Everyone’s gone mad

Andrew Coyne on the facile explanations being used to explain the London riots

Everyone’s gone mad

Reuters/Dylan Martinez

What can explain it? How to account for such a fit of collective madness? Do we blame the schools? The parents? Perhaps it was a cry for help, the bitter fruit of lives without meaning or hope? Whatever may be the cause, we can see the results, the single largest outburst of journalistic nonsense in a generation: swarms of unhinged pundits running wild through the op-ed pages, leaving a trail of broken syllogisms in their wake. Such mindless mindlessness can only be condemned in the strongest terms…

But of course the same thing happens every time, doesn’t it? Wherever and whenever some outrage or atrocity occurs, there is always an army of “root-cause” rationalizers close behind, ready to supply the deeper meaning of it all. And though the explanations vary, the one constant is to shift the blame from those who commit the crime to other, more politically useful villains. Marc Lépine was no mere nutter with a grudge: he was a product, or at least an extreme example, or at any rate a symbol, of a generalized male hatred of women. Jared Loughner was not, as he claimed, chiefly concerned with the power of grammar to control the mind, but rather was the inevitable outgrowth of hot-headed Republican rhetoric. And so on.

With something as widespread as a riot, let alone the cascade of riots that spread across Britain, we are more obviously dealing with a genuinely social phenomenon. Though every individual is ultimately responsible for the choice to do good or to do ill, when so many people make the wrong choices at the same time, there is clearly a wider context to be considered: they can’t all be mad. But there’s a key word in there. Maybe you’ve spotted it: considered. Many of the instant analyses I read expressed a certain peevishness toward dissenters, as if the failure to adopt their own pet theory was a rejection of thinking itself. Well, no. It’s a rejection of simplistic, reductionist thinking. It is one thing to attempt to understand why people do what they do. It is another just to draw up a list of everything that’s been bugging you about society for years, then scrawl QED under it. Thus, if you are on the left: consumerism, individualism, poverty, Thatcher, unemployment, Thatcher. And if you are on the right: gangsta rap, Jamaican patois, multiculturalism, liberal elites.

All of these pat explanations get us only so far, to the point where each person involved decides to do something despicable: to burn a building, attack a pensioner, loot a store. And without a convincing explanation for that private failure of conscience, none of them are a lick of use. It isn’t just that there is no empirical evidence to support the notion that poverty equals riots. There isn’t even a rational reason to connect the two. Poverty might indeed explain why someone might feel a sense of personal despair, or alienation toward society. It does not begin to say why he should make the altogether separate, qualitatively different decision to carve up somebody with a knife.

So if we are serious about looking for root causes, we should be considering why so many of our citizens seem to have failed to develop a conscience—or if they have one, seem able to quell it easily enough. I say “our” advisedly: for although the riots in Britain were clearly far more severe, they nevertheless had more in common with the Vancouver Stanley Cup riot than might be apparent: the same bloodless opportunism, the same blank smiles of “isn’t this fun,” the same stench of suburban anomie.

There are two traps to be avoided in this regard. One is to think that anyone could have done the same, given the right circumstances—explicit in the writings of my colleague Andrew Potter (“look in the mirror”), but implicit in much root-cause thinking (in Vancouver, drink and disappointment took the place of poverty and despair). This is obviously untrue. You could fill my mother with rye whiskey, dangle a free plasma TV in front of her, and she still wouldn’t go on the riot—even if her favourite team had lost.

The other mistake is to assume that there is but a fixed number of criminals, a class of thugs and loners uniquely capable of committing a crime. As we learned, in both London and Vancouver, the rioters came from every race, both sexes, and all sorts of backgrounds. Many had jobs, families, prospects, all the sorts of things that are supposed to preclude this sort of anti-social behaviour.

Better, rather, to think of the population as being distributed along a continuum, according to their propensity to commit a crime. At one end are people like my mother, with well-developed consciences, who would be unlikely to commit a crime under any circumstances. If there seem rather fewer members of this group than in the past, then it would seem worth thinking about how society has traditionally instilled moral values, and where this process of socialization might have broken down. It is plausible to think, for example, that the tremendous rise in single-parent households might have something to do with it, with particular regard to the absence of male role models.

At the other end of the spectrum would be habitual criminals, hardened gang members and the like. (Indeed, evidence is emerging that the U.K. riots, far from spreading spontaneously, were orchestrated to a high degree by Britain’s network of gangs.) The tactics employed by Bill Bratton, the former police commissioner of Boston, New York and Los Angeles, have been greatly successful at reducing gang violence—one reason why David Cameron wants to bring him in as an adviser.

But it is the third and, I suspect, largest group that are of most interest: the ones who might or might not be persuaded to commit a given crime, depending on the circumstances. Crime rates rise or fall amongst this group much in the manner of diseases: crime might be thought of as a species of “social epidemic.” As with disease, the urge to commit a crime is passed along among the population. And, as with disease, there are circumstances that prove especially fertile for spreading the crime virus.

