Sick City: social disorder and why young people are rioting without apparent cause

Sick City: social disorder and why young people are rioting without apparent cause

How do we explain the recent riots in England? Why are the young people organizing themselves and looting and destroying their own communities? What happened to personal responsibility and community-based care, ethics and morality? In this article I draw upon understanding from developmental psychology and consciousness / world-view stuckness as opposed to integration and progress to better understand what is going on in the world with better solutions to resolve it.

By Ben Bruce

Bruce Psychology


Today is 10/8/2011. News reports are constantly coming in that cities and towns throughout England are in a state of civil unrest: the young people are rioting – although some commentators have said that this is not ‘rioting’ per se, but a social disorder made up of bands of rebellious brigands, with no real political cause uniting and assembling them (as in the Middle Eastern uprisings recently); the disorder is more of a criminal behavior based on young people wanting ‘stuff’ that they otherwise could not readily afford to buy themselves. Similarly in my own country, Australia, I have been noticing an unprecedented level of home invasions, assault and theft from vulnerable people, like senior citizens. This is a travesty of disrespect and immorality; a complete selfishness and disregard for the rights of the vulnerable. A new breed of young people are attacking the old and frail.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron returned from his summer holiday abroad in Italy, and swung into action placing 16000 police on the streets of London. However other cities are rioting as well, and media reports are unclear as to motive. There is no particular identifiable feature about these people, except that they all seem to be teenagers, or around this young age. Many of them are wearing similar clothes, like hoodies, sporting brand tracksuits and ‘shell-suits’. Most of them are reckless, angry, irresponsible, uneducated and completely selfish. They are assembling themselves as a self-organizing beast utilizing social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook on their mobile phones. For those with a revolutionary outlook: this is what anarchy actually looks like, a mediocrity of idiots with very little care and understanding for community who attempt to run the show for a while and end up destroying everything they take for granted with their thuggish brutality. Just like in other European and middle Eastern cities where tyrants and fascism abound, such as Cairo and Bahrain, Tunisia and other places, these youths are rebelling, however in England there is no political motive compelling the English youth, such as the overthrow of a dictator. The people are not starving, they seem to be looting small businesses and burning houses, shops and cars within their own communities for the sake of it.

Perhaps it is because they are bored, perhaps it is because they have been unemployed and have dismal prospects, perhaps they are reckless and uncaring due to their families having little care, control or power to parent them, or perhaps it is because their mates are doing it and it looks like fun getting free stuff. I tried to think of alternative reasons, like a disillusionment with the ‘feral elite’ in banking and other sectors that are running the country into the ground, or corrupt politicians…. but I’m coming up short as the object of their ‘affections’ in looting and destruction are not banks or corporate/ government buildings. These groups of rioters are attacking small businesses, private dwellings and civic buildings like police stations. They are attacking people who are otherwise there to help the people. Their motives therefore seem selfish, narcissistic and reckless for the chance sake of it.

They get attention, and in their semi-organised collective they are enjoying the sense of being connected to each other and standing out for whatever reason (organized via adherence to a similar looting behavior, with text messages constantly giving updates about what new store is going down, or where the cops are). The phenomenon of ‘group think’ emerges, where such people react with a pack-like mentality with little thought or constraint over themselves and a diffusion of responsibility occurs. This ‘escape’ from self-hood, even if for a while, feels like an ecstatic revery, much like singing powerful hymns in a church or cult group – a mass hysteria of overwhelming feelings of freedom can occur as you enter the group mind which seems bigger and beyond one’s own limitations and boundaries. This is what they are enjoying: being a part of a collectively powerful group mind with no boundaries, blasting apart usual social constraints. They get to face and unite against a ‘common enemy’ perhaps giving these disenfranchised and undisciplined youth a sense of commonality and excitement: they are united against police, and other community workers like paramedics and fire fighters. They get to rebel against the people of the working and upper middle class, who appear to have it better than they do, who have ‘things’ and dress nicely.

