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England Riots: what can literature teach us?

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 16:26 UK time, Friday, 12 August 2011

With the riots dying out on the streets of England the public debate on their background and causes, is getting increasingly more vocal.

All kind of questions are being asked and many points of view are being shared.

One side maintains that it's pure criminality.

Another argues that there are deep and uncovered social causes behind it.

The third side discusses social deprivation, pauperisation of the part of population because of the spending cuts.

The fourth speaks about mob culture, broken families, consumerism and a false sense of entitlement and so on.

Whichever side of the argument you take - the sheer scale and the character of the riots aggravated by lootings, rampage and arson can't take away the seriousness of what had happened over the last week.

By coincidence, during all of those days, I was re-reading and reviewing classic Russian and English literature.

So what I would like to discuss here is the mindset of those, who overstepped the boundaries of normality. Could the likes of Dostoevsky and Dickens help us to better understand it?

Who are these people?

The finger of blame is pointing mainly at the street gangs.

For quite a while these gangs of 'yobsters' have been marking and controlling their post code 'ends' and if you are a stranger on their territory, you could end up being beaten up, mugged or stabbed.

Any teenager in London is aware and lives with this reality.

We adults, maybe not knowingly, but regularly hear about it in the event of 'knife crimes' taking place, when absolutely ordinary boys and girls are stabbed without any obvious reasons.

So, as the authorities indicate, these gangs were the main actors and beneficiaries of the rampage.

But it becomes apparent that among the looters there were also wider representatives of youth and society as a whole.

Two 17-year-old girls drinking stolen rosé wine were interviewed by BBC

"Everyone was just on a riot, going mad, chucking things, chucking bottles - it was good, though."

Her friend added: "Breaking into shops - it was madness, it was good fun." One of the girls continued: "It's the government's fault. I don't know. Conservatives, whoever it is. It's the rich people who've got businesses and that's why all this happened."

Pictures released by police and seen on TV screens show kids as young as 10-12 years old, unmasked girls casually walking, young men and women carrying out boxes with plasma screens, all sorts of gadgets and bags full of clothing.

In short - lots of 'opportunists'.

Messages whizzing around on the social networks in teenage groups indicated that it's simply opportunism, and 'because everyone's doing it, it's safe to do it without any fear of repercussions'.

So for many youngsters outside the gangs, it was just a free for all mob mentality that pulled them in. "That's what's it all about - showing the police that we could do whatever we want; show the rich people that we could do whatever we want" - as the above mentioned girl said.

How does the literature relate to all this?

Literature predominantly focuses and describes departures from the norm - be it of human character, situations, conditions, or relationships.

Nearly all great books are about abnormal, freaky or edgy people.

Don Quixote or Anna Karenina, Karamazov brothers or Faust - all of them overstep in this or that manner the boundaries of normality.

In fact, overstepping the boundaries is an inbuilt characteristic of human nature.

Without it there's no progress, no inventions, no discoveries.

Rebellion is also one kind of overstepping the boundaries.

It's also inbuilt into human nature.

Every parent who has teenage kids knows this for a fact.

He or she can also remember his/her own experience of rebelling against their own parents.

Take Little Dorrit by Dickens, where Arthur Clennam rebels against his mother, Tattycoram rebels against the family of Meagles, even little Dorrit stands up against her father.

These are soft, 'normal' rebellions.

But as Dostoevsky shows in his Crime and Punishment (in Russian the word 'crime' means 'overstepping'), the problem starts when you break the boundaries at expense of someone else.

Even if you as Raskolnikov, the main character of Crime and Punishment consider your adversary - an old usurer lady - a nuisance, nothing, less than nothing.

Here the criminality starts, and as Dostoevsky shows, it can't be justified by anything - be it your self-indulgence, arrogance or belief in your own oneness.

In Karamazov Brothers, Dostoevsky goes even further.

In the famous legend about the Great Inquisitor he develops the view that even the Messiah shouldn't be allowed back to human society because he Jesus, represents the disturbing, overstepping, destabilising, abnormal force.

Consumerist nature of the recent looting was noticed by many.

Every tragedy has its comic side; one bookstore in South London didn't barricade itself and stayed open throughout the rampage.

"If they loot the books it'll make good for them" - said the owner.

But nobody cared about that shop.

However, listening to those two girls interviewed by BBC, apart from the culture of consumerism (drinking looted rose vine), many had a feeling that for them looting was 'partying', 'having fun' and at the same time a kind of a virtual, 'game' reality.

Partying and having fun are the values of mass-culture multiplied in this generation by the X-box or game console culture.

The same Dostoevsky in his novel The Gambler, shows how destructive the addiction to replace reality with the virtual one could become and what price one pays for it.