This is the theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point: the so-called “broken window” theory of crime, wherein the presence of such signals of disorder encourages people to believe they can commit a crime with impunity. It also happens to have been the theory applied by Bratton in his work, first as head of police for the New York Transit Authority, then more broadly as New York’s police commissioner. Famously, Bratton focused first on seemingly minor problems like the graffiti on the subways, or turnstile jumpers, to the dismay of those who felt he should have been focused on larger crimes. But it turned out that by changing the environment in this way, the larger crimes took care of themselves. The signal was sent: order has been restored. Bear yourself accordingly.

What are the broken windows in our own society? Put another way: what signals does the average yob receive in his daily existence? Does he face any constraints on his appetites? Is he required to make any sacrifices to decorum, to take any account of the needs of others? And if the answer is little to none, should we be entirely surprised at the results?


Everyone’s gone mad

  1. While I agree that most instapundits are irresponsible in their discussions of the causes of riots, this is an empirical question that could be researched. You can, for instance, take a sample of people and see what sort of demographic factors predict riot participation. Alternately, you could take a time series of riots by year or by quarter, and see what sort of national variables predicted riot onset. Then you could go deeper, and perhaps conduct interviews of riot participants. Perhaps one might do field work by participating in a riot oneself. The point is that this is an empirical question that can be answered with ordinary social science techniques. In fact, it already has been. 

    For instance, an article in the ASR looking at US race riots, found that race riots tended to be driven by increased residential contact between blacks and whites, especially when preceded by long periods of minimal contact. The economy was not a significant predictor. Journalists should get JSTOR subscriptions and/or learn how to use google scholar.

  2. future shock
    A condition of distress and disorientation brought on by the inability to cope with rapid societal and technological change

    • If we’re dredging up tired 70s fads and moral panics, can we do the coming Ice Age, the Club of Rome and backwards Satanic messages in KISS records next?

      • I see you’re another one suffering from future shock.

        Perhaps you’d better look up what it means.

  3. Also you say riots in Britain and mention the UK. While you are correct it should be remembered that the riots occurred in England. Wales and Scotland border England and yet were strangely riot free. All hues of humanity live in all three countries, yet the two smaller countries didn’t suffer at all while the English in large centres went on a tear.
    Maybe a starting off point for any research could be to look into why this was so and what makes the Celtic nations exempt from this tendency. Look back to the miners strike in the 80s and tally up the incidents of violence there and you’ll notice a similar pattern wrt to Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales.

    • That’s because what the English call a riot the Welsh and Scots calll Saturday night.

  4. Best piece I read following the Vancouver riots (unfortunately, can’t remember the author or publication, else I’d link it) suggested that a major cause of riots is that – especially in the Vancouver/Edmonton/pick your Canadian city context – riots are “fun”.  Put more succinctly, (typically) young men become rioters because they get a rush from rioting.  Although it won’t do much to solve whatever social ills lead young men to act in anti-social fashion in general, making rioting less “fun” by bringing out the tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons a little earlier seems likely to reduce the incidence and severity of riots, at least in this country.

  5. “then it would seem worth thinking about how society has traditionally instilled moral values, and where this process of socialization might have broken down”

    Worth thinking about – lack of consequences here in Canada that has deteriorated over the last 30 years. 

    Reminds me of a former neighbour who had a six year old that was a holy terror.  He gleefully smashed and broke the toys belonging to his siblings and his mother’s knick knacks.  No amount of time-outs or spankings worked – he just laughed.  Then one day, after another spree, his mother selected some of his favouite things and ground them to bits under her heel.  He never broke another thing.

  6. So if I get this right: you go great lengths to say it isn’t poverty, isn’t unemployment, lack of education etc. etc, ( i.e. the substantial factors of the human condition), but broken windows and graffiti that have the most impact?  ROTFLMAO!

    Christ, you even have the audacity to suggest that somehow “single” parents are failing to supply a “moral” foundation without an ounce of factual support. That seems no better than the lefty/righty crap citing things like “Thatcher” or “consumerism” or whatever. In fact it’s so cliche you should be embarassed.

    Honestly, I don’t know what to make of this article. It seems a rambling mess of frustration with no real thesis.

    Mobs have existed since time immemorial. If you think there’s something modern about these riots besides their medium of organization, then you’re fooling yourself.

    Based on my studies in psychology in university, if I were inclined to write an USEFUL article on something like this I’d be looking into studies on “herd behaviour” or “crowd hysteria” and employ the help of Phd’s to understand it, rather shooting from the hip like this.


    And for the record, I’ve seen plenty of the ad hoc writing by journalists on this issue and mostly ignored it for the reasons you state, but in this case you’re claiming to somehow do better than they, while in my opinion actually coming off worse.

    At least they have cohesive theories, even if they are a load of bunk.

  7. “…then it would seem worth thinking about how society has traditionally instilled moral values, and where this process of socialization might have broken down…”

    This quote drives me crazy worse than most. I mean honestly, does every old fart in every generation have to utter this same nonsense?

