Blame the system?


Like anyone else, I find that other people sometimes make me angry. So I have shared the common fury at the self serving, callous and plain stupid things that some of the rioters have said to journalists.

Much of the commentary on the disturbances has been keen to use these statements - along with the fact that some of those arrested had jobs and might even be classified as middle class - as evidence that this has all been about greed and criminality and nothing to do with protest or social disadvantage. It's hard to disagree.

Which puts me in a difficult position. Not because I am a bleeding heart liberal (although I guess I probably am), but because it rules out my usual response to fits of public rage; blame the people less and the system more.    

Go back to something which was much less terrible than the riots but which, if anything, got people even hotter under the collar; MPs expenses. I made myself quite unpopular when the scandal was making the headlines by suggesting that, while some people had clearly behaved fraudulently, the real problem lay elsewhere. Pandering to popular prejudice successive Party leaders had let MPs pay fall but turned a blind eye to a system which implicitly encouraged them find other ways of topping up their earnings. Because they assumed everyone was doing it, MPs didn't think there was anything wrong with milking expenses.

I have tended to say the same kind of thing about banking. The problem lies in the financial system and the challenge of regulating it more than in the greed of individual bankers (which isn't to say that a lot of bankers aren't greedy, as well as bizarrely self satisfied, people).

I even had a half hearted go at defending some of the alleged guilty parties in the phone hacking scandal. After all, I suggested, it was us, the readers, who demanded newspapers full of salacious gossip and helped create a system where people would go to terrible lengths to get the material we craved.

Don't worry, I'm not going to defend the looters. But there is this thought I keep having. If the public really felt that MPs' expenses revealed that most politicians are greedy and dishonest people, and if the credit crunch showed the same was true of those who work in the City, and hacking revealed the journalists too are rotten, not to mention all the stories the hacking journalists published showing us us how appalling are celebrities and footballers, then I guess lots of the looters felt they were only conforming to contemporary social norms. Far from being deviants they are applying the principles they have been told just about everybody else seems to live by. The problem isn't one of social differentiation but of assumed moral equivalence.

As I said in my last post, it is rare for mass outbursts of badness to just happen. It was systems and norms which brought out the bad in MPs, bankers and journalists. But public debate tends to ignore context in favour of vilifying people. And then a subtle shift occurs. Instead of individual badness being an alternative explanation to a focus on systems and norms, greed and dishonesty start to be seen as the norms which drive the system.

It is clear that many of those behind the trouble were the kind of people who behave badly whatever the excuse. But that's not true of everyone, and it takes a certain background noise of anger and cynicism to empower the trouble makers and make others go along. Part of that background noise was the drumbeat of mass indignation which seems to have become an almost constant feature of public discourse in recent years.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said today that looking for explanations is not the same as providing excuses. By failing to look for explanations of human failings in the past, we have let 'I'm only doing what everyone else does' become an excuse in itself.

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