In 2009, while controversially accepting a literary prize in Israel, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami said a few lines that I remember whenever I am confused about which side I should be on:
“If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg. Why? Because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile egg. Each of us is confronting a high wall. The high wall is the system which forces us to do the things we would not ordinarily see fit to do as individuals.”
By this analogy, the youth going on a rampage in London are eggs, flinging themselves against the system with abandon. And yet, I find it difficult to see them as eggs. Maybe because they seem too hard boiled. They lack the fragility that Murakami described; instead they simply seem self-indulgent.
Poor youth with blackberries seems like an oxymoron to me. (Then again, maybe a blackberry is not a luxury in London, just like poor people in Hong Kong do have fridges unlike poor people in India.) As does poor youth… making a beeline for the electronics stores and nicking a flat-screen TV.
Why am I more ready to sympathise with protesters, even violent protesters, in Libya and Syria but not these supposedly angry young men and women in London?
1. The protesters in the middle-east have a cause. They are seeking a fairer political system and freedom from a dictatorial regime. It is possible that the London youth have the same agenda. But my gut feeling is that they don’t, that if asked what this is all about, they would not be too sure (beyond that flat-screen TV and the need to give vent to some pent-up aggression). It has gone far beyond protesting the death of one man allegedly shot by the police.
2. The middle-east protesters tried peaceful means first before resorting to violence. For me, this is important. If you have a moral cause, you will seek to gain it in the most moral way. If that fails, Gandhi would say, keep trying. But some might excuse doing “the things we would not ordinarily see fit to do as individuals” if peaceful means fail. The key thing is – did you even try the peaceful means?
3. There will always be some amount of disorder in a violent protest. But when the disorder seems ordered – when basically stealing seems to be the agenda first – it’s hard to be on the side of that kind of ‘disorder’. It’s the difference between a premeditated and a completely spontaneous crime.
There are those that argue that British society is responsible for the underclass it has created. Read this compelling piece.
I get it. A society in which a whole group of people feel they have no hope of bettering their lives and no stake is vulnerable to frustrations boiling over. The society can deal with this threat by placing many restrictions and dealing severely with expressions of public anger. However, a society that does not want to be so repressive has to take preventative measures – ensure that conditions do not arise whereby people feel so disconnected from society that they go crazy.
But how to do this? One argument is greater economic equality. The Equality Trust argues here for why countries where the gap between the rich and poor is less have fewer social problems. But the gap between rich and poor seems to be getting larger everywhere. I am surprised by the number of countries that claim that the gap between rich and poor in their country is among the highest in the world, if not the highest. Is it possible to reduce this gap? The Equality Trust believes so and this page lists how.
Well and good. But until then what? These measures take time. One might also argue that in the current economic climate many countries cannot afford this kind of spending (think the US debt crisis and the policy compromises Obama was forced to make). So when riots erupt in this interim period what stance are we to take? Note that the victims of the riots are not necessarily the rich or the powerful, just the slightly better off, often small business owners.
My other basic problem with this argument that the riots erupted because of underlying social tensions – i.e. if one accepts that these are indeed impoverished and disenfranchised youth and not just hooligans out for a free set of trainers – is that one may also apply it to terrorism or any kind of crime. One could say the same of Ajmal Kasab, for example. He seemed more impoverished and disenfranchised than the London kids (who may not have killed anyone, but I watched an interview where a couple of them said that’s their next move). One could say the same of anyone who breaks into a store and steals a TV. Should we be nodding sympathetically at all these people?
Or should we be understanding of their angst but not tolerant of their antics? In which case, would it be ok to go after them with water cannons or tear gas? Or would that be stooping to their level of violence? But it’s ok to hit someone back, if they hit first no? Or isn’t it?