    “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”  

     ~ Attributed to Socrates by Plato (469 – 399 BC)

    • So kids today are just as civil, polite, and respectful of experience and authority as they were 40 years ago? Is it not worth thinking about how society has traditionally instilled moral values? Is it not worth considering where this may have broken down? 

      Take a good look at how people behaved during the Great Depression. How men stood in line for hours or even days waiting for food or welfare assistance, or the chance at a job. Now ask yourself if today’s unemployed youth would behave in a similarly civilized and orderly fashion. 

      I think you and I both know the answer. If the economy ever collapsed to that degree again, you wouldn’t see anything like that. People would riot. They’d loot. They’d join gangs. No way would they just accept their misfortune with dignity and stoicism. They’d take it out on whomever got in the way of their next meal. 

      This willingness to “take to the streets” is probably considered a virtue by progressives. Most progressives will maintain this belief precisely up to the point when they’re at the wrong end of one of these riots. Just hope you’re never in that position. These riots have real victims, cause real pain, and destroy real lives. One does not go about physically attacking others without at least a temporary suspension of conscience. 

      Conscience, as any evolutionary biologist will explain, is a relatively new phenomena. Having a conscience can hardly be considered an evolutionary advantage, and therefore very few of our ancestors would have had one. Conscience was something that was developed quite recently. In other words, it is not something we are born with. It must be civilized into each one of us, by somehow molding and shaping –  at a very young age – our naturally savage, selfish, sociopathic brain, and turning it into something that can feel empathy and compassion. 

      We’d do well to learn how this process works. In other words, it would seem very worthwhile to delve into how society has traditionally instilled moral values.

    • Socrates was right!! Children were well behaved up until around 450 BC, and they’ve just gotten worse and worse ever since.

  8. I don’t think the broken window theory holds up as well for spontaneous crime like riots as it does for the effect of environment on chronic crime areas. Think of riots on a smaller scale – the same effect can be seen in the transformation of a house party into a house-wrecker. Even in suburban, middle class homes it starts with a small group of teens, the usual suspects, who have a low temptation level for trouble. Then there is a kind of cascade effect where normally law abiding kids tend to join in only after the a significant amount of damage has been done. Oddly, the spectators seem strangely unperturbed or perhaps even entertained by the chaos going on around them (Would Coyne’s mother be one of these folks, I wonder?).

    I am unconvinced that there is more “madness” today than at other times but the ability for people who are attracted to this sort of thing to quickly congregate has been made easier with today’s technology.

  9. I would encourage Andrew to try to use this theory to explain why a crowd of hedgefund managers, bank executives, corporate executives, etc felt that it was OK to bring the world econmy to its knees a couple of years ago and again now.  They did this in a way that they know destroys the livelihoods and sometimes the lives of millions of people and they did it just because they could and it earned them a good buck.  These guys were not punished in a significant way, but instead were rewarded with bailouts, bonuses and the prospect for much more.  However, when a crowd of similar minded people decide to set fires and steal cell phones, they caused much less damage to society, but police manage to have thousands before the courts or in jail in a few days. Meanwhile the corporate executives are planning their next raid.   

    It seems to me that the second crowd has just observed how the first crowd are applying today’s very destructive free market principles demonstrated by the first crowd, but are just doing it in a different way.  No need to even look at the fuzzier social issues at all; they are all just free market actors looking for individual benefit. 

    • The same short-sighted, selfish, evolutionary impulses are quite likely responsible for both. 

    • Like those rioters even looked at it like that … NOT! They are not even aware of such a thing. They are self-centred individuals that wanted to be in on the action. Legends in their own time. And the talk of the town. And they got their invites to infamy on facebook.

      • Nice description of a hedgefund manager.  These are the characteristics of many capitalists on Fleet Street and conservatives are on televisions every night explaining that are desirable characteristics necessary for surviving and profiting in the MARKET.  Ordinary folks have been conditioned to think these are characteristics to be emulated.  There is no need for them to rationalize their actions, they just impulsively act in their own interest, just like successful capitalists. 

  10. Andrew is quite right to point to the power of signals in our society. I was reminded of the power of symbols when I wore a poppy to class around Remembrance Day.  That little flower pricked the consciences of several of my students. In the middle of a conversation about what would or would not be on the exam, one student with a Cool Hand Luke image sheepishly looked at my poppy and said, “Oh, I meant to get one of those,”  while the others uttered a “me too” mumble.   I was one of the few professors who wore a poppy.

  11.  What signals does the average yob receive in his daily existence? How about social networks on the internet?
    Does he face any constraints on his appetites? Only if everyone else in the group imposes it. Or only if one person says no. And ours is not a society that says no to our young’uns.
    Is he required to make any sacrifices to decorum, to take any account of the needs of others? Not usually. Especially if he the alpha male, then he gets free reign because we no longer place boundries on behaviour. We just give it a label then joke about it, and let him do what he wants.