Wednesday 10 August 2011

It's not economic poverty - It's cultural.

I’m hearing an awful lot about the rioters in England and their deprived backgrounds, that these riots are the howl of anger from the underprivileged deprived underclasses breaking free from their oppression. If that is the case then it’s a howl of anger that tries on the clothes before looting them.
I myself live in an area classed by the government in the lowest percentile of privilege. I grew up in a council house on a council estate, my family never had any money and I now have a job where I work for a small but at least reliable wage - a job it took me eight months searching to get. 
We couldn’t go on holiday when I was little, I was often in someone’s hand-me-down clothes and although I was lucky enough to get a sega mega-drive, it was second hand. This seems rather unlike the brand-named wearing, blackberry messaging rioters - who materially, seem to have it much better off then I did. What I did have as a child though, was books and attention.
This is not an economic deprivation that is the problem, people have lived without money proudly and safely for years. This is a social and cultural deprivation. There is nothing the government can do about solving this problem, they have been throwing money at problem areas for years - this is something communities can only sort out for themselves. 
Just looking at the way rioters ran off with items - the man on the radio interview who said it was mad not to go and get ‘free stuff’ when there was nothing that could be done about it. The same person who claimed the only reason to riot and loot was that the government had ‘lost control’ and so because it was possible, it should be done.
That is a culture that have learnt to respect authority but not to appreciate the concept of decency. That right is only right as long as there is someone to enforce it. That is the voice of greed, of a world where empathy is a dirty word - a sign of weakness and lack of conviction.
Now, there is a place where empathy can be grown, can be taught - and that is in a book. It was said by a Waterstones employee that “We will stay open and let them raid us, they might learn something”. It’s true. But it’s not dry fact learning. It’s learning empathy and the ability to see the consequences of actions, lessons that can be taught through fiction.
A novel encourages the reader to empathise with the characters in a way TV and film never can. We enter their worlds, we enter their heads and merely taking part in the world of a fictional character is humanising and empowering. How can anyone imagining themselves as, the kids in Narnia, Oliver Twist, even the horse Black Beauty (to take some names from the best selling books of all time) not be a little different, a little more open to the reality of other people’s experience, and thus a little more empathetic?
Also, books emphasise the importance of community and the actions of a person in the community.  There are rarely books about a lone person, they have friends, they have enemies, they have allies. Books teach us heroic qualities, to stand up for what is right, to stand up for the weak, to be brave in the face of danger - to work together. The Lord of the Rings books are some of the top selling books in the world, on cinema they are a riot of colour and texture with lots of fighting - but what are the stories about really? They are about small, insignificant people working together to foil a great evil, a point maybe lost on film but strong in text. 
If David Cameron wants to lead a ‘moral army’, that moral army are not the vigilantes roaming London with beery breaths, that moral army are the people with brooms clearing up. The small people in the crowd who are working together to rebuild, not the orcs destroying.
These riots have nothing to do with being poor, and to claim it is, is an insult to every poor person who didn’t go out and smash their town up. These people don’t need more shoes or TVs, they need books. Books, and attention...the riots gave them some attention, who’s going to give them some books?

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