The Parliamentary Debate in response to the devastating riots of the last few days is on in the background as I write this and I wonder why I’m listening to it at all. Each speaker seems to have a script, saying things that they believe will appeal to voters; no one seems to be able to say anything that isn’t rhetoric.
I live in one of the areas very mildly touched by rioting: some shop windows smashed, a couple of restaurants raided and the patrons mugged, some vehicles torched. My daughter and I watched TV incredulously as Reeves’ furniture shop in Croydon became an inferno that spread to family homes. We packed a small case with passports, paperwork and a change of clothes and wondered how the cat might fare being dragged in a box to the local mosque, our nearest community place of safety. By 1am our area was quiet and we went to bed feeling safe.
The following day opinion exploded. There’s little point in repeating those opinions, we’ve all been exposed to them from every media, from friends and relatives, people at bus stops or anywhere else people might stand still for more than 5 minutes. We will all have our own opinions too. For me, what really stands out, what unites every opinion, is that everyone feels unheard.
I’ve watched and participated in any number of conversations on what looting might mean, how it began and how to deal with looters. Friends have fallen out and I’ve found myself very severely challenged by friends who quite genuinely want to give police a shoot to kill policy, to bring water canon onto the streets or, in more than one case, have suggested that all media should be shut down for a period of time and the police be encouraged to batter anyone they can get their hands on to death. “If they’re on the streets they’re fair game,” as one friend said. My instinct has been to terminate those friendships, I don’t want my social circle to include people who sanction brutal murder or a police state. But in a slightly altered state of shock, some fascination and the desire to test just how much a counselling-type approach to these horrific statements can perhaps create space for a more nuanced discourse, I’ve tried not to reject any but the most racist, ghastly comments.
Listening and responding carefully to friends has revealed that in a number of cases they’re actually yearning to move beyond concepts of vengeance but don’t know how. They know they want to be involved and, as every radio and TV programme and website seems to demand, Have Their Say but have no concept of what that really might be other than advocating extreme punishment. We’ve sometimes found ourselves at odds because the assumption has been that if I don’t want to visit violence on a looter then I must automatically want to make excuses for them. Most of my friends are middle aged, middle class and educated but I’ve found myself shocked by the poverty of genuine debate: worse, the apparent inability to debate. Absolutist statements - “Parents/police/ government/ liberalism/ intollerance are to blame.” “This is/ is not a race issue.” “Poverty is/is not the cause,” are clung to like life rafts, without them people seem helpless.
Happily this hasn’t always been the end of the story most noticeably with younger people a number of whom begin with a statement along the lines of “Take benefits and council houses off looters,” and then are genuinely interested in engaging when I ask about the teaching assistant, the law student and other professionals who’ve been charged with looting or handling stolen goods; or what homeless, penniless criminals might do to eat; or when I introduce the concept of
Very often the conversation begins aggressively then moves to a kind of cri de coeur of “But someone should do something!” I have little idea of what can be done if as a nation we are only ever encouraged to pour hatred on a Radical Other but I’m heartened that time after time people welcome the opportunity to be heard, to be authentically responded to and to hear about different ways of seeking possible solutions. Simply knowing that it’s fine not to know has come as a relief to many people.
Because of course there are solutions that move beyond lynching or bringing a looter to live with you but they do involve opening oneself to some difficult and complex realities. Behaving like a deranged 1950’s headmaster may well appeal to some people who will never riot but vitally alienates and ignores people who feel they are hated by the rest of the population.
