Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The riots and moral decline

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If you're a regular visitor to this blog you might have noticed that I didn't post about the riots last week, the reason being I didn't really feel I had anything to add. The question everyone was trying to answer was "Why are they happening?", and the only response I had to offer was "I don't know".

Those three words aren't particularly popular when it comes to commenting on the week's news, but don't you wish we heard them more often? Would it not be refreshing to turn on Newsnight or the Today programme and hear a couple of pundits agreeing that they couldn't offer any definitive explanations for why rioting and looting had broken out in several English cities? It might not make for an explosive debate, but at least we'd be treated to an honest one. Because let's face it, no one really knows why last week's madness happened, but that hasn't stopped commentators pretending to know. In the last week we've heard that the riots were caused by the cuts, the welfare state, social exclusion, absent fathers, the decline of religion, the human rights act, rap music, violent video games and social networking, to name just a few.

I'm not saying that none of these things played a part (although some, such as the cuts and the welfare state, are mutually exclusive, and others, such as rap music or video games, are in my opinion ridiculous), but offering up one of them on its own as the explanation, as many have recently, doesn't really get us anywhere. In order to achieve anything, the debate over what caused the riots will require both patience and nuance, and neither of those play much of a role in current affairs commentary (this excellent post by the Telegraph's Tom Chivers was one of the few I saw that had the cheek to offer any of that).

One of the most common, and in my opinion one of the most useless, explanations offered has been that Britain has experienced a tragic and irreversible moral decline. Naturally, Melanie Phillips provided the most quotable version of this argument:
"So now the chickens have well and truly come home terrifyingly to roost. The violent anarchy that has taken hold of British cities is the all-too-predictable outcome of a three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value.

The married two-parent family, educational meritocracy, punishment of criminals, national identity, enforcement of the drugs laws and many more fundamental conventions were all smashed by a liberal intelligentsia hell-bent on a revolutionary transformation of society."
To summarise: liberalism has brought about moral decline over the past 30 years, and this provides an explanation for why widespread civil disorder has broken out at this particular moment in time. You have to admit it's a tidy explanation. But as an excellent blog post by The Economist's Bagehot highlights, it's also the exact same explanation offered for practically every other outbreak of civil disorder or moral panic that has occurred over the past two centuries. It was used in 1981, 1974, 1958, 1956 (when the Daily Mail worried whether rock'n'roll and other forms of music were "the negro's revenge"), 1932, and all the way back into the 19th century, when people worried about the collapse of rural values in the face of industrial urbanisation. The Economist post, which is based on a 1982 book called Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears by Professor Geoffrey Pearson, even provides examples from before that time:
"In London, 1815 sees the foundation of the Society for Investigating the Causes of the Alarming Increase in Juvenile Delinquency in the Metropolis. 1751 sees Henry Fielding's "Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers" (Fielding fingered "too frequent and expensive diversions among the lower kind of people"). The seventeenth century saw moral panics about violent and rowdy apprentices, as well as about organised fighting among gangs (wearing coloured ribbons to identify their troops). Professor Pearson ends with the sixteenth century and puritan fears about, if not gangsta rap, popular songs that treated criminals as heroes."
Those who share Melanie Phillips' world view clearly look back to a golden age before liberals destroyed the moral fabric of Britain, but it's never quite clear when this golden age occurred. On this evidence, it could have been as long ago as the 15th century.
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