the other group, those not looting, may be the off-spring of a group that have known social integration in mainstream society, in employment, even in the form of property ownership at some point, have passed on those values, including the hope to elevate one’s social status and material well-being.

Yes, as Theresa May states, this is criminality. But that is not sufficient. That doesn’t explain why hundreds, thousands, of kids and young adults are behaving the way they are. And yes, there will always be some people, that regardless of their circumstance, look to exploit, behave violently, commit acts of arson and theft. We are animals and some of us will act this way. But this is more than that, and that explanation will not do.

I don’t propose that these riots were any kind of conscious expression of protest against perceived injustices. In the same way that when we erupt in rage we may bang our fist against the wall or snap at our colleague, so did some of the looters riot. Or as charity founder Camila Batmanghelidjh describes, in the same way as her youth group attendee used to “smash his head into a pane of glass and bite his own flesh off with rage”. And yes, some looted for the fun of it, burnt for the relief and stimulation of it. But the question is why didn’t they care, why they thought it was okay, or didn’t give a sh** about what was or wasn’t okay.

What stops us from acting in this way? Well largely a sense of shame. A sense that this behaviour is deplorable and we would be embarrassed and disgusted with ourselves if we undertook it. Those values, that we hold so dear, so close, we assume that they are integral to us, part of us, and anyone that does not possess them is, probably, sub-human. But while humans do have the propensity to be empathetic and compassionate, it is also a fostered trait, something ingrained from our environment. And that fostered trait is largely on the basis of respect for others, predicated on being part of something and gaining, of the respect being largely reciprocal. If this environment isn’t present and these traits aren’t fostered then you have kids who are without those values, passed down from parents who are probably without them aswell.

Many readers may be thinking now “I don’t feel sorry for these little violent selfish bastards”. My response would be: “You don’t have to, that’s not the issue here. The issue here is how do we create a situation where by we can have a harmonious society, where by selfish, violent, exploitative bastards aren’t created.”

As I said, it’s not about morality. This is about psychology, evolutionary psychology, human nature.

Do I feel sorry for these kids? I think there is an injustice in the lack of opportunity many have been deprived of. But I don’t necessarily feel sorry for a lot of them. They are, now, what they are, and if that is an unwillingness to empathise or think or articulate, well so be it. I feel regret that they may have not been afforded the opportunities or environment to encourage or foster these traits, but now, I think a lot of them may be horrible people, obnoxious, inconsiderate, violent people, which may be beyond rehabilitation. This, may be, the reality of it. 

But again, this is not the point. People are, by in large, created, and we need to ensure we have a family, a community, a society that fosters the noble traits of the human condition – compassion, thoughtfulness, consideration, empathy, creativity and productivity.

I don’t think it was right for rioters to do what they did. I also don’t think it’s right that the Prime Minister should force people to choose between a life of debt or education, or enforce a minimum wage that you cannot live off with some level of dignity because there’s “simply no money”, while he sits on his £3.1 million dollars of mostly inherited wealth. But right or wrong is beside the point here. In nature there is no morality, and whether we like it or not, we are very much part of that – nature, that is. Morality is what we create. A part of a tribe that is excluded and disrespected and sees no hope within the current social order, will cease to respect it, and its norms.

Yes, we are not entirely dependent on our environment, there is an element of autonomy from our upbringing. But, by in large, the individual is in influenced by the family, the family by the community, and the community by the society. Most of this is a result of families, children of parents, which are dysfunctional, and regardless of the opportunities that are afforded to them will continue to exploit, excuse violence and opportunistic selfish behaviour. A moral rot can get into families and be passed on from generation to generation. The question remains – how do you stop it. Well, I would argue, if you leave it to fester, to spread, if you separate it from mainstream society and values, and if you fuel it by a little bit of police brutality here, a little bit of no opportunity (in either education or employment) there, then you will find exactly that, it spreads, rapidly, and gets worse.

“Society relies on collaborative behaviour; individuals are held accountable because belonging brings personal benefit. Fear or shame of being alienated keeps most of us pro-social.” I observed the faces on the streets in Bethnal Green on a blustery late Monday afternoon – pale gaunt faces of white kids, dark hardened faces of black kids – hard, hollow, violent, hopeless faces. These were very foreign faces, and not in an ethnic sense. It was clear these kids, these young adults, had no fear of being outside of mainstream society, they already were, had been for some time.


About jrkuwanski

Born of an Inca tribe in Peru, J.R. was raised by silver-tailed wolves in the Amazon rainforest. At age 7, J.R. departed on a treacherous journey to the Nepalese Himalayas and, following a lengthy debate with the Dalai Lama about the merits predictive texting, moved to Brooklyn, New York. For the following decade the writer learned the street poetry of 'the corner', becoming a familiar face on brownstone stoops, housing project courtyards and anywhere where a good salad dressing was sold. At age 17, when riding home from a 12 hour bowling marathon with his friends Mr Def and Mr Tip, J.R. was greeted by a Sri Lankan wizard who was wearing a bright purple velour tracksuit. The ghetto preacher told him he was destined for great things, ranging from baking one hell of a pumpkin pie to Nobel Economic accolades. Another fate was to craft the world's best blog, writing on topics of social and political commentary in a style of creative non-fiction. And the wizard promised him if he tried hard enough, really tried, one day, someone, somewhere may consider publishing his work.
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