Saturday, August 13, 2011

The moral imagination on display in riots and demonstrations: from London to Daraa

One of the qualities that makes human behavior so complex, so difficult to analyze, is the richness of meanings embedded in it. The riots in London are a good example. Ysmine Ryan has written an article comparing the many nuances in the intentions of the Britain rioters with those of the rioters and demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt.

Fredrik Barth [in book carefully snubbed by southeast Asiaianists, Balinese Worlds] has pointed out that folks act with intentions that are informed by their own fund of cultural resources whereas the observers of their behavior must “read” their intentions on the basis of their own cultural resources, which means that the possibilities for misreading of each other can be large, and especially so when the actor’s intentions are nuanced with deeply felt personal sentiments. Actors in fact can seek to convey a whole range of meanings in what they do – rage, fear, frustration, a desire for attention, despair, revenge, greed. Sometimes folks do what they do because to them it feels like the most effective way to express their complex feelings – feelings too complex and deeply felt for words. We’ve all been there: In times of exhaustion and frustration we have all been tempted to lash out.

But from the vantage-point of the observer unpacking the meanings embedded in the behavior of others turns out to be a huge challenge. Critical for the observer is the need to appreciate the meanings embedded in the context. The attempt to understand social explosions like those in London or Tunis or Cairo or Yemen or Daraa demands care and empathy – for all the actors on all sides – if one is ever to appreciate what animates the behavior of collectivities in such social movements. We must be ready to appreciate the contradictory and even self-destructive intentions – some of them base, some of them noble -- that animate the behavior of folks in times of stress. If ever there was a complex object of study it is the human imagination.

This article [from Al Jazeera] is rich with the complexities of meaning that inform human behavior. Note, for instance, the statue erected to commemorate one thing, destroyed to commemorate something quite different, and then used by a contemporary artist to convey yet another message, which was, again, destroyed, apparently for reasons considered significant to the state. Meanings upon meanings upon meanings -- an illustration of the the multiple and confused meanings that must be read empatheticly if they are to be understood. Anthropology seeks empathy even when we cannot agree.

From the Arab Spring to Liverpool? : The UK riots have unique roots, but British youths' alienation is similar to the disenfranchisement behind Arab revolts.
Yasmine Ryan: 11 Aug 2011 14:47

In the heart of Toxteth, Liverpool, a mysterious statue appeared in the early hours of July 30.

It was a monument to Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian man who, after being humiliated by police, had set himself alight in an act of protest that was to inflame the simmering rage of hundreds of thousands of people.

Last Thursday, in the London borough of Tottenham, the British police shot and killed a 29-year-old black man named Mark Duggan. The following day, the monument in Toxteth - a district that had been the site of racially-fuelled social unrest in the 1980s - disappeared, the monument's artist told Al Jazeera.

The Liverpool city council was unable to comment on whether it was responsible for having the monument removed, as they were swamped trying to deal with the riots, which spread to Liverpool over the weekend.

Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation, and the uprising that followed, happened in a very different context to the British riots.

When Tunisia's peaceful protesters in the underprivileged centre of the country were slain by the police's use of lethal force, the country’s middle class poured into the streets to show their outrage, and solidarity.

In Britain, by contrast, people across socio-economic groups are calling on the police to protect them from the seemingly uncontrollable mobs of youths, who, according to the dominate media narrative, seem intent on wreaking havoc for the simple reason that they can.

Yet the artist who created the monument to the young Tunisian street vendor, who wishes to remain anonymous in the commodity-free spirit of his work, told Al Jazeera that his work celebrated universal aspirations of emancipation and social justice.

His unsanctioned "people's monument" referenced other recent uprisings in the Arab world, including Egypt and Libya.

Commonalities with Arab Spring?

Closer to home, it also referred to the Toxteth riots of 1981. The statue was mