Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The Dark Mirror of the Consumer Society

'The crisis of our times calls for our conversion. Our structures, values, habits and assumptions are in need of basic transformation. Neither politics nor piety as we know them will effect such a change. Rather a new spirituality is required, a spirituality rooted in old traditions but radically applied to our present circumstances' (Jim Wallis, The Soul of Politics)

Remember the Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror", when everything was distorted and twisted in a parallel universe? In a way, I think the riots in London and elsewhere in  England are like that. They are a dark twisted reflection of the consumer society.

Only recently, in a debate on Sunday Trading, Peter Body in the JEP invoked the cliché "The Consumer is Always Right" as a final arbiter in decision making. But to some extent that same mentality is what has been a causal factor in those riots. The implication of "The Consumer is Always Right" in that debate said that the values that should be prioritised are those of the consumer society, and while other values (such as religious ones, or social and community ones) may be good for people to hold privately, they are marginal, of no real account in the debate. What matters is material consumption. And greed for material goods is encouraged by a raft of advertisements, by the whole "throw away" disposable goods mentality, and shopping is "retail therapy".

Of course, that is the dark mirror that we see with the riots. What matters is material consumption, although it this instance, it is about going out and grabbing goods, but the fact remains that the kind of values which would teach that theft is wrong, that greed is a dangerous impulse, and that we need to recognise our own darker side, and acknowledge the community, have all been marginalised. In such a society, is it any wonder that people will go and grab if they can? It is the dark mirror of consumer values come back to haunt us.

Jon Kuhrt, who works for the West London Mission and lives in Streatham, writes:

We are a nation which has gorged itself on consumerist values and easy credit which have created poverty and left little room for any sense of true values such as hard work, caring for others, for family and commitment. Like spoilt children who don't respect their parents, rioters have contempt for the peddlers of these addictions. That is why they focus on the mobile phone shops, the sport stores and the large corporations. We have a generation deeply malnourished by a poor diet of technology, violent computer games, bling labels and dysfunctional and disinterested family situations. I grew up in Croydon and in many ways it is a town centre dedicated to consumerism - endless shops with big windows designed to provoke discontent and increase spending. (1)

And look at the risk taking, and the lack of responsibility by the finance institutions, who - far from learning any lessons from the financial storms sweeping the world - are back in the realm of fantastical bonuses, based not on what work is really worth, what makes work important and worthwhile, in E.F. Schumacher's phrase "Good Work", but on the how good the expertise is valued in manipulating figures and moving money about, and speculating on the stock market. That deafness to caution, that throws any form of prudence to the winds in the race to make money, is again come back to haunt us. The rioters are fueled by the thrill of risk taking, by the excitement of rampaging about unchecked, and they too have no sense of worth. Just as the speculative excesses of the financiers cause suffering to innocent people, and effect the real world, yet those same financiers seem totally alienated from that connection, so the rioters are devoid of empathy for those people whose livelihoods they so casually destroy. The same lack of empathy; the same alienation from community, but just played out in different ways: the dark mirror again.

Again I think Jon Kuht has a good point when he writes:

The number of high profile scandals that have hit institutions like the Police, Parliament and the City has hugely undermined the moral authority of the establishment. It stokes a sense of injustice among many urban young people that they cannot trust the 'suits' and that 'everyone is on the make'. Free papers now mean that far more people read the headlines about banks paying the ridiculous bonuses, MPs claiming on houses that don't exist and Police being paid by newspapers. Surely these are just middle class versions of shop looting? They see 'the grabbing hands grab all they can' and believe they are following suit. (1)

The descriptions of the rioters often involve words such as "mindless thugs". In fact, far from being mindless, these riots were well planned and coordinated, which meant the rioters could tip each other off about the police response. But once some people start acting in this way, this behaviour can actually act as an encouragement to others. This is called technically by the term "deindividuation" and it involves a mix of possible features: reduced self-awareness, a sense of anonymity, increased autonomic arousal, greater responsiveness to cues in the environment, and a collapse of internal controls against improper behavior.

A study by Edward Diener and his colleagues (1976) involved involved 1,352 children and took place in 27 different homes throughout Seattle on Halloween night. This was the basic setup of the experiment:

The 27 homes were all set up similarly: on one end of a low table inside the front door was a large bowl of bite-sized candy bars; at the other end was a bowl of pennies and nickels. Children naturally arrived on trick-or-treat night either alone or in groups. A woman (actually a research accomplice) greeted the children, complimented them on their costumes, and otherwise acted in a friendly manner. Some of the children (both those who came alone and those who came in groups) were deliberately identified. The woman asked each child what his or her name was and where he or she lived, and then repeated the information back to the child. Other children (alone or in groups) were not asked to identify themselves or say where they lived. They remained anonymous. The woman then told the children that they should take just one candy. If a child asked about the bowl filled with coins, she simply repeated her instruction to take only one candy.

In a number of homes, the woman declared that the smallest child (if the children had arrived in a group) would be responsible for any extra candy or money that was taken. There were three variations of this shifted responsibility condition: sometimes all the children, including the one made responsible, remained anonymous; sometimes the responsible child was identified while the other children in the group remained anonymous; and sometimes all the children, including the responsible child, were identified. It was predicted that shifting responsibility to the smallest child would make transgressions more likely, because the bigger children could blame him or her if they were found out.

After these various manipulations were in place, the woman casually mentioned that she needed to return to her work in another room. What the children (or child) did not know was that a research assistant was observing them through a peephole in a decorative backdrop, recording how much candy and money they (or he or she) took.

