While politicians, police, civil and community leaders investigate the underlying causes of the recent riots and develop strategies to deal with them, I would like to propose modest steps we can all take today towards preventing a recurrence.
We are aware that our behaviour is often worse in a crowd than as an individual. This is due to deindividuation. Gustave Le Bon wrote about crowd behaviour, anonymity and the loss of personal responsibility as long ago as 1895 and social psychologists have enhanced his theories in the meantime.
The idea, crudely, is that once the individual becomes an anonymous member of a crowd, he (or she) loses self-awareness and surrenders self-control to the group, potentially giving rise to uncharacteristically aggressive and violent behaviour. This is how armies put the average man in a uniform and turn him into an unquestioning killer.
Admittedly, deindividuation can serve useful purposes where our inhibitions might otherwise interfere. For example, we are more easily persuaded to dance in a crowd of gyrating strangers than we are to be first on the floor. Also, we should be aware that the behaviour of the crowd is not always necessarily worse than the individual’s. That is to say that, sometimes, being part of a group encourages us to behave better than we would otherwise. I am thinking of restraint, courage, discipline and self-sacrifice.
It has always struck me as a paradox that, just as teenagers reach the age when they feel the urge to assert their individuality, they are also compelled to conform, to be one of the crowd. This makes them easy fodder for advertisers and luxury brands. They are easily persuaded that they can only be cool if they have the right brand of trainers, this year’s style of hoodie, that cut of jeans.
The obvious (to me) solution to the threat of deindividuation is therefore to develop our inviduality; to stand out from the crowd; embrace our idiosyncracies and indulge our eccentricities. Those of us who succeed in creating our own personal style should be celebrated. Our imagination, flair, taste, sense of colour and boldness should be prized above any ‘style’ imposed upon us by marketeers. We should shun the branded products and fashions while we develop our own, unique, image. In short, I propose re-individuation.
If teenagers could be persuaded to ‘do their own thing’ it would remove the cachet held by the mass-market designer gear anyway, so they would no longer have any interest in shops full of trainers and jeans. This strategy of acting like more independent individuals would also help to protect us from the manipulation of fashionistas, politicians and religious groups, all of which attempt to devindividuate us before leading us by the nose.
As I write, it feels as if I am advocating a return to the punk era that saw the mass riots of the 1980s. There was definitely an admirable ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude to personal style (and at least that generation’s frustrations found expression in the music of The Clash, The Jam and The Specials. What do today’s musicians have to say about the recent riots?).
But, before you put on your top-hat, your poncho, shorts and wellingtons, consider this: teenagers are, by definition, contrary beings; the last thing they are likely to do is anything suggested by their elders. So we need to use reverse psychology. Every middle-aged person who cares about the future of young people in England should get themselves down to the shops that were looted and kit themselves out with branded trainers, hoodies, baseball caps and so on. Perhaps the sight of all these old people with their wrinkly backsides hanging out of their designer jeans at half-mast will be enough to put the kids off, permanently.
What are you waiting for? Off you go!
PS: If this plan fails to prevent further riots, I am thinking of a way to tag individual miscreants. It involves smart water fired from paintball guns equipped with a videocam and GPS. There are just a few details to sort out.