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

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Personal Finance Editor: Cutting out the middle man could spell disaster for employees and consumers alike

Simon Read
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch  

Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes tell you what to think. Don't let them

Memphis Barker
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week