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riots 2011 - unspoken quotes and thresholds of help

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Bill Law
17 August 2011

Bill Law
the career-learning café

An earlier blog examines ‘why the poor don’t listen to us’.  It finds that the comfortably-off don’t understand the priorities of poverty.  And it shows how that puzzlement spills over into disapproval.  The conflict comes to a head in a crisis.

The August ‘riots’ are no easier to understand.  They’ve already been labelled as criminality...

‘pure and simple’
'to be confronted and defeated'
‘in an all-out war’

That’s troublesome enough.  But vested interests are also out in force, with their claims...

‘and supported our programme’
‘while following our lead’

Careers workers can understand that no explanation of what people do is ever that simplistic.  

From its beginning careers work has negotiated a threshold between what we can work with and what must be controlled. Every teacher faces it every day.  So does every parent.  And every policeman.  They can... with people when they recognise an outcry - and the possibility of communication - with people engaged in a search for a way forward - ready to take hold of something with promise.

But they must...

..hand over to control when they know there’s no more they can do - recognising dangers and damage - to other people and to their clients - standing aside as helper to make way for sanctions.

Having to resort to control is always a failure.  To take pride in its advocacy diminishes the advocate.  The harder but more promising task is to find a threshold for help.

People do not always tell us what’s going on.  One of the reasons - as the earlier blog shows - is not seeing any point in bothering to explain yourself to people who are not going to understand.  It’s a sort of exasperation.  It needs alert, patient, and observant attention to clues. 

Some of the clues are set out below - as if they are quotes.  (You might copy-and-paste the list, to compare reactions from colleagues and students.)  It invites a response to each ‘quote’ by asking...

          this a careers-work concern?   underline it
                  ...can we work with it?                      tick it


'I want a proper life - like other people'
‘people look down on me’

‘with good gear, I’ll make them look up to me’

‘these shops have never been for me’
‘people who buy there get respect’

‘there’re not enough jobs’
‘what’s the point of trying if there’s no hope’
‘when you can, you must grab any chance that comes along’

‘what have I got to lose?’
‘I’ve always wanted a really good watch’

‘I’ve never hoped I’d ever get one’
‘but I can get one now - it’s my only chance'
‘some say it’s wrong - we can’t worry about that’

'the police stop-and-search us - not those they respect

'people say we drag you down - but it’s you pushing us down’

‘this is about what’s wrong with you - not with us’
‘you reject me - I reject you’
‘so do my mates - we stick together’
‘mum’s boyfriend said “get me a Rolex”!’
‘violence is what gets respect - so people get hurt’


Two careers work comfort zones here:

      no underlining      not a careers-work concern, no need to get involved
                no ticks       nothing we can work with, leave it to the courts

Reform is not a comfort zone, but it means we have something to offer.  To settle for ‘no need to get involved’ leaves us empty-handed.  It means we can only seek support for doing what we have been doing.  It’s a limp response to change - expected, unimpressive, dismissible.  But acknowledging the need for reform is strong - unexpected, constructive, promising.


I don’t remember hearing any of these ‘quotes’ on any of the streets.  I don't recall seeing them on any banners or posters.  They came up later, usually from people in a position to speak for them.  The looters were not seeking our understanding.  They know about the futility of explanation.  These are, then, ‘unspoken quotes’.

They are an attempt to reflect an tacit inner life.  If we can gather no clues to those thoughts and feelings we’d underline nothing and tick nothing.  Is that it?

People who break the law should be arrested, tried and sentenced by the same rules as all criminals.  It's a civil right - justice, not populist retribution.  In a law court, not a ‘reality’ tv show.  The risk is that once people have offloaded their anger onto a punishment that satisfies them, they can be persuaded ‘job done!’.  It would be a collective failure. 

in politics
So, was this not political?  It was not done in the name of Mark Duggan - not his cause.  But politics played a hand.  In global conditions governments are weak.  What they can do about anybody’s chances-in-life is constrained by the consequences in massive monetary shifts.  So they look for compensating feel-good domestic policies.  It means attending to the electorally and economically strong.  We don’t know how many of the rioters see themselves as part of any of those constituencies.  But where there are no votes there’s weakened political interest.  That means that strong constituencies can capture government.  And that can consign the poor to the margins.  The rioters might have considered campaigning against the politics that fails them.  But they didn’t.  Though it is failing them.

