Sunday, 21 August 2011

Moral Collapse

Are the recent riots and other social ills a result of a decline in moral values? Yes, but not the ones most pundits suggest.

Crucial to the Conservative Party's success in the 2010 election was the scrupulous effort made by several of its leading lights to move it away from its history of moral posturing. This was considered to be electoral poison, a view supported by the polls. Plenty of people support the Conservatives' take on economics but feel that how people live out their personal lives is none of anybody else's business. Indeed, one would think that family structures would be of more interest to socialists than to those who stress a belief in personal independence. If there is no such thing as society, why try to micro-manage it?

Moral crusading, however, is a guaranteed way to get attention. When things begin to go wrong they exert a strong appeal to politicians looking for a way out. The idea of the scapegoat first emerged in the Ancient Near East, where actual goats were ritually burdened with the sins of a troubled populace and then killed or driven into exile. These days we look for human ones, ans David Cameron has chosen two of the easiest targets – Criminal Elements and Young People Today.

Complaining about criminals seems straightforward enough, especially when one can blame them on the last Labour government. It's a shame that crime rates rose consistently under the last Conservative government and actually fell under Labour, but this reality is easily obscured by the public's emotive conviction that things are generally getting worse (something people have been keen to believe for centuries). More troubling issues come to light when one looks at the poor literacy skills and poor diet of the persistent petty criminals in our society. Experts in both areas say these factors interfere with cognitive ability, making it hard for people to connect actions and consequences. Of course this doesn't excuse criminality, but it does suggest there are more useful ways to tackle it than moral outrage and political grandstanding over prison sentences.

So what about young people? It's true that the majority of those involved in the riots were young. It's true that people between the ages of eighteen and twenty five are more likely to be involved in criminality than any other group, but this has always been the case. Statistically, there is not much to suggest that this group of young people is more inclined to be destructive than any previous one. This does not, however, mean that there are no positive ways we can intervene to reduce the destructiveness of this group. Many projects have been successful over the years, but only on a small scale, because getting funding for them is difficult. We know, for instance, that providing activities and social spaces for young people is very effective (and if you think this is just about fluffy liberalism, bear in mind that boxing and scouting are among the successes).

Perhaps the most obvious way to identify factors that trigger criminality in young people is to look at the great many in that age group who don't get involved with crime. Two factors stand out about this group: they are more likely to be in continuing education or to have good educational prospects; and they are more likely to be in employment. (This does not, of course, mean that there are not some educated, working vandals; and the vast majority of unemployed, less educated people are law-abiding.) It is a further illustration, however, of the importance of having an active stake in society. To put it simply, people need to feel a connection to society in order to feel committed to it. They need to feel that the law respects them – that they will not be assumed to be criminal simply because they are young – before they can respect the law. The hasty approach to processing suspects in the aftermath of the riots, lurid 'naming and shaming' and all, really doesn't help with this. Cases like that of Dane Williamson, who was named before he had even been tried, whose flat was burned down in a revenge attack, who lost everything he had in the world and who has since been found innocent, do not inspire much faith.

Aside from youth, one characteristic that stands out about the rioters is that the vast majority of them were male, yet it has not taken long for politicians and pundits to start finding ways to blame women. Single mothers have, as so often, taken the brunt of the blame. Some commentators have raised the long debunked notion that if minor girls were denied access to contraception without their parents' consent then there would be fewer teenage pregnancies. There has been an implicit assumption that it is female carelessness that leads to single motherhood, with abandonment by men scarcely discussed; and an unwillingness to discuss the evidence that, in many cases, children do better after parents in unhappy or abusive relationships have separated.

“Children need fathers,” says Cameron and Miliband, though there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that female couples raise children less successfully than mixed-sex couples or that the children of single fathers are more successful than the children of single mothers. Even evidence that the children of single parent families are more likely to be involved in crime than those with two parents starts to look shaky once you control for economic variables. And identifying fathers with a physical discipline which may control problem behaviour is also a flawed approach. This confuses good parenting with forceful parenting, strength with aggression. In fact, there is quite a bit of evidence to show that children who are physically punished by their parents are more likely, not less likely, to go on to commit criminal offences.

