I got a new tattoo recently.
I've been seeing some ridiculously privileged thinking recently.
There is a connection. In my mind, at least. And since, for once, there are less things on fire there than there are in the real world, let's linger there for a while.
I got a copyright symbol for my first tattoo. Partly because, unlike a dragon, I couldn't mess around endlessly with it and redesign it forever - there's only so much you can do with a C in a circle. But also it has personal relevance, because of my career - as a creative, it's copyright that supports me getting paid for what I do. And I like the idea that I am my own fictitious creation.
But, of course, I'm not. I ripped this DNA off directly from my parents. I copied the red hair from a russian ice skater and Tori Amos. And I picked up my views, my opinions, my outlook, my biases, my values, my proudly proclaimed beliefs and my deep-seated prejudices from every book, TV show, teacher, friend, enemy, newspaper, relative, film, documentary, lecture, rumour and fairytale I've ever been exposed to in my life. Some more so than others, and I feel that I always had some choice of what to absorb and what to ignore. But the forces that shaped me were external, borrowed, copycatted, beyond my immediate control. The best I could ever hope for is to recombine them in a way that's uniquely mine, or at least aspires to be.
And of course, that's pretty close to describing any copyrighted material ever. Nothing is created in a vacuum. From the humblest artist to the most powerful media conglomerate, everything created is influenced, inspired - and in many cases directly ripped off - from what has come before. And yet that little copyright symbol allows (and in fact, in western copyright law, forces) creators to claim 100% ownership of something that is very much the sum of its (borrowed) parts. (If tattoos are going to be permanent, they can at least carry ambiguous, contradictory meaning.)
And that is also a pretty good description of the privilege delusion.
I remember a few years back seeing a right wing US politician explaining to the camera that there should be no social security, no free education, no nationalised health in the USA because 'there's no hereditary aristocracy in the US, so anything anybody has, they earned themselves, and if they haven't got the money to pay, it's because they didn't work hard enough.' No mention of there being those that arrived first class, those that arrived in steerage, and those that arrived in chains. No mention that some are born into college funds, and some into pre-natal crack dependency.
And now, in the heat of the riots, I'm hearing things like 'I was born poor, but I never smashed in shop windows and robbed stuff because I knew the difference between right and wrong.' And implicit in that statement is the same kind of tabula rasa presumption: I am my own unique creation. I alone am responsible for the person I am now. I am (by my own reckoning) a good person and that is entirely down to me, and the choices I made and nothing to do with any external influence. And anybody involved in the rioting is (by my own reckoning) a bad person and that is entirely down to them, and the choices they made and nothing to do with any external influence. AND THAT MAKES ME BETTER THAN THEM.
And that tail end bit is often unspoken, even in people's heads. But it's still a driving force. If it turns out that the only difference between me and that guy lobbing rocks is that I was more fortunate in my early-years connections than him, then where does that leave the Me I think of as self-created? How can I be Good if I didn't make Me Good?
Newsflash: You are just as privileged if you had good people in your life at significant moments as you are if you were born into money. Differently privileged, yes, and having both is still a massive advantage over having one or the other, but you're still miles ahead of someone that had neither.
Don't get me wrong, I completely believe in the power of any individual to improve their lot in life, and themselves, though hard work. If not, I wouldn't work stupid hours driving myself insane trying to be bigger/better/MORE than I am right now. (Although to be fair that is kind of secondary. Why would you ever want to sit still where you can claw every second of every minute of every lifetime that's available to you, and curse that there aren't more?) But I also wouldn't deny the part my parents - and various other people/books/stuff in my life - had on shaping that work-hard ethic within me. Not to mention anything else on a moral plane. It'd be nice to believe that even stranded on a desert island from birth, I'd be exactly the same Me, with exactly the same values, as I am now. But honestly? That's a bit like Disney claiming they never heard of Hans Christian Anderson. Or Shakespeare. (Or Shakespeare denying he ever heard of pretty much anyone else who had a story to tell. No copyright back then.)
Brief I-shouldn't-have-to-say-this-but-I-obviously-do caveat: that's not to deny that within the entity that is the mob, there's plenty of amply-privileged fuckwits who do know better and want to play a little smash and grab. And it's not to say there aren't general all-purpose fuckwits being completely antisocial and doing nasty, terrifying things to their fellow human beings. But there always are. Old ladies do get mugged, young lads on their own do get beat up, windows do get smashed, buildings do get burned, people do get shot, or run over, or fatally battered. And there are laws against all of these things, and the police can and do and will deal with them on that existing level. No hysterics required. And yet people only seem to want to get excited and angst-filled and vengeful about all of this when it's on the news and On Fire.
And they only want to focus on the highest level, most life-threatening criminal acts. Maybe because, well, drama! Maybe because of the Sky News type fallacy of whoever has the biggest bodycount to back their argument wins. Or maybe to prove the point that this can't possibly be a legitimate protest because 'protesters don't do X'. (Because everybody knows that proper protesters only ever write sternly worded comments on the Online Guardian and wave beautifully lettered signs on carefully pre-planned protest marches - anything else would be unthinkable, and certainly not a legitimate expression of outrage!)
(Although I have to say, I'm hugely impressed by how many people seem to know exactly what's going on in a rioter's head, making them able to pinpoint exactly what their one, simple, singular motivation is. Which, it turns out, is one, simple, singular motivation for all of them, because a mob is a single organism with a few thousand identical copycat parts, all driven by exactly the same simple, singular bad-person desires. I never knew I was living among such talented telepathic psychics! Someone should call James Randi...)
Because the point is, you can't just apply your own personal life experience to someone else (in this case someone involved in the riots, but in general to ~anyone~) and expect to understand exactly what they're thinking. And you really can't judge them as if they've been through exactly your own life experiences and just deliberately chosen a different path. And it scares me that there are some people that are so lacking in empathy that they assume that not only is the mob a set of carbon copy individuals, but that every single one of those is a carbon copy of them themselves, in terms of the forces that made them and shaped them. So external factors become null and void: if another person is doing something bad, it must be because they chose to, not because they know no better, or they're caught up in some kind of addiction (I'm thinking raw violence here rather than drugs) or have a genuinely differing set of morals in which they see themselves as the tragic hero.
And yet, these non-empaths are the same people who ought to feel most empathy (and I'm also getting tired of explaining the difference between 'empathy' and 'sympathy' to people - for reference a good hunter has empathy with their prey right before they kill it... no cheap sentimentalism involved) with the rioters. Get a few people who are of the 'line the looters up and shoot them' opinion together online, watch them hype each other up with suggestions of shipping rioters off to warzones, or bringing back the death penalty... and then switch out that 'line the looters up and shoot them' with 'all pigs are bastards and have it coming' and you're right-bang in the head of that guy lobbing a flaming missile at whatever uniform is closest to hand...
And empathy ~is~ important. My reaction to the riots is pretty much the same as my reaction to terrorist attacks has been since I was first aware of the IRA as a kid. The first and immediate act should be to take the proper (ie reasonable, efficient, well-thought out and organised) action to stop any immediate threat and any immediate risk to (1) life and (2) property. The second is to try to understand why this happened in the first place, so as to prevent it happening again. Which often involves trying to get into whatever is genuinely in the heads of the perpetrators (which will be their own mishmash of fantasy, prejudice, bias and fear - they're human after all) and therefore often involves acknowledging the areas in which they have been unjustly treated, and do in fact have a point. (Again, in more 'stuff that I really shouldn't have to point out' time, acknowledging that they may have a point is a completely different thing to condoning their actions. You can completely condemn the action someone has taken, while still acknowledging that that action stems from legitimate concerns, and so working to address those.)
Because take away the original peaceful protest that started this, take away the always-there in-it-for-kicks and opportunistic looting gangs that joined in later, and you still have a massive undercurrent of anger and alienation. Nothing explodes the way this country has the past few days unless it's already a powderkeg waiting to ignite. If someone smashes up their own living room, they probably need medical help. When people smash and burn their own neighbourhoods, there's something seriously amiss on a far wider level. (I would say broken, but the fuckwit Cameron has stolen that so I refuse to use that word in this context: his picture of a broken society and mine are diametrically opposite.) And that's purely looking at those that were angrey enough to be there to smash first and grab second, and not even looking at how badly screwed up things are if we have half a generation who really were there just to grab what they could and see that as their right... because that comes from somewhere, not out of thin air. We're none of us our own unique creations, or our own unique fault.
But you know what's really the saddest thing? Ultimately, none of this is going to change anything. Already (already? more like from about 30 seconds after the news hit) people are taking the riots as a whole, and whatever snippets of information fit their own viewpoint, and weaving them into their own personal narrative of What Should Be Done With This Country. You can probably predict exactly what your friends' stance will be on the riots from their (small 'p') political views, and vice versa. (And I know I'm not immune to this - my first reaction was very much 'this is what happens when you cut to the bone all those invisible supports - community liaison officers, youth clubs, outreach programmes, coupled with the less tangible effects of leaving a rising generation feeling like they have no future, no matter what they do.' I mean, obviously I'm ~right~, whereas anyone else is simply delusional, but that's besides the point.) With every new influx of information, with every online debate, with every retelling, people are ossifying their opinions, backing into corners, simplifying the story into simple black and white. We're burying any chance we might have had to understand, to mend, and to prevent the cycle repeating.
Which, you know, really is nothing new.
I ought to copyright it.
(Final not-to-tempt-fate caveat: I'm under no illusions - if anything bad happened to anyone I care about during these riots, I'd be the first to be screaming for blood. But that's because I'm human, and that's a very human reaction. Long-term, it still doesn't make it a particularly right or helpful one.)