The results revealed how the lure of anonymity encouraged the children to follow other's lead in stealing, even with those children who would not otherwise have stolen; the extra factors encouraged them in the belief that they could get away with the theft:

About a third of the children took money, extra candy, or both (each child was scored as simply having transgressed or not). Both anonymity and group presence exerted a significant main effect. That is, each alone affected the number of transgressions (in both cases increasing them). A more notable finding, however, was that these factors significantly interacted (the effect of one factor depended on the effect of the other). Specifically, 8% of the children stole either money or extra candy when they were alone; 21% stole something when they were anonymous or part of a group; and 57% of the children stole something when they were anonymous and part of a group. Thus, children stole more when they were anonymous, but especially when they were in groups. Another striking finding was that the effects of shifted responsibility and anonymity together were greater than either alone (another interaction). A full 80% of the children swiped money or extra candy when both factors were present

Transgression rates were notably higher in groups in which the first child took money or extra candy compared to groups in which the first child took only a single piece of candy. However, they also found that first children in groups pilfered more candy or money than children who were alone, suggesting that modeling was not solely responsible for the group transgression rate. Something occurred in the anonymous groups besides modeling-presumably deindividuation-to coax kids into antisocial behavior. Apparently, being anonymous and being in a group influenced the first child's behavior, and then his or her actions created a behavioral norm that was followed by the other children in the group.

These, and other results, such as those in the experiments of Philip G. Zimbardo, showed how groups can behave in ways which escalate out of control, and transgress the boundaries of normally acceptable behaviour, and that while one event can cause the trigger, once the mob behaviour takes over, it spreads beyond any primary motivation of protest:

Such minor transgressions provide a model for more serious crime. Indeed, deindividuation can pose very real problems. Historical examples of mob behavior (in which deindividuation presumably often occurs) abound. These range from the vigilante lynchings and other acts of violence against Blacks in the United States in the early 1900s; to Kristallnacht, a 1938 uprising in which Nazi hoodlums attacked Jews, looted their property, and burned their synagogues; to the riots in Watts, Harlem, and Newark in reaction to White racism in the 1960s. Restless rock concert-goers have been known to stampede stadiums and music halls, leaving dozens injured or dead (although this may be due as much to panic as deindividuation). Sports fans, especially hockey, soccer, and American football enthusiasts, are also notorious for their uproarious and sometimes tragic mob behavior. Even joyous victory celebrations have been known to turn calamitous, as when an NBA team clinches the championship and its home city erupts into a bacchanal of vandalism, looting, arson, and assault. In a similar manner, an outrageous judicial verdict can trigger bedlam.

Of course, darkness and disguise suppress individual identity, and often encourage antisocial behavior, and it is no surprise that the nights are when violence flares up. Seeing others smash through storefront windows and escape with stereos and TVs during a looting spree, the deindividuated person joins in, pulled in by the thrill and euphoria of being part of the chaos erupting around them.

But is this "mindless vandalism"? I think the weakness of that kind of language is that it emphasises the wrong deficiency. The vandalism can be cold and calculating, coordinated by social networking, and even very rational - it is not mindless in that sense. I think "heartless destruction" would be a better term. These rioters have not lost their minds, they have lost their hearts, their empathy with those whose houses and shops they ransack - some of whom are small shop holders, not just large shops. The rioters have lost the values in the words "love your neighbour", the impulse to care, to think about the human consequences of their actions. The traditional social values have gone.

This is the dark mirror of the banking crisis, of the consumer values, of bankers bonuses, of politicians on the make, where there is also too little thought about responsibility for actions, and how they can hurt ordinary people, and a group of people have also lost the connection to wider humanity - and a similar kind of deindividuation takes place. The same people whose tight focus on their own investments destabilise currencies, and could cause a widespread chaos if there was currency collapse worldwide, are simply oblivious to the fact that they too would be caught up in the maelstrom that would follow their actions, and the suffering that would follow everywhere. Dr Barry Morgan commented on this kind of behavior:

"To talk about ethics means talking about how we should live our lives and the kind of people we ought to be and the way we would like our communities to function. In the context of business this used to be regarded as irrelevant, pious or even weak. It was not seen as 'businesslike' in a world where competition ruled and financial growth was the only marker of success" (3)

and he went on to note:

"If we separate economic life from longer term goals for humans and fail to ask the questions of what life is for, and assume that the profit motive is paramount, then we will not be seeking the wellbeing of all, especially the most vulnerable and our society will unravel.  Shared wellbeing and how we achieve it are the most crucial questions that our country and world faces"

The riots taking place across England show us the consequences of that separation, reflected in a dark mirror back to us. It is perhaps, time to consider the consequences of an economic reductionism, that just like a philosophical reductionism (which would simply see human beings as gene machines), takes away all that is really important from life, and destroys communities in the process. Money itself is not bad, nor is making money. But when that becomes the final arbiter, it becomes a god, an idol, and it will demand sacrifices (the impact of which we can see with cutbacks to government spending, and basic services) and ultimate destroy us. It is time to challenge that.

Their gods are made of silver and gold, formed by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, and eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, and noses, but cannot smell. They have hands, but cannot feel, and feet, but cannot walk; they cannot make a sound.

All those who make idols are worthless, and the gods they prize so highly are useless. Those who worship these gods are blind and ignorant---and they will be disgraced. It does no good to make a metal image to worship as a god!

(2)  Experiments with People: Revelations from Social Psychology. Robert P. Abelson,  Kurt P. Frey, Aiden P. Gregg, 2004, p265


Tom Gruchy said...

Thanks for writing this - it saves me attempting it and you have expressed the issues more than adequately.
I look forward to the responses from our leaders in government, finance and the church.
Tom Paine's simple link between lack of happiness and civil disturbance won't satisfy them of course and the word "indiference" is probably nearer to their lack of vision and the plunderers lack of "heart."

Nick Palmer said...

Glad to see someone else is annoyed by the way the phrases mindless thugs/vandals are used rather mindlessly in the media