Who was to blame for the English riots of 2011?
Was the government primarily responsible? Was it the child welfare system?
Or should the blame be placed fairly and squarely on the mainly teenaged offenders, who threw themselves smash-and-loot parties and burned out cars and buildings?
A report released this week recognised that there is enough blame to share around. The report, by the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, presented David Cameron with a litany of deficiencies.
Poor education for marginalised children and high youth unemployment in major cities both featured strongly in the report. Yet the area that should receive perhaps the most attention is the lack of adequate parenting cited by the panel.
The riots definitely threw a revealing spotlight on some of the deficiencies in the system that deals with marginalised children and on the social structure within some of our larger cities.
For their part, the security forces seemed to be without any strategic plan to deal with such a crisis. It’s an uncomfortable thought for a nation that will shortly host the Olympics.
Current talk about using pilotless aircraft – drones – to monitor future disturbances seems like a poor attempt to cover up the real deficiency, which is one of strategic human leadership.
Meanwhile, the government seemed unable to make up its mind on what message to send. Should it act quickly and firmly to protect life and property, or hang back in the hope that cooler heads would eventually prevail on the streets? In the end, on those very hot nights there were no cooler heads.
Clearly, too, there were and are deficiencies in the way the social welfare system and the education authorities serve marginalised children.
All that said, however, it is wrong-headed to suggest that the state bears the major responsibility for how a minority of people – and particularly young people – behaved during the riots. As the report acknowledges, at least some of the blame must be laid at the feet of parents.
If we, as citizens, accept the notion that ‘the system’ is largely to blame for social phenomena like the riots, we open ourselves to greater intervention by the state in how we raise our families and run our homes.
It is inconsistent to expect governments, local or national, to take sole responsibility for social problems and then object when their laws become ever more intrusive.
During the riots, a number of human factors were in play. As always, a good deal of the youth crime committed during the riots was influenced by the forces of social acculturation – or, to put it colloquially, peer pressure.
Many stories have emerged – not least in criminal courts – about young adults who claim to have smashed or stolen property largely because they saw others doing it.
Citing peer pressure may sound like a convenient cop-out – and its influence shouldn’t be allowed to water down criminal responsibility. But the link between group-think and individual behaviour in certain situations is well-established – and not just among the young.
As social beings, people of all ages are prone to take at least some of their behavioural cues from the group-think around them. Without this dynamic, human cultures would never be able to form. Culture is, after all, an expression of what is considered normal, right and good within a group of people.
Studies have shown just how powerful the forces of social acculturation can be.
In one, groups of ten people were given a maths quiz. In each group, respondents filled out their answers to the quiz privately. Before the correct answers were revealed to the group, the examiners read out the class’s answers.
In most groups, if eight out of ten people got the answers wrong, the two who were right wanted to change their answers to match the majority response.
Advertisers constantly play on this human drive to fit in. The so-called New Marketing is based not on the power of interruption, where advertising intrudes on our private activities, but on Nudge Power.
The concept is simple. People will respond to the power of suggestion more readily if they can be shown that a certain type of thinking or behaviour is normative throughout their demographic. This is best achieved in increments, so that people are gradually encouraged – or nudged – into a new pattern of behaviour.
Politicians and lobbyists have been quick to pick up on this. Rather than trumpeting huge new initiatives, some parts of government are more inclined to suggest changes in small pieces, giving people time to acculturate.
All the while, the change is being talked-up through orchestrated, viral campaigns via 24/7 news media and social networking. The hope is that people will be conditioned to believe that the change is good, simply because others like them are in favour of it or enjoying it.
Adolescent minds are perhaps more susceptible to this type of conditioning, as their developing values and attitudes tend to be more fluid. Since the word ‘teenager’ first appeared in the mid-1950s, the term peer pressure has been almost synonymous with teen-hood.
However, I’m not so sure that this is fair any more.
A process of infantilisation is arguably impacting all age-groups in our society today. What were once called mid-life crises now sometimes seem to last through most of adulthood.
Young people will often watch in amusement, embarrassment or horror as their middle-aged parents try to maintain (or fake) an air of youthful ‘cool’.
The pressure to feel and look young is ubiquitous, to the point where teenagers themselves seem largely to have abandoned the idea of youth fashion.
