Riot Reaction

This is an opinion I wrote for this month’s edition of Kensington & Chelsea Today – it was originally written about a week after the riots had taken place.

“Tougher sentencing, curfews, social media blackouts and increased police powers. These are some of the proposed responses to the recent unrest across the country.  These short-term ‘knee-jerk’ reactions may be popular in certain circles for a few weeks, but they will not help to address the social problems that have helped to create this situation. Not every area affected, or every person involved, was as a result of these social issues, but if we do not do something about them, then other areas could be affected as well.

Consumerism is a driving force behind so many peoples’ lives. It has almost become an ideology for too many, ignoring the reality of their situation. Like the American dream of the early 20th century, everyone looked forward to the day when they would be rich. For a generation we have been told that we can be famous, we can be wealthy, that we can be whatever we want to be.  But with rising unemployment – especially among young people – the chance of that dream becoming a reality is fading. And all the while, we are told that we are all in this together. When people see that this does not seem to be the case, it can cause resentment towards those who are not as affected by what is happening. Problems arise when these resentments are not addressed, and it only takes one action to push somebody over the edge. It is easier for others to follow once one group has stepped over the line.

When looking at the handing down of tougher sentencing, it is important that the punishment fits the crime, and that accountability is held across the board. Former members of the Bullingdon club – known for their wild parties – and a Deputy Prime Minister who once burned down two greenhouses full of rare plants tell us that those who commit offences must be held accountable, having themselves received no punishment. It makes it hard to believe that fair justice will really be done.  It is fairer sentences, not tougher that is what is needed here. If exorbitant punishments are handed down by the courts it will only serve to increase resentment towards the police and further damage trust in the justice system. It is easy to seek to make an example of someone, to scare those who might follow a similar path, but that doesn’t make it right. The sentence for burglary during a riot must be the same as that for any other burglary. I am not sure that stealing a £3.50 case of water would receive a 6 month prison sentence if it were not for the riots and politically motivated advice to ignore sentencing guidelines if the actions took place during a riot.

Social media is another soft target. It connects people more easily and more efficiently than ever before. All you have to do is log into your BBM, Twitter or Facebook accounts and you can interact with people immediately, and more widely than by texting or phone calls. I know this, because I use mine to interact with people as far apart as America, India and Japan. Yes, it can also be used to pass on information about where the police are, where there are shops with expensive goods, and where there is already violence taking place.  But while my city was caught up in the chaos of that weekend, I and many others, kept communications much closer to home – we contacted our friends and families to make sure they were alive, safe and unaffected. Using the hashtag #riotcleanup, people all across the country grouped together with others in their communities to pick up the pieces of their shattered neighbourhoods.

In a country where we are told that personal responsibility is the defining factor in behaviour it is illogical, naïve and possibly illegal to think that closing down access to social media will be of benefit. If personal responsibility is important, then judge each person by his or her actions. If those actions are illegal, then it is the individual’s responsibility, not the fault of the technology that they used.

If you tell one section of society that they are fat, lazy, stupid and criminal long enough and loud enough, then eventually they might start to believe you. When everyone assumes you break the law and contribute nothing to society, where is the social constraint that prevents you from doing exactly that? Society is broken, but it was broken long before these riots, and unless proper, long-term action is taken, it will be broken long after the glass shop fronts have been repaired.

We need to ensure that these events so not repeat themselves. That will not come about through draconian sentences, water cannons, rubber bullets or evictions from social housing. It will come about through an examination of every level of our society. Through stimulation and investment in less wealthy areas, to ensure that aspirations can be met. We must expect a higher standard from those above us. Our political and commercial leaders must lead by example, both in their words, and in their actions. And above all, we must rise above the temptation for retaliation, retribution or revenge. This is not a political problem, it is a social problem, but it does have political causes. We need to make sure that we are not just looking out for those at the top, or those in the ‘squeezed middle’, but everyone. The culture of blaming those below us must end. We must make our society stronger; make our country fairer, more balanced and tolerant. We must not forget that there have been victims of these events, and we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to ensure that there are no more.”


