Time to Do Something for themselves
A trendy attempt to promote ‘positive images’ of young people after last year’s riots is the last thing they need.
To coincide with the first anniversary of last August’s riots in England, Do Something UK, a spin-off of the state-backed charity vInspired, has launched ‘Reverse Riots’. It’s a campaign designed to ‘empower young people’ by getting them to ‘record and share all the amazing things [they] do for the community’. And, hey presto, they become ‘active citizens and leaders’.
By undertaking this initiative, the charity hopes to challenge the ‘negative coverage of young people’ that occurred after the riots. It sounds well-meaning, but the impetus behind Do Something is akin to that of missionaries attempting to civilise urban enclaves. At best, it’s a ‘Hey kids!’ pile of patronising platitudes; at worse it contributes to the widespread idea that external interference is urgently needed ‘to help the poor’.
Firstly, we all know that the looters and arsonists were not representative of young people. Only a swivel-eyed, helmet-haired reactionary would think otherwise. Indeed, some of the sentences dished out for very minor offences, such as nicking chewing gum or bottled water, have demonstrated the judiciary’s inability to distinguish between destructive behaviour and youthful foolishness. Such draconian measures won’t address the underlying problem and, for the individuals involved, may have damaging long-term consequences. But the need to tackle ‘negative media images’ suggests there was a moral panic around the riots and that the disturbances were nothing serious – just kids being kids, right grandad?
Do Something is reinforcing the wish of some commentators to play down the significance of the riots. However, far from there being an excess of scaremongering about the riots, there is a prevailing desire to see what happened last August as an unexceptional one off. A few more positive images in the media will hopefully convince everybody that there aren’t deep-rooted problems of anomie in the UK’s inner cities. In this sense at least, Reverse Riots will only contribute to the politics of evasion and delusion that has characterised much of the response so far.
Even worse, Do Something’s missionary zeal will only undermine what is sorely lacking at the moment: working-class independence. In the not-too-distant past, working-class communities were always suspicious of charitable ‘do gooders’ and state agencies attempting to enlighten them or help them to ‘improve’ their lives. ‘We don’t want your charity’ was once a typical response from ordinary working-class people. That is why taking up paid work or becoming self-employed was a badge of honour in many communities. This wasn’t a Thatcherite style of ‘rugged individualism’ that is frequently caricatured and dismissed today; it was a refusal to be somebody else’s object of pity, a demonstration that they were active, independent citizens.
As argued before on spiked, the withering away of class solidarity has meant individuals in poorer communities have few frameworks of informal support. It has enabled an army of interveners, politely operating as part of a ‘multi-agency approach’, to knock out any sense of autonomy, agency and even self-respect. The Do Something charity is playing the equivalent role to that of an NGO going into developing nations with the disguised purpose of divesting the inhabitants of national sovereignty. With the Do Something initiative, marginalised individuals will be deprived of even the capacity to make opportunities for themselves. The overarching message of the charity is that many young people in rundown communities lack the drive, initiative and wherewithal to turn their lives around. It takes smiling charity volunteers to show them the way. Such a message can only further reinforce young people’s feelings of powerlessness and alienation from their wider community. It could also reinforce the idea that opportunity only comes knocking when somebody provides it for you.
Interestingly enough, the charity doesn’t even mention basic policy staples around the importance of decent housing and employment prospects. Again, though, this is only because Do Something reflects how young people are discussed by broadsheet liberal journalists. Although the issue of youth unemployment was flagged up immediately after the riots, it has quickly been jettisoned in favour of demands for more welfare intervention. There are no serious discussions about how young people’s employment prospects could be improved or whether they should do more to make the most of what opportunities there are. Instead, well-paid liberal commentators will argue that young people should be protected from ‘exploitative’ work and that the state should mollycoddle young people further.
The missionaries behind Do Something UK should forget about ‘empowering young people’. What young people need is a culture of independence, not a suffocating amount of ‘guidance’, to make their way in the world and shape it in their own image.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.