Riots in England – guilt and responsibility

The recent riots in London and in other places across England have led to a glut of commentators, be they in the media, religious leaders, politicians and everyone else besides, thinking they can shed light on the reasons for the violent and disgusting behaviour that we’ve seen on our television screens and pop up in our twitter-feed (and in many cases affected people directly). In fact, the number of articles in newspapers is so voluminous it is really impossible for me to collate them all into a blog posting. You can see for yourselves anyway – for all the different perspectives you can look at the main broadsheets published in the UK.

If we were to characterise the responses, many of them fall into one of two camps: either the cause can be attributed to a failure of the state (funding, policing etc) or the cause lies with the individuals themselves who are committing the illegal acts.  Broad brushstrokes this may be (neither of which seeks to avoid catching and prosecuting those guilty of crimes – though politicians may try and argue the toss on that one), and some of the nuance has come through in some people attempting to articulate a national or societal background or narrative to the issues (not least a comparison between the 400000 demonstrators in Tel Aviv, the Arab Spring and the riots in London – all of which seem to conflate, blur and essentialise characteristics of the different situations). I imagine social scientists will already have many ideas for research papers to really help us understand what is going on behind the behaviour and, as someone who has a background in the social sciences, I welcome that research and hope it helps us further understand the behaviour of individuals and the role of society – even whilst law and order is restored.

The point I suppose I want to make is that there cannot possibly be an easy answer as to why the events occurred when and how they did. And in spite of the comfort of our armchairs we also should not sit easy thinking we know what that answer is.

But I have a couple of reflections on this debate. The first is something that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel refers to on more than one occasion when examining the biblical prophets. He says they have a message that ‘few are guilty, all are responsible’. What does this mean? The biblical prophets felt the pain of every wrong, of every act of violence in society no matter how small. Those wrongs were committed by people who were individually guilty for what they did, no-one forced them to behave in such a way – every person has a duty to own their behaviour and not shift the blame to someone or something (like the state’s) else. At the same time, the prophets held an entire society responsible for what could really be considered to be systemic problems that permit the pervasiveness of wrong behaviour.

The second, and related reflection, is on the role of what Judaism calls teshuvah (repentance). We are now in the seven weeks of comfort (which follow the observance of Tisha B’Av) in the lead up to Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). This is a period in which the prophetic message and the rabbinic interpretation of Lamentations (the biblical book lamenting the destruction of the Temple) has a strong resonance – it is a message that something that seems utterly destroyed can be restored, individually and nationally. Those same prophets who railed against the societal failure in responsibility and the individual burden of guilt for criminal and/or moral wrongdoing also speak to a truth intrinsic to Judaism: We have free choice over our behaviour. Even where it feels we are tied to a certain fatalistic view that cycles of behaviour are unbreakable, they are not. At its heart, teshuvah, repentance is about recognising that change is possible and turning from one path that seems laid out for us to another, as yet uncharted, is possible – even though it can sometimes be monumentally difficult.

For me the embodiment of these two ideas – we can be responsible even if we are not guilty and that we are able to change (individually and nationally) – is found in the #riotcleanup activities and the incredible work of community activists that I’ve heard about via MP Stella Creasy’s twitterfeed. I’m even heartened by #somethingniceforashraf – one of the newer ideas I heard about today attempting to right a wrong against one person that was caught on video.

But, that is only the beginning. The responsibility does not end when the rubbish is cleaned away, windows and doors repaired, people rehoused and businesses back on their feet. Responsibility does not even end once the judicial processes have run their course. The responsibility will continue with each of us as individual members of society making our contribution to its betterment and in demanding that the leaders of our society (elected and unelected) also bear responsibility and they must think constructively about what we do for the good of our future. We must learn and we must act to change.

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