Healing the UK Riots
What Comes Next?
Healing the UK Riots
by Tim Roberts
Cover: Ai Weiwei, April 2009. Photograph copyright: Elisa Haberer
Tim Roberts shows how, by creating and honouring a new sense of "we", each of us has the capacity to help transform violence and bring about positive change in society.
The recent riots in UK cities have prompted concern and outrage, even where I live on the other side of the planet. During the height of the disturbances I was speaking with the genteel executive of a local charity in New Zealand who suddenly lost his cool, clenched his knuckles and exclaimed: "The British police should shoot a few of them! That will stop the riots instantly. They need to know who's in charge!" The speaker was so furious that he was spitting froth onto my face, yet he isn't even British.
It struck me that buried deep within this utterance are clues to both how the violence emerged and how it can be transformed.
Although the causes of this violence are complex, in this brief article we can pay attention to key threads. In the UK, many of us have for generations been creating a society of self-interest at the expense of a genuine understanding of "we". Of course, we do self-interested "we" very well: the "we" of my family, my team, in effect my tribe. But it is rare for us to reach out in altruism to people we don't know, don't like or don't approve of. And this is all that is necessary to feed suspicion, hostility, and an ability to dehumanise our fellow humans. The current framework of wider society is based on self-interest, even when this is dressed up in political and economic clothes.
This quite naturally has led to fragmentation, which is the root of violence and not just the stuff of public disorder. This emphasis on the individual has produced discord deep within our own consciousness. We might think of this discord as a self-maintained wounding of our spirit. We have become attuned to "me" at the expense of others, and this has generated a mindset of deep division that is prepared to grasp and hurt in order to feed the insatiably greedy self-focused mind. Taken to extremes this is looting; remove any vestige of empathy, and it is violent disorder and assault. It changes faces according to context but shares the same causes and conditions.
The TV footage reminded me of hordes of self-entitled hungry ghosts, a Buddhist archetype that is classically portrayed as having a huge belly but a throat the width of a needle. The hungry ghost is frantically consuming, but it can"t ever satiate its desires, and so it suffers immeasurably. In our hungry ghost society we anaesthetise ourselves to our own suffering by displacing it on others. An unconscious refrain rings through many of our violent actions: "I am suffering and I can't bear to face my own suffering," or "I can't articulate it to anyone who will listen, so I will cause you to suffer - then you'll know what it means for me to suffer." If you look closely you'll see that much of our acted out dysfunction and violence is such a twisted call for empathy.
Self-focused fragmentation is a common condition, but it is manifested differently depending on the circumstances, and amplified by suffering and delusion. Christian monk and scholar David Steindl-Rast says that one of the original meanings of the word "sin" was "a deep sense of alienation". There seems to be a prevailing sense of alienation in many of us right now. It's about time we all took this seriously and asked if this alienation keeps us safe or makes us happy. The answer is surely not.
Yet we have a blindness to cause and effect that is astounding. We assume that the end justifies the means; we assume that the means and the ends can be different yet compatible - for example the shooting of rioters to bring peace. This is dualistic and dangerous. If we use punitive force we will create waves of hatred that will expand in people's consciousness and self-perpetuate. As a result more of us will use such violence to crush violence and as a way to dominate others and protect our fragmented sense of self. Violence can never be a solution, because it is made of different stuff.
We have created a veil of excuses in which we hold the causes of fragmentation, including social violence, outside our self and demand that someone else do something to fix them and take responsibility for changing our world. This is symptomatic of a fragmented mind, twisted by grasping and self-indulgence and missing vital logical links. We must not externalise, because it misses the point. We all created the riots; we are all needed to transform the causes and conditions that gave rise to such pain.
The capacity to heal society is alive and well and is to be found deep within each one of us. We can touch this healing every time we smile, every time we appreciate someone, show compassion or help a stranger. In each one of these actions, and all altruistic and heartfelt behaviours, we are healing the riots and preventing them happening again.
The politicians and the police cannot and will not succeed in fixing the violence because violence cannot be fixed, but the causes and conditions that created the riots can be healed and transcended if we have insight and if we all take up our responsibility to live a new society into being. We must do this by creating and honouring a new sense of "we": a new way of communing with others who share this amazing world with us.
No one else can do this for us. There is nothing to wait for: we don't need new laws or a better judicial system, and we don't need more competent leaders or expert knowledge. We just need the will to take small actions and to encourage others to reach out to us as we reach out to them.
What kind of leadership does this call for? One that is aimed at creating the best of the human spirit and is concerned with inspiring altruism in all, because altruism acts as a powerful shaping force on individuals and society. The economist mindset won't easily understand this. A sense of the sacred is where we need to invest at all costs. The role of leaders and government is to inspire others to overcome their diffidence and their fears.
At the risk of being overly simplistic, let me tell you a story told to me by a wise man recently. Consider a baby bird, standing on the branch ready to fly but hesitating and immobilised by fear. Then something magically ordinary happens. Perhaps in some way the bird becomes inspired by its instinct to fly and it leaps and finds that it can soar easily through the air. It was inherent within that little bird to fly. All that it was waiting for was inspiration of sufficient power to overcome its fears. We desperately and urgently need leaders who can inspire us to fly. We know we can do the rest.
Gandhi is often quoted as saying, "Be the change you want to see in the world." This quote is so often used that it has become a cliché and we risk becoming numb to Gandhi's insight, yet it is the only piece of learning you need in order to change your world. Do you dare to take it seriously?!