Be wary of nice sounding explanations about British riots

Posted on 18 August 2011

The more thorough the explanations seem, the more you need to roll your eyes and disbelieve it.

By Belmont Lay

Jonathan Eyal's special report in The Sunday Times on Aug. 14 ran the gamut of explanations for the British riots. Result? When the cause of event is unknown or non-existent, it is easy to invest political meaning into it.

Wanton destruction. Widespread looting. Deep social disease.

Yes, Britain has gone to the dogs.

Well, at least according to Jonathan Eyal, who is The Straits Times Europe Correspondent writing in The Sunday Times special report this week (pages 20 and 21).

So what exactly did he propose was the cause of all these mayhem with regards to the recent riots in Britain?

In precise order, this was pretty much what he stated: Police brutality. Poverty. Welfare state. Culture of entitlement. Single mothers. Teenage pregnancy. Absent fathers. Truancy. Illiteracy.

And then there’s more.

Migrants. Multiculturalism. Unemployment. The Unemployables. Football hooliganism. Light punishment for crimes. Street gangs. Drugs. Income inequality. An excluded underclass.

And to top it off, the icing on the cake: Failed leadership and kleptocratic bankers.

Yes, you’ve read that right.

A confluence of all these factors led to the conflagration that sent rioters out in the streets setting things on fire, taking things that are not theirs and breaking things in general.

But wait. Before we all roll our eyes into our heads from exasperation or disbelief, shouldn’t there be other reasons?

Come to think of it, I can name some more factors that Mr Eyal might have missed out on.

How about a corrupted police force? The recent News of the World scandal revealed that the police took bribes from the now defunct tabloid.

So naturally, people would lose respect for the police and the authority they exude. So rioting would be intuitive then.

And what about celebrity culture? When talentless people can make a lot of money just by being famous for being famous, that would make regular folk green with envy, no?

So, therefore, I assume, Rupert Murdoch is at fault too.

He owned the News of the World tabloid that printed cult-worshipping thrash about talentless celebrities, which paid money to corrupt police officers, all of which have a propensity to incite rioters and there we have a confluence of factors too.

Hang on a minute! Off the top of my head! How about the uber wealthy oligarchs?

I’m sure they figure in there somewhere. Because one of them owns Chelsea, whose player porked someone’s girlfriend and then there was a bit of grief…

So what really surprises me is that Mr Eyal stopped short of blaming bad curry, Ali G, Top Gear, Coldplay and Global Warming (Capitalised for Importance and Emphasis), plus a Failed Colonial Empire.

Well, you see, nice and dandy stories with a moral or political bent, such as the Sunday Times article by Jonathan Eyal, carry with them a danger.

Look, as always, I’m not making this kind of stuff up.

This point about stories possessing danger has been brought up by Philip Holden (my NUS lecturer previously), who very recently wrote a cautionary article in Today about The Power of Stories, with reference to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech.

According to Professor Holden, uplifting stories (such as those PM Lee was banging on about) can be comforting, but in their comfort they carry a danger.

Likewise, and this is where I’m assuming, stories about tragedy and mayhem carry with them a danger too.

You see, not all stories are true, and paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, the truth is rarely plain and never simple.

And like the two examples Professor Holden cited about misleading, dangerous stories – Singapore being a fishing village in 1965 and Lee Kuan Yew creating the Central Provident Fund – such narratives can be blatantly false and pathetically stupid.

What Mr Eyal injudiciously did with his Sunday Times article was basically run the gamut of explanations that you can find from the left-of-centre Guardian to right-of-centre Daily Telegraph and string them into a tidy narrative.

Nothing wrong with that, just that a tidy, tightly packed story fails to address the shortcomings of a lack of knowledge. You know, those things that resonate ambiguity and uncertainty?

And unfortunately, a tidy story can also be filled with evidence that only explains too much about its own discrepancy.

Which brings me to the point of today’s missive: Consciously or not, people invest political meaning into an event that reflects more of their biases and their lack of knowledge.

As far as the recent rioting in Britain is concerned, the discrepancy in press reports about its cause is reason enough to be suspicious that something fishy is going on.

Plus, this playing up of supposedly wretched social conditions in Britain in the Singaporean press smells like a case of wanting to inject some feel-good vibes about ourselves and our society.

And guess what? Because from what I understand, rioters riot because it is fun and usually without a reason. Pure and simple.

Did you know that the British, for all their soggy weather and the lovable Paddington Bear, have a history of being opportunistic looters?

Medieval peasants smashed things for fun.

Following the Great Fire of 1666, there was looting in London.

London was also the scene of looting when it was undergoing World War II.

And according to Charles Dickens, native British folk and foreigners looted in London during peaceful times too.

But then again, all these might not be good examples of the British having a propensity to loot and perhaps qualify as just-so stories serving as evidence to refute Mr Eyal’s just-so story.

Then again, I’m not writing for the nation-building broadsheet. It’s not my duty to give us Singaporeans feel-good vibes about ourselves.

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  • Jonathan

    What… you actually believe in your own spin, too? That all the reasons, seemingly absent in Singapore, were created out of nothingness just so that a good vibe can be injected? You need a class on realism as much as I, perhaps, need one in conspiracy theory detection.