The Rorschach Riots

23:28 Sun 14 Aug 2011. Updated: 18:19 17 Sep 2011
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I mean the various incidents of unrest in England earlier this week. The reference is not to the Watchmen character, but to the blots, because from what I can tell every commentator (I include myself here) is seeing in the events a confirmation of their already-existing political beliefs. That’s not unique to this particular issue, but it strikes me as a particularly egregious example of the phenomenon.

If you believe that law and order are the answer to clearly unacceptable violent behavior on the part of people who are apparently opting out of the rules governing society, you have more proof of your standpoint’s correctness. If you believe that deprivation and inequality will lead to frustrated outbreaks of violence, you have proof of that too. If you believe the cause was cutting police numbers, or closing youth centers, or consumerism, or the sense of entitlement of the younger generation, or the insidious effects of social networking technologies—you have proof for all those views too. Or all of them combined, or some subset combined.

I would like to commend you, personally, on your wisdom and sagacity, as you have through learning and experience constructed a worldview which is superlative in its ability to correctly model our fiendishly complex environment, to such good effect that new events such as this one fit perfectly into it and, indeed, merely underscore its accuracy.

I’m mocking you, of course. And mocking myself, as well. None of us have such an accurate model—but we all think we do (most of the time; some humans are able with difficulty to suppress this tendency when considering more limited environments).

Unfortunately, knowing this doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t introduce some form of relativism where all beliefs are equal (at least not by itself), because some of our models are going to be more accurate than others.[*] It does mean that without a lot of effort, it’s hard for us to learn anything meaningful from things like this.

One of the ways in which we can make such an effort is to try to figure out what our relevant biases are and where they come from. At least for some of them—exhaustively going through all of them is a tall order indeed. But any examination of them should help at least a little.

To that end, I’m going to go through some of my reactions to the riots[†] and examine what underpins those reactions.

  • Whatever the rest of the circumstances, individual responsibility still applies. No one was conscripted into a mob, and while it’s easy to lose oneself in a group, that “loss” remains an individual choice. So whatever people did during the unrest they did themselves and are responsible for it.

    This view is, I suspect, hardly controversial, but I’ll go through it anyway.

    The conviction that we are fundamentally responsible for our own decisions is one I hold deeply. I can’t prove that it’s true, but I refuse to accept alternative explanations, from genetic determinism to claims of Satanic possession. While I don’t believe in a simplistic version of free will, it remains that we are responsible for our actions and decisions, and a denial of this for ourselves or others entails a denial of agency.

    Following this line of thought makes it clear to me how fundamental this is to me: I regard a denial of agency as essentially a denial of personhood. This may be why I regard coercion as so abhorrent, as it involves stripping someone of their status as a person; at the same time, disavowal of responsibility for one’s own actions is an abdication of self.

  • Judgments of the individuals involved, as opposed to their actions, are deeply suspect.

    I’ve seen plenty of reactions calling the rioters “scum”, or equivalent epithets. There have been plenty of reactions predicated on the notion that there are “bad people”, and that the people involved in the unrest automatically fit into this group, and that membership in this group justifies what is essentially dehumanization. I reject the latter two clauses and remain deeply ambivalent about the first. One excellent reason to be very skeptical about reasoning leading to such a conclusion is the fundamental attribution error; we’re naturally eager to jump to conclusions about the characters of others, and we’re also quite eager to fit them into categories we’ve already prepared in our minds.

    This is wrong because it is unjust—how can we apply different standards to others and call it anything but unfair?

  • Individual responsibility doesn’t eliminate social responsibility.

    We all make decisions in the context of our circumstances, and this context has an obvious effect on those decisions. So while we can rightly say, for example, that no context justifies wanton violence against random individuals, and that the individuals participating in such violence must bear responsibility for it, if we find ourselves looking at situations where obvious environmental factors are making such actions by individuals more likely, we can’t ignore those factors. Presented with a situation where most of the “bad acts” are apparently by people coming from disadvantaged communities, we have to accept that this is significant, and that dealing with it by suggesting that such communities have more “bad people” in them is pretty dumb. Essentially, events like these demonstrate that there is something wrong with a society, and figuring out what that is and how to fix it requires asking and answering hard questions, not engaging in feel-good easy condemnations.

  • Inequality, disenfranchisement, and consumerism are all relevant factors.

    I believe that the more inequality is present in a society, the more likely that society is to be quite sick in a number of ways, and I see the riots as evidence of this. I have trouble breaking this view down further, but there is evidence that being lower in a status hierarchy is bad for health, and I consider it obvious that this would be even more true for psychological health. We’re intensely status-conscious, and whether this is cultural or due to our primate roots, social systems with high levels of inequality are clearly going to involve more people who are lower in status. This is a bad thing, and I don’t see many persuasive arguments for why we should tolerate it.

