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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 19/08/2011 | 1 Comment

One of the things I have found somewhat frustrating in a lot of the coverage of the riots is that while commentators often acknowledge the complexity of the issues at stake they then still adopt a one-dimensional approach or end up polarising.  Zoe Williams in The Guardian is a good example of this. She wrote a piece on 'the psychology of looting' and in  it she presents various arguments in terms of an 'authoritarian-liberal spectrum'.

The so-called authoritarian reading is that 'this is a generation with a false sense of entitlement, created by the victim culture fostered, and overall leniency displayed, by the criminal justice system.'  At the liberal end of Williams' spectrum is Camila Batmanghelidjh, who set up the Kids' Company who claims that the looting and rioting were the natural human response of the poor to living with constant humiliation, threat and deprivation in a society of untold affluence.

Williams goes on to look at various arguments within these two poles but nonetheless the lasting impression is that people can't simultaneously agree with what she unhelpfully terms the liberal and the authoritarian readings.  However, I do as I think there is something in both these positions and everything in-between.

If I really started on what I think contributed to the riots and looting I'd end up with a blog that stretched to Australia. Instead I'm just going to write some bullet points most of which correspond with material we've already got on our website or I've included in previous blogs.  OF course, I think that structural factors such as the availability of work is important as are pay rates, skills and so forth but I’m going to concentrate here on an array of cultural factors:

1. We have now become a society completely dominated by advertising and consumption.  An average UK TV viewer sees more that 40 TV ads in one day. That's increased by 30 per cent from 2000.  On top of this there are ads on the internet, buses, billboards, magazines and newspapers. Children and young people are major consumers of advertising.  In the space of doing some research to support this article I've seen about fifty adverts. Adverts have one main purpose and it is encourage us to be dissatisfied with what we already have and to get us to want  more stuff – stuff that is often presented as 'irresistible'.  One of the best terms I heard for what happened in English streets was 'aspirational looting'  - why wait for your birthday, or Christmas, when you can get everything you've been wanting now …? 

2. We are living in an entitlement culture. Jean Twenge, whose work the Centre, often quotes (and you can listen to her talking on our site) wrote a book a few years ago called Generation Me.  It may be a cliché but we are living in a society which encourages people to be much more focused on their rights and not on their responsibilities.  If things go wrong for young people these days – such as not getting good grades – they will often blame the teacher or lecturer or argue that they deserve a better mark, presumably 'because they are worth it'.

3. We are living in a society completely overrun with materialistic values. Of course we get this from tv and the media with their obsession with looks, fame, celebrity, money and the like but we also get it from the politicians with their obsession with creating an 'aspirational' culture. Gone are the days when politicians talked in terms of the good society; they now act as if politics is about fulfilling the individual desires of electors.

4. In a world dominated by materialist values standards and ethics become increasingly irrelevant  - what's in it for me? and what's it worth? –become the yardsticks by which everything is judged.  As the Daily Telegraph's Peter Oborne pointed out in his terrific column this collapse of morals has happened at the top of society (bankers, MPs) so why should we surprised to see immorality on our streets?  

5. Many parents are often not firm enough. It is useful to see parenting styles in terms of a combination of firm/soft and cold/warm.  Up till the 1970s in the UK it was common for people to grow up with authoritarian (cold/firm) parents.  Many have now swung to the opposite and are soft/warm. In short, totally indulgent. There is also a growing number of kids who are neglected (soft/cold). The ideal type of parenting is assertive (firm and warm )– loving and centred on the child but with clear boundaries and parents saying no when required. Speak to teachers these days and they will say that parents often want the school to teach their children some discipline as they have abrogated responsibility – even in middle class areas. In the me-dominated society we live in, parents are often more intent on their own interests than focusing on their kids – watching telly if they are living in deprived areas; working too long if they are professionals.

6. It is increasingly understood that the early years is of fundamental importance to a whole range of outcomes such as the development of empathy, social skills  and impulse control as well as cognitive development.  For years in the UK we have ignored the fact that many children are growing up in families which need help and support so that they can lay the foundations for these youngsters to have a positive future.

7. The increase in single parent families headed by a woman, and the fact that so many fathers lose touch with their children,  means that many children grow up without a positive male influence in their lives.  Primary schools are almost entirely run by women and the curriculum increasingly 'feminised'.  How can boys learn to be 'good men' if they don't know many?

8. Young people are more and more excluded from adult company. The emphasis is continually on their peer group. There has never been a generation which has had such a minimal contact with adults. In African villages it is calculated that youngsters will know literally dozens of adults who they talk to and who take an interest in them. This is not true here.  Teenagers feel that they are adults (and in prevous generations they would have been treated as such) but they are given no useful social role and little is expected of them – other than that they focus on their own life and interests.

9. The UK has become an increasingly unequal society. The social geographer Danny Dorling's work shows that from 1918-1989 there was a steady erosion of income inequality in the UK through redistribution. This is why in the 1960s, particularly with the extension of higher education, there was a palpable sense of life becoming more equal. This has changed. The UK's level of inequality is now similar to what it was in the mid 19th century when Charles Dickens  wrote Hard Times.  This level of inequality leads to a break-down of social cohesion and a strong sense of us and them.  Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level argue that pronounced income inequality leads those at the bottom of the pile to feel bad about themselves and kick out at those they perceive as even lower in the hierarchy. This then results in racism and macho gang culture and the ritual humiliation which is common in a lot of reality tv programmes.

10. People need hope and also a sense that they have some investment in the future.  High  unemployment rates for young people, and the growing inter-generational unfairness (don’t get me started on free bus passes) must be important factors in what happened on the streets.

Of course, these ten  points are only a small part of the back-drop to the riots,  they are not the cause. After all, the points on this list were just as relevant a week before the events yet the streets were peaceful.  And this is where it is really important to consider psychological factors related to the behaviour of crowds and, at least in terms of the initial riots, to their attitude to the police.

This is all complicated stuff and it is just not helpful to try to represent various arguments in terms of a left-right or liberal-authoritarian spectrum.

Comment By Comment
Joined: 01/09/2011

Comment Posted: 01/09/2011 20:47
Your snapshot of reasons that may have contributed to the riots makes interesting reading - All of them contribute to the breakdown or repression of the essential self.
We live in a world where the subjugation of the person to the mammon of capitalism has arguably separated us to a greater or lesser extent from many of the essentials that make being human and alive a positive experience. The demise of the influence of religion, the ridiculing of the importance of spirituality - has created a void whereby all our yearnings for good, love, connectedness and achievement are vulnerable to the superficial fulfillment that materialism and consumerism offer. Jung talks about the unawakened self - it seems that the Dickensian inequality we observe now(without any evidence of the philanthropy inspired by it in Dickens's time)has kept many asleep - and who could blame them - if there's not a pound to buy a loaf of bread, provide shelter or clothing - who could care about being awakened, being aware in the psychological/spiritual sense? I often think that instead of advancing as a society we're regressing - becoming less and less human as inequality and deprivation become ever more extreme. Those who are awake, are aware and have the resources bear a responsibility to strive to redress some of these imbalances(as this website strives to do) in whatever way they can, in whatever field of expertise.
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