Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A little bit about what has been on my mind this afternoon...

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Now that a few days have passed, I should probably put this post in context.  It was written on the afternoon of Tuesday 9th August 2001; riots had started in London at the weekend following the shooting of Mark Duggan.  The worst night of rioting had been the Monday when there was a huge fire in Croydon, and riots had been starting in other cities.


I'm not a politically knowledgeable person, so this post is wading into the shallows of something I know little about.  I know this doesn't always stop people, but it gives me pause.  As someone, thankfully, outside cities so far affected by rioting, my knowledge of what has happened has permeated through the imperfect filter of the media, which has large holes and lets through a lot of the crud.  As someone outside that direct experience, it seems to me that the violence had its roots in genuine tension and grief but devolved into an excuse to destroy and steal.  Mine is a personal, not a political, response, and I don't pretend that this comes from expert knowledge.

But my thoughts this afternoon have strayed off kilter.  And this tangent was started off by hearing that the only shop not raided in one street was Waterstones.  My first thoughts, shamefully, were a bit flippant: I believe I have a social conscience, a strong moral sense and an overactive guilt complex so I would never do what the rioters have been doing.  But if I did ever throw that aside - I never would - Waterstones would be the first place I looted.  I now feel quite guilty of that flippancy, but it started me off wondering why a book shop wasn't looted: aside from the obvious that books have little resale value on the black market, was this because people doing this are not readers, or because someone who reads a lot would not do this?

Here is the conclusion I am tentatively starting to reach.  I admit this comes from a big generalisation, but bear with me because it serves my metaphor.  Perhaps these actions partly come from people who spend some of their time out of their mind on drugs (that's the big generalisation, sorry about that).  But if they spent more of their time out of their own mind and into someone else's in a book, maybe they wouldn't have acted in this way.  I think that reading about other people's lives - real or fictional - helps foster empathy and the understanding that we are not alone in the world, that we live alongside myriad other people who have their own distinct joys and sorrows.  They are separate from us and to a large extent unknowable, but connected, and our actions can have implications for their lives.  Anyone who has fostered that sense of empathy, who stepped, even just for 30 seconds, into the mind of someone terrified, who feels themselves and those that they care for threatened by violence, fire, loss of their home, or loss of income due to destruction of their business, would surely not have taken part in these riots.

I do have friends in affected cities and I hope that they have stayed safe.  But, even if I don't directly know the people involved, this doesn't give me the licence not to care what has happened to them.  Today seemed to start with more of a sense of hope, with people arranging to meet to clean up after the riots, but this demonstation of community solidarity has been a result of something that should never have happened in the first place.  The people who have done this are in the minority, I know this, but I still feel like it has damaged my faith in humanity more than a little bit.  I'm 36: I'd hoped not to become old and cynical for at least a couple more decades.

I hope I'm right about the whole empathy thing, but I think I am being rather naive as I am writing this listening to an eyewitness report on the TV.  She is saying that the rioters were revelling in seeing their fear.  I've just taken down off the shelves my Oxford Concise English Dictionary, which defines humanity as " the fact or condition of being human" and "humaneness, benevolence."  If I am wrong about the importance of empathy, it scares me so much that it makes me think that maybe the dictionary should be re-written to define humanity as cruelty, selfishness and solipsism.

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