Instead, they choose to adopt a more eclectic, ‘whatever’ approach. Perhaps this underwritten by a sense that any fashion they try to make their own will quickly be co-opted by ‘teen wannabes’, thus instantly losing its cache.
Meanwhile, in the area of technology, young early-adopters quickly gravitate away from popular social networking platforms because they feel their turf is being overrun by adult users – and, in some cases, predators.
Of course, despite the infantilisation of culture, young people are still finding ingenious ways to close out the adult world when they want to. For example, teenagers now use Phone Text Speak in much the same way that their parents once used rock ‘n’ roll – as a tool for in-house communication of ideas without adult interference.
This lingua franca of the Millennial generation is as indecipherable to their elders as the lyrics of the Rolling Stones were to an earlier generation of adults.
Text Speak was, of course, a factor in facilitating and fueling the events of last summer. Flash mobs emerged as some of the rioters responded to a call to arms via mobile social networking and direct messaging services.
Yet studies suggest that social networking tends to be most powerful when messages are sent within networks that exist in real-time. People tend to be much more responsive to a Tweet or Facebook message if it comes from someone they’re connected to offline, in some more physical way.
This sense of online and offline connectedness drove the involvement of many of the gang members who took part in the riots.
Many other young people, without those gang connections, were carried along by the seemingly spontaneous events happening around them – and allowed themselves to be so. They too were impacted by peer pressure.
But the forces of peer acculturation are not the only ones that impact teenage decision-making and behaviour. There is also the culture of the home.
The riots, of course, highlight the fact that too many urban young people live largely without what could be called a real home. They are without any meaningful adult interaction, supervision or compassion.
The Children’s Society says that 100,000 children run away from home every year. More than 70 percent of these cases are not reported by their parents or carers. If that is true, it is a damning statistic.
Some of these young people will be rescued by the Children’s Society and other charities, but many others will invariably find their way into the clutches of gangs.
Gangs become surrogate families that offer their members a form of protection and respect, while simultaneously threatening life and limb through their never-ending turf wars and rampant drug culture.
However, most teenagers – including many of those involved in the riots – don’t live with gangs. The live at home, or at least grew up there, learning their most basic attitudes and values from what was modeled for them by their biological parents, step-parents or carers.
It has often been said that our children learn more watching us parents than they do listening to us.
Of course, many young people who lived and worked in the worst affected areas refused to get involved in any criminal activity, despite the peer pressure to do so. They knew that their circumstances, no matter how challenging, did not justify criminal behaviour. To their credit, they accepted the responsibility to exercise self-restraint and make their own choices.
In many cases, this attitude would have sprung from the influence of hard-working, conscientious mums and/or dads who set an example of self-reliance, even if the system was letting them down.
Parents are the ultimate example for their children and the people who should be providing examples of self-discipline.
Should the state, the system, provide more support for parents and families – and for under-achieving youngsters? Yes, absolutely. Even in these austere times, governments must be wary of pushing families to the edge economically or socially.
More programmes are needed to break the cycle of generational poverty in cities large and small. More funding is needed for education programmes that teach self-respect and self-reliance – especially in economically deprived areas.
Governments could do a lot more to aid the regeneration of physically and psychologically broken enclaves and communities, ensuring that poorer boroughs receive funding for physical regeneration projects. Studies continue to show a clear link between decrepit physical surroundings and rates of petty crime.
Governments could also do more to encourage and support family- and youth-oriented charities. Politicos must stop indulging in what is often little more than discrimination against faith-based initiatives, particularly those dealing with drug rehabilitation and self-improvement projects in schools.
No government should expect that it can sustain family support on its own. That is a task for the entire society, including volunteer organisations whose members are driven by their commitment to a religious faith.
The corporate sector has its role to play, too – sometimes with the encouragement of the state. Businesses large and small already do much to improve the lot of poorer families, through community service initiatives and alliances with non-profit organisations.
This sector could, however, do more to provide support for education programmes and training in the skills needed to start micro-enterprises in needy communities. Governments could do a lot to encourage and even facilitate some of these things.
At the end of the day, though, parents are the ultimate authority when it comes to raising their children, within the law. Government policy, laws and administration should support parents; it should never seek to supplant them.
In return, parents must step up to the plate, accepting at least some of the responsibility for the behaviour of their wayward teenagers. Unless we learn to accept responsibility, we cannot hope to see our young people doing the same.