Why people can’t help themselves

Andrew Potter on how many take a great pleasure in anti-social behaviour, like rioting

Why people can't help themselves

Jess Hurd/Report Digital/ Redux

Anyone who has ever taken part in a riot, or even just hovered on the periphery of one, knows how exhilarating it can be. Windows smashed, cars torched, stores looted—it’s like being in the middle of a video game. Yet there is a tendency to try to psychoanalyze society and interpret the mob’s behaviour as a symptom of some great underlying malaise: hockey’s culture of macho violence in the case of June’s riot in Vancouver, racism or poverty or the welfare state in the case of the looting that hopscotched across England last week.

People are over-thinking things way too much. Any proper discussion of a riot and why it happens has to start with the recognition that rioting, especially for young men, is a huge amount of fun. At any given moment, there are far more people willing to riot and loot than we like to admit, and the only reason there isn’t more of it is that if you do it by yourself or in a small group, you’ll almost certainly get caught. But if you can get enough people to riot, you can all get away with it, which is why when it comes to getting one started, what the participants are faced with is essentially a coordination problem. The trick is getting a critical mass of people willing to do it, in the same place and at the same time.

Certain events, like game seven of the Stanley Cup final, have become reliable opportunities to riot—a bunch of people show up precisely because they know that a lot of other people will also be showing up to riot. Another reliable opportunity is any sort of anti-authority protest, such as a meeting of the G20 or—what sparked the events in Tottenham—a demonstration against police violence. No matter how peaceful the initial gathering is meant to be, it is easily overwhelmed by those who are there just to smash stuff.

All that has happened in the past year or so is that delinquents have discovered the flash mob, using social networking tools like Twitter and BlackBerry messenger to organize riots with unprecedented speed and efficiency. Hipsters have been organizing flash mobs for years now, flooding into subways and financial districts to have impromptu dance parties or pillow fights. In China, consumers have been using social networking to organize group shopping expeditions, where they descend upon a retailer and use the pressure of 50 or 60 people to extract deep discounts from the shop owners. It is not a big step from that to arranging for a few hundred people to show up to loot the electronics shop or the shoe store, or having a few thousand people get together to torch a department store.

This is a genuine challenge to law enforcement. Organized crime has always been structured along the lines of the family or the state, because for much of human existence, the family and the state have been the most effective mechanisms for solving coordination problems amongst self-interested individuals. The police have traditionally responded by infiltrating the crime families and other trust networks using undercover agents, wiretaps, and other staples of police procedurals.

Social media have the obvious capacity to increase the amount of rioting—that’s why the Tottenham riot spread so quickly across England, and why the protests of the Arab Spring popped up in so many places at once. On the other hand, technology can also work against the rioters, by reducing the impunity that comes with the anonymity of crowds. The most important thing the Toronto police did with the G20 riots was not all the head-cracking and the random detentions, but crowdsourcing the identities of people who were photographed committing crimes. The Vancouver police have been busy gathering videos and images of the rioters, and Scotland Yard is now doing likewise. They won’t catch everyone, but they might identify enough people that it will serve as a significant deterrent to future riots. But to really put an end to flash-mob rioting, police are going to have to do the social networking equivalent of going undercover. They will have to infiltrate the groups of wannabe rioters, find out their codes and coordination mechanisms, and otherwise turn the technology against them.

In the meantime, we need to stop assuming that these occasional flare-ups of mass social unrest are signs of profound social dysfunction. You certainly can’t discount the role of unemployment, since being unemployed sharply reduces the risks associated with rioting. If I get caught smashing a shop, I’m probably going to lose my job and my reputation. If a chav on the dole in Tottenham gets caught, what does he have to lose? If anything, a spell in prison will only increase his status.

Yet if you don’t believe that almost anyone can take genuine pleasure in the anti-social behaviour that anonymity enables, then you haven’t been reading the comment boards on the Internet, or you’ve never scanned the graffiti in the typical public bathroom stall. Those horrible people writing those nasty things aren’t drooling troglodytes sitting in their parents’ basements; they are your husbands and wives, your colleagues, your doctor and your lawyer and everyone else you know.

Do you want to know what sort of person joins in a riot and trashes their city and loots their neighbour’s shop? Just look around you. Or better, look in the mirror. Rioting is fun, and we’d all do it if we could.


Why people can’t help themselves

  1. Saying that Andrew Potter has a great point is also good fun – I’ll do it if everyone else will.

    • I don’t agree that we would all do it if we could.   Its called maturity and self control.  Following the crowd like a leeming indicates lack of both.   I wouldn’t join in and would try to prevent it if I could.

  2. There are always people who will….at the drop of the hat….revert to tribal behaviour.

    That doesn’t mean it should be allowed, or overlooked, or winked at.

    And no, for the majority of people, rioting is not fun.

    It certainly wasn’t for the 6 people killed in the UK …or their families.  Or for the people who lost homes and businesses or were injured.

    Civilization….something we’ve been struggling for over thousands of years….does have some basic minimum standards.  Going berserk in the streets and attacking fellow human beings violates all of them.

    • Okay, but just to be clear… Potter didn’t suggest that the riot was fun for people who lost their lives or their property – or to address your implied point – that the riot itself, as an event, was a fun thing to have happened and we should all be smiling or winking.  

      • Ahh but it’s a slippery slope, innit….

        • No

          • LOL yeah it is….you just haven’t realized it yet.

