One definition of relativism I have come across (there are many) is that it is the belief “that, because there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, we ought to tolerate the behaviour of others – even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards”.
Well, if you thought that before the London (and Manchester, and Birmingham and Salford and Bristol and Liverpool) riots, what do you think now? Is there really no universal moral standard by which the looters may be judged? And ought we really to tolerate the “behaviour of others – even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards” in the case of the looters? Answer: no.
One thing the riots show, however, is that those who looted and burned really don’t believe that there is any objective standard of behaviour by which they are constrained: and they do believe that when external coercion is removed then they are entitled to do anything at all.
Why is that? One reason is that nobody has ever told them any different. Not their parents: and probably not their teachers. And at school, even if their teachers are anti-relativists, they almost certainly have very little authority over their pupils (someone should now do a study to see if there is any correlation between the areas in which the rioting originated, and the state of school discipline in those same areas: I bet the correlation is 100 per cent).
But will anything be done as a matter of urgency to confront the problem? It is, to be fair, a priority for Michael Gove: the question is, does he have the resources to deal with the difficulty? But getting it taken seriously is itself part of that difficulty. When Boris Johnson was asked by John Humphrys what could be done about the underlying problem posed by feral youths roaming the streets, and he attempted to take the long view – by saying that there were many things that needed to be done but that we could begin by giving teachers the authority they needed to discipline their children – he was silenced (though nothing silences Boris for long) by a classic Humphrys bullying interruption, with the contemptuous words “it’s a bit woolly isn’t it?” His interesting answer was not taken seriously by Humphrys (does that man ever actually listen to the answers to any of his aggressive questions? He really is an ignorant boor: why doesn’t the BBC just sack him?)
One repeated theme, both of the many vox pop interviews we have all sat through and of the declarations of the politicians, was that the parents of the looting hoodies were most to blame: “why don’t they know where their children are at that hour of the night? Why aren’t they at home?” The fact is, however, that as a society, just as we have undermined the authority of the police and just as we have undermined the authority of the teaching profession by not backing them (often deliberately, in the name of “children’s rights”) when they attempt to establish firm discipline in the classroom, so even more calamitously has our society undermined the traditional family.
As Fr Finigan commented:
Few people have noted the irony of the appeals by the police to parents to “contact their children”. For several decades our country has undermined marriage, the family, and the rights of parents. Agents of the state can teach your children how to have sex, give them condoms, put them on the pill, give them the morning-after pill if it doesn’t work, and take them off for an abortion if that fails – and all without you having any say in the matter or necessarily even knowing about it. Now all of a sudden, we want parents to step in and tell their teenage children how to behave.
Fr Lucie-Smith rightly quotes Melanie Phillips pointing out that she has been writing for more than two decades “on the various elements that have contributed to this collapse of order: family breakdown and mass fatherlessness; educational collapse which damages most those at the bottom of the social heap” and so on. I was writing in the Daily Mail about these things (incidentally, don’t just write the Mail off as an ignorant tabloid; there’s also a good deal of quite serious writing in it) even before she was. This is very far from being a new analysis: Family and Youth Concern, still battling away, was doing pioneering work over 30 years ago (for which its founder, Valerie Riches, was deservedly made a papal dame), pointing out how disastrous for society the undermining of the traditional family based on marriage –not least by successive governments – really was.
Another way in which our society has created a culture in which the original protests over the shooting of an armed drug dealer (possibly justified, possibly not) could so quickly turn into an orgy of looting is its replacement of objective moral values with the worship of celebrity as a quick way in to a life of material plenty: a life full of the expensive “stuff” these miserable youths could only dream of or steal. According to the BBC:
Dr Paul Bagguley, a sociologist at the University of Leeds, says [that] while looting occurs in most riots, it has dominated this week and they could be called the “consumer society riots”.
“If you compare it to the riots in the 1980s, there’s a lot more stuff you can loot easily, such as portable electronic gadgets, mobile phones and flatscreen TVs.
“For a lot of looters, it’s just opportunity but it also expresses a sense of how else am I going to get a hold of these things?”
What’s known as “materialism” is an important part of what’s wrong; though let’s understand what that means. Matter is a good thing in itself: God created matter. Christianity is in a sense a materialistic religion, since in the sacraments spiritual realities are conveyed by and contained in matter: bread, wine, water. The Incarnation is in the same sense a materialistic doctrine: God becomes flesh.
The “stuff”, the material objects these young people were looting, isn’t in itself necessarily bad. We’re all fond of the “stuff” we own: I was given a Kindle for my birthday, and it has changed the way I live my life. It contains the complete works of Shakespeare and Dickens and Jane Austen, a lot of Trollope (and on and on), as well as some contemporary books available at half the price or less on Kindle. It also contains the Douai-Challoner Bible as well as Morning Prayer and Compline (which I say last thing, comfortably in bed, before nodding off). Material things are very often good in themselves.
What is truly terrible is the notion that without them you are nothing; that their possession is itself most of the meaning of life. That’s what the looters think or thought. And that’s what we have to address now. The more one thinks about the meaning of these riots, the deeper we have to dig. But as a society will we? There is no ultimate answer without God: but try saying that to John Humphrys and his ilk; you will be dismissed as a religious nutter.
It’s a long haul. But we could make a start by giving more thought to the plight of those in the (literally) demoralised underclass from which the looters were mostly drawn. One of Tony Blair’s few good ideas was to set up a “social exclusion unit” to see what could be done about the problem. But it soon became just another quango, and was quickly dropped in favour of the next big idea. Some of what needs doing is to be fair already being addressed by some in authority: Michael Gove I have already mentioned, and Iain Duncan Smith is confronting the blight of benefits dependency.
But it’s the married family which is the institution that needs rebuilding most urgently: and in that, David Cameron is being undermined by Clegg and the Lib Dems who don’t believe in it. This is a stalemate that needs to be broken. Clegg (who is currently very weak) should be overruled, and Cameron’s modest plans should be beefed up. This is a problem of long standing, and can’t be solved overnight. But at least we could seriously make a start.