in education
Some of this might have been examined at school - in ‘citizenship’.  Great teachers know that effective learning has to relate to experience.  Students are certainly helped to fit into their experience.  But the poor experience is that the world they are asked to fit into already belongs to other people.  Teachers call it learning for cooperation, but it feels like compliance - more like jumping through hoops than useful learning.  Useful learning is working out how to change things.  And the looters seemed capable of doing that.  The riots are not a failure of wit or energy.  Let them find something they can see is really worth doing, and then try to stop them!  Some of the people on those Blackberries are able seriously to out-manoeuvre the police.  What a waste of talent.

in culture
Commerce has been able to push consumer choice to the top of the policy totem pole.  But some commerce is worried about the riots.  It looks as though it will recover from the loss; but some is reported to be worried about damage to product images.  Many of the looted products are associated with crime, not because of the riots, but because of the promotional iconography.  They are sold as ’up-for-it’ - tough, independent, ruthless, bold... like ex-cons.  Such imagery shapes a culture - feeding into what people believe, value and expect in their lives.  It becomes part of a media-branding complex, with media able to capture audiences - with cool, celebrated, rap-and-gossip - and media then able to promote influential interests to whatever audience they have been able to capture.  Some of the riots had family support; but why assume that the adults-at-home are any less influenced by that m-b complex than their children?  The government says it can’t be on every corner, but the m-b complex is on every corner.  And it needs its customers to forget the violent imagery built into product branding.  So watch out for posters and press releases, disentangling those brands from that imagery.  As failures go, this is spectacular.

in community
The term ‘broken society’ is, itself, badly damaged.  It labels as ‘bad influences’ people who are, often-enough, heroically dealing with bad influences.  But - with so much innocent suffering, crime and heart-break - being able to punish somebody can be a slight compensatory comfort.  And that needs a clear separation between ‘them’ and ‘us’ - maintaining that ‘they’ are not like ‘us’.  It’s not universal - we rightly honour the bereaved, magnificently calling for shared restraint.  But the us-and-them segregation was there long before the riots.  And you don’t have to invade the gated communities of the sequestered super-rich to find it.  Sometimes the fissure is inside a post-code.  But these near but gentrified neighbours face in different direction - buying in different stores, enjoying different venues, send their children to different schools, avoid each other’s gaze - strangers to each other.  It’s easier to label a stranger ‘scum’, ‘fascist’, ‘inhuman’, ‘evil’.  Easier still if convinced of one’s own righteousness.  But the broom-brandishing will work better when it shares its clean-up with the culprits.  It will open a conversation between the perps, the victims and the families.  It is what teachers, police and neighbourhoods are finding effective.  We don’t repair what is broken by bearing down on it.  Is a word we have so-far not heard enough of ‘healing’? 


This is political, but not like SOLIDARNOSC or the Jarrow March.  Does citizenship ever mention Lech Wałęsa or Ellen Wilkinson?  Isn’t that part of its students’ story?  Do they know that they’ve got one?

Speaking of class - I suppose it’s not out of the question that some rioter from a middle-class home has been asked...

‘get me a Breitling' - nothing too gross!’

If and when we get the demographics we’ll know better about that.  But, for the moment, much of what we are witnessing is the poor trying to compensate themselves.  I doubt they see it as immoral - some take their allegiance to each other to be moral.  As many other people do.  Be that as it may, the rioters have made it harder-than-ever for anybody to defend for their interests. 

So the call is for ‘a single minded crime-fighter - to lead the Met.  The call doesn’t speak to me of the breadth-of-mind we need.  It’s harder-than-ever to hold people’s interest in that kind of understanding.  But it has never been more necessary to try.  And it’s a critical challenge for careers work.  Isn’t it careers work’s task to enable people to take hold of their stake in society?  It needs to be...

‘tough on career - tough on the causes of career’

Suppose ‘unspoken quotes’ offered a basis for working with these young men and women.  The probability is that it will be in schools.  Although that doesn’t mean that it is only for students.  School’s can and should be accessible to anybody, at any stage in life.  It would mean seeing our work in a changing relationship with both policy and commerce. This would unfold an appreciation of the subtle and pervasive influence of culture and society.  That would re-work our partner- and stakeholder-networks.  There would be a new basis for research-and-development and for exchanging feedback. 

And also for attracting support.  But if the support we seek is for what we have been doing, then we’ll be dismissed as predictable, unimpressive, self-serving.  But to set out proposals for a comprehending reform of our work, that will invite interest in what is engaging, constructive, promising.

It means understanding not only that the poor don’t listen to us - but that they don’t much want to talk to us.  But, as long as we can underline and tick some ‘unspoken quotes’, we can learn to hear what they are not yet saying.

Is that possible?  If so, what an agenda for careers-work innovation.

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