So where exactly is this moral decline we've heard so much about? It's true that moral values are changing. There is less automatic deference to those in authority (and more of an assumption that if they want respect they must earn it, as the young are often told to do), but this is something that can be traced across decades and it is arguably a healthy thing in a democracy. Some other changes are more troubling – the increased distrust of education and science, for instance. This is perhaps a by-product of a wariness about received wisdom, which has unfortunately not been balanced by teaching about the do-it-yourself principles underlying the scientific method, nor by teaching research skills at an early age. The resultant marginalisation of intellectual discourse, particularly within the working class, is undoubtedly bad for democracy.

Over the past four decades two moral shifts in British society have really stood out. The first is a focus on the importance of material goods as status symbols (from trainers to BMWs). The second is a breakdown of the notion of society itself. Margaret Thatcher's very deliberate emphasis on individualism and shift away from the notion of social responsibility is perhaps now bearing fruit. If you talk to people in African and Middle Eastern countries, these are the two biggest criticisms they have of Western society in general. We don't look after each other, we value things above people, and consequently we are moving toward a mercenary way of living that makes criminality look far more reasonable than it should.

This criminality, of course, is just as evident at the top of our society as it is at the bottom – and it is here that we have seen a measurable change. Corruption itself is nothing new but it is rare for the public to see it as starkly as they have in recent years. Between the parliamentary expenses scandal and the hacking scandal (and, perhaps less fairly, unpopular wars), the public has seen those whom it looks to for leadership increasingly revealed as self-interested opportunists. Of course this isn't true of all politicians, but it's just as damaging as the illusory dangerousness of all young people. Our politicians talk about absent fathers meaning young people lack role models, but shouldn't they be role models in their own capacity? What message do they think it sends when people perceive corruption everywhere?

We do need to make changes in our society, and if we start working together we can do that. It should begin with enquiries at the top that are incisive enough to restore public confidence, and corrupt politicians (regardless of party) must step down; there can be no second chances at this stage if we are to restore faith in British democracy. Next, we must stop making scapegoats of the vulnerable and start investing in them so that everybody has access to real opportunities in life. We must demonstrate that social policy is founded in evidence, not only because this is more likely to be efficacious in itself but also because it is part of the process of reasserting the value of intellectual endeavour. We must show people at all levels of society that they are valued as something more than mere 'consumers'; we must stop using terms like 'feral' and start showing respect for our fellow human beings. We must celebrate families and communities in all their diverse forms so that we can encourage social support rather than attacking those who don't fit one narrow definition of acceptable living. There has been enough destruction. It's time to start constructing something better.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

It Gets Better

For many younger people watching the riots that have unfolded around England in recent days, it must feel as if they're witnessing an unprecedented level of destruction. Buildings burning, looting, vehicles hijacked, increasing violence against non-participants - it's a scary business. So it's really important that we keep these incidents in perspective. Shocking though they are, they not unfamiliar; and more to the point, neither is recovery from them. We have been here before and at some point we will be here again. But the underlying trend, over time, is toward a decrease in violence.

"What is the world coming to?" is a question repeated so often that we give it more credence than we should. Similarly, we take altogether too seriously the suggestion that young people today are more savage and uncontrollable than they have ever been. People have been claiming that, generation after generation, since at least the sixteenth century, so think about it - if it were true, we would all have evolved into some kind of gore-fixated mutant killing machines by now. In fact, violence is the preserve of a minority and most people never do more than get into a couple of half-hearted punch-ups in their adolescent years.

What we need understand is that violence and chaos do not represent a state human civilisation is coming to, but rather one it is coming from. Let's start by looking at some of the principles that underlie our concerns. At the most basic level, we are horrified by violence because we fear people may be killed. Yet life has not always been accorded any civil value. It was only around 4,000 years ago - an eyeblink in the history of our species - that civil codes began to incorporate the idea that killing was wrong. Of course people objected to killing before that, and took revenge, but by and large states didn't care. And when life did begin to be valued, it was only male life, and the lives of male citizens at that, which counted. There was no assumption that the lives of women, slaves, visiting foreigners etc. should be protected by the state.

We have moved on from this. We have lapsed, sometimes, and there are still places where the lives of some are not protected (the recent Ghanaian purges against gay people provide a pertinent example), but by and large we have moved in a consistent direction, toward placing greater value on all human life. This is at the heart of what civilisation means. As it's Ramadan, let's take the example of how Islam, at its point of origin, advanced women's rights. Islam is often criticised in relation to a phrase in the Qur'an that describes woman as "the animal that speaks". In a modern context it is easy to understand why - we are horrified by the comparison of a woman and an animal - but in its time, when women were generally considered to be worth no more than camels or goats, the emphasis was different: the animal that speaks. In this way the Prophet Muhammed emphasised the personhood of women and their separateness from the animals traded by their masters. As Islam advanced, the trade in women decreased rapidly and women gained a civil influence which, in that part of the world, they had never had before.

