With the countries attention firmly focused on the riots and there aftermath I thought it would be a good time to post my first blog on Psychobabble. At the moment there seems to be an endless stream of analysis and solution suggestions that inevitably follow such frightening and saddening events. The emphasis on finding political and social solutions to the problems the riots have highlighted is completely understandable, and yet I am aware of a sense of déjà vu about the process of rioting in England. With a little research it is possible to find out about many riots that we have had over the past few hundred years and the many causes attributed to them, some of them now seem quite bizarre. Take for instance the St. Scholastica Day Riot of 1355 which left 93 dead and was started over the quality of alcoholic beverages.
In the eighteenth century we rioted over Gin, textiles and religion, the nineteenth it was industrial mechanisation, and in the twentieth century we did Fascism, Race, Social Deprivation, Drugs, Football and Tax. So far in the twenty first century we have done Race, Police action, Football, Tuition Fees and the recent riots to which causes are still being evaluated.
Two things that have come up for scrutiny are: 1) the existence of a so called ‘underclass’ 2) the ‘materialistic’ motivations that appear to be behind the riots and the lack of a moral or political agenda. Turning to the first part, I am curious that politicians affect such surprise that a section of our society described in this way is present in our social and political structure. What do they think the British Empire was able to expand with? Who were they that were press ganged on to Royal Navy ships or to quote the Duke of Wellington; ‘The French system brings together a fair sample of all classes; ours is composed of the scum of the earth-the mere scum of the earth. It is only wonderful that we should be able to make so much of them afterwards’ For me, this is a classic mix up of ‘content’ and ‘process’ and it is all to easy to get lost in the content, especially if that content contains a changing racial mix of people. Race comes up a lot in these debates, and yet in terms of the ‘process’ of these events it is largely irrelevant, because the existence of a social ‘underclass’ is well known by politicians and social observers, and has been a feature of our social structure for hundreds of years.
David Starkey’s recent comments on Television are a good example of how even a well read historian can become completely out of touch with the process. The real question for politicians is this; given your knowledge of how our society is structured, do you see the need for changing it? Watch them dance around in the content with the promise of reform! The real answer is ‘no’. Our sophisticated western civilisation is founded and maintained on the exploitation of less powerful nations, and this is why global imbalances are evident. As an example of this, look at the coverage given to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and compare it to the coverage of the Shell oil spills in the Niger delta. The shining light in recent days has been the father of one of the three young men murdered in Birmingham, his dignity and humanity gives us a clue to where the true solutions really lie. Turning to the second part, a lot has been made of the materialistic avarice and lack of moral integrity of the rioters, and the evidence of this has been clearly seen. Yet as we reflect upon this behaviour some uncomfortable realities begin to emerge, and it is worth taking time to study the possible aetiology of this particular anti-social behaviour. One of the problems for Wellington during the Peninsular war was the predisposition of his rank and file to rape, loot, and plunder which risked alienating the Portuguese and Spanish population on which his supply lines depended. This was the dilemma for the British Army; the very attributes that made the British soldier a fearsome weapon in the war against Napoleon, rendered them at best an embarrassment when the fighting was over and peace and order was required. In other words the ‘underclasses’ of his time were put to work in fighting for the nation and any excesses were met with large doses of hanging and flogging. The mechanised slaughter of the First World War brought about something of a change in this process, and because of the number of men required to sustain a viable army, men were called up from all levels of society.
The unspeakable horror and loss of the First and Second World Wars prompted a powerful sentiment that the men who came home would live in a ‘Land fit for Heroes’ a refrain that was much less likely in Wellington’s time. Was the reason for this difference that fact that for the first time in a long time the killing had affected large parts of society from all social levels?
In the years of recovery that followed the Second World War great efforts were made to improve the living standards and health of working class citizens, and immigration from the Commonwealth helped fill the openings that the killing and economic growth now provided. One of the most popular measures of the improving welfare of the population was in consumable goods, Macmillan’s ‘Never had it so good’ speech springs to mind. What is less remembered were his warnings on the fragility of an economy that was prone to inflation and dependent on growth. The rise in consumerism accelerated, and when Margaret Thatcher took the reigns in 1979 it went supersonic, and the ‘whole society’ aims that followed the war took a back seat to the aspiring individual. Deregulation, privatisation and encouragement of personal wealth and acquisition (remember Harry Enfield’s loadsa money?) were the new mantras. In a more ruthless economic climate Mrs Thatcher was not averse to using immigration to bolster her support, which almost collapsed the support for the racist National Front, the commonwealth immigrants that were encouraged to come to Britain in the post war years were now cast in the role of a ‘problem’ and in the years of her tenure government spending on social housing fell by 67% in real terms. We now stand in 2011 in a society where the gap between rich and poor is ever widening and this has continued under governments of Conservative or Labour persuasions, the super rich and super poor are more alienated from each other than ever, yet the measure of social value has remained the same, that of consumable possessions. The very yardstick that was once used to measure an aspiring nation is now used to measure an aspiring individual.
The ‘underclass’ of today has no place in a modern professional Army, Navy or Air Force, that draws to its ranks more educated middle class young people, so even as a warring arm of a nation, today’s British ‘underclass’ has no role, so they make their own armies, which are the gangs, and fight their own wars, usually with each other and over abstract territories that are defined by illegal drug distribution, only when they turn on the society that has alienated them does that society sit up and take notice. The apparent materialism of the rioters is an adaptation to the credible markers of recognition and status that exists in our society and the lack of moral responsibility is a mirror of a society that does not possess a moral core in its major institutions. Who will they gain their moral guidance from? Parents that are so damaged themselves that they have little ability to guide or relate to their children? Religions, which contradict the tenets of their own beliefs? Politicians who rob the people they are supposed to represent? Or maybe the Media who’s investigative journalism is now in the ownership of commerce rather than the best interest of society, or even senior Police officer’s who can be seen dining with the politicians and media barons while their rank and file officers are left to deal with the mess that their dereliction of duty has left behind.
