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.

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