    • When strangers coalesce and commit a mass action, that isn’t tribal behaviour. As for reverting to tribal behaviour, as we are already exhibiting tribal behaviour it is hard to understand how we can revert to what we are already doing. The mob is not tribal, it is the mob.
      As for fun, it really is fun. Back in the day going to a footy match in England meant running numerous gauntlets and accepting a very real risk of having to defend yourself. A lot of us still went because it was thrilling and fun. I loved the weekends. I came alive at the weekends. In fact I never felt so alive at times.
      Not my thing now, but back then against a backdrop of Thatcher’s war against workers and police actions to enforce labour laws it was the societal norm. The authorities indulged in violence against the people and ramped up the national identity, so the young did it.
      In England now the rich suffer no consequences for lieing, stealing and killing, what on earth did they think the folk they lied to, stole from and sent to die for their profits would make of that?

      • No, they could be clapping at a concert….’rolls eyes’….however when they get together to smash and grab…that’s tribal behaviour

        If that’s your idea of fun and the only time you feel truly alive….perhaps you need therapy…because that says a lot of sad things about the rest your life.

        And please don’t use the ‘but mooom, he did it first’ excuse.  You’re not 4.

        • I would never say “but he did it.” That is the lamest excuse ever.
          As for my life, clearly you didn’t read the whole comment, but that isn’t surprising. Young folk do dumb things, we learn as we age. Still the adrenaline and feeling of being alive was real but was at the time as I said in the comment.
          If you are going to make a riposte make sure that you are actually arguing against points actually made rather than those you wish had been made. otherwise discussion becomes impossible.
          Tribal behaviour isn’t defined by what you think it ought to be either. Sorry Emily I know this might be tough to absorb, but it isn’t always about you.

          • Rioting and looting are not acceptable. Period.

            It’s tribal primitive behaviour no matter what excuse you’re making.

          • It’s illegal behaviour, but tribal behaviour isn’t illegal.
            Words have meanings, you don’t get to redefine them because you want to. Tribal behaviour means something, it does not mean illegal.
            Maybe the above is simple enough for you to follow.

          • @openid-71016:disqus 

            I said ‘tribal’ and that’s exactly what I meant….primitive tribal behavior….like when the tribe from 2 hills over attacks your camp with rocks and spears in the middle of the night.

            Dawn of time….cavemen….not civilized

            Is that clear enough for you?

          • Not really, as for your original word vomit,
            “There are always people who will….at the drop of the hat….revert to tribal behaviour.”

            There are tribes in existence today and their rules do not condone illegal activity. Even the most law abiding of us exhibit tribal behaviour today, yet frown upon this unlawful behaviour. All are civilised folk, I think you’d agree.

            See tribal doesn’t mean what you think it does. Would you care to reinvent the definition to any more words?

          • @openid-71016:disqus 

            I know you’re trying to excuse your own participation in a riot…but your deliberate obtuseness isn’t doing the job.  Sorry.

          • Sorry for actually insisting words have meaning.
            I have never taken part in a riot, but your selective reading of our exchange no doubts excuses you of dealing with what was said.
            Sad little reactionary who loves to tilt at windmills.

          • @openid-71016:disqus 

            Yes, words do have meaning. However I prefer to use the dictionary meanings rather than your Humpty Dumpty ones.

    • When there is no hope or dreams of a better future, when you
      have nothing and little chance of ever achieving anything ……I can’t condone,
      but I can understand why they riot. They have no interest in being part of such
      a society, but would rather tear it down.

      The gap between rich and poor steadily
      expands and our government, always mindful of what it owes to corporate donors,
      wrings its hands and does nothing. The institutions that define western
      democracies are being tested and
      governments everywhere are embarking on austerity programs that will impact people
      such as these even more…….we know where this will lead…. more of the same
      should be expected.

      • People who rioted include a chef, a hairdresser, a millionaire’s daughter and an Oxford law graduate.

        It had nothing to do with poverty or hopelessness.

        • Sure the riots included people such as you mentioned…, but to think that it had nothing to do with poverty or hopelessness as you suggest, well it looks like you don’t read or or follow what’s been going on in the rest of the world or you’ve “drank the kool-aid”!

          • I’ve read all the theories, and they all promote the writer’s individual politics.

            It was a looting-riot…like our recent riot…nothing more.

          • Tell that to the protesters in the various countries of the Middle
            East and elsewhere in Europe and Asia.
            Everywhere people are angry and
            demanding human dignity.
            are not buying into this Global Ponzi Scheme anymore, there are some 1,200
            billionaires in the world and the middle class everywhere is shrinking or has just
            Society would be wise to take note or there will be more riots coming…….and soon….
            to a location near you!!

          • @democracyseeker1:disqus 

            Those aren’t riots, those are revolutions to remove dictators.

            Cool the ideology.

  3. It’s simply not true that harming other people either directly or by stealing or smashing their property is something everyone would do even in the anonymity of a mob, let alone call it “fun”.  Apparently the author IS such a person and narcissistic enough to believe that he is the norm. 

    For a peaceful productive society, the “makers” who have internalized a decent code of conduct not requiring police presence to keep them in line must far outnumber the would-be “breakers” and were represented by the people with mops and brooms who showed up to repair the damage post riot.  A society destabilizes when the proportion of “breakers” rises, as occurs when healthy able-bodied people are denied the civilizing effects of working for their own daily bread instead of being fed by the Welfare state whose low expectations they proceed to “meet” by biting the hand that feeds them, like feral pets.

  4. One wonders if Andrew Potter had a business in one of these riot areas where he put in 10-12 hrs.  days to make a living  & had it torched if he would have the same ambivalent view….arm chair views are SO EASY….who care if young male thugs have nothing to lose…try contributing instead of destroying   Patricia Mangione

  5. Mr. Potter, kindly don’t project your failings on to me.