We can take some guidance from Ken Wilber’s post-modern novel applying the model ‘Spiral Dynamics’ from Beck and Cowan, which explores how we as people develop in our level of consciousness and world-view/social interaction patterns. The model explains that there are 8 levels of consciousness (at least) delineated as ‘Memes’ (short for ‘memetics’) where the first 6 levels include the following: starting at primitive/instinctual consciousness (beige), the person moves on to magical/animistic views (purple), to power-based feudal unions as per tyrants and emperors (red), to mythic order/religious/social memberships based on being united under a moral belief-system cause and there being guilt at not following laws (blue), to capitalism and scientific-based individualism and personal achievement (orange), to the sensitive ‘green’ self of understanding the marginalized and disenfranchised along the lines of relativism and non-judgmental cultural pluralism, civil liberties and feminism, for example (green). All individuals as we develop from infancy move up in our evolutionary/developmental expansion from beige upward. The individual transcends and includes prior levels so that they are a ‘constellation’ of self, with different aspects from each meme retained and integrated. Or the sick version occurs with an unresolved/un-grasped sense of self: the constellational levels of consciousness and associated world view are discrepant and in conflict with each other.

Beyond the first 6 levels the Green Meme (holding 20% of the West) is the tipping point toward ‘Second Tier Consciousness’ with the levels Yellow and Turquoise, which represent ‘integrated’ consciousness and world-view awareness; an appreciation of the healthy aspects of each meme inter-connected into a balanced sense of realized and actualized self and world awareness. The problem is that people can become stuck and pathological at any level. So according to this model, what we are seeing in England is an outcome of the society being stuck at an unhealthy level of sick Green Meme individualism and narcissism. Where there are wonderful aspects of the Green Meme, including freedom, civil liberties, understanding and promotion of the marginalized and disenfranchised and social responsibility to help them, we also see a ‘sickness’ stemming from a lack of human agency, where a person’s ego and unhelpful/destructive behaviours are also ‘accepted’ as a product of their ‘level’ and background. People who espouse such views are often referred to as ‘Bleeding Hearts’. This acceptance means that expectations for such people are low and their responsibility and human agency is not encouraged. This causes them to get stuck and get away with all kinds of ridiculous behavior, like crime and rioting (this is not civil protest) with little penalty because we ‘understand’ why they are doing what they are doing, and this lets them off the hook to simply continue the destructive and irresponsible behavior. Ken Wilber calls this ‘flat-land’ narcissistic stuckness at the sick aspects of the Green Meme: ‘Boomeritis’, as many of the Boomer generation have paved the way for the ‘Green Meme’. Ken Wilber posits that the solution is to move, as individuals and as a collective society to the ‘Yellow Meme’ which integrates the best of the preceding levels including structure, responsibility, consequences and order from the ‘Blue Meme’ for example alongside of the ‘Green Meme’s’ enhanced sensitive understanding. So we can be understood, helped, and also held responsible for our actions and life directions. I quote (p.400 from ‘Boomeritis’, Ken Wilber):

“In the past three decades, under the onslaught of boomeritis (a flatland, ridiculously liberal Green Meme world view), a frenzy of egocentric ‘rights’ has devastated the correlative, necessary, ‘responsibilities’ – narcissism has severed freedom from duty, has amputated agency from communion, has sliced the individual from the civil – and the result is indeed a social disintegration of unprecedented proportions in this country.”

The people in the UK often refer to such people who have little self-care or personal values, who live in squalor and who would not work a day in their life even if you paid them, as ‘scutty’ and ‘scum’ in the vernacular. From many hard-working and law-abiding/ethical folk, there is a serious anger toward these people who want everything yet are prepared to give nothing, who are selfish to the extreme. The hard-working folk are not interested in any more excuses. They want action; they want something to be done about the hoards of youth who are completely immoral, slack and selfish, reckless and criminal in their collective.

Seen in this light, the social welfare state is a dismal failure and we need to get real, more aware, technological and detailed in our understanding of such a complex issue. Hand-outs create dull, irresponsible sluggards. Pure and simple so… stop doing it.

