The Situationist

The Cause of Rioting? That’s Easy: Rioters!

Posted by Jon Hanson on August 16, 2011

British Prime Minister David Cameron attributed the recent riots in his to “the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations.”   The message may seem vaguely situationist at first blush, as Cameron emphasizes the problem of a “broken society.”

But what he really seems to care about are the bad “choices” made by selfish, irresponsible individuals.

Cameron’s comments resemble remarks he’s made in the past.  In 2008, according to one account, he declared that “people who are fat, poor or addicted to drugs could only have themselves to blame.”

It’s a one-size-fits-all ideology:  If you have problems, look in the mirror!

To be fair, Cameron does acknowledge one situational force that has played a significant role in encouraging the moral decay behind the looting and lawlessness.  According to Cameron, “[s]ome of the worst aspects of human nature [have been] tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies.”

Such has been the conservative mantra at least since Reagan and Thatcher:  The problem with the poor is their disposition and the government policies and programs that encourage that disposition. Prime Minister Cameron explains:

“For years we’ve had a system that encourages the worst in people — that incites laziness, that excuses bad behavior, that erodes self-discipline, that discourages hard work… well this is moral hazard in our welfare system — people thinking they can be as irresponsible as they like because the state will always bail them out.”

When a “society is broken,” by this view, the government needs to do less for the people and thus do more to encourage personal responsbility.  Less is more.

Yesterday, U.S. conservative Arthur Herman wrote a piece for the National Review, that purported to identify the person behind our problems.  According to Herman, the blame for the riots and many of our country’s problems should ultimately fall on one American man: John Dollard.

Not heard of him? He’s been deceased for 30 years, and his primary work was published in 1939.  Still, according to Herman, Dollard was “one of the most influential social thinkers of the past century.”  He was:

“a Yale social psychologist . . . who triggered a major and disastrous shift in the way we look at crime and urban violence, which we’ve been living with ever since, and which has left us, like the British today, largely disarmed in dealing with our own worst enemies.”

* * *

“Dollard and his colleagues in effect infantilized human motives — and threw out the notion of individual moral responsibility. If people turn violent and smash windows or someone’s face, Dollard was saying, it’s not really their fault. They can’t help it; they’re feeling frustrated. Punishing people for their aggression in hopes they will learn a lesson, is doomed to fail. The best way to prevent violence is to give them what they want from the start.”

Really?  Dollard is to “the man behind the riots,” and his was the argument that won the day and profoundly contaminated policy in the U.S. and England?

As someone who has been teaching at a law school for twenty years, who went to Yale, who devotes the bulk of his professional energy to studying the implications of social psychology for law, I should confess that I had never heard of Professor Dollard, and I have no reason to believe that his research has been particularly influential.  And one doesn’t need to sit where I sit to question Herman’s assertion that our society (or England’s) has somehow given to the impoverished underclasses “what they want from the start” or that such an argument has held much sway among policymakers or the public.

Herman’s point, like Cameron’s, seems to be that the best way to understand social turmoil and intergroup conflict is to look at the individuals behind it.  Where there is trouble, find the troublemakers.  To Herman, the rioters rioted because of their own character, nothing more.  In his words, “[t]he rioters were criminals pure and simple.”  Like Cameron, Herman believes that the appropriate solution is more criminal punishment, pure and simple.  It is time to get tough!

Many who have looked closely at the U.S. criminal system and it’s bulging prison population would reject the claim that we have been light on criminals (or that our punitive actions have been just or yielded positive results).

Social psychology suggests that there may be more to the riots than just the rioters.  Indeed, there is a strong human tendency (as social psychologists since Dollard have shown) to blame the poor for being poor and to assure ourselves that little is owed to those who have less than we ourselves do.  Our world, we like to believe, is just.  We achieve that affirming feat of rationalization in part by ignoring the many situational forces that contribute to the underlying inequalities and injustices.

That tendency is in evidence this week in the remarks of Prime Minister Cameron and editorial by Arthur Herman.  As reported this week in The Guardian, much of the public also blames the riots and looting on the disposition (that is, the “criminality” and “disrespect”) of the rioters:

“Asked to pick from a list of possible reasons, 45% blame criminality on the part of the rioters. Older voters and richer ones are most likely to lay the blame on this.