History is full of these examples of progress. It is also full of cruelty, of course, and these cruelties can have such emotional impact that they seem to undermine everything else. Overall, in proportion to our numbers, we have killed each other far less often over the past century than at any time in our known history. How can this be true, people ask, when the twentieth century brought us the Holocaust? It's hard for us to imagine worse horrors; and yet the fact is that they did exist. In the century before the Holocaust came the vast European expansions into Africa and the Americas that led to the wholesale slaughter of millions of native peoples. The ancestors of today's Britons not only killed the natives but, in some cases, were responsible for flogging off their skins; for sticking their heads on spikes or using them to decorate flowerbeds; for driving them into the desert and watching as they died of dehydration, shooting those who tried to return. This is the ugly truth about what we are, about the potential that still remains within us, but we are moving onward. Although such horrors do still happen, they do so now on a much smaller scale. Back in the nineteenth century, the average European hearing about such things would have considered it a reasonable and natural part of the extinguishing of an inferior species. Today, for the most part, we recognise each other as human beings, and even where we feel unable to intervene as atrocities are committed, we care. Just caring may seem impotent, but it is a step forward - it is one of the building blocks of a better future.

After the Holocaust Europe collectively reassured itself that this would never happen again. Of course it has done - within Europe's borders as well as elsewhere. We don't yet have the power, or the collective will, to make it stop. But we are at least motivated to try. What doesn't tend to get taught to schoolchildren learning about the Second World War is that most of those who fought on the side of the Allies did so without knowing about the Jews in the concentration camps until the very end, and that many of them held deeply anti-Semitic views themselves - that was the prevailing culture of the time. There were those among Britain's leaders who would not have disagreed with Hitler's Final Solution. Of course there are still racist pundits today, but we don't give that kind of hatred the same easy public reception as once we did.

And so to riots. It is very important to distinguish riot from revolution. Revolutions can happen with or without them, but are ultimately dependent on a shift in ideas which many riots have nothing to do with. Looting and burning things down, in isolation, cannot bring about political change. Riots at their outset often incorporate crowd of idealistic young people who really believe they can use the violence to change society for the better, but in cases like the recent one it doesn't take long for them to become disillusioned (one hopes they won't give up on working toward peaceful change as a result). Once they're gone, there is no solidarity, no real social organisation, so thrill-seekers and criminals come to the fore. This pattern has varied very little over the centuries. What has changed - improved - is the capacity of civil forces to contain the rioting, and the capacity of civil organisations (whether part of the state or formed by parallel social movements) to rebuild. So although police numbers have been too low to contain much of the violence in the recent uprisings, and although a great deal of suffering is taking place, these are far from the ugliest riots in the history of these cities. In London, we don't have to look back very far - just three hundred years or so - to the Gordon Riots, when half the city burned, many died, and a huge number of people permanently lost their livelihoods. Not only was there the same restricted police control, but there were no insurance companies to pick up the bill, there was no civil movement to identify the perpetrators, there was no system of communication to help identify those in need of urgent help (yes modern communications can also aid the rioters, but we must not overlook the good they enable).

In the Gordon Riots, as it many others that took place in the run-up to the twentieth century, there was also the problem of prisons being emptied and dangerous criminals of all types spilling out onto the streets, often continuing to cause havoc for several years after the riots had been quelled. That is something against which we have much better defences this time around. And these defences did not come from nowhere - they are a result of our collective effort. They are what we pay our taxes for. We have all these facilities to minimise the impact of violence because we have worked together to build a society that values life.

When you go our into the streets and see the glow of flames on the horizon, or when you turn on your television set and see gangs running loose in the streets, remember that they do not represent all that we are. They certainly do not represent our future. The people out there in the mornings with their brooms and their cups of tea for strangers - they are our future. We know this because when we look at history we can see how our civil structures have grown. Tempting though it may be to some, selfish aggression is not a winning strategy. It is, at best, a means to short term gain. Working together is what we are good at as a species and it's where our real advantages lie. Violence isn't the end of what we have worked for, it's just a stumbling block along the way. It gets better.