Joan Smith: Lack of empathy made it easier to wreck and rob

 

Share
Related Topics

Mix violent street disturbances, excitable commentators, angry politicians and "experts" on youth culture and what do you get? Hot air. It is perfectly possible to be horrified by last week's riots without rushing into a moral panic or claiming that they fulfil doomy predictions about the impact of spending cuts. But it is vital to identify the causes, because the response of national politicians, local councils and schools will be shaped by assumptions about why the violence happened. Yet much of what has been said in the past few days has been irrelevant for a simple reason: mobs are not driven by reason.

The looters who smashed windows and torched buildings were in the grip of intense emotions, visibly excited and revelling in the destruction around them. In court, some of the defendants appeared bewildered by their own behaviour. Crowds behave differently from individuals; assuming that looters ransacked shops because they were angry about bankers' bonuses or MPs' expenses is to credit them with conscious processes that don't exist in the heat of the moment.

Violence is exciting. The entertainment industry exploits this with violent films and computer games. When social norms are breached in real life, as they rarely are in peacetime, there will always be a small number who relish the chance to join in. Most of us don't. But young men are particularly susceptible. So far, most defendants passing through the criminal justice system are males under 25. Many are unemployed.

This is fertile territory for moral outrage. A "liberal elite" has been blamed for producing a generation of "feral" kids, a claim as fatuous as some left-wingers' attempts (thankfully reined in by Ed Miliband) to suggest that the riots are down to the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance. Anyone who robs an injured student has a wonky moral compass, but the destruction on our streets confirms that a substantial minority of kids are growing up without empathy.

Children need to develop a capacity to understand and respect other people's feelings. They need to learn not to over-react when they are disappointed or angry, which isn't easy when parents are absent or distracted by their own problems; some adults are themselves addicted to romance, craving the excitement of short-lived relationships and barely aware of the impact of such instability on children. The red-tops' obsession with celebrity provides terrible models of how to relate to other human beings, while children from poor backgrounds are bombarded with messages about the desirability of brands their families can't afford. They aspire to identities based on crude forms of power, which makes gang membership attractive.

Failure at school and a lack of job prospects make the situation worse, but these people's problems started in infancy. They need substantial intervention to change the habits of a lifetime, and right now, psychology is a better guide to that than politics.



www.politicalblonde.com;



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific