Confusing weather with climate in the UK Riots

Over at Macleans OnCampus, Robyn Urback shrugs off the political and social causes and implications of the UK riots. Fair enough; you can make a reasoned argument in that direction, even though I disagree. But she does one very unfortunate thing while making her case, which is fairly emblematic of the problems I’ve noticed with media coverage of the unrest.

In arguing that the riots had nothing to do with poverty or inequality, she makes the following statement:

And many of the rioters, in fact, are not disadvantaged youth, but 30-something teachers, youth workers, and graphic designers. To ponder socio-economic excuses for these crimes is to give those who have succumbed to mob mentality a political agenda to fall back on.

The first problem here is to pluralize ‘teachers’, ‘youth workers’ and ‘graphic designers’. If you follow Urback’s own links, it is clear that only one teacher, one youth worker, and one graphic designer have been arrested. Contrary to what Urback suggests, wild packs of young professionals are not roaming the streets of London, and the vast majority of the rioters remain young, under- or unemployed, and poor.

Urback also makes the mistake of suggesting that the outlier is in fact representative of the whole. The teacher, designer, youth worker, future soldier and grad student (these latter two being identified in other media reports as counter-intuitive examples of riot participants) represent about 0.5 per cent of the total arrests (the latest arrest reports indicate that “more than 900″ people have been detained, so I’m pegging the number at about 950). In quantitative analysis, this is what we refer to as “statistically insignificant”. There may well be more young professionals arrested, but we don’t actually know if this is true or how many there are. It is therefore wrong to suggest that the rioters include a large number of comfy middle class folks, and to further conclude that this means the riots have nothing to do with inequality.

Urback is by no means the only reporter to confuse weather (a discrete phenomenon) with climate (a generalized trend) in the riot story. Her example is nevertheless important in understanding how this distorts debate. The pictures and video of the riots discomfit many observers, and this kind of outlier-as-reality is a convenient way to insulate analysis from deeper questions of cause and context. Portraying the violence as a kind of random, inexplicable outbreak of mindless criminality is comforting to many, because it prevents the necessary consideration of why the riots are happening, and how they might be complicit in the overarching social and economic circumstances that fueled the unrest. This is an understandable response, as no one likes being uncomfortable. However, I would suggest it is not an appropriate response for members of the media, those who are tasked with interpreting these events for the rest of us.

  • http://letfreedomrain.blogspot.com Jymn

    “Portraying the violence as a kind of random, inexplicable outbreak of mindless criminality is comforting to many, because it prevents the necessary consideration of why the riots are happening, and how they might be complicit in the overarching social and economic circumstances that fueled the unrest. This is an understandable response, as no one likes being uncomfortable. However, I would suggest it is not an appropriate response for members of the media, those who are tasked with interpreting these events for the rest of us.”

    Refreshing to read an intelligent and thoughtful assessment of the riots and of the media coverage, which has been as pitiful as expected on both sides of the pond. Dismissing the reasons for any mass show of violence is lazy journalism and a sign of idealogical propaganda. Too bad the reasoned argument will be lost in a blog instead broadcast in a media outlet such as Macleans. But I don’t think your point of view and thoughtfulness is shared by our media.

  • http://tommertron.com Tom Robertson

    First, welcome back to blogging, Graeme!

    Rioting is a tough call for me. On the one hand, it’s dangerous not to hold people personally accountable for their actions. (I’m not suggesting that’s what you’re suggesting by the way.) People should always be held personally accountable for criminal acts, regardless of their socio-economic circumstances, personal history, etc.

    At the same time, pragmatically, yeah, there are definitely underlying reasons we have to look at as to what cause riots.

    The thing I’m stuck on is, why, really? Is it really just poverty and inequality? Has there been a steady increase of poverty in London over the past 15 years that hit some sort of tipping point where it will only take a small catalyst to cause a riot?

    What about Vancouver? I don’t really have the background on who the rioters were there, but I don’t suspect they were all poor (though Vancouver certainly has its problems with poverty/drug abuse etc.) So what causes Vancouver to riot when their sporting team loses, when another city in the same situation does not?

  • http://www.nuncscio.com graeme

    Thanks for the comments, Jymn and Tom.

    Tom, I agree completely that people must be held accountable for their actions, particularly when it results in injury or the destruction of property. Nothing gets them off the hook for that.

    I think what I’m reacting to is the tendency for some observers to characterize attempts at understanding as attempts at justification, which I think is really harmful to the quality of debate. We can all condemn the violence, but I think we’re obligated to think through the underlying causes.

    In terms of inequality, the UK has experience a sharp rise over the past few decades. I recommend the book “The Spirit Level” (http://www.amazon.ca/Spirit-Level-Richard-Wilkinson/dp/0241954290/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1313175705&sr=8-1) as a good primer on these issues – they review the data, and make a very compelling case that rising inequality is strongly correlated with greater violence, lower trust, higher rates of incarceration, lower educational attainment, etc. etc. Inequality doesn’t cause rioting per se, but it helps create all kinds of social dynamics in which rioting may occur.

    As for Vancouver, I have no idea. Breakdown of social trust and respect is probably a signifcant factor, though I’m just speculating. Interestingly, rising income inequality actually increases the odds of violent behaviour for everyone, not just the poor. So that could be an explanation too – as societies become more unequal, this kind of thing becomes more prevalent.