The discussion of values after the week of rioting and looting has been simplistic and heavy with soundbites. If the prime minister is serious about ushering in a radical change serious questions have got to be answered about the very values that have come to characterize 21st century Britain.
Although the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham may have been the spark that lit the fuse, it does not explain the behaviour of largely young people in looting and rioting. A sense of injustice may have been the initial trigger but the domino effect of looting and rioting which swept the country was rooted in something deeper than a single incident or even the cumulative effect of a number of events.
We can listen to the reasons the looters give, of deprived communities, poverty, lack of jobs, government cuts etc, yet this only explains the perceived sense of injustice felt by some – it does not satisfactorily explain why looting and rioting were seen as morally acceptable means by which to be heard or to register protest.
It is important to acknowledge that people do feel disconnected, but it is also more important to question the connection between perceived alienation and rioting/looting. Unfortunately these questions have highlighted the left-right ideological schism, the left highlighting poverty and cuts and the right blaming criminality. To add to the mix there is the compartmentalization of reasoning by various disciplines; some psychologists argue there’s a link between heat and rioting and some sociologists believe that crowds are irrational, driven by emotion rather than reason. Then there are politicians seeking to win over the electorate by showing their robustness and the weakness of their opponents. All this has done is muddy the waters, entrenching positions rather than enabling people to understand what is required to change the behaviour of our young people.
But my focus, whatever the reasons claimed, is on the mindset that sees these actions as acceptable – that it is acceptable to essentially steal, set fire to property, threaten others, and even kill.
Although many people have pointed to the lack of values in the looters, much of the talk, especially from politicians, is tainted with a sense of jingoism and the appearance of tokenism. The Prime Minister, David Cameron claimed,
“There are pockets of our society that are not only broken, but frankly sick.”
“It is as much a moral problem as it is a political problem.”
“We need to have a clearer code of values and standards that people need to live by and stronger penalties when they cross the line.”
“We have been too unwilling for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong.”
The prime minister rightly identified values as the cure for this sickness, but what values and standards does he expect everyone to follow and where are they to spring from? Are parents singularly responsible for inculcating values in their children? Surely the impact of societal values should figure on the equation?
When each individual carves out their own morality this inevitably leads to societal disparity, as one man’s moral action can be judged by another to be immoral. The looters were not as much immoral as they were moral by their own standards. For example one looter argued they were ‘reclaiming their taxes’, and another, seeking revenge on a shop that did not respond to his job application. The fact is that the looters justified their actions no matter how ridiculous and senseless some of their supposed motives sounded, and were acting out their own subjective view of right and wrong.
A century ago, a Prime Minister could have appealed to ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘knowing right from wrong’, as there were certain values that bound people together. These were primarily Christian values and although there was variation in how faithfully they were adhered to, the actions of these 21st century looters would be alien to them.
In the absence of values which everyone may subscribe to, the prime minister’s call to values ring hollow. Furthermore, when Cameron argues “families matter” he is correct, but we cannot escape from the fact that successive governments, including his own, have undermined the family. It is a sceptical public that awaits the translation of these ‘radical’ policy pronouncements into reality, especially since such a huge culture change requires public support and a lot of money. In an age of apathy and austerity it is difficult to see how this is possible.
Values are built at home and reinforced by society. As soon as a child is born, he or she is like a sponge soaking up what is around him. Showing a child love and setting clear boundaries of behaviour are seen as the most important start to life for happy children and this goes a long way in inculcating the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in our children. But if the types of values nurtured by parents are individualistic and self-serving, this does nothing more than mirroring the culture of greed we witness daily in our society. What can we expect when children act out what they have been raised with, not just by parents but by the wider societal environment?
I remember witnessing a conversation between a mother and her child; he could not have been older than six. As they walked down the high street together she warned him, ‘the next time someone bumps into you and you don’t shove them back, I’m gonna beat you.’ What kind of behaviour was she encouraging in her child and how can we blame him for acting aggressively towards others?
If we believe individualism is the preserve of the valueless young we are seriously mistaken. I recently watched a video of a man who filmed the aftermath of an accident on the M1 motorway. As traffic came to a standstill, drivers shifted to the hard shoulder expecting to find an easy route off the next junction but all this did was block the hard shoulder. Ignoring the illegality of their actions, everyone would agree it is immoral as it stops the emergency services from reaching injured people. When the man asked his fellow drivers why they decided to block the hard shoulder, the answers he received clarified that the only thought in many of their minds was their own desire to get home; the fact that two cars were turned upside down and people may have been injured or perhaps dead did not factor into their thinking, let alone their actions. One man replied he was following other people and was rightly asked whether he was planning on joining the looters in Hackney, as many of the looters were adopting a herd mentality in the same way as the drivers were aping immoral behaviour (see here).
Although these may be considered extreme examples of individualism, it is so common that whenever people go out of their way to help others, selfless action is lauded, highlighting this behaviour as exceptional rather than the general way people relate to others.
It is clear that the values of our children are constantly being nurtured by the media – television programmes, films, computer games, vacuous celebrity culture and immoral role models. They often end up influencing children more than their own their parents do. When parents fail to lay clear foundational values at home, the influence of peers and the media are even more powerful.