The fact that the rioters and looters targeted shops and businesses, rather than the political and moral institutions that have long ignored them is more easily understood in the context outlined above, and the sad consequence of this is that a lot of ordinary, decent working people bear a disproportionate load in the aftermath. This creates a lot of anger, resentment and division within communities and provides fertile ground for opportunistic politicians to collect votes from the emotion charged responses of people who are suffering. We don’t ask a man with a broken leg the best way to pin it back, he just wants to get well again! And he hopes that the Hospital and the professionals in it will know how.
Politicians have lined up on television to castigate the rioters for their lack moral decency and uncivilised greed and yet our institutionalised preoccupation with commerce and wealth acquisition is founded in the very same desires. The real questions are the subjective ones around the methods used to acquire this wealth. This is a moral question which MP’s given their recent record are ill equipped to deal with. Politicians need to make up ground fast if their moral credibility is to become commensurate with the social power they wield. To date I have not heard any politician draw a link between their own discredited behaviour and the appalling behaviour of the rioters, humility it would appear, has to be squeezed out of them. In terms of moral presence they shape up very poorly to the grieving Father in Birmingham.
Okay, so how does Psychological Science fit in to this? Well, my view is that we already have the knowledge required to begin the process of healing and rebuilding the social problems that are evident in our society, and it lies in our understanding of Human Development and more specifically Human Attachment theory. The irony of this is that it brings together the Darwinian understanding of Evolution and the Theological primacy of the importance of early Human relationships. The development both psychologically and physiologically of the individual is determined in the crucible of these early relationships and the deviations that seem self-defeating and anti-social can be more clearly understood and addressed. The pioneering work of John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Mary Main, David Wallin and many more have given us an opportunity to apply well understood theory into practice, and create working models that provide a secure attachment base for our children to develop. It is the task of politicians and health professionals well grounded in the knowledge of Human Attachment theory to begin to create and implement these models into the most deprived areas of our society, politicians in particular need to move away from their self promoting and self benefiting activities and apply themselves to their social responsibilities as much as their commercial ones. For us to succeed in this task we will need to pay close attention to what supports the developing child to fulfil their full potential and this includes loving attunement, good and consistent boundaries that have clear cause and effect outcomes, recognition of the child’s developing autonomy and provision of a secure base when their exploration has both painful or joyful consequences, to name but a few. A revealing insight into the need for such a structure is the role of Gangs; why is it that so many young people in deprived areas are drawn to membership? What is the positive intention that underlies such a move? Attachment theory offers some intriguing answers and insight into the biological and emotional needs of an individual, such as reciprocal recognition, value, and a sense of belonging, protection and assuagement of fear. Regular Armies are divided into sub-groups for good reason as the sense of comradeship developed in a platoon is a strong counter to the fear of being alone in a conflict. Gangs are the child’s best efforts at making up the ground lost in the inadequate parenting they received. This in itself is not to blame the parents; they themselves are likely to be a product of the same circumstances, so blame is best laid aside and the energy given to understanding.
I would like to return to consumables and link it here to the Attachment process. A little while ago I observed a young mother walking past me with a young child in a buggy and a slightly older one walking alongside holding on to the buggy and barely managing to keep stride. The mother had a mobile phone pressed to her ear and was in deep conversation with someone. This led to me thinking about emotional absence and how sometimes people are physically present but emotionally disengaged. I wondered what it was like from the child’s perspective and how much power and consequence I might attribute to an object like a mobile phone, as its operation had the consequence of the emotional absence of their mother and for a child, mother’s emotional absence spells danger and fear, especially if the temporary separation is not attuned to and any distress in the child acknowledged by the mother. The mobile phone could easily be a wrap of heroin, a bottle of whiskey, a TV, a computer etc. I heard recently about a TV interview with a mother who was explaining that she rarely talked to her two year old son because ‘he doesn’t talk to me’. Have you ever been talking to someone and suddenly there mobile phone rings and they break off from you and start talking to someone else? Do you notice a jolt? Especially if it’s just you and them, as in a group the impact is diffused. As adults we can rationalise this process, but for a child it is much harder. If you watch children playing with a mobile phone it is a fascinating watch! They accentuate the body postures they are mimicking from their observations of adults, full of affected importance and elevation of status. Given this understanding it is not surprising the level of importance now attached to owning such objects of desire, and the observation of one looter who was trying on different shoes outside the store that had just been robbed.
I am prone to cynicism and helplessness, like many of us probably are in the face of such depressing social problems, yet imagine if you would that we had put a quarter of money we have used to prop up our financially and morally corrupt banks into a project of this nature and what we would learn from such an endeavour. This proposition is not anti-commercial, commerce is crucial to all developing civilisations; however it is a reaction to the creeping moves towards total commercialism as a moral core of our society. Politicians of all flavours talk about growth, growth and more growth as if this is always the answer, yet rarely mention the finite recourses of our planet, the spiritual aspirations we have or the ever increasing levels of population that continually put pressure on the dwindling recourses we have left.
Well, if you have read this far well done! I hope in some way it is useful, if only to elicit debate!