Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Friday, 12 August 2011

I'm no island.

THANK heaven for windbags. Where would we be without politicians selflessly prepared to come back from holiday (travel expenses paid by us) to point the blame at everyone else for causing the worst riots in a generation?

Blame has been pointed, so far, at Twitter, single parents, benefit claimants, school holidays, the weather, race divisions, vigilantes, bad parents, deprivation, middle class kids looking for kicks and bankers bringing the nation's economy to its knees.

Not one of them is right, and yet all of them are.

The factors that propelled thousands of people to loot and pillage shops and houses are massively complex and virtually impossible to define. That's not stopping everyone trying, because it's a lot easier than coming up with a solution.

Cut benefits for those convicted of looting and you just make them more likely to loot; jail youngsters for a mistake and they are merely taught how to be better criminals; let the police dole out rough justice with their batons and you've a series of civil cases on your hands. Ban Twitter or Blackberry messaging for spreading dissent and at some point you have to ban pens and paper too.

But they're not solutions either, just punishments. As if fear of punishment were enough to deter a crime, when the death penalty and murder rates in the US proves that's a fallacy. A better punishment would be for every looter to be sentenced to rebuild the businesses or homes they helped to destroy - to rebuild the bricks, paint the walls, or price up new stock, spend a couple of weeks working to repair what they broke. It won't work with all of them but most would be proud of that shop every time they walked past it and more importantly, they'd never trash such a place again.

Desmond Morris, the zoologist, blamed the riots on humans being forced to live in cities, a cramping sort of inhuman pressure which we are not evolved to deal with. Villages don't have riots, he said. He had a point: the riots were a result of people being disengaged, and I don't just mean the looters. I mean you and me as well.

The fact is that in a society we all affect one another, like pebbles on a riverbed. One moves and those around it do too, making the water flow differently and creating ripples felt a lot further away. From my back garden I can see the homes of hundreds of people, most of whom I've never spoken to but whose behaviour can affect my life in very powerful ways. Their music, parties, arguments, building works, how they drive, where they shop, whether they bag their rubbish properly, all have an impact on me. This week all of them were as worried as I was about the riots coming to our part of town, and some knocked on each other's doors for the first time, said hello and swapped information. Whatever the causes of the riots, we are all a part of them as much as we are the victims.

If we are to have a society, if we want a police force to look after our interests, to vote for politicians, to allow some people to govern with our consent and to punish others (sometimes the same people) for misbehaviour, if we want a system that works, then we must be part of it. That means accepting that we are social animals and an organism greater than our own little worlds.

It means that we are all parents, to some extent. If you see a child fall down in front of you in the street, you'd pick him or her up; so if you see them misbehave, why not tell them off? If a neighbour is playing music at an anti-social volume, why not politely explain that not everyone shares their tastes and ask them to turn it down? If you see the same check-out girl at the supermarket three days a week and you recognise each other, why not say hello and learn her name?

Because we're too scared, half the time. Scared to get involved, scared to put our heads above the parapet, scared of getting into trouble or being knifed or getting a load of lip. And because of that minor fear we live in a world where we are terrified to engage. And how much poorer is our society for that? Bugger the bankers, that unwillingness to be involved is what impoverishes us more than anything else.

These days many companies have a social responsibility department, to make them look less like corporate monsters. They haven't made a great deal of difference, but it's not a bad idea. Dishface's Big Society idea was dreamed up as a way of justifying public service cuts but it has a reasonable aim. Both are intended to engage people with the world around us at a time when modern life - the self-contained boxes we drive, live and work in, mobile telephones, the internet, social networks - bring us closer together but only at arm's length.

The causes of the riots stretch back over years. They'll probably be repeated, and many are impossible to tackle. What we can all do is accept the social responsibility that comes with living alongside each other, as politely as possible, and hope it makes a difference next time.

It's not about bleeding-heart liberalism any more than it is being a string-em-up hardliner. It's about not being afraid to ask a kid with their feet on the train seat to not just move them, but not to do it again. It's about explaining to the children next door that, while it's absolutely fine they play football, they don't kick the ball against the wall of your house because it's causing a crack and you are not a goalpost. It's noticing when someone's dealing in your area and telling the police, fighting the mindless bureaucracy of your local council parking department, picking up rubbish if you see it in the street and, if you someone drop it, telling them to pick it up instead.

It's about not turning a blind eye because it's easier, never giving in, never disengaging, and never being too scared to say 'this is my world as much as it is yours'.

Maybe if we all did that, it would be better than it is. The riots have shown it can certainly be worse; we need to not just hold on to the society we've got but make it stronger. Windbags can't do that.

Besides, there's more of us than them.

No man is an island, entire of itself
Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
John Donne