And they’re correct, they are hated and the realities that create their lived experience are ignored. People living in poverty seem to exist to be hated as centuries of Poor Law suggest but more than poverty on its own it is inequality that results in rioting. 1 That arch-conservative columnist, Charles Moore recently wrote an extraordinary piece entitled “I’m Starting To Think the Left Might Actually Be Right” 2 addressing Britain’s gross inequalities. The Resolution Foundation confirm his view:
‘ The share of national income going to the bottom half of earners in Britain has fallen dramatically over the last 30 years…..These ordinary workers have seen their share of GDP fall by a quarter, at the same time as the share going to the top 1% of earners increased by half.’ 3
One in five of the British population lives in poverty along with 2.6 children. Only 5% of the UK benefits budget supports workless, working age adults 4 and London is the most unequal city in the developed world where the richest tenth have 273 times the wealth of the poorest tenth. 5
20% of the British adult population is functionally illiterate and a third of us can’t add up two 3-figure numbers. 70% of children permanently excluded from schools have difficulties with basic literacy as do 60% of the prison population. 6
If we don’t want further riots we may want to consider our response to these issues. Counsellors are part of the wider world and part of the nation in which we live: as such we’ll share healthily diverse political opinions parts of which will verge towards pulling oneself up by the bootlaces and parts of which will acknowledge that you have to have bootlaces of some description to start with whether that’s the ability to read or a safe home. Counsellors, like every other person in society, have a responsibility towards that society and we also have the huge benefit of being taught to think, taught ways in which to listen when people are distressed and saying things that they might not actually believe, and taught to create an environment in which a person feels safe enough to move beyond cliché towards exploring their genuine beliefs. Perhaps more than any other profession we have been schooled in the transformative art of empathy, something that seems shockingly lacking in recent days.
Imagine that you have been told that you can make it if you simply try hard enough and you still fail. You’ve been told you can become a millionaire if you follow your dream but the dream has withered. You’ve been told that you will be given respect and status if you wear a certain brand but you know you’ll never be able to legally afford any of it. Imagine working wretched hours at a job you hate then seeing young criminals living a life you were promised. Imagine how you might feel when new communities are introduced to your old established neighbourhood, and that people who will never set foot in these communities contemptuously dismiss you as racist and backward for not wholeheartedly embracing something you know nothing about. Imagine knowing that your 10-year-old son must soon begin to accept being stopped and searched on the basis of who he is. Imagine what it must be like to be ignored all the times you’ve peacefully demonstrated against the endless reports of deaths in custody, but the attention of the worlds’ media is focused on 50 people from your community who go looting. Imagine being told by that you are going to kept safe and the mobile phone network shut down if rioting begins again then seeing that your streets are just as dangerous and that it’s technologically impossible to block all mobile signals.
Imagine that your voice seems to’ve been heard when you demand that looters be evicted from their social housing and then other voices talking about complex things that have nothing to do with you drown you out. I’m heartened and not a little relieved that sensible, careful analysis has already begun but it’s quite clear that it’s accompanied by a snarling retreat from people we might be tempted to call cynical but who may actually feel defeated.
Counselling is notoriously middle class, very few of us will have meaningful experience of living as part of communities who experience shocking generational deprivation, impoverishment or illiteracy, most of us will have no concept of what it is to live this way as a matter of course. People of all backgrounds who live in these communities are begging to be heard, as are solid, relatively prosperous people who feel dismissed as badly educated working class thugs. We know that when people feel unheard they very often shout louder: counsellors are members of a very small group who, with no other agenda, are able to listen and hear. It may seem very little in the great scheme of things but it seems to me to be particularly necessary now. How counsellors make themselves available to disenfranchised groups might be part of an important discourse for our profession.
1. Abbink, A., Masclet, D., Mirza, D. 2010. Inequality and Riots – Experimental Evidence Research. Association Francaise d’Economie Experimentail Paper 2010 -13
Barro, R.J., 2000. Inequality and Growth in a Panel of Countries. Journal of Economic Growth.
2. Moore, C., 2011. I’m Starting To Think the Left Might Actually Be Right. Daily Telegraph. 22 July
3. Whittaker, M., Savage, L., 2011. Missing Out. Resolution Foundation. Available at: http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/publications/missing-out/. [Accessed July 2011]
4. Department of Work and Pensions. 2011. Households Below Average Income (HBAI). Available at: http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/index.php?page=hbai
5. Dorling, D., 2010. Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists. Policy Press.
6. Clarke, C., Dugdale, G., 2008. Literacy Changes Lives: The role of literacy in offending behaviour. National Literacy Trust.