The last couple of nights, we’ve sat in the house – watching the blogs, exchanging texts – as our part of London operates a virtual curfew. The looting and arson is rightly condemned. I’m glad about that. But the moment is arriving to try to understand what has been happening on the streets of the UK’s cities too.
It is complex. However, one concept might be particularly useful. It’s the psychological phenomenon of group conscience.
The modern world teaches us that we are individuals. I make my own choices, attend to my own interests and strive to be self-sufficient. Autonomy and individual rights are the moral ideals that shape our age.
In truth, though, no-one is an island. We are social animals, as Aristotle observed, meaning not that we like to socialise, but that our identity is primarily collective. My family, my gang, my team, my nation are where I feel most fully myself and we will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain that sense of belonging. This is what group conscience protects and enforces. It keeps you in, even if that means keeping others out.
It can be likened to the way birds flock in the air, making the most extraordinary patterns as they wheel and swirl. The science suggests that the birds obey just one or two rules. Head for the centre. Mimic your neighbour. They are the rules of the group. We humans are driven by similar compulsions. We long to know our place.
What, then, of the rioters? There is a lot of outraged comment about why youths don’t know the difference between right and wrong. But criminologists point out that this is necessary but by itself also misses the point. Like the birds, the looters are not primarily acting as self-autonomous individuals. They are copycats – doing what their mates are doing; doing what other gangs are doing. This also explains why the violence spreads, and why that is so alarmingly hard to control.
As journalists interview rioters, this is what you hear them say. ‘It was fun.’ ‘We show we can do what we want to.’ ‘It’s time for payback.’ These are collective sentiments. The morality these guys obey is that of the group. And unsettlingly, it can be half good as well as bad. Some of their values, it seems, are driven by a sense of rage and injustice. Others are driven by the culture of greed that opportunistically puts its hand in the till – a value embodied in many other groups too, it should be said.
In fact, we are all the same. The difference is that our groups probably follow values that are mostly, thankfully, pro-social. Group conscience has been heart-warmingly demonstrated by #RiotCleanUp: ‘It's a movement’ declares Dan Thompson, the organiser of the broom army. It has also been on display amongst the vigilantes seeking to protect their property – though they must be careful to monitor the rules they obey.
Heading for the centre and mimicking your neighbour are powerful urges that can lead anyone astray.
Mark Vernon is a philosopher, author and faculty member of The School of Life. Follow his blog www.markvernon.com
Image by illustrator Emmeline Pidgen see@emmelinedraws