Watching the news of the riots, looting and criminality in London and other major cities of the UK this morning (August 9), I was struck by two images that, in my view, are truly shocking. One is of a distressed injured young man, carrying a rucksack, and struggling to stay upright with the mayhem around him in which he appears to have no involvement; you then see two people going towards him; it looks as though they are going to help him. Instead, as they help him to stand up, they rob him of whatever he is carrying and leave him, too disorientated and bewildered to know what has happened. The other image is of a young woman, jumping from a burning building, with the police, their arms outstretched, ready to catch her.
The dictionary defines empathy as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." These two incidents show total disregard for the feelings of the other. Zero empathy. When people are angry with authority because their perception is that they are not respected, their anger drives their empathy with authority figures out of the window. Similarly, if they feel deprived and all around them are riches beyond their reach, and they see no chance of improvement to their lives in the future, their anger, and resentment with those who are wealthy may cause their empathy to evaporate.
However, the victims in these two incidents are not representative of authority, and they are not the moneyed rich. So what has gone so wrong in the lives of the perpetrators to cause such a total lack of empathy? The health of our society and its cohesion require us to develop this most important of characteristics.
Parenting, bringing up children, is thought of as a natural process programmed into our genes, that does not require teaching and that people can learn as they go along. Wrong. In less developed societies you have young parents living close to their own parents and benefitting from the wisdom of the older generation. Additionally, the extended family provides help and support in bringing up children, providing them with a sense of belonging, and nurturing their connections with adults and other members of the community. In western societies families are atomised with marriage breakdowns and parents working long hours with the children practically left to look after themselves.
Understanding how children grow up, what values they acquire as they move into adulthood in a complex society need to be taught to parents and children. The parents need help and guidance to show them how to help their children develop positive connections to adults and their community. Unfortunately things are moving the other way. Cuts in government spending are affecting the work of charities which provide a lifeline to families trying to cope with bringing up children in this harsh economic climate. At times of austerity the work of charities is essential with their funding increased rather than cut. In universities, in a harsh economic climate they are being pushed to concentrate on subjects that can be used to create wealth. Subjects that seek to understand human behaviour, philosophy, societal interaction are being neglected and starved of funds. Very short-sighted.
Of course the first step for the government at present is to deal with this criminality and to do everything in its power to control the situation, but beyond that we need to bring experts together from all fields to examine these events and what lay behind them. In the short term this is a law and order matter that needs to be dealt with by the police who should have our whole-hearted support.
In the long term this needs to be tackled by the whole of society keeping in mind that problems need to be looked at holistically. We need to delve deeper into these problems, and for the government to examine its policies and actions taking full account of their societal impact. This is not to excuse the acts of violence and criminality we witnessed on our streets. They are inexcusable and totally unacceptable, as the Home Secretary said.