The person who grows up on the council estate will typically lack volition and agency; they will expect someone else to do it for them, and for whatever they do to be easy. Whilst they may represent themselves as being against society and anarchical, they are more than happy to utilize the resources of the country, such as hospitals, credit cards, fast food, community structures and social welfare payments. These people are not used to trying hard at anything. They are wastrels and slackness is the only cut of their gib. Of course some do get out of the inner city slum or council estate and elevate their standing and access to all the world has to offer, and there are numerous incentives and support to do so (like scholarships and pre-paid apprenticeships and traineeships), but in taking such opportunities the person may stand alone in the ‘hood. However, they would also face ‘tall poppy syndrome’ where they stand out as being ambitious which casts a shadow over the legitimacy of the old way of life, often making the others ‘feel ashamed’ and also angry as a result (a defense mechanism to demonize the ‘other’ rather than taking in the reflection that they themselves are contrasted as being slack, unhelpful to the community and undisciplined. The person trying to exit the slum would be ostracized and even victimized accordingly, unless they are very smart themselves and perhaps be very careful with how much they personally share, demonstrate and espouse on their social elevation.

Another associated topic here is the classism that we see in places like England where those of higher social standing look down on the more impoverished, like those on council estates and call them such things as ‘scutty’ and ‘scum’. As I see it, the main reason for doing so is to prevent themselves descending to such a level, as once you get stuck there, it is virtually impossible to get out of it. So an ‘us versus them’ culture prevails to keep what we have where we have it and to not descend into irresponsible, slack, dull, ignorant ways of living, being, doing and knowing. We all know that we could lose what we have and be in such a state if we are not careful. This is also why some people send their children to private schools, so as not to have their children unduly influenced by the ways of being embodied by the underclasses. So – classism also prevails under the social welfare state system. The irony is that many advocates of social welfare espouse social welfare to remove classism, yet we see it is actually creating it! (Notwithstanding the degree to which some within the underclass utilize the system and socially elevate themselves, however this is the exception to the norm. We must retain this aspect and eliminate the sick aspects of social welfare).

So we have the case of political correctness gone mad. Whilst this was a good thing several decades ago, as it enhanced awareness of racism, sexism and general prejudice toward marginalized and disempowered people; things have changed. This politically correct ‘green meme’ sensitivity has not only bolstered such minority or marginalized groups, it has also ‘enabled’ their dependence via ‘excuses’ for not only explaining why they are disempowered and suboptimal in their endeavors, such as by attributing their behavior to ‘bad’ role models, dysfunctional families and deprived socio-economic status, but also keeping them there through such excuses. The bottom common sense line is this: if you don’t take responsibility for yourself, for everything you do, say, think and feel, then who will? Whilst we do make up a collective, simply put: I am not you and you are not me. If the government takes responsibility for you with welfare handouts and excuses for your behavior, then you are encouraged to luxuriate in your protracted childhood and adolescence until you learn to be essentially, helpless. Then you identify with this type of ‘branding’ and anyone who tries to help themselves ‘elevate’ socio-economically and politically is a ‘toff’ or a ‘snob’ who needs to be ‘pulled down a peg’ if they are acting ‘too good for the likes of us’. The group-think identity is self maintaining. Not only do they think the world owes them a living, they are estranged to any sort of effort in life. So the next generation of children are brought up with this, and they are engrained into this line of thinking. This is due to extreme political correctness and the ‘rights of the child’ without consequences, adequate parenting, mentoring, education and responsibility.

Lets also look at how this social unrest might be occurring for other reasons. David Icke discussed a people-control and event-conspiring tactic called ‘problem, reaction, solution’. Basically you cause or complicitly allow something ‘bad’ to happen which then elicits a reaction, and then someone, typically a government official or corporation sweeps in with a solution, like a ‘knight in shining armor’.  The people suck it up to their eyeballs applauding the solution because finally ‘someone has done something’. When people ask or demand ‘why don’t they do something’, little do they realize they are a part of the problem, they are appealing to organisations above them to control the situation which may involved the emergence of hidden agendas; ulterior motives.