Men, Women, Left & Right: The Problem With Generalisation

Today I read two things, written by two very different people in very different places, both of which annoyed me quite a bit. The first one was this by Julie Bindel for The New Statesman and the second one was by Damian Thompson at the Telegraph. The one thing that both pieces shared is their willingness to lump people into blocks, so that they can be easily defined and derided. Whether it be “the Left” or “Men”, (or in my case, both) grouping everyone who falls under those respective umbrella terms so that they form a nice big target diminishes your argument, as well as helping to alienate people who may have agreed with some of the points you are making.
Firstly, Mr Thompson. “The Left” is a big group. We disagree with each other. A lot! You only have to look at the one supposedly left-of-centre party, The Labour Party, to see that. In the last decade we have seen Blair vs. Brown and Miliband vs. Miliband, and that is just on which individual is leader of the party. There is nothing we on the left do better than in-fight, backstab and name call. We disagree with each other almost as much as we disagree with various different factions on the right. There are many on the left who do not agree with UK Uncut (I am not among them). Ignore the fact that events over the weekend had little to do with UK Uncut and more to do with the death of Mark Duggan, who was shot by the police. Ignore the accusation that “criminals used social media to co-ordinate their actions, just as the Left does” as if there are not plenty of right wing viewpoints represented on Twitter – that Mr Thompson uses twitter to regularly promote his articles doesn’t make him a member of UK Uncut, a lefty or a criminal does it? To throw everyone on the left into one group is a lazy generalisation that trivialises his argument even more than an opening line of “I suppose I’ll be accused of exploiting the Tottenham riots and London-wide looting for political ends”. By the way Damian, you are exploiting them, but then, that was the point, wasn’t it? What happened over the weekend was not right, but it was understandable. This is what must be discussed and considered over the next few weeks – looting, burning down people’s homes and businesses is not acceptable, because it is illegal. But it is not as if the emotions that caused the protest were not present long before this weekend. The lack of trust between residents of Tottenham and the police is not something that is new. Add in the extra pressure of an economy in trouble, high youth unemployment and a government that shows little regard for those at the lower end of the income scale, and it only takes one action to spark people into action. Do not blame social media. Do not blame everyone on the left, or young people. Look at what created the increase in tensions, as well as whether or not the police actions were justified. It is important that people realise that it is possible to understand without condoning, to sympathise without supporting and to acknowledge the problems without trivialising what people are going through. Mr Thompson failed at that. What happened was not a PR disaster for UK Uncut, it was an actual disaster for those whose neighbourhoods were vandalised, whose livelihoods were destroyed and whose homes were burned down. Please do not use what has happened to them to try and score political points or make jibes at other commentators. That’s just crass.
Being lumped into one big group with everyone else who defines themselves as a man was actually more of a problem than a mass political generalisation. I would define myself as a feminist. I am very uncomfortable when feminist writers of any stripe generalise “men” as one large blob. We do think differently, and there are some men whose attitudes towards women disgust me. I do not want to be branded as one of them simply by virtue of being heterosexual and being a man. One of the arguments made regularly by feminists is that men should not all see women as sexualised objects, there to provide sex, food and babies. They are not. Much in the same way as not all men are beer drinking loudmouths who cannot control themselves when they see a pair of legs in a short skirt. I think that men have a vital part to play in the feminist movement – and hopefully proper gender equality for everyone. This is something that I would like to believe Ms Bindel also agrees with. It is important that men do not accept the idea of “fun feminists”, partly because it is a terrible name, but mainly because it is another example of women pandering to men. Doing it in a slightly different way is not feminism, it is simply reinforcing the social gap between the genders, and this time it is doing it with a female seal of approval. This is not feminism, and I would hope many feminists agree with me. Therefore, being told that if “men” agree with a type of feminism then it has failed, I find to be a real problem. Do you mean me? Do you mean those men who agree with real gender equality, who want to end the acceptance of misogyny that is prevalent in our society? I would hope not. I am not saying that feminism without men is dead, but I do believe that we can get involved, that we can make a difference, and if we want gender equality across the board, then both those of every gender should be encouraged to get involved. I am a feminist. I am not the same as those who laugh at rape jokes, who blame the victim for domestic violence or see women as nothing but objects for sex. I don’t want to be grouped with people who do. It could cause arguments.