Thursday, 11 August 2011

Contra Hill and Harman

Dave Hill in the Guardian complains at the refusal of those in authority to even consider the causes of the riots:

"Michael Gove's performance on Newsnight was definitive. Fellow guest Harriet Harman's mild observation that the causes of the riots are "complex" produced a barked tirade of rigid sanctimony - the first refuge of the right in denial"

Dave Hill's, necessary, shortening of the argument misses some detail. Harman didn't just say that the causes were "complex" but advanced her ideas on what some of those "complex" causes were. Student Fees were an issue, together with Education Maintenance Allowance. She was careful to say that they did not "justify" the rioting.

So Harriet Harman was genuinely trying to figure out the ultimate causes of the riots.

Was she bollocks.

Amazing, isn't it, that amongst the causes of the riots were following Coalition policy and not following Labour policy? Not, entirely amazing. Mad Mel thinks that the riots were caused by being liberal and thinking too hard about stuff, more reactionary garbage is the cure. Nick Griffin thinks that the riots are a result of "multi-culturalism" (a codeword used by many in the racist community to mean "Blacks, Asians and Jews") and not following BNP policy (get rid of Blacks, Asians and Jews). Others think that the riots happened because of "soft" sentences and a lack of flogging.

Notice a pattern? Of course you do the "causes" of the riots are always too much "stuff I don't like", coupled with a lack of "stuff I do like".

This is hardly a "clear-eyed, realistic, intelligent diagnos(is)". It's a trick even Nick-fucking-Griffin can pull!

But this wasn't Gove's key objection. Gove's key objection was that, despite saying these causes didn't "justify" the riots Harman "relativised" the riots. I don't think "relativised" is a good word for what Harman did. But I do think he was right.

There are a huge number of (partial) causes for any event. When asked for the cause we almost never give it, the cause usually doesn't exists. Why am I late home from work? Well part of the reason is where I live and where my work is: were I to live next door to the office I would not have been late. Neither would I have been late if I could teleport. Of course I wouldn't be late home from work at all if I didn't go out to work. That is the product of a whole separate set of causes.

What we do is give the cause we think is the one we should concentrate on. One that we can change. One that, itself has "ultimate" causes we can influence. One that we should change.

I am late home from work because I went for a drink.

It's true that I work in a certain place, it is true that I can't teleport and it is true that I do go out to work. But I can't change where my work is, I can't learn to teleport and I shouldn't consider (for just this reason) stopping work. Those causes are "givens", we choose the key factor, my love of Real Ale.

My being late home from work is not really disastrous. Let's look at a couple of different choices of the cause.

Event 1: Man M1 rapes woman W1.
The cause 1: M1 is the sort of violent misogynistic scum who would do such a thing.
The cause 2: W1 wore a short skirt and dressed in a "provocative manner"

Event 2: Man M2 beats woman W2.
The cause 1: M2 is the sort of violent misogynistic scum who would do such a thing.
The cause 2: W1 did not have M2's dinner ready when he got home

How do those second causes sound to you?

Given that M1 would not have raped W1 had W1 not dressed in a "provactive manner" and that M2 would not have hit W2 had he had his dinner they are part of the causal history of the act. But they're hardly the thing we should be concentrating on. To even mention them sounds a lot like blaming the victim.

As it does with the riots.

Sometimes a demonstration can get out of hand, sometimes there is a genuine grievance (racist policing, totalitarian governments etc) that provoke riots amongst decent people. We all know, though, that last week wasn't a demonstration that got out of hand, we all know this wasn't a reaction to racist policing or totalitarian goverment. The rioters rioted for a reason similar to why the rapist rapes and the wife-beater wife beats: they are violent, thieving criminals.

There is your cause. The cause.

And if we want to look at "underlying" causes we can consider:
1. What caused them to be violent, thieving criminals and how we can reduce the numbers of other people becoming violent, thieving criminals
2. What keeps them being violent, thieving criminals and whether they can be reformed.
3. Given there will always be violent, thieving criminals, how we can reduce the adverse impact of violent, thieving criminals on the rest of us.

Just as we consider what causes people to be/remain rapists and wife beaters, whether they can be reformed and how to reduce their adverse impact. When people rape and beat we do not divert attention to some, morally, irrelevant "cause".

Imagine Harman's reaction if we did. Imagine the "provocative dress" and late dinner being suggested to Harman as part of the complex of causes for rape and wife beating. Imagine whoever was advancing them (some "Bufton Tufton" backbench Tory) was careful to say that these reasons in no way "justified" the actions of M1 and M2. Imagine Richard Littlejohn writing:

"[Harriet Harman]'s performance on Newsnight was definitive. Fellow guest [Bufton Tufton]'s mild observation that the causes of [rape] are "complex" produced a barked tirade of rigid sanctimony - the first refuge of the [left] in denial"

Now tell me you can't imagine exactly those two sentences and that you can't imagine Dave Hill being utterly appalled by them. Harman showed her intellectual rigour to be on a par with Nick Griffin and moral percipacity to be on a par with Richard Littlejohn.

Gove was right to bark a tirade in her direction and Hill showed either special pleading or a lack of self knowledge to criticise him for it.

1 comment:

Ron Murphy said...

Bit late, but just read this on link from Stephen Law's post.

I agree with your take on it. But the other angle on this is the response.

There are underlying causes, and the means of 'fixing' the underlying causes for the current batch of rioters, and preventing the generation or enabling of future potential rioters, is long term. But the appreciation of and a desire to act on the underlying causes does not preclude an immediate response to the current rioters: prosecuting them. Acknowledging both short term responsibility and acknowledging long term causes are not mutually exclusive; and nor are short and long term fixes mutually exclusive. But that's not apparent from the partisan responses you see on TV panels.

The problem as many liberals see it is that the actual response is always the quick fix, and the promulgation of the one cause that justifies that fix: concentrating on the immediate criminal behaviour. The long game is either never played or is cut short. It's easy to make noises about how the underlying causes should be dealt with too, but there have been plenty of interviews with youth workers who have been complaining that many of the youth systems that were in place, as long term solutions to previous problems, are being axed.

From the more conservative angle there is no real interest in the underclasses anyway. Having to fork out for long term solutions for a class they don't care about is subject to a very short attention span from them. All the better to ignore them until they get out of hand. Then when they do, bear down on them with the full force of the law; and make vague promises of of long term solutions.

It's just as easy to demonise these specific looters as it is the bankers who looted far more. But the actions of the former are far easier to criminalise, and it's far easier for the latter to achieve their ends by legal yet still immoral means. There remains a disparity in criminalisation, and reward and punishment, and that's probably why there is as much antagonism towards Cameron's response as there is. In pre-bank-implosion times the rioter-looters would have had far more of the public calling for their blood; but as it is many people in acknowledging this disparity find it less easy to point the finger at the under-class rioter-looters.

But the example of the bankers does belie the claim that poverty is the cause (i.e. Stephen Law's post). There are plenty of examples of opportunistic looting going on under the cover of legal and poorly regulated business practices. If anything, a decent bit of legal looting will ensure one's escape from poverty. The mistake of the current dumb looters was to do it so explicitly, so obviously illegally, and with so much visibility. Opportunism requires picking the appropriate opportunity, not the first one that comes along. You wouldn't find a banker making those mistakes - well, not often.