For the last week or so I’ve been rather lazy when it comes to blogging.
For some this will doubtless come as a relief.
I put this indolence down partly to being on leave, but also because I’ve been loath to add to the number of trees that have been sacrificed in order that newspaper columnists might reflect on (or rant on about) the English riots. (Is there a virtual equivalent to that image of the old media age? Do the pixies that run Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere have to tear up fairy forests so that bloggers and trolls can get things off their chests? I’m worried that for every sentence that begins ‘the riots happened because…’ somewhere an angel dies. I will need to tread carefully.)
I’ve been waiting for the dust to settle - literally and figuratively – before putting fingers to keyboard.
It’s hard to know what approach to take when confronted with the violence, looting and widespread lawlessness of the last couple of weeks.
For some, the only appropriate response is to give full vent to the anger felt at the wanton destruction and terrifying violence. That means meting out harsh sentences on offenders in order that those affected by their actions might feel less pained as they see justice being done. For others, a completely different approach is taken. We must focus on identifying the causes of the riots. We can explain what happened and we must.
I’m bothered by the idea that you can come up with simplistic explanations for what happened. But I’m even more bothered by those who seem to think that to seek any explanation is to ignore the pain of those who have lost their livelihoods or suffered as a result of this outbreak of violence.
Seeking to understand is what differentiates human beings from other animals. My cat, confronted by rioters, would head for the nearest tree. I doubt that days later she would be worrying about the causes of these events. But we are human. We do. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel sympathy as well. Feeling and intellect aren’t mutually exclusive positions. It is possible to do a bit of multitasking.
It must be awful to have lost your livelihood. It must be terrible to feel frightened in your home. But to feel someone else’s pain can never be an end in itself. I want answers to explain why this happened – not least because many of those involved in the looting had never offended before and did not fit the photo-fit for ‘potential rioter’.
It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions that arise from these events. But we should be wary of acting out of a sense of outrage that does more harm than good. I am deeply concerned at the sentences being handed out that bear little relation to sentencing guidelines in order to send a message. I am worried that policies which withdraw benefits or housing are being made up on the hoof. It may feel good to give vent to our outrage, but such disproportionate actions are likely to create more problems than they solve.
Ed Miliband has, I think, got it about right. He’s understood the shocking nature of these events, but he’s also urged us to think carefully about the meaning of these events: what are their causes, what can we learn from them? And I think he is onto something when he directs our attention to what such events might reveal about the values of our society – a society that has aggrandized wealth and possession, that has ignored economic inequality, and that must look again at the things that make for good, strong communities.
There are no easy answers. Reflection is a slow business. It’ll take time to come to an accurate understanding of what happened. It’ll take time to work out policies that will address the disaffection that led to these events. It’ll take time to lay the foundations for a better society. But perhaps, in the circumstances, taking time is no bad thing.