Writing in the New Scientist, Prof. Stephen Reicher, a specialist in crowd psychology at the University of St Andrews, takes aim at the posturing and macho rhetoric after the UK riots that dismissed anyone who sought a sociological expanation for criminal behavior as "excusing crime."Another way in which politicians have restricted explanation is by intimating that any reaction other than condemnation is tantamount to condoning violence. The UK's education secretary Michael Gove reacted furiously to the suggestion by Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour party, that government policies limiting youth opportunities might have had some relevance, castigating her for "making excuses for what has gone on here". In this context, whole academic disciplines become suspect: in political vocabulary, "sociologist" and "jihadi" have acquired a kind of moral equivalence...Trying to understand the English riots is not a crime
Those politicians and pundits who have tried to outlaw societal explanations of the English riots have advanced alternative theories, largely blaming the violence on the pathology of the rioters. Cameron's declaration that they are inherently criminal and lack moral standards is one variant of this. Another is the common suggestion that the rioters lost their moral standards in the crowd; that they were mindless, swept up by the contagion of the moment or perhaps preyed upon by unscrupulous agitators.
These theories translate into convenient solutions. In the short term, don't try to reason with rioters but use a big stick to repress them; in the longer term, look at the sickness within their communities that has turned them into amoral beasts. That only leaves the question of which communities are dysfunctional and in what ways. Thus Cameron locked horns with former prime minister Tony Blair over whether we should be talking about a broken society or a narrow but recalcitrant underclass.
Thursday, September 22, 2011