After the riots – A liberal response

While the riots shook England and took the police and the politicians by surprise we now need to look at a response. We know what the Tories’ response is/will be and Labour under Miliband is characteristically going to undertake an ‘inquiry’. So what is the Liberal response? If Liberalism hides for fear of not sounding tough enough or does not have a response which people can understand then we will be doing ourselves and the country a disservice, not to mention looking irrelevant.

The political right has begun to defend its position by attacking Liberalism

Liberalism works well for people with the cultural resources and family support to enjoy freedom. But freedom in the inner city can mean purposelessness and unpunished transgression.

And Brian Paddick looking to gain votes in the coming London Mayoral election is sounding ‘tough’ by saying he would have responded with “robust” action and plastic bullets which is does not necessarily sound traditionally liberal. But then we get Simon Hughes suggesting that long-term solutions lie in supporting communities by offering opportunities and redistributing wealth, not slashing help from the state and cutting taxes for the rich.  Which is sounding more traditionally liberal but it doesn’t leave the Liberal response looking wholly integrated.

The Tory response is that the line between right/wrong and good/bad is a fixed line with people being on one side or the other. However, Philip Zimbardo, who has researched this line for decades (and has been an advisor to the Obama Administration), talks about the line between good/bad and right/wrong being one which is movable and permeable and where people can be seduced across this line; in either direction. The political right have a fixed view and will defend their view. However, their view is simplistic and not born out of experience but is designed to give an impression that they have no excuses to the behaviour. But understanding is not excusing and understanding is part of the Liberal response.

Zimbardo was the man who famously conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment and his research would suggest that what happened in the UK was that there has been a climate where the line of what is right and wrong has begun to be questioned by some in society (banking crisis, banking bonuses, phone hacking, politicians’ expenses, potentially inequality, poverty, a sense of unfairness etc.). Once the riots began a belief was formed that they would not get caught or there would be few, if any, recriminations, and so people became seduced over this line to act in a manner they do not ordinarily do. So we have seen some seemingly ridiculous comments from the looters such as ‘I am taking my taxes back’ – from a 16 year old girl stealing from a shop, or ‘I will probably only get told off by my mum’ – a young person talking about what he thought would happen, which make a lot more sense given the work of Zimbardo.

So a Liberal response will understand this line is movable and permeable and respond to it. So tough policing is part of the Liberal response as it is needed to ensure that people know that there are consequences. However, the feeling of unfairness due to the inequalities in society is also part of the Liberal response so that people feel they know this line is firmer than it feels at present; so Simon Hughes response is equally important and correct. Ed Miliband has begun to say some positive things about this too:

I am not saying that inequality caused the looting because that is far too simplistic, but I do say that giving people a sense that they have a stake in society, and that we are one society and not two parallel worlds, is really, really important.

In other words that people understand that the line between right and wrong, good and bad is there and they believe in it. I am guessing that an ‘inquiry’ is only going to show exactly what has been shown so many times when this issue has been looked at before by many people. What we need is a clearer picture of what we need to do.

Zimbardo has begun to work on what he calls ordinary heroes. He says that situations have the power to do 3 things:

  • It can inflame the hostile imagination in those who become perpetrators of evil
  • It can inspire the heroic imagination in others of us
  • It can render most people passive bystanders and guilty of the evil of inaction

He suggests that people follow the advice ‘don’t get involved and mind your own business’ but argues that humanity is everyone’s business. He has been working with ‘troubled’ young people on developing that they can do heroic things in any given situation i.e. do the right thing. That once an opportunity arises such as the rioting/looting, that they choose a different option to not do it and to try and stop others from doing it. We saw in Birmingham how there were many who stopped people from rioting and taking revenge on the deaths of the 3 men – what he would call a heroic act. We saw others who did heroic things. A Liberal response should develop this sense in the nation and should praise ordinary heroic acts.

For a start sending some people to prison for short term prison sentences is not going to make people feel that the line between right/wrong or good/bad is any different to before they went in. It is more likely to give them a sense of greater unfairness as Clegg argued in the TV debates in 2010. It would be much tougher for them to get a longer community sentence where they have to be part of the clean-up, the work to repair the damage, meeting and helping the victims, and helping to improve the communities they live in. The idea would be for them to feel more connected to their communities and that they helped build it. This is a direct clash with the Tory approach but we should not be shy of advocating it – Liberalism is more relevant today because of the riots and we need to make sure people know why.

While many politicians talk of ‘responsibility’ and then say this is down to parenting, a Liberal response should incorporate the idea that as a Government, we can encourage a nation, families, schools, young people and children to develop their sense of doing the right thing in a situation. Zimbardo has a program that he uses with the young people he works with and this could be used with those who are convicted of crimes associated with the rioting/looting. Such work can be rolled out to schools and community groups.

And most importantly what Zimbardo talks about is the use of power: That power used to harm people, or perceived to harm people, causes the extreme behaviour in ordinary people. The perception that power is not being used appropriately in some communities is also where the Liberal response should be – which is Simon Hughes point but he does not make this explicit. However, it also includes a better system to keep those exercising the power in check, which is what the Lib Dems are all about – a better system.

You can see Zimbardo give a talk at TEDtalks on his work below which is worth watch for those who do not know his work and his charity with work with young people is here.

Liberalism is very relevant to this debate and has some distinctive answers which the Tories and Labour will not dare speak. We should be brave enough to advocate for it.

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2 Responses to After the riots – A liberal response

  1. John MInard says:

    the old mantra of being ‘tough on crime’, or rather sounding tough at a conference or in an election leaflet, has got us exactly where? Time to change it to ‘tough on the rule of law, intelligent on the causes of law breaking’.

  2. Pingback: The Banality of Heroism « creatingreciprocity

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