What I foresee happening in the underclass rioting in Britain is the designation of a collective ‘public enemy’ amongst the people. Everybody knows that the unemployed ‘yobbo youth’ get government handouts, are expected to do nothing for it, with social workers bending over backwards to ‘help them’ with incentive schemes, etc. The ‘yobbs’ typically are work shy and not at all shy of drugs, alcohol and crime to get them what they want. They are poorly parented, typically because their parents are disorganized, poor, undisciplined and have problems themselves. Imagine a single mother arguing with her 15-year old son, who has 10 of his mates telling her to ‘fuck off’ and let him come out with them or else they will beat her up! This is what happens when the parent loses control over time – one day all control is lost and a ‘lord of the flies-esque’ pack mentality of ‘group-think’ controlled by dominant pack leaders emerges, and your kid is swept up into this vortex. The rest is history. A usual story of repeated violence and arrests, being let out until the kid either grows out of it or goes under.

I am wondering what created this ‘breed’ of people. I can see that political correctness and social welfare have played a large role. The sensitive socialism that came in the 1950’s may have been a reaction to the collective guilt that followed World War 2, where having won the war with many sacrificial deaths often predominantly from the under-classes the government was obliged to pay back victory to the people in terms of keeping them comfortable, as some kind of prize. Also as a reaction to facscism a sensitive, green, feminist, multicultural social welfare policy rallied, where none would be excluded and all would be equally promoted without ranking. We can see how in a ‘hop, skip and jump’ from this we end up in promotion of the individual come-what-may without the necessary responsibility, agency and contribution to back it up. Whilst these terms like ‘socialism, green and sensitive’ are normally heralded positively, social welfare in the form of ‘hand outs’ creates a dependence and lack of human agency. This policy does not work. I was very glad to see a change in our mindset toward the impoverished of Africa and other third-world countries, to take a parallel perspective here. Rather than giving hand-outs in the form of charity to the impoverished, a new wave of ‘micro-credit’ investment has begun, where people are given small, low interest loans (not from banks but from co-investors like you and me) to help them establish a business and generate their own sustainable income to support themselves. This bolsters their sense of agency, responsibility and self esteem along the lines of the adage: why give someone some fish (and thus make them dependent on you) when you can teach them to fish for themselves? I think we can draw on this game-plan change in our understanding and policy directives toward the rebellious youth in places like England. Rather than give them hand-outs, give them a ‘hand-up’ and market and advertise this accordingly to tackle the old ‘tall poppy syndrome’ version of discounting and discouraging people from social mobility and elevation. Rather than giving them the ‘dole’, offer them schemes to start their own businesses and provide an appropriate market place for this to occur in (of course we can still retain the social welfare benefits for those who are unable to work and/or look after themselves for real physical and mental health reasons – not trumped up excuses for being slack – so we would need a complete overhaul of the mechanisms that screen disability pensions).

Accordingly, this system would undermine the uber-rich of the capitalist giant corporations, as it would promote the small business sector. However this is absolutely necessary, as corporate management is more than happy to fire everyone at a moment’s notice just because their company’s profits aren’t good enough, favoring the owners of these factors of production, referred to collectively and thus anonymously as the ‘share holders’. If you don’t own shares, and don’t have money to buy shares, you are not benefited from cost-cutting and firing of staff to raise profits to increase your dividends. Anyways, being a member of corporate culture can undermine one’s sense of agency and responsibility as well, as the person just conforms to the boss’s demands even to the point of favoring the corporate job and loyalty above and beyond personal relationships, family, friends, community and country. So in one fell swoop providing a micro-credit system for western youth would also counteract the dominant new-world order of global capitalism and ownership of all resources, goods and services (and people) by the global elite. Perhaps this is the reason why such a system has not yet been utilized, because it would undermine the power of the global elite? So we opt for corporate culture even if millions of people are left unemployed and homeless because of it.

