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Archbishop's response to Guardian/LSE 'Reading the Riots' study

Monday 5th December 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, wrote this article for the Guardian newspaper, Tuesday 6th December 2011.

The main sensation I have had in looking at the material brought together by the Reading the Riots researchers – particularly what comes from young people – is one of enormous sadness.  So much of what is recorded here reflects lives in which anger and depression, those two familiar twins, are almost the default setting, because of a range of frustrations and humiliations.  Too many of these young people assume they are not going to have any ordinary, human, respectful relationships with most adults – especially those in authority, the police above all.  Too many of them inhabit a world in which the obsession with ‘good’ clothes and accessories – against a backdrop of economic insecurity or simple privation – creates a feverish atmosphere where status falls and rises as suddenly and destructively as in a currency market: good lives are lives where their position within a fierce Darwinian hierarchy of style is temporarily secure.  Too many of them feel they have nothing to lose because they are told practically from birth that they have no serious career opportunities.

To ask whether the riots were ‘political’ or ‘opportunistic’ is, as some have already commented, pointless.  These are not people who live complacently in a culture of entitlement, nor are they, for the most part, committed criminals.  Neither are they heroes of democratic protest, Britain’s answer to Tahrir Square.  They are people who have vague but strong longings for something like secure employment, and have no idea where to look for it; who on the whole want to belong, who want to live in a climate where they are taken seriously as workers, as citizens – and as needy human individuals; and have got used to being pushed to the margins and told that they are dispensable.

So behind all this there is certainly a political agenda in the wider sense; this is about how we organise our life together in society.  But because many of these people are damaged – by unstable family settings, by education delivered in almost impossible conditions of pressure, by what is felt as constant suspicion and discrimination – their way of releasing tension is destructive and chaotic.  There is no point in being sentimental: they make appallingly bad, selfish, short-term choices.  The question is why such choices seem natural or unavoidable to so many.  We may well wince when some describe how the riots brought them a feeling of intense joy, liberation, power.  But we have to go on to ask what kind of life it is in which your emotional highs come from watching a shop being torched or a policeman being hit by a brick.

Nearly three years ago, the Children’s Society produced its ‘Good Childhood’ report, a careful analysis of what young people thought constituted a stable, happy, nurturing environment to grow up in.  Its conclusions were in a way devastatingly simple.  Children and young people need love; they need a dependable background for their lives – emotionally and socially; a background that helps them take certain things for granted so that they know they don’t have to fight ceaselessly for recognition.  We should be keeping a sharp eye on working practices that undermine this, and we should be asking how law and society reinforce the right kinds of family stability by training in parenting skills as well as high quality out-of-school activity and care.  We should be challenging an educational philosophy too absorbed in meeting targets to shape character.  And we should look long and hard at the assumptions we breed into our children about acquisition and individual material profit.

The authors of that report boldly refused to be fashionably negative about the younger generation, but they did not pretend that all was well.  Last summer’s events will have tempted many of them to say ‘I told you so’.  But when the endemic problems identified by the report are combined with the impact of massive economic hopelessness and the prospect of record levels of youth unemployment, it isn’t all that surprising if we see particualrly volatile, chaotic and rootless young people letting off their frustration in the kind of destructive frenzy we witnessed in August.

And the hard conclusion is that there is no one root cause that we can get to and deal with in a finite time scale.  Solutions will have to emerge and join up slowly as we try to redirect a whole culture.  Some of the elements of this process are not hard to identify. When we think about spending cuts, national and local, we have to build in some‘youth-testing’: what will their measurable impact be on children and young people?  And if that impact is problematic, what will offset it?  The idea that cutting the provision of youth services is ever a true economy –never mind the ethics – should be (but isn’t always in practice) manifestly indefensible. 

I’ve already mentioned education: we have to support our hard-pressed educational professionals in creating and sustaining environments in which character is shaped and imagination nourished, in which we not only raise aspirations but also offer some of the tools to cope with disappointment and failure in a mature way – an education of the emotions such as we badly need in a culture of often vacuous aspiration.  As for parenting, it’s interesting to see how few of those interviewed by the project identified poor parenting as a cause of the trouble.  You may say, ‘Well, they wouldn’t, would they?’  But that is to miss the point.  Many obviously had a healthy respect, not to say alarm, for how their parents might judge them.  Some admitted that if they were parents they would feel as their own parents would.  But whatever they had imbibed at home was regularly undermined by what the wider society presented – including the spectacle, in a good many settings last August, of adults inciting younger people to join them in looting or violence.  How do we as a society back up good lessons in the home and show that we corporately want what a good family wants – mutual attention and affirmation, stability and emotional literacy, a sense of value that doesn’t depend on accessories?

Demonizing volatile and destructive young people doesn’t help; criminalizing them wholesale reinforces a lot of what produces the problem in the first place.  Of course crime needs punishment and the limits of acceptable behaviour have to be set.  The youth justice system has a good record in restorative justice methods that bring people up sharp against the human consequences of what they have done.  We have the tools for something other than vindictive or exemplary penalties.  The big question that ‘Reading the Riots’ leaves us with is whether, in our current fretful state, with unavoidable austerity ahead, we have the energy to invest what’s needed in family and neighbourhood and school to rescue those who think they have nothing to lose.  We have to persuade them, simply, that they have: and that we as government and civil society alike will be putting some intelligence and skill into giving them the stake they do not have.  Without this, we shall face more outbreaks of futile anarchy, in which we shall all, young and old, be the losers.     

© Rowan Williams 2011

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