England riots: a postmodern failure

Why should anyone be surprised at the rioters when we've been saying for decades there is no right or wrong?
Rebekah Hebbert | 14 August 2011
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As London burned, pundits rushed to provide rationales for the destruction, and answers to the problem. Some blame poverty, some blame government cuts to services, others blame the breakdown of the family, or the fact that “bankers aren’t moral, why should the youths of Tottenham be?”

But to blame it on these last is to diagnose a symptom as a cause. Why are the bankers immoral? Why has the family broken down? Why are millionaires’ children looting the streets? Why is anyone looting the streets?

A common answer seems to be, “Because they can”. It may shock those who believe in the innate goodness of man -- who have no basis for believing that those who come from good environments could behave like beasts -- that this attitude could be so widespread. We see this shock writ large across many of the reactions; the surprise, the confusion, the scrambling for an answer, any answer, which might fit this strange reality but, in the end just, doesn’t.

What surprises me is that there is any surprise. People act out of their philosophy, their way of viewing the world. For many years, decades even, a philosophy has taken hold of the popular imagination which was virtually guaranteed to lead to such an end. Yet for so long we held to the strange belief that what we believe doesn’t matter that much, that we can eliminate objective morality and objective truth without eliminating certain objective standards of behavior.

The catchphrases have been: No objective right and wrong. We can’t know truth. No one has a right to judge anyone else. What’s wrong for you might be right for me. You can do whatever you want, as long as you’re not hurting anybody else. In other words, relativism -- of an increasingly fundamentalist stamp.

The “do no harm” bit was always slipped in by the back door, as a caveat to assure people that moral relativism is safe. The injunction was meant to ensure that the cultivated elite who propagated the philosophy could indulge in their favourite recreations, which tend towards the self destructive rather than outwardly destructive, without having to worry about being mugged by their less cultured students.

It took the stern rationality of the common people to realize that there was no justification for the caveat. If all morality is subjective, why should I adhere to your arbitrary morality of doing no harm?

Why indeed?

The powers that be are roundly condemning the rioters, but with little visible effect on the remorseless hooligans. Hardly surprising, given the sanctimonious hypocrisy of the pronouncements. In a country where so much is permitted, or at most lightly punished, it will no doubt fuel the cynicism of the rioters to learn that the one step too far is the widespread destruction and theft of mere property; the murders and assaults appear to be only secondary issues, even to the press.

Less hypocritical, but even less helpful if possible, are those who portray the arsonists, thieves, and murderers as victims of poverty and -- this is slightly rich -- too great a police presence in their neighbourhoods (because they are so peaceful, and only the most power hungry of cops could suspect them of even thinking of wanting to break the law).

Yet, it is not as if we can properly characterize the events as protests. The images of the riots have not revolved around protesters marching in the streets with signs and slogans, demanding specific changes (except for those who are marching, and cleaning, in protest against the riots). It has been the anarchist’s version of a street party, complete with bleeding cops for additional decor and with party favours that give a literalist twist to the phrase “loot bags”.

Prime Minister Cameron was right when he said the events were a failure of culture, but it is unlikely that he will dare to address the root of the problem. He is speaking of a failure of culture to a world which has no way to analyze the differences between cultures, no conception that one culture could be better than another. And why should the rioters go for PM Cameron’s version anyway? It is sure to be less fun.

Postmodernism seemed the easy way out. Why grapple with difficult questions of who is right and who is wrong when you can dismiss the whole debate with a glib slogan? But it is a classic example of shortcuts making for long trips. As morality fades, we see a rise in the culture of surveillance and suspicion which is taking root in England. Thousands of CCTV cameras blanket the city, posters urge citizens to keep watch on each other (Or to combine the two as one police poster did, captioning a picture of neighbours chatting with children, “A bomb won’t go off here because weeks before a shopper spotted someone studying the CCTV cameras.”). External control is supplanting internal control, because self-control has lost its compass.

We have been so careful not to offend, not to be so arrogant as to claim that there is a truth, one truth, an objective truth, and one that comes along with an objective standard of behavior. Schools must be non-judgmental. The Ten Commandments are passé. We believed that those of differing opinions would respect and like us more if we told them that their opinions were just as valid as ours.

Then they had to watch their shops and homes go up in flames, the victims of our breakdown. Who knows? Maybe they would have preferred a more principled society, even one which believed them wrong, but which respected their right to life, to property, to hold a view with which others disagreed. There is only one alternative to objective morality, and that is external control. Control that must become ever more invasive, ever more rigid, and ever more detailed, as it replaces the flexibility and sensibility of that invaluable commodity - a conscience. Because, as the events in London and elsewhere prove, reasonable external control only works if the majority of people are peaceful and law-abiding. Past that, we must descend either into anarchy or repression.

Rebekah Hebbert is the opinions editor of The Prince Arthur Herald, a centre-right student newspaper that circulates throughout Canada. A student of economics, she lives in Eastern Canada.

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