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London Started Burning a Long Time Ago

14/08/2011 14:41


How does a civilized society suddenly implode into mass violence, wanton destruction and plundering? The answer is that it doesn't - not suddenly anyway. 

While just about everything from the killing of an alleged drug smuggler by the police to social media,  poor leadership, capitalism and a failed school system had  already been blamed for last week’s violence and wanton destruction of property in London and other cities, the fact is that it didn’t happen overnight. “Civilized” people don’t turn into marauding barbarians over a single incident – instead, barbarians behave like barbarians when they find an excuse not to pretend being civilized any longer.

It has often been said that we all have the potential to turn violent and even to kill if pushed far enough. While that might be true I think that at the most basic level an individual’s inclination to violence is determined by two interacting multi-faceted factors:

  • What I believe (determined by factors such as worldview, culture, values, education, etc) and;
  • How I manage my emotions when interacting with the world around me (determined by some of the same factors which influence what I believe as well as personality, age, upbringing, current emotional state, specific circumstances, etc).

These factors – or perhaps I should say clusters of factors (of which there are many more not mentioned here) – determine how I respond to violence. For instance, if I grew up in a society where violence is acceptable or even applauded as a response to a challenge, I would be more likely to act violently when threatened even if by nature I am emotionally stable and disciplined. On the other hand, if I am emotionally unstable and immature I would also be more prone to violence even if the society in which I live does not encourage violence.

From this it would be clear that when emotionally unstable people live in societies where violence is acceptable or encouraged it will always just a matter of time before it erupts. If as a society the values we teach and model cause people to believe that violence is a justifiable means to get what they want, we are naive to think they will only revert to violence if sanctioned by the state (e.g. war). I am not by any means an expert on England’s school system or socio-economic dynamics. However it seems that in recent years Europe and other developed regions has become so “humane” that children are growing up on a diet overloaded with (often unrealistic) individual rights and starved of personal responsibility. Many have no moral compass as the truth have become “relative” and therefore also irrelevant. So at the risk of generalizing and being somewhat simplistic I propose that the flames we’ve seen  in London’s streets last week were the manifestation of a generation that believes the world owes them something and that they have the right to use violence to get what they want.

On a global level, I hope that governments and pressure groups take heed of what happened in London as conditions there are by no means unique. While the detail and dynamics might differ, the pressure is building up in many countries including South Africa. Throughout history individuals and groups have harnessed such conditions to further their own agendas and interests. Fact is – it could and will happen again, and in South Africa the outcome might be very different as government might not have the capacity to stifle the violence so easily. Mubarak, Gadaffi and other once celebrated but now disgraced  leaders have recently learnt this lesson.

On a personal level, self leadership is critical. My favorite movie quote is from Triple X where at one point Vin Diesel growls “In order to slay the monster you have to become the monster…”. Well, the fact is while that sounds great in a Hollywood script, if you become a monster to slay a monster you’re a monster no less… One of my personal goals (in which I fail quite often) is to live a life which is not a reaction to my environment, but a constant manifestation of who I really am. I couldn’t do that without believing in an ultimate Truth and values that are aligned with that Truth.

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