Compare this to the cottage culture of pre-industrial society. People took responsibility for themselves and for their villages and worked together to feed, clothe and house themselves as well as educating and entertaining one another. We need the best of both worlds, in this way I think: the technology, opportunity and global awareness of today, mixed with the community, ethics and responsibility of the past.


5 Responses

  1. Travis
    Spot on Ben. Exactly what I've been thinking for a while now. We need to put high expectations on these people. High expectations and high levels of care create strong sense of agency in people. High care but low expectations create this exact problem we have now. As teachers we see the results of both methods in our kids. The latter creates slackers who take no pride in their work and they learn to become manipulative. High expectations and high care and compassion bring the best results. Quality people with pride in their work and care for themselves and others. And society is no different.
  2. Richard
    You totally surprised me here. Often I want to ring your neck for you Skinner-istic, behavioral paradigm of psychology. But THIS was the most concise and inclusive monogram of our universal social ills I have encountered. Yea, for you. It is, and it must be admitted, biased. You are speaking from your culture (and mine as well). I can't better you in terms of analysis and proscription but I'll have to say you might be missing the mark. What we are looking at here is a social auto-immune disease that must be considered not for its causes (it's not linear like that) but for some mysterious necessity that is unclear. Kali is the Goddess of destruction and perhaps that necessity, though it is terrible to understand, is the driving force in the melt-down of the world's social structure of what is 'right' and 'wrong' That said, I'm with you, but with some reservations. :)
  3. Ben
    Wow Richard, I guess thankyou for your somewhat ambivalent comment. Nice to see an articulate and 'thinking out of the box' type comment. As per behaviorism, I wasn't entirely aware that skinner was a bias of mine (and I'll choose to side step the 'ring your neck' comment), however I suppose I often do include behaviorism as part of an overall analysis and also in trying to help people with psychological issues. Please bear in mind that this website chiefly began as a resource for my clients who consult with me as a psychologist, and has since grown to include such things as social commentary. I am probably remiss in not updating the format of the website to contain different sections for ease of reading in this way. Clearly you complete your comments with a religio-mythic reference to Kali, the Goddess of destruction, so I gather you are coming from a pre-modernist perspective melded with a post-modern one? As a parallel to this 'integral' (or perhaps incommensurate and conflicting?) view of world and personal events I would like to point out that we can far too easily overlook more humble and simple solutions to a problem, as per the parsimonious Occam's razor, we may overlook the simple in favor of an interpretation that is ego/self-justifying. This is the impact of the ego in any interpretation, AND it is also a valid and useful component as well - every coin has a flip side. Clearly, the best solution is to cover as many aspects as one can and in a cogent, respectful and charitable way, to make one's interpretation of any event as holistic as possible: I am sure that multiple angles can be fruitful. I have also been accused of conjecture in writing this and other articles. I would respond to that: in order to write a social commentary, a column, an article - that some conjecture is required to put the facts together in so far as we can grasp them in order to 'say anything at all' about the nature of the world and ourselves, remembering that essentially we are subjectively bound, behind our eyes and inside our brain and mind with its socio-cultural and spiritual background which thus biases any interpretation of the world, whether we like it or not. The solution is to be 'mindful' and aware of this, state any bias and then stretch the limits of insight as much as possible. We of course need to back up this conjecture, as premises to a conclusion and also retain 'common sense' as well. Then there is room for the clarity of 'creative' interpretations: the pastiche and synthesis of previously overlooked interacting variables that herald a new and fruitful appraisal in their fresh application. Without 'conjecture' per se, any article would read like a dull and dry newspaper report full of quotes and plain descriptions of events that are duly 'founded' but rather pointless. I have had a degree of abuse on this 'blog' from readers disgruntled with my articles and comments. I am often amazed at the degree to which I see hypocrisy, where the critic ends up acting in the reckless manner that he or she is decrying, or at least no better. This is where we must put the personal (albeit the disciplined personal) back into