Black and white riot

The next time you see rioters on TV, I want you to use your imagination. In your mind’s eye, try to see a young Boris Johnson and David Cameron dressed up in evening gear, drunk as lords, smashing up the crockery or the furniture in the Bullingdon Club’s restaurant of the night.

It’s easy to understand why people like that might smash up stuff for fun like that. It’s an “edgy”, pushing-the-envelope sort of thing to do, and it requires some daring. Its daring is admired by people who belong to a subculture whose values admire that sort of daring. Within that subculture, doing things that are disapproved of by the mainstream is good. It’s narrowly regarded as good because it’s widely regarded as bad. The next morning, such people tend to wake up with a hangover — and an admiring girlfriend.

It isn’t that these people “don’t know right from wrong”, nor could anyone teach them “right from wrong”. (Anyway, we all have differing opinions on right and wrong, so which version is supposed to be “taught”?) Only by already knowing what is widely regarded as “wrong” can such a subculture judge this sort of activity to be “right” (by its own lights, of course).

These activities might understandably be termed “disgraceful”, and as long as we don’t read too much into the word, we might even call their perpetrators “scum”. We would demand that they pay for the damage they do, and we might justly insist that some of them be made an example of to discourage others. The behaviour in question is exceptionally nasty, but it isn’t obviously “dysfunctional”. Nor does it seem a “cry of desperation” or “alienation”. In fact such behaviour is rationalized by the idea that its perpetrators are “troubled” adolescent types rather than blissfully untroubled by the harm they do.

When taken to extremes, smashing up a restaurant might involve serious harm, not just through damage to a place of employment, but through the threatening or frightening of innocent people. It might cause injury, endanger life, even involve deliberate killing. When taken to extremes like that, this sort of activity really does call for harsh counter-measures. If perpetrators take things too far, they might face expulsion from university (not just from a university club); if they take things to extremes, they should face a jail sentence for causing criminal damage, injury or death. If they really take things to the absolute limit, they might justifiably be shot on sight.

However harsh the measures we need to take against this type of activity, we mustn’t read too much into it. It’s not a sign of the breakdown of civilization so much as a sign of inadequate personalities, kept under inadequate control. We belong to a species whose members do this sort of thing, and we should expect it.

How does the riotous behaviour of hooray henrys differ from the riotous behaviour of everyday yobs and louts? In my opinion, they do not differ significantly at all. We should not over-interpret either of them. We should tolerate some of it, but not too much of it. We are all guilty of “bad behaviour” from time to time, and we should make ourselves aware of when we are likely to lose the run of ourselves. For example, we have all told cruel jokes; most of us have done things when drunk that we regret afterwards; some of us have done mob-like things in a group that we would never dream of doing on our own. So some of us would be well-advised to avoid humour, alcohol, or public demonstrations. Despite the commonness of those peccadilloes, hardly anyone is guilty of setting fire to homes, mugging injured people while pretending to help them, or murdering people by kicking them to death or driving cars into them.

David Cameron’s use of the phrase “zero tolerance” is misguided and ideological. It casts things in black and white, when the reality is all shades of grey. Of course we should not tolerate murderers driving cars into people, or muggers masquerading as Good Samaritans. But we should treat other lawbreakers more leniently. Teenagers in groups taking packets of chewing gum from shops that have already been broken into aren’t doing anything all that bad. They’re breaking the rules, going beyond what is considered acceptable. As do comedians and scientists.

Just as misguided and ideological is Polly Toynbee’s use of the phrase “fractured communities”. We are not tempted to say that members of the Bullingdon Club belong to a “fractured community” — they’re just a bunch of spoiled rich kids behaving badly and making trouble. Big deal.

Riots are a traditional English activity. They express a healthy disrespect for authority, as well as an unhealthy disregard for the welfare of ordinary people. It’s bad, but it’s not all bad. At least the recent English riots were not quite as “racially motivated” as riots in other parts of the world tend to be. In that sense they were black and white — and in a weird way indicate racial harmony amid other sorts of discord.