Sunday, August 26, 2012

One year on from the riots - why we could all use a bit more humility

[Disclaimer: I realise this post is slightly behind the times - I started writing it a couple of weeks ago, got poorly and have only just got round to finishing it. It's quite long, but it's the product of a lot of thinking, so bear with it - I'd like to know what you think.]

On the anniversary of last summer's riots, a lot of ink was spilled about why they happened and how we can stop them happening again. Much of it raises points that I think are both true and important. But I've been puzzled by the total failure of almost all of it to engage with social psychology - with what we know about how people behave in crowds. 

The Riots, Communities and Victims Panel's website says that they spoke to key stakeholders including affected communities, third sector organisations and employers. Social psychologists don't feature anywhere on that list, and evidence from social psychology doesn't appear anywhere in the Panel's final report. In a way, that's not surprising - a large part of the Panel's purpose seems to have been to make people feel listened to, and few politicians care whether social psychologists feel listened to.

Perhaps another part of its purpose was to fulfil our need to feel that we understand, to impose a tidy narrative on something shocking and unsettling. And again, social psychology's not particularly helpful here: if there's one thing it suggests, it's that crowd situations are by their nature chaotic and unpredictable, so we should probably be at least a bit circumspect about any conclusions we draw from the events of last summer. 

Yet from the minute the riots started happening, right up until the anniversary a few weeks ago, people from all sides of the political spectrum seem to have been astonishingly ready to start sentences with things like "the riots happened because..." (or even, in the case of Laurie Penny - never one to knowingly undersell her opinions - "people riot because"). Unsurprisingly, those sentences usually ended in a way that reflected the political prejudices of the people writing them - it was poor parenting, it was black culture, it was the cuts. I've thought about this quite a bit, and I've come to the conclusion that pretty much all those prejudices entail assumptions about the rioters' political or moral agency which are at odds with what we know about crowd behaviour. And maybe that's why nobody's been particularly keen to look at the psychological evidence.

Let's start with the left. Last summer, I actually found it quite distasteful how quickly both personal friends and political commentators jumped to appropriate the riots as an expression of anger against the cuts. To be fair, a lot admitted they'd been overly hasty once it became apparent that most of the rioters were not very interested in battling the police and really quite interested in going on the rob. I hate to pick on people, but Laurie Penny has recently re-posted the article quoted above, so I'm assuming she does not fall into this camp and that the views she expresses in it are fair game.

In it, she describes the riots as a sort of "political statement", the nature of which "may be obscured" even to those who took part. To be honest, this strikes me as quite patronising. I do not think it is possible to make a political statement without knowing you are making it. That is sort of in the nature of the word 'statement'. Of course, that doesn't mean that what you're doing doesn't have political implications - but for me, this is the first type of attempt to foist agency on the rioters, a claim that the left commentariat somehow have a privileged insight that enables them to explain to us all what the rioters were really trying to say.

Just to be clear, I'm absolutely not trying to depoliticise the riots here. I strongly believe that, insofar as we can point fingers of blame, our hugely unequal society should be first in line. And I agree with Laurie Penny that all the evidence suggests the riots were sparked off by an excluded underclass with no stake in society and nothing to lose. But I don't find it plausible that the prime motivation of the rioters was anger against the police or the cuts. Even if  that was true at the beginning, it certainly doesn't explain the way the riots spread. My point is that there's a big difference between recognising the politics in a situation and making claims about the political motivations of those involved. 

So what about the right? Their reaction was even more distasteful, with politicians, commentators and the establishment in general falling over themselves to morally condemn the rioters. David Cameron - cheered on by the Tory right - blamed the riots on "moral collapse", on irresponsibility and selfishness, on "children without fathers; schools without discipline; reward without effort; crime without punishment; rights without responsibilities; communities without control". Another tidy narrative, another terribly convenient and predictable list of culprits, and another attempt to foist agency on people, only this time it's moral agency rather than political agency. And this was more iniquitous - for innumerable reasons, but mainly because it had real-world consequences. 

The language of morality used about rioters flies in the face of everything we know about crowd psychology - about contagion, peer pressure, group dynamics and so on. As I've argued before, if studies like those of Milgram and Zimbardo show us one thing, it's that none of us know how we'll behave in situations like that, and that the forces of conformity and social norms are more powerful than we could have imagined. (This is true even in everyday, familiar situations, let alone the madness of a riot.)

So we should surely be a bit more humble in making moral judgements about people who were swept up in the mob. Yet if anything we saw the reverse, with courts put under huge pressure to hand out punitive sentences to 'send a message' - and, for the most part, happily obliging. If the government had been willing to put the psychological evidence ahead of knee-jerk political reactions, maybe we wouldn't have had the ludicrous spectacle of a man being sentenced to six months in jail for stealing a bottle of water. And maybe if we all paid a bit more attention to the psychology, we'd think twice before treating the riots as a handy peg on which to hang our own agendas and assumptions.

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