Everyone’s gone mad

Andrew Coyne on the facile explanations being used to explain the London riots

Everyone’s gone mad

Reuters/Dylan Martinez

What can explain it? How to account for such a fit of collective madness? Do we blame the schools? The parents? Perhaps it was a cry for help, the bitter fruit of lives without meaning or hope? Whatever may be the cause, we can see the results, the single largest outburst of journalistic nonsense in a generation: swarms of unhinged pundits running wild through the op-ed pages, leaving a trail of broken syllogisms in their wake. Such mindless mindlessness can only be condemned in the strongest terms…

But of course the same thing happens every time, doesn’t it? Wherever and whenever some outrage or atrocity occurs, there is always an army of “root-cause” rationalizers close behind, ready to supply the deeper meaning of it all. And though the explanations vary, the one constant is to shift the blame from those who commit the crime to other, more politically useful villains. Marc Lépine was no mere nutter with a grudge: he was a product, or at least an extreme example, or at any rate a symbol, of a generalized male hatred of women. Jared Loughner was not, as he claimed, chiefly concerned with the power of grammar to control the mind, but rather was the inevitable outgrowth of hot-headed Republican rhetoric. And so on.

With something as widespread as a riot, let alone the cascade of riots that spread across Britain, we are more obviously dealing with a genuinely social phenomenon. Though every individual is ultimately responsible for the choice to do good or to do ill, when so many people make the wrong choices at the same time, there is clearly a wider context to be considered: they can’t all be mad. But there’s a key word in there. Maybe you’ve spotted it: considered. Many of the instant analyses I read expressed a certain peevishness toward dissenters, as if the failure to adopt their own pet theory was a rejection of thinking itself. Well, no. It’s a rejection of simplistic, reductionist thinking. It is one thing to attempt to understand why people do what they do. It is another just to draw up a list of everything that’s been bugging you about society for years, then scrawl QED under it. Thus, if you are on the left: consumerism, individualism, poverty, Thatcher, unemployment, Thatcher. And if you are on the right: gangsta rap, Jamaican patois, multiculturalism, liberal elites.

All of these pat explanations get us only so far, to the point where each person involved decides to do something despicable: to burn a building, attack a pensioner, loot a store. And without a convincing explanation for that private failure of conscience, none of them are a lick of use. It isn’t just that there is no empirical evidence to support the notion that poverty equals riots. There isn’t even a rational reason to connect the two. Poverty might indeed explain why someone might feel a sense of personal despair, or alienation toward society. It does not begin to say why he should make the altogether separate, qualitatively different decision to carve up somebody with a knife.

So if we are serious about looking for root causes, we should be considering why so many of our citizens seem to have failed to develop a conscience—or if they have one, seem able to quell it easily enough. I say “our” advisedly: for although the riots in Britain were clearly far more severe, they nevertheless had more in common with the Vancouver Stanley Cup riot than might be apparent: the same bloodless opportunism, the same blank smiles of “isn’t this fun,” the same stench of suburban anomie.

There are two traps to be avoided in this regard. One is to think that anyone could have done the same, given the right circumstances—explicit in the writings of my colleague Andrew Potter (“look in the mirror”), but implicit in much root-cause thinking (in Vancouver, drink and disappointment took the place of poverty and despair). This is obviously untrue. You could fill my mother with rye whiskey, dangle a free plasma TV in front of her, and she still wouldn’t go on the riot—even if her favourite team had lost.

The other mistake is to assume that there is but a fixed number of criminals, a class of thugs and loners uniquely capable of committing a crime. As we learned, in both London and Vancouver, the rioters came from every race, both sexes, and all sorts of backgrounds. Many had jobs, families, prospects, all the sorts of things that are supposed to preclude this sort of anti-social behaviour.

Better, rather, to think of the population as being distributed along a continuum, according to their propensity to commit a crime. At one end are people like my mother, with well-developed consciences, who would be unlikely to commit a crime under any circumstances. If there seem rather fewer members of this group than in the past, then it would seem worth thinking about how society has traditionally instilled moral values, and where this process of socialization might have broken down. It is plausible to think, for example, that the tremendous rise in single-parent households might have something to do with it, with particular regard to the absence of male role models.

At the other end of the spectrum would be habitual criminals, hardened gang members and the like. (Indeed, evidence is emerging that the U.K. riots, far from spreading spontaneously, were orchestrated to a high degree by Britain’s network of gangs.) The tactics employed by Bill Bratton, the former police commissioner of Boston, New York and Los Angeles, have been greatly successful at reducing gang violence—one reason why David Cameron wants to bring him in as an adviser.

But it is the third and, I suspect, largest group that are of most interest: the ones who might or might not be persuaded to commit a given crime, depending on the circumstances. Crime rates rise or fall amongst this group much in the manner of diseases: crime might be thought of as a species of “social epidemic.” As with disease, the urge to commit a crime is passed along among the population. And, as with disease, there are circumstances that prove especially fertile for spreading the crime virus.

This is the theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point: the so-called “broken window” theory of crime, wherein the presence of such signals of disorder encourages people to believe they can commit a crime with impunity. It also happens to have been the theory applied by Bratton in his work, first as head of police for the New York Transit Authority, then more broadly as New York’s police commissioner. Famously, Bratton focused first on seemingly minor problems like the graffiti on the subways, or turnstile jumpers, to the dismay of those who felt he should have been focused on larger crimes. But it turned out that by changing the environment in this way, the larger crimes took care of themselves. The signal was sent: order has been restored. Bear yourself accordingly.

What are the broken windows in our own society? Put another way: what signals does the average yob receive in his daily existence? Does he face any constraints on his appetites? Is he required to make any sacrifices to decorum, to take any account of the needs of others? And if the answer is little to none, should we be entirely surprised at the results?

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