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Mindlessness and the riots

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 17 Aug 2011, 16:55

Mindlessness and the Riots


Following the news reports over the last few days I, like many people, have struggled over what, if any, response I can make that would be useful. As the rioting and looting which started in Tottenham spread across London and then to other large cities, it became clear that something complex was happening which could not be wrapped up in any singular, generalised, explanation. Even as a social psychologist, I don't feel that I know enough about all the economic, social and political aspects of the situation to comment wisely about this. Similarly, I can't claim enough understanding of how the current circumstances are playing out through the experience of those directly involved to talk in anything other than a patronising way about what this might feel like on an individual level.


So what can I offer? In the news reporting, one word has jumped out at me time and time again, and that is 'mindless'. As an article in the New Statesman pointed out, this is the 'explanatory cliché' that politicians and journalists are constantly falling back on: '"mindless acts of violence and destruction" and "mindless criminality" carried out by "mindless thugs"'.


As someone who is currently writing a book about mindfulness, mindlessness does seem like something that I am knowledgeable enough to comment upon, so here are my thoughts.


What 'mindlessness' does

When news reports label those who are rioting and looting as 'mindless', I don't think that they generally mean it as an opposite of 'mindful'. They are not simply pointing out that acting in violent ways displays a lack of awareness of the implications of what people are doing, and a lack of compassion for those who it affects.


Rather, dismissing acts as 'mindless thuggery' serves to distance us (the authors and readers of the accounts) from those perpetrating these acts, and to dehumanise them in the process. If we think of a 'mind' (or consciousness) as the thing that is often regarded (albeit somewhat problematically) as the defining feature of human beings, then describing somebody as 'mindless' is similar to stating that they are somehow less than human. In this way, we set up an 'us and them' situation where we are individuals with humanity who could never act in ways which would be so violent, so potentially harmful to others, and they are people who don't have the capacity – the mind – to respond in a human way to the situations they find themselves in.


Such distancing achieves multiple things. First, it enables us to locate all of what is disturbing and nasty about what people can do in this other group: the 'mindless' thugs. This stops us from having to look into ourselves to acknowledge the potentials we have – given the wrong situation – to wish harm upon others or to act in ways which we know will hurt (perhaps ways which are less direct than smashing a shop-window, such as buying products that are the result of exploitative labour, or failing to stop and help a stranger who is struggling). Secondly, the individualising explanation that a particular group of 'others' are 'just mindless' means that we don't have to consider wider - often social, political, economic, and historical - reasons which may be a large part of why these things are happening (this is a similar point to one I've made before about why we prefer simplistic explanations of violence).


Finally (although there are probably more reasons still than the three that I have outlined), 'mindlessness' as an explanation means that we don't have to address the complexity and multiplicity in why things happen. Generally we tend to see the full situations which result in our own actions, whilst we put other people's actions down to individual flaws within them, such as mindlessness. However, it seems more likely that, as with most human actions, there are many different reasons why people act in the ways that they do. In the case of the riots, as an article in The Guardian points out, there are many different people involved in rioting and looting, with many different motivations for doing so. Even within one person, there are probably multiple motivations at work. As Dave Hill says, in his commentary:


'People who riot do have minds, and in these lie the reasons for their rioting...These may be greed, hatred, a craving for status, for battle and excitement and for an antisocial sort of liberty. Some deep, possibly incoherent rage against authority and a safer, kinder more prosperous world they can't join might be part of this story too. None of this is evidence of mindlessness, and to declare it so is to hide from reality.'


What are we when we are mindless?

Social psychologist, Ellen Langer, has studied mindlessness in depth. The first part of her book, Mindfulness, is devoted to the common 'mindless' habits that human beings share. Her definitions of mindlessness includes the following:


Being trapped by categories: Ellen gives the example of a person opening their door to a wealthy stranger who is on a scavenger hunt and who offers them a million dollars if they can give him a 3 foot by 7 foot piece of wood. Because they never think of their own door as 'a 3 foot by 7 foot piece of wood' they don't think of using that. In terms of the riots we might think of the categories of race, class, gender, and age which shape our assumptions of 'crime' and who commits it. For example, we tend to think of young men as perpetrators of crime and young women as victims, but young men are by far the most at-risk group as victims, and young women were also involved in the London riots.


Behaving automatically rather than paying attention to what we're doing: Ellen conducted an experiment where she sent an interdepartmental memo to university offices which read 'This memo is to be returned to Room 247'. When the memo looked just like a standard university memo, 90% of people complied, rather than asking themselves why the person sent the memo if they just wanted it back. If people were encouraged to pay more attention – by the memo being in a different-to-usual format - only 60% complied. When we see these events in the news it is helpful to do what we can to break from any habitual responses we might have and to pay more attention.


Acting from a single perspective: In another study, Ellen and colleagues planted an experimenter on a busy street. She told people passing by that she'd sprained her knee and needed help. When people stopped she asked them to get her an Ace bandage from a shop nearby. The shopkeeper then told them they were out of Ace bandages. All the people in the study returned empty-handed, rather than asking for advice or getting something different. Linked to behaving automatically, we might deliberately reflect on each news story from multiple perspectives. We might creatively imagine what it might be like for attacker and for the attacked, for the person observing, for the journalist writing the story for a deadline, for the politician whose soundbite is included, and for the police officer who responded.


Towards a more mindful response

In one of the most powerful responses to the London situation, writer and broadcaster Darcus Howe called for 'careful listening' to the young people who were caught up in what was going on. He had already been listening carefully for years and therefore was not at all surprised by what was now happening. Unfortunately, those interviewing Darcus did not even listen carefully to him, let alone affording this kind of respect to those actually taking part in the violence and looting.


'Careful listening' is one key aspect of mindfulness, which is generally translated as a form of deep awareness and full attention. When we listen carefully we are less likely to fall into our usual automatic responses, or to act from a single perspective, trapped in categories and ignorant of context. We are more likely to be aware of the full, complex, human beings behind various actions, and the multiple meanings that these events will have for them. As Penny Red highlights, one of the motivations behind the riots may well be a lack of listening, and Camila Batmanghelidjh suggests that compassionate listening to the human beings involved – rather than searching for a 'mindless' enemy to fight – is a more likely solution.


Mindfulness, however, is not about just listening and accepting and failing to act in any way. Rather it originally emerged in a time of social inequality as a form of political action (against hierarchical caste systems), and will hopefully have a similar impact today with all the people who are currently embracing it. The theory behind mindfulness is that suffering is largely rooted in craving. Several commentators on the London riots have linked the looting taking place to the wider economic climate: not in a simplistic way that the recession has caused the riots, but in the suggestion that the desire for consumption within our current economic system is also implicated in the desire for certain products – by people who do not have access to them - inherent in much of the looting which is going on.


As well as careful listening to those involved, we can also do with turning our attention to the multiple implications of living in a culture which advocates striving for more and more consumption, which encourages people to believe that they are lacking without it, and which only makes this available to certain people.


Find out more:

Useful book on related topics include:


David Loy: Money, Sex, War, Karma

Barry Magid: Ending the Pursuit of Happiness

Marshall Rosenberg: Non-violent Communication

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