And the moral relativist outlook on behaviour that dares not label actions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but merely choices has pervaded society. The freedom of the individual has become one of the only sacred cows that you attack at your peril, the prioritising of individual rights over responsibility and community gives license to selfish conduct.Although we find extremes of these negative values in popular culture, they exist at every level of society. Although being rich has always been an aspiration of the young, today’s youth have a greater desire to be rich by doing less. In a recent survey of teenage girls the number one ambition was to be famous. In another survey of 1,000 teenagers, over half of respondents said they wanted to be a celebrity, when they were asked how they would achieve this goal, they answered, by appearing on a reality TV show or dating a celebrity. When asked to name their role models, the supermodel Kate Moss topped the list, followed closely by footballer Wayne Rooney and pop star Lady Gaga, all of them lead chequered lives.
Without a framework of values which controls how wealth is acquired, the individual will employ whatever means is at their disposal to achieve riches. Although the ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’ mentality is something our children aspire to, it is also arguably the mentality of the bankers that brought this country to near financial oblivion. It would be incorrect to assume that celebrity culture is at the heart of this sickness that the prime minister emphasised. The irony is that politicians are just as much to blame for acting contrary to the values they claim to uphold.The same politicians that stood in parliament to condemn this criminality, giving interviews to news outlets attacking the actions of the ‘feral youth’ for looting plasma TVs, were the same politicians that claimed over £8,000 for a flat screen TV on expenses. Although there is no moral equivalence between the two, what are those youth to think of their political masters when they set a standard they expect others to follow but are unwilling to follow themselves?When Hazel Blears condemned the rioters and asked why they were not in school, she not only underlined how out of touch she is, but she enabled herself to be labelled a hypocrite. She hit the headlines as the politician who ‘flipped’ her second home, using her expenses to pay her mortgage (paid by the taxpayer) for seven years before selling it on for a tidy £45,000 profit. Clearly, figures in authority have failed to live up to the standards they expect of others.
Schools are another institution that have failed our children, not necessarily academically, but in terms of the neutral approach to education too many of them seem to employ. Apart from some faith schools, values are not part of what a school does anymore. We have made this point repeatedly when we addressed the delivery of Sex and Relationship Education (SRE), but the lack of a moral framework extends beyond this subject and pervades much of what our state schools have come to represent – a factory for information which encourage children to make ‘informed decisions’ with no recourse to moral values. They tend to feed ideas that do not support family, marriage and stability and parents more often than not are content to hand authority to schools to raise their children. So if the young are neither getting clear values at home nor at school, the entertainment industry and poor role models are filling the gap in the market.
Values are important for everyone, but especially the young. Relatively recently, neuroscientists have discovered that the pre-frontal cortex in the brain is one of the last areas to develop in teenagers. It may not be fully formed in an individual well into the 20’s. The reason why this is relevant to this discussion is because this part of the brain is connected with reasoning, judgement and consequences. The absence of this part of the brain can lead to difficulties in controlling emotions, a desire for high-excitement activities which require little or no effort, poor judgment without foresight of consequences and being prone to risky or impulsive behaviour. During the teenage years, established values and the guiding hands of parents are vital. If the only values engrained within the young are an overdose of freedom and individualism, it is more likely than not to encourage risky, impulsive actions without recourse to thinking about the consequences to themselves and to others.
At the risk of romanticising the past, historically there was a greater sense of community. Despite the dilution of Christian values, morality had a place in people’s lives, thegreater the hold of liberal capitalism upon society the more individualistic society has become. Today, it seems as though the Church of England has lost its voice, it is conspicuous by its absence from all the major moral debates. It seems to have accepted rather than challenged the moral vacuum in society.During the riots we saw a glimpse of that community feeling; sometimes it was religiously motivated such as in Southall and Birmingham whilst at other times a sense of being besieged brought people together. We also saw examples of Muslims illustrating the positivity of Islamic values.The Guardian website featured a comment from Brian Tyler who lives on the Old Kent Road in south-east London. He said, “Last night the men from the local mosque were out defending the area. One shop was broken into, but thanks to them the situation was kept under control.”
In Birmingham, the father who had just lost his son, Tariq Jahan, gave a speech widely praised. For the first time in living memory a Muslim face and the actions of Muslims in protecting others was highlighted in a positive light. Even a poster to the EDL Forum had to grudgingly accept that Muslims were right to defend the community and it was wrong that they were killed whilst doing this, although this was not a complete conversion, she still had to underline her hate for Islam and Muslims.
If Muslims were to fully live by the values Allah (swt) sets out and which His Messenger, Muhammad (peace be upon him) brought to us through his example we would see change in the way Islam and Muslims are perceived. It would be the greatest slap in the face to the propaganda against Islam.
After the acceptance of Allah as Creator and Sustainer and Muhammad (pbuh) as a Messenger, a Muslim embraces an idea which is life changing – that Allah sees everything we do and that nothing is hidden from Him. The Muslim who understands and practically connects this to his actions will be mindful of every deed done and every word spoken. Britain is missing a value like this that is why the only recourse is to the force of law. A society based upon law alone is a dangerous society; as opportunities to riot and loot, such as we witnessed across the country, will be embraced by those who do not believe they will be prosecuted due to the numbers involved in criminality. The taqwa that Islam builds relies on the individual first and foremost, rather than the fear of CCTV or the threat of imprisonment.
As Muslims, our covenant with Allah means we have a responsibility to others, to be just and to enjoin justice, to care for others, to answer calls for help from people in need, to be merciful in our dealings with others, to want for others what we want for ourselves and to prefer the discharging of our responsibilities over the fulfilment of our rights. These values are founded upon the certainty of accountability and the realisation that each and every one of us will one day stand in front of our Lord and be shown our deeds, good and bad, small or great.
“So whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it, and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it.” (Qur’an 99:7-8)