    My believing this predisposes me to think that this inequality is a major factor driving the riots; I have difficulty seeing how it wouldn’t be.

    Disenfranchisement, by which I mean a broad sense of having little say in how things are run, and a corresponding sense of little control over one’s own life, seems to me to lead to disaffection and resentment, and again I see modern England as a society that has made large sections of its population feel disenfranchised. It’s hardly alone in this, and again I have trouble seeing the merit in arguments that this is a positive direction for any society to go in.

    By “consumerism” I mean the system of assertions that the worth and status of individuals is based upon their possessions, which are themselves graded on scales which change frequently, with vast industries dependent on the constant turnover. Essentially, this is a system for creating status scarcity and tying status to economic standing, and then accumulating wealth and power from the resulting (mostly futile) struggles for status.

    If you hold consumer goods up as marks of status, and then make them difficult to acquire, while constantly reinforcing a message that without them an individual is markedly inferior, you shouldn’t be shocked and appalled when some people try to step outside the rules of your game and acquire the goods without first acquiring the economic means to buy them.

    One of the more depressing things about this unrest, in fact, was that the consumerist message is so deeply entrenched. I don’t think that capitalism is ever going to be in real danger while people think that looting a Foot Locker is a worthwhile activity[‡].

  • “Security” crackdowns are the wrong answer.

    Since I see the unrest as symptomatic of deep social problems, I see security measures as ways of avoiding the necessity of dealing with those social problems. I also think that already-existing enforcement mechanisms are likely repressive and that this approach to addressing the unrest will only increase that repression. I see a basic choice here, between attempting to make society significantly more equal and inclusive, or going the opposite way but keeping things running smoothly through greater repression, and the right decision seems overwhelmingly obvious to me—and, again, I have difficulty seeing the other side of the argument here. I waver between thinking that this is because my biases are too strong and thinking that this is because the right decision is very clear and the reasons for not choosing it rooted in selfishness and elitism.

I don’t think I’ve managed to dig very deep, and those represent only some of my reactions, to say nothing of my prejudices, but this seems sufficient for now.

[*] So you’re still wrong, if you disagree with me, about the meaning/implications for policy/causes of the riots, and that you should carefully study my conclusions in those areas until you understand that I’m right.

[†] I’m using this term, although I understand that there are problems with it, and that some instances might have been better characterized as protests, and others as organized smash & grab excursions.

[‡] Yes, I am making the assumption here that the people looting Foot Locker already had footwear and weren’t doing so out of pure necessity.

3 Responses to “The Rorschach Riots”

  1. jeffliveshere Says:

    “Inequality, disenfranchisement, and consumerism are all relevant factors. ”

    Might they be coercive factors?

    Simone deBeauvoir added a nice piece to Sartre’s existentialist view of agency–she noted that there is absolutely existential freedom (we are all completely responsible for our actions) but that to the degree there is a lack of political freedom, existential freedom matters less. This is how she dealt with women who were agents responsible for their own actions, but who were also “coerced” by fundamental structural inequities. (Her example, if I remember right, is of a woman part of a harem of some sort–sure, she has existential freedom, but her political freedom is so limited…)


  2. Tadhg Says:

    jeffliveshere: I find this area quite tricky, and I’m not sure I got that across sufficiently in my post. Those factors are coercive, but individual responsibility still applies—that is, it applies from the point of view of the individual, who must acknowledge that they made choices to bring them to their current spot.

    I suspect I would agree with de Beauvoir, but the implications of the term coercion is problematic for me, and the split I was trying to articulate in the post was not between the political and the existential, but between the individual and collective.

    A murderer is generally responsible for their own actions, but if the murder rate in a society is anything but very low, that society bears responsibility for creating conditions likely to bring about murder—and for turning people into murderers. That last clause is where the crux of my difficulty lies, as the claim that a society can turn an individual into anything denies individual agency, but at the same time environmental conditions clearly affect individuals and their behavior, and it’s the society rather than the individual that bears most of the responsibility for those conditions (and how they’re dealt with).

  3. jeffliveshere Says:

    I wonder if that split is a false dichotomy? Or, even, “individual” goes along with “existential”, while “collective” goes along with “political”.

    Yeah, it’s all relatively murky at this level, I think. One of my profs pointed out a while back that whether or not a murderer is deemed responsible (or if society is responsible), we still need to get that person out of the general populace, so some of the discussion of responsiblity is moot…


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