the equation of intellectual analysis and communication. The effect of the internet and 'blogs' on one's behavior is likened to being in a car: surrounded by over a tonne of steal the driver is more predisposed to aggressive behaviour, 'road rage', than he/she would be if simply walking the street (notwithstanding gang-organised groups, for example, who are violent, predatory - basically at the 'red meme' level of consciousness - and let's not forget the phenomenon of 'group think' and pack-like behaviour under what ever petty tyrant currently rules their day). And so comments can be predatory in nature - perhaps we have a new term to coin 'blog rage' if not already coined. There can also be some kind of jealous resentment that the commentator did not spawn the debate themselves. In summary, writing a blog is therefore leaving one's hard-earned and hard-worked for knowledge and acumen rather exposed to the public by nature. Considering some of the encouraging, constructive or at least 'constructively critical' feedback one gets on a blog, the expedition is a sound, supportive and productive one. However there are also critics out there who 'troll' around any creative and critical thinker with an air of arrogance and egoistic pride with the adage 'my interpretation is better than yours' and the feedback is harmful, let's be honest. It discourages one from sharing one's ideas at least, or makes one more disciplined in argument at best, whilst still perhaps prematurely holding back one's radical thoughts in case they are dismissed and torn down. Some thinkers even give up entirely, especially the more sensitive ones, because of the demands to fend off critics and attackers. Whatever happened to respect I wonder, and carefully phrasing one's critique respectfully yet still, poignantly and honestly? We can see why many of our insightful 'betters' follow the 'prime directive' or at least exit society altogether to become hermits, disillusioned with their own humanity. What a shame, especially for such beautiful souls who would have a grand contribution if given the chance. So it seems to me that many people who keep an information website or blog is really a narcissist or approaching narcissism - 'that I have an important opinion to share' or in need of such an ego-defense mechanism to simply survive the onslaught of impressions and emotional tone, even threats; yet this is perhaps a derogatory version of the confidence and self esteem necessary in order to bother writing anything at all - and also an exhibitionist - that I am risking my inner thoughts being exposed - and also a sadist in inflicting 'painful' (even 'skinner-istic' analysis on to poor, weary folks) - and last but not least, a masochist in dealing with the replies and comments to anything written. In a nutshell, this whole thing may well be a pathological enterprise then. However I will also say that blogs of this nature are also required, a responsibility to those who can provide it, to counter the vast majority of the printed/published media in the world, which is clearly so contrived, biased and 'sold-out' that it obfuscates anything it touches by nature. It is hard not to be conspiracy theorist when reading such 'tow the line' media, and one only needs to ask 'who owns your newspaper?' to answer the question of corporate and elite influence and agenda. However, again, what often emerges in the world of 'blogging' and other such social media, to bypass the 'news-speak' published media, is often an over-reaction, an over-compensation of heretofore oppressed (and probably socially anxious, avoidant, shy or perhaps obscure) polemicists with blog-road rage! The proverbial 'pendulum must swing both ways before resting in the middle'. So we experience a venting that risks undoing some of the potential good that can come out of 'free media'. Again, in reference to Wilber (as per the article sub-topic 'spiral dynamics') those at the 'mean green meme' level of consciousness and paradigm are based on extreme sensitivity to the marginalised and disenfranchised who end up worshiping extreme post-modern pluralistic relativism and ridiculous political correctness, and absolutely hating anyone who believes in any conservative structure. So the liberator becomes the oppressor drowning in a perpetual ego-sea of their own contrived bullshit. I am utterly sure that this 'green meme' can become a test of ego and pride, where narcissism from the 'lower' meme of 'red power' can emerge and be masked by the green sensitive socio-cultural-political rhetoric that uses all the right words, but within an overall 'tone' of aggression. Here we often see an anti-intellectualism, a philosophical 'flatland' that disallows discourse which challenges the green status quo. I appreciate this reply has become wordy - but I decidedly utilized the opportunity to provide hopefully HELPFUL reflections in good faith. Throw me to the dogs. BB.
  4. Ben
    Wow Richard, I guess thankyou fo
  5. Steve
    Sick City. Isn't that the sister city of Poor City?

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