Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Panicky in the UK


London Riots reportThe graphic images of London burning during the August riots have given way to word images of the Euro burning. But the pictures of hooded youths, burning shops, and processions of consumer goods making their way out of shops remain vivid. So do the anguished questions and large theories of what caused the riots. The rise of consumerism, individualism, secularism, social media, inequality and poverty, and the fall of firm policing, discipline in schools and stable families were all blamed.

The responses on the whole were punitive and controlling, leading to a strong police presence and investigation, relatively harsh penalties in summary trials, evictions of families of looters.

In retrospect this echoes the process that led to the Intervention in Australia. The report of widespread sexual and other abuse also led to anxious questioning and to many large theories. The response to it was to introduce extra policing and control of community life through deprivation of income and other means.

This kind of response to antisocial behaviour has been called 'moral panic'. I do not like the phrase because it can suggest that concern and reflection in large terms on the reasons for antisocial behaviour are reprehensible and inappropriate. They are not. But the term does point to common features in the response to many different events: anxiety, broad cultural generalisation and the urge to take decisive action.

A recent report on the riots provides an opportunity to ask how adequate these kinds of response are. It asked people involved in the riots and those who kept out of them why they acted as they did. Most involved were caught up in the excitement and by the sight of others making off with desirable goodies. Many were drawn in by friends, some by resentment at particular actions by police. Those who did not take part were often influenced by friends or family and by fear of the consequences.

This account suggests that explanations of the riots couched in large cultural, economic or social terms may be helpful in identifying deeper influences on behaviour, but they do not offer causes. They fail to explain riots that have occurred at other times of history. They also fail to explain why one member of a family became involved, but others did not.

Social conditions, cultural attitudes and implicit philosophies influence but do not determine behaviour. So we need to give full weight to contingencies.

All this argues that we do best to reflect on events like those that led to the Intervention and the riots from a broad humane perspective. We need to focus on human beings in their variety and unpredictability, and not begin from large abstractions into which we fit them. Human beings transcend the necessities of culture and context.

In classical Christian terms this means emphasising freedom and grace over necessity and predictability. It also means placing weight on relationships and on responsibility. Riots are not the inexorable working out of underprivilege or consumerism, of individualism or secularism, but a series of interactions and actions involving many human beings, none of whom are defined by the actions they take, even though they are in different degrees responsible for them. People who take part have other possibilities that depend largely on relationships. They are in play for grace.

It follows that we should not regard people as defined by their social or other context. Nor should we see them as defined by their actions. One who commits an act of looting is not forever or simply a looter.

This view of things should also shape the way in which we respond to riots or widespread antisocial behaviour. It is certainly important to act decisively to quell riots and to address crime. But in general, anxiety and the desire to act decisively to achieve large goals are bad counsellors, particularly when the goals are framed in large theoretical terms.

We do better to take time to reflect on the ways in which people in particular cultural contexts relate in order to understand better why some people behave badly while others behave well. This calls for open minds.

When we understand this we shall be in a better position to strengthen those relationships within communities that build responsibility and freedom. These qualities thrive only where there are freedom and trust, precisely the qualities eroded by anxiety and the desire for a quick, total fix. That kind of fix quickly develops into a fixture that is both costly and counterproductive. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, London riots, Intervention



submit a comment

Existing comments

The Intervention was not motivated by 'moral panic' but by immoral greed for the resources on Indigenous lands..the sexual abuse accusations have not been substantiated with one arrest. In the UK the punitive response didn't target the underlying capitalist exploitation of UK's poor and unemployed. That moral responsibility has been taken up the OCCUPY campaign.

Vacy Vlazna | 17 November 2011  

In order to protect the lives and safety of Aboriginal children in remote communities from extreme abuse, as documented in the NT report, the intervention was worth it. Granted "the response to it was to introduce extra policing and control of community life through deprivation of income and other means". However, would the more reflective approach you suggest, have given the children at risk the immediate protection they needed?.
I am no expert, but no Australian government would have adopted the "more reflective approach" if the children concerned had been middle class and white. That was a drastic situation and it called for drastic measures.

supporter | 17 November 2011  

Let's see, we have intervened in the NT to "save the children" but not one person has been charged or convicted of all the rampant child abuse.

There is though a good deal of uranium that mining giants want to get their hands on and it is all on aboriginal lands.

Now we have a discussion about flogging that deadly stuff off to India a country with nukes and a hated neighbour with nukes whom we won't sell it to.

Why not just make yellow cake available in the supermarket and hope we don't all die.

Marilyn Shepherd | 17 November 2011  

Brilliant headline - nominate that one for the ACPA award!

Sandie Cornish | 18 November 2011  

Yet again the commentariat eschews any notion of "personal responsibility".

Basically each of us is responsible for, and can be praised or blamed for, his or her actions.

Only when this principle is clearly enunciated and accepted can we then proceed to any rational analysis as to why any one or more "persons" may or may not have acted "responsibly" in any given situation.

John R. Sabine | 18 November 2011  

The punitive treatment of UK rioters contained a considerable element of hypocrisy, in the sense that theft by 'the mob' has always been brutally suppressed in England, whereas theft by the aristocracy and the captains of commerce has always been encouraged.

Thus it is that forced and unforced emigration of non-Anglo Britons, particularly from Scotland and Ireland, also Cornwall and Wales provided the initial wave of colonisation for Australia and Canada, also NZ and US.

The more recent NT intervention has been as much about getting access for geological exploration as anything else. That said, there was an element of fabricating 'moral panic'; as Alexander Downer noted on Radio National, Cabinet enthusiasm for the Intervention waned somewhat when it didn't result in the desired 'bounce' in the polls.

This has simultaneously been at the centre of Britain's.

David Arthur | 19 November 2011  

Similar Articles

Aussie priest's theology of the scrub

  • Frank Brennan
  • 09 November 2011

I had time to spare, so I grabbed a bite to eat and found a bench in the park opposite the cathedral. I was approached by four young Aboriginal people. I told them I'd come for a funeral: 'You might have known him, Father Mick Hayes?' 'He, that tall grey one? He knew me when I was a little fella.'


Principles for a coherent refugee policy

  • Frank Brennan
  • 04 November 2011

It is only because we are an island nation continent that we can entertain the absurd notion of sealing our borders from refugee flows. We must remain committed to resettling bona fide refugees who reach our shores regardless of any regional solutions we put in place to deter them.