Tag Archives: UK

Causes of UK chaos

Here is the British Prime Minister on a cause of recent mayhem in Tottenham and elsewhere.

“At the heart of all the violence sits the issue of the street gangs. Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, they are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes.

“They earn money through crime, particularly drugs and are bound together by an imposed loyalty to an authoritarian gang leader.

“They have blighted life on their estates with gang on gang murders and unprovoked attacks on innocent bystanders.

“In the last few days there is some evidence that they have been behind the coordination of the attacks on the Police and the looting that has followed.”

I expect Cameron is right about gangs as a cause of chaos. I also suspect that quite ordinary people got caught up in the event. And in this case the PM ought to be talking to Mark Earls.

It may be a two-stage kind of thing. Gangs ignite the occasion, supplying a license for unlicensed behavior and a tipping point. (See Bill Buford’s wonderful book Thugs on the first theme, and Malcolm Gladwell on the second.) That’s stage 1. Then comes stage 2, as “ordinary” people find that their moral tolerances and social understandings are suddenly “reset” by what the gangs have done.

I am using a machine metaphor (“reset”) rather than at a viral one (memes, contagion), etc. because the second group, ordinary people, are not in fact “infected.” Which is to say they are not taken by the virus.

They choose to follow the influence of the gang, to give themselves to the moment, and their willingness to follow and to give is itself shaped by social conditions, ideas, movements, in sum, the culture in place at the moment. And that means of course that the PM should be talking to Russell Davies.

Just so long as he knows we have trained professionals standing by.


Buford, Bill. 1991. Among the Thugs. London: Secker and Warburg.

Earls, Mark. 2009. Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature. Wiley.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2002. The Tipping Point. Back Bay Books.

Anthropologist as talking head

Yesterday I did an interview with USAToday on the t-shirts, coffee mugs and other memorabilia that greeted the death of Osama bin Laden.  And seconds ago I did an interview with the BBC. 

The USAToday approach was “what are we to make of these crazy t-shirts, the ones that read things like “Obama got Osama. You’re an anthropologist, you figure it out!”

I welcomed the challenge and fell to thinking how useful t-shirts are as a kind of bulletin board.  They are cheap, cheerful, and almost instantaneously available.  

I figured you could say at a minimum that t-shirts have three functions from an expressive point of view, that allow us to share in the event, in this particular case, they give the wearer an opportunity to diminish Osama culturally, and finally, to reuse the words quoted in the USA Today article, people wear these things “to inflict a final indignity on bin Laden.”  Functions 2 and 3 are a little close, I agree.  I would nudge them apart by suggesting that function 2 says, in effect, “you are now a t-shirt,” and function 3 says, “you are now a punch line.”  

The BBC phoned to ask for an interview.  As a child raised at the knee of the CBC, I was happy to oblige.  But I must say I drew breath when the interviewer said his Skype handle was “opsbush.”  Was this to be an interview or an ambush?

It turned out to be an interview.  And I am sorry to say that I rambled in answer to several questions.  Worse than that I stumbled once or twice.  It was one thing to be bad television, and I believe my Oprah appearance demonstrates that I can be very bad TV indeed.  But to be bad radio.  Really, what excuse can you possibly have?

I opened by saying that most Americans were feeling conflicted, that most people felt the occasion called more for solemnity than joy.  But this was not the point of the interview.

Acting as if I had not just said that Americans were feeling conflicted, the interviewer pressed on to ask whether these t-shirts were not perhaps “a little sick.” To which I replied something like “Americans had suffered cruelly as a result of Osama.  Perhaps it was not be surprising that they should feel relief and even joy at his death.”  

There was one of these long silences that only the English do with real gusto.  (We Americans say nothing comes of nothing, speak again.)  I had delivered exactly the answer hoped for in these circumstances.  I had confirmed the English suspicion of our barbarity.  

To which I say, again anthropologically, that one of the differences between the US and the UK is precisely on this side of the ocean we own our emotions, even the ones of which we are not especially proud.