He wrote once: 'Within a quarter of an hour I won 600 francs. This whetted my appetite. Suddenly I started to lose, couldn't control myself and lost everything'.

Crime ends with punishment, game of gains ends with the reality of loss.

A word of caution from both great Ds

So far everything seems quite normal, and common sense of outrage with what has happened, mostly complies with the great literature.

But Dostoevsky wouldn't be Dostoevsky if he wasn't controversial.

In fact controversies embodied in different voices of different characters create the phenomenon of 'polyphonic' or 'dialogic' novel, which is a trade-mark of Dostoevsky.

Both Dostoevsky and Dickens also show when seemingly normal people destructively overstep the boundaries of normality and what triggers their move to abnormality.

Humiliated and Insulted is the name of one of Dostoevsky's novels and he thinks these emotions are the motivators, which can turn the human soul upside down.

Dostoevsky believes that even in case of the worst among humankind - call them scum, riffraff, criminals or else - you can't deny their self-esteem, their pride and their soul.

As soon as one (be it father of the family, landlord in the village, police in the town or the government in the state, according to Dostoevsky) humiliates and insults them, crushes their self-esteem or runs unfairly over their pride without any consent - the soul rebels.

I know from my own parental experience - how ever I am right in any of my decisions - I can't impose it onto my children without them buying in.

I can crash their will, but it's on the surface.

If I do so, deep inside it'll seed a plant of rebellion.

Nellie from Humiliated and Insulted never forgives her father - Prince Valkovsky for running over her mum, Smerdyakov from Karamazov Brothers murders Father Karamazov because of being humiliated and insulted by him as an unlawfully born son, and by Ivan Karamazov as an insignificant bastard.

In Little Dorrit Miss Wade, humiliated and insulted by Gowan, hires a murderer Rigaud.

'It's not the misfortune that kills, - as if say both writers, - but insignificance, ugliness, and plainness of your unanswered misery'.

And finally overstepping

To keep the polyphonic nature of the piece here's a free comment on the discussed issue from a normal teenager, in order not to dictate just the adult opinions in the debate, which are in abundance anyway. I give it as a long quote.

On the surface, The London riots were started in Tottenham due to accusations of the Government's ill-treatment and lack of communication with the black community (which is completely understandable now, due to the results of the inquest into the Mark Duggan police shooting), but how the rioting spread from the streets of North London to Salford, Bristol, Birmingham and countless other cities is still puzzling to all of our society.

We are shown pictures and videos of children marauding around with sticks and stones, willing to risk prison sentences for trivial material goods - whether we consider them foolish, or a nuisance to our society, the sad truth is that they are also the future of Great Britain.

The first, most common misconception is that they have inherited the hatred and lust for violence from video games.

Whilst they may learn how to injure a person in a variety of ways, and the technical names of all the weaponry that the American swat teams posses, they learn from history that the best way to gather attention to a problem is by showing discontent by the masses.

Everything from the previous Tottenham Riots in 1985, to the Arab Spring earlier this year has shown that protest brings change much quicker than say a petition, or waiting for the next government elections.

Whilst I am in no way condoning their actions in the riots, they have only repeatedly been shown on their television screens that the answer to any social problems is going out onto the streets en masse.

'Why was there a riot instead of a protest?' you may ask.

Personally, I believe that the government showed that the only way to gather social attention once more, was when violence was involved.

Throughout the autumn and winter season last year, students gathered in protest against tuition fees, benefit cuts and even travel expenses for adolescents, and yet the only protests making the headlines were ones where rioting or violence occurred.

Police 'kettling' tactics also brought a whole new issue to peaceful protesting, with people being held for hours in small, restricted areas, regardless of whether they were involved in any violence.

What does this teach the children of our society? Surely you can see where I'm headed.

The second misconception is that the generation involved with the rioting (predominantly 16-25 year olds), are one particularly tilted towards materialism, unlike prior generations.

The unfortunate truth is that whilst they may be unnaturally money-hungry, there is nobody but our own society to blame.

With the MP expenses, the News of the World police scandal having only faded away (lack of responsibility starts from the top), and our culture unfortunately revolving around material wealth, of course you're going to get children on the streets looting a new television when the chance is available.

An acquaintance of mine told me about a looter, who said: "If I stop looting, it doesn't mean anybody else will stop. This is opportunism at its best." This horribly true statement made me wonder why the government even spends money on 'citizenship' lessons, when your average teenager (in the areas affected by the rioting) knows better what police are entitled to search of theirs, than what right-wing or left-wing means in political terms.

When a friend asked another friend why the riots in form of a protest aren't happening in Downing Street (if they wish to harm the government), they replied with "I'd rather have a new pair of shoes than a bullet in my spine", showing just how isolated some people of the younger generation now feel.

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