The riots and us

By Orlando Radice
September 2, 2011

As Britain continues to debate why thousands of young people smashed and looted their way through our town centres last month, one very obvious aspect of social reality seems to have slipped out of view.

In fact, it is so taken for granted that many of us probably hadn't noticed it in the first place.

It’s that, despite living in what we like to think of as a ‘melting-pot’ country, we don’t actually interact with each other that much.

Be honest. How many of you are friends with a “hoodie”? Or a Somali shop owner, or a Polish plumber, or a Jamaican bus driver, or… shall we just say, anyone outside our middle-class circles?

I challenge you to drop in to every cultural venue that lines Stoke Newington High Street (in the cultural potpourri that we like to call Hackney). In Turkish social centres you’ll see Turks. The Carribean ladies are cutting Carribean hair. The Africans are dancing in Lagos Nights. The Brits are sitting in the gastropub admiring the multiculturalism of it all. One beautiful world, lived along parallel lines which only intersect when commercial necessity demands it.

The fact is that while we love being delightfully different in our hands-off British way and congratulating ourselves on our superlative tolerance of difference over, say, our continental neighbours, we don’t actually engage with those differences. Instead we spend most of our time watching each other on television or reading about each other on the internet rather than in face to face contact. It’s the spectacle of difference that we want, and not the messy reality of it.

If one piece of the complicated puzzle about why those young people went on their sad, consumerist rampages is labelled “alienation”, then surely we as a society need to look at the way we, as a society, engage with one another in the real world.

Here’s what Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek has to say about it in his book, Violence:

“My duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him or her, not intrude into his space—in short, that I should respect his intolerance towards my over-proximity. This is increasingly emerging as the central human right of advanced capitalist society: the right not to be ‘harassed’, that is, to be kept at a safe distance from others”

Jews have integrated into monocultural Britain with great success. But we could perhaps do better when it comes to the new multicultural reality.


You must be logged in to post a comment.