There is a smart guy I follow on Twitter called Symeon Bown (@symeonbrown) who made some of the most insightful comments on the recent London Riots and put many of the so called professional politicians and journalists to shame. He recently tweeted “Is there really a debate to post soldiers in classrooms & turn schools into boot camps? Cannot imagine two professions more polar opposite.”. It got me thinking about a posting I wrote a year ago, which could probably do with an update in the light of these recent events. The original text is below, with the update to follow.
Anti-Social or Just Anti-Modern World?
A friend of mine posted on her Facebook page a link to a disturbing report about youth gang violence in the area of London where I live. Such reports usually lead to views dividing along traditional Left-Right lines: either the issue is caused by poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of facilities, discrimination etc. or they lack discipline, should be locked-up, bring back National Service, corporal punishment etc. I would like to suggest an alternative view: the kids in gangs, just like people who climb mountains and join the army, are merely searching for a way of life more akin to the way that humans have lived for the vast majority of the time they have spent on this Earth?
I’m sure most people who are reading this (if anybody is) will be thinking I’ve taken a beating from the crazy stick, so let me explain. Modern humans have been around for some 140,000 years, (and more primitive ancestors for around 4 million years in total) and for over 90% of this time they lived the life of nomadic hunter gatherers. This was a harsh and dangerous life, but a life for which the human species had evolved. Then around 12,000 years ago the first settled agriculture began, followed 2,000 years later by the first towns, and around 5,000 ago the first recognisable cities appeared. Since then, everything has speeded up hugely, with nomadic hunter gatherers now confined to a few unwanted corners of the Earth and the recent revelation that the majority of the planet’s population now lives in urban environments. Humans are adaptable, we have an enormous capacity to learn, and in many ways modern life as far preferable to that of ancient times, but in historical terms, it is a very recent innovation, and certainly too short a period for nature to have made evolutionary advances
But what if you don’t want to live a modern life? What if you wish to live like humans traditionally lived? It is possible, but it is certainly not easy. What if you wish to live like humans traditionally lived, but don’t realise it, and actually have no idea how they lived; you just know you don’t fit in to the way things are?
There was a comment in the report that my friend posted that I thought was particularly telling; it comes from a school friend of some gang members, “they don’t listen and they won’t learn”. I think to blame a lack of either youth facilities or discipline is too easy; people don’t join gangs because there isn’t a youth club nearby or someone’s not making them do their homework. It strikes me as more part of a cycle of self-destruction, alongside such activities as drug/alcohol abuse, smoking, eating junk food etc. These kids know it is bad for them, (I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest that most of them are educationally sub-normal) they know that it puts them at risk, but they choose to do it. I don’t think you can look to solve the problem until you understand why the choice is being made in the first place.
My hypothesis, for which I have no proof, other than looking back on 4m years of human evolution, is that the modern world lacks risk, it lacks adrenaline-pumping excitement, it lacks camaraderie, it lacks clear, unambiguous direction; it is the reason why so many young people around the word join armed forces, both formal and informal; it is why people climb mountains and trek across the Antarctic. For most of human history, such stimulation was provided by the instinct to survive; now survival is easy, so their only option is to create an environment where survival becomes difficult again.
These kids have no interest in the world of offices, schools, shops, churches and hospitals they see around them, and “improving their opportunities” for a job in such an environ is not going to help. Most people can happily exist and prosper in the modern world, but those that can’t are viewed as delinquents and failures; maybe we should accept that the modern world does not work for everyone and how we might adjust it so there are alternatives; we might even find that some people return to “normal” society once they have had a sufficient exposure to the alternative.
It may seem odd to the vast majority of people who live happily in the modern world, but a life where risk has been minimalised by laws and health and safety rules and where the pursuit of a career, nicer house, spouse+2.4 children is not for everybody. But what is the alternative? Can us humans cope with multiple society models existing side-by-side? Our historic record on this has been poor, and the recent trend towards globalisation has pushed more and more people around the world towards the standard modern Western model. For generations, Romany and other travellers have been demonised for reasons that boil down to society at large being uncomfortable with people who want to live their life in a different way. Look also at the way that Native Americans and Australian Aborigines have been treated, peoples who wished to live a traditional life. Of course, some “alternative lifestyles” are positively encouraged by the State, (or perhaps that should be the broader “System” or even the “Man”) notably the Armed Forces, but most are regarded with deep suspicion.
Maybe the example of the Armed Forces might even provide a model. They provide a society that is more “parallel but separate” rather than “side-by-side” with mainstream society. Could such a system exist in a scenario where the State was not paying for it; I doubt it. Would wider society be prepared to pay for such an alternative society? It strikes me that it may well be both a superior and more cost effective alternative to the current structures of prisons, social workers. It may seem an unthinkable option, having similarities to the film, “Escape from New York”, but I am not suggesting some kind of giant prison camp, but an alternative structure that people could join and leave, but with different rules and laws inside the structure.
Update Post London Riots
London recently suffered its most serious riots in 25 years in which a significant (but no way close to a majority) element of the city’s young people rose up. Although the initial spark was a contentious police fatal shooting in Tottenham, there appears to be little evidence that any but the initial riot in Tottenham around the police station can be linked directly to these events. Many of the people subsequently convicted of offences relating to the riots have claimed “they just got caught up” in the events, claims that have been widely ridiculed, but ones that I believe deserve wider consideration. Stealing trainers from Foot Locker may not have the the same evolutionary imperative as hunting an animal for food, but I would suggest that it provides a similar emotional response among the participants.
In terms of the political arguments, I believe that the options being presented will have little effect. The government’s “tough” approach won’t address matters beyond making “law abiding society” happy that “justice” has been done and the criminals punished, while those on the left, proffering a smorgasbord of social/support/youth workers, leisure activities and reports will just result in yet another expansion of the “poverty industry” among the ever increasing number of graduates who cannot find find jobs in more productive activities, rather than improving the life chances and economic position of those directly effected by the position they find themselves in.
So, returning to the starting point Symeon’s Tweet about soldiers in classroom, I offer one final thought. Perhaps what we need is the option of a new type of “alternative” lifestyle for young people who find themselves “lost” in modern society. Similar to the armed forces or religious order in that it provides a community, accommodation, purpose, structure, discipline, education and vocation, but neither military or religious in nature. Such a proposal would not attract nor desire government funding, so would need to be self-sustaining, producing goods/services that would be desired by the outside world; the closest existing example I can think of is the kibbutz movement is Israel. It would have to be provide an element of excitement, buzz, risk, however you might want to describe it, but that cannot be beyond the whit of man; the world still has adventures to offer and many of them can be useful and productive. Two months one year building a school in Mozambique? The following year an irrigation project in Peru? I open it the floor to comments and questions.