Opinion: Riots in London: where is the tipping point?

POSTED: 08/11/11 12:05 PM

The riots in the United Kingdom have once more drawn attention to the role of social media like Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger. Politicians were quick to suggest that these services have to be shut down until things quiet down on good old England. That is a bit of a Neanderthal reaction to the communication tools that are available to all of us. The reaction almost suggests that social media are the cause of the British riots. Once we have shut them down, the problem is solved, seems to be the preferred way if thinking.
British politicians have said that the riots have nothing to do with dissatisfaction about, say, the job market. No, politicians have labeled the riots simply as criminal, and they intend to fight the violence with state-approved violence.
The notion that social media are making matters worse is nonsense, a columnist in the Volkskrant has argued. It’s a bit like saying that the telephone increased tensions during the cold war or that the internet is the reason we have perverts peddling child pornography.
The notion that the riots are simply criminal acts does not make much sense either. Most crimes are committed for profit. One could of course argue that the rioters are making a profit (by looting stores), but why then did these riots not erupt during the height of the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009? Why are people in the UK suddenly going berserk? So far, nobody has come up with an answer that makes sense.
It does not hurt though to pay attention to these events. And no, we’re not suggesting that they could start tomorrow in Cole Bay, in Maho or in St. Peters, but we do think that underprivileged people in any society will only take that much.
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, will have definite ideas about this. Once dissatisfaction reaches a critical mass, things get out of control. Gladwell has described how certain things occur in certain neighborhoods when, say, the number of people with criminal intentions, reaches a critical level. The line between peace and quiet and total havoc, as we now see in the UK, is razor thin.
Here is an interesting thought (at least, we find it interesting): If a class room consists of thirty five students and one of them starts to disrupt lessons, the other thirty four students will have enough power to bring their rebelling classmate under control. After all, these students want to study and they do not accept disruptions. If that same class room however is the home to, say, ten disruptive students, the balance of power is already shifting, and when these ten manage to bring even more students into their fold, chaos is the result. Where is the tipping point? Nobody knows, but it is near certain that as more students have a positive mind set, the influence of rioters in the class room goes down.
This principle also applies to our whole community. If we lived among 35,000 crooks and criminals, law abiding citizens would not have a life. We all know that this is not the case. Even though the perception is that crime is on the rise, a lot of criminals end up behind bars and they eventually find their way to the courtroom where justice is served. That this is not always to everybody’s satisfaction is irrelevant. The bottom line is that most people prefer to stay on the good side of the law.
Is this a guarantee that riots like the ones in the UK are impossible here? Of course not. If nobody is able to define the tipping point it is also near impossible to predict when things will get out of control.
There are however some trends on our island that indicate a split in our communities. We’ll mention just one: gated housing estates. They are definitely a symbol that divides the haves and the have nots.
But how far can we go with hiding behind fences, with protecting our possessions with security systems, dogs and security guards? In the end, the denizens of these gated communities will find that they have become prisoners in their own country. That takes the fun away from having everything, doesn’t it?
This is why we have to look for a balanced development. It’s okay to be rich, but it’s not okay to let others starve. It is true of course that we do let this happen in places like Africa. Even though we like to refer to them as our brethren, we don’t lift a finger to improve their living conditions. Only when some international aid organization starts a campaign telling the world that Africans are now really dying of hunger, do some countries initiate Help Africa actions.
These are initiatives with a high feel-good content. They don’t solve the problem, but they give people who have everything the peaceful feeling that at least they have given a sliver of their wealth to those poor bastards in the Horn of Africa.
In the meantime, like in the UK, we keep pretending that at home everything is okay. At least, or so we hear from our bankers, things could be worse and we just have to wait and see. That’s probably exactly what they thought in the UK, and look what’s happening there now.

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