Polarisation and prejudice

Like everyone else, I am still struggling to come to terms with the awful events of recent weeks. The temptation to remain silent, or to fall into the already well-worn grooves of arguments that serve only to further polarise and add prejudice are very strong. These are extremes that have to be resisted – resisted within ourselves, I mean.

We have to be part of a collective effort to examine, explain and understand not just the circumstances which made these riots possible, but also their possible consequences. I am as much concerned with what these riots say about an underclass as I am with what they say about society, about us.

One of the extraordinary effects of the riots, I believe, is how swiftly they have revealed the deep divisions in our country. I don’t just mean how big the gap is between those at the top and those at the bottom of society. I mean how divided we all are – capable on the one hand of being appalled by the flourishing of poverty, disadvantage and inequality, on the other of accepting this as unavoidable.

Capable of the great dignity and humanity of Tariq Jahan as he mourns his murdered son and calls for calm, and of the inflammatory racist pronouncements – since widely condemned – of historian David Starkey on Newsnight. Capable of revelling in celebrity scandal and gossip, and of outrage when we see the intrusion, lies and phone-hacking required to bring us this pointless drivel.

For decades now we have watched an increasingly dispossessed, powerless and impoverished class develop at the bottom of society and have long recognised their exclusion. But as long as their behaviour and actions don’t intrude into our world, we have tolerated this.

We have tolerated a growing polarisation in society, with the opportunities concentrated at the top, and the problems concentrated at the bottom – at the bottom, where they are exacerbated by a lack of self-restraint and self-responsibility and an overwhelming sense of self-entitlement.

But wider events have also shown us that British society isn’t quite as simple as this stereotypical view would have us believe. We have also watched MPs and bankers and newspaper proprietors abandon self-restraint and self-responsibility and wallow in self-entitlement.

But for these groups at the top of society there is a way back. Their mistakes – unlike those at the bottom of society – do not make them outcasts. We expect them to be part of the solution – to exercise their power and influence as part of rebuilding public confidence in them and in ‘the system’.

The fact is that as a society we can’t afford ‘acceptable casualties’ – whether these are children and young people growing up in poverty and exclusion, elderly people failed by the care system, or (as is increasingly evident in current political rhetoric) a generation of ‘undeserving poor’ that can only be policed into acquiescence. These costs are too high for society and too high for all of us to bear. A society in which ‘acceptable casualties’ are simply part of the scenery truly is ‘broken’.

Don’t get me wrong. None of this is to say that looters and rioters are blameless victims. These events included actions and behaviour that cannot be tolerated or interpreted as anything other than criminal. People were killed, and while in many respects it is astounding that more people didn’t die, the grief and fear and heartbreak will persist for years.

But even so, to seek to understand is not to excuse. And ratcheting up the rhetoric of prejudice and polarisation is not the answer – quite the reverse. Prejudice and polarisation, like discrimination and racism, disadvantage and powerlessness, are part of the combustible mixture that fuelled the riots.

In order to rebuild the communities torn apart by the riots, and in order to change things for the better, we need to put aside prejudice and avoid polarisation. No matter how difficult, we need to sidestep the easy option of vilification.

Yes, we need adequate policing and appropriate punishment (and I do mean punishment, not revenge). This is essential to restoring public confidence and safety. But hand in hand with this must also come real plans for prevention, inclusion and rehabilitation.

What we do now – politically, personally, socially, economically – to prevent such dreadful events in the future, to include those who feel they have no stake in society or the communities in which they live, and to reform and rehabilitate those who are currently being rushed (yes, some for the umpteenth time but many as first offenders) into the criminal justice system, will be the real gauge of how much we truly want to fix ‘broken Britain’ and of how much we want a ‘big society’ in which there are no acceptable causalities.

Ultimately, the question is one of how fair a society we want. Or, to put it another way, of how unfair a society we feel able to tolerate and accept the consequences of. In this sense, the riots are about us – all of us.


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