As the flames die down and the country returns to calm, an ugly phantom is rising from the ashes of the burnt-out cars and gutted buildings. It screams things like “Scum!” and “Hang tham all!” and pleeds with the Government to call in the army and shut down the internet. And it looks just like me and you.
Yes, almost as depressing as the scenes of looting and violence are the disproportionate reactions they seem to have sparked in otherwise reasonable, level-headed people. Thousands have signed the internet petition calling for convicted rioters’ benefits to be talen away (because having no money is exactly what stops people stealing, of course). And according to a YouGov Poll, 33% of the country would support live ammuninition being used. That’s one third of the population calling for children who steal to be murdered. Wow.
A very clear ‘us’ and ‘them’ has been created in the public rhetoric. The rioters are the violent, morally-defunct underclass. They are not like us. And because of this, they deserve the worst of punishments.
This kind of thinking is dangerous for all sorts of reasons. But firstly we have to ask – is it even really true? Do you have to be a vicious, borderline psychopathic individual to find yourself entering into this behaviour? Are the rioters really that different to the rest of us?
Calling someone ‘scum’, or even ‘chav’, is a self-serving act. You’re drawing a distinction between them and yourself. They’re a different type of person – perhaps even a sub-person – they’re different to you. You would never behave like that.
The same thing happens when people describe murderers and paedophiles as ‘monsters’ and ‘beasts’. Making them non-human makes it easier for us to understand them and their horrific deeds. And less threatening – it means that you, or no one you know, could ever do anything like that. It’s worth noting that those calling for the return of the death penalty often use this kind of language.
But the rioters we’re already seeing appearing in court just don’t fit in to the stereotype we’ve created. In fact, the most striking thing about some is just how ‘normal’ they seem to be – how much like ‘us’. There’s the teaching assistant. The graphic designer. The university graduates. The wealthy grammar school girl. People with no previous criminal convictions. So what tipped them over the edge? What turned them from one of ‘us’ into one of ‘them’ – what transformed them into ‘scum’?
Perhaps crowd psychology can offer us an explanation. Research shows that, when in a group, individuals tend to adopt the behaviour of those around them, and disgard their own moral compass. The group offers the individual anonymity, making them more likely to behave in ways they usually wouldn’t. There’s a good explanation in Psychology Today, found here.
Even more crucially, being in a group offers a diffusion of responsibility when committing questionable acts. The guilt and responsibility you would normally feel when stealing from or hurting another is alleviated because you don’t feel personally responsible. The group is responsible; others are responsible.
This understanding has gone some way to explaining why people commit atrocities as part of a group that they would never do alone, such as during wars or under dictatorships.
Furthermore, I’d hazard a guess that those just looting – not setting fire to buildings, or robbing and beating individuals – possibly convinced themselves, in the heat of the moment, that they were committing a victimless crime. They were breaking into shops – not people’s homes – and, as interviews such as this show, perhaps saw them as owned by ‘the rich people,’ people who could afford to lose things.
Of course there were hardened career criminals taking part in the riots. But many of those standing in the docks and sitting in police cells around the country appear to be ordinary people who got swept up in the crowd mentality, saw an opportunity to grab some free stuff, and didn’t think there’d be any consequences.
It seems there’s a very fine tipping point between being a regular, law-abiding citizen and doing things you would normally never consider. This is not to excuse anything they did – theft and arson are serious crimes, and they must be treated as such. Those convicted must understand that what they did was wrong, whether that’s through prison, community service, or through progressive measures such as being forced to meet their victims so they can understand the consequences of their actions, or perhaps a mixture of them all.
But whatever happnes, let’s not create an ‘us’ and ‘them’. History shows us that ordinary people can easily commit ghastly acts they would never normally consider partaking in. It’s happening right now in wars around the world, and it happened in the Holocaust too.
Perhaps it’s worth remembering that the first thing to eventually lead to the Holocaust was the ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric created by the media and German government when talking about Jewish people. Yes, the riots brought out the very worst of all those involved. Let’s not let them bring out the worst in us too.