“Of other possible reasons, 28% cite lack of respect within families and communities. Only 8% think a lack of jobs for young people is the main reason. A further 5% say the shooting by the police of Mark Duggan, which led to the initial disorder in Tottenham, was the main cause, while 4% blame the coalition government, 2% the police and 2% the state of the economy.  At the bottom of the list only 1% blame racial tension. . . .”

It is completely predictable and understandable that leaders, commentators, and much of the public would speak up against the individuals who have been lighting the flames, breaking the windows, and making off with the DVD players.  That’s the easy part.

It doesn’t take insight to propose a greater police presence or harsher penalties or an increased incarceration rate.  Anger or fear will suffice.  Providing a cartoon rendering of a social psychologist’s 1939 thesis and dubbing it the “formula for social disaster” seems equally facile.  Simplistic causal stories that affirm the status quo and the system are typically more the consequence of raw reflex than of thoughtful reflection.

Professor Dollard’s theories, however flawed, at least represented a social scientific attempt to better understand the underlying causes of violence and resist the system-affirming impulse to attribute “criminal conduct” to the fact that the people who engage in it are “criminals, pure and simple.”  Dollard offered a testable theory, while Herman offers a tautology: criminals engage in crime because they are criminals.

Still, Herman is satisfied with his causal claims because they permit him to place all the moral responsibility and blame for the events on the rioters. According to Herman, the problem with Dollard’s approach, is that it shifts “the moral responsibility for crime and violence . . . from the rioter to his or her victims.”

But Herman has it wrong.  One need not excuse the perpetrators of violence to care about deeper, underlying causes.  One can quash a riot and punish the rioters and still ask questions about what may have led the individuals to engage in behavior beyond simply their riotous propensities.

When rioting broke out in Egypt some months back, the rioters were not said to be the cause (except by Egyptian leaders and their apologists); instead, the riots were seen as the consequence of inept leaders, oppressive systems, hopelessness, and desperation.  Jim Geraghty, from  The National Review, put it this way:

“a large number of previously apolitical Egyptians . . . are fed up with three decades of governance that were not merely oppressive, but incompetent.  The Egyptian economy has never thrived; you know the usual figures – 40 percent get by on less than $2 per day. But when you pile rising wheat prices on an impoverished country, ordinary folks find the usual poor governance untenable. They have to eat, and have to believe there’s some small possibility of their lives getting better someday. Hosni Mubarak and his regime have worn out a decades-long benefit of the doubt from a people who historically were inclined to have tea, complain, and shrug rather than burn cars and take on riot police.”

As similar as sipping tea in Cairo and London may be, burning cars is another story.  There are, to be sure, significant differences between the riots and their causes in Egypt and those and theirs in England.  Nonetheless, the tendency to ignore the underlying economic, social, historical, and cultural situation in one setting and to focus on it in another reveals the motivated nature of our attributions.  We like to believe “our” systems are just — and that “their” systems are unjust.  In the former, rioting is the result of gangs, hoodlums, and criminals.  In the latter, rioting is the only way to topple an oppressive regime.  In the former, the dictator has been too callous and stingy toward the plight of the poor; in the latter, the government has been too sensitive and generous.

To take the situation in our own society seriously, however, is to raise the possibility that our system is unjust — that the (growing) disparities between the haves and have-nots lack normative legitimacy.  A thorough causal analysis is not only complex, it also risks implicating all of us and our system.

When the powerful and wealthy  members of society focus primarily on the disposition of  the poor (or of, say, the forgotten arguments of a dead Yalie), it may be because they prefer not to consider seriously the role of the situation from which they benefit.

They are, in a way, doing what they claim to despise: shifting moral responsibility from themselves to their victims.

We should all take seriously our “moral responsibility for the crime and violence.”  We should all, as they say, look in the mirror.

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

A reader sent me the following video of a fascinating BBC debate on whether we “should punish or try to understand” the rioters.  It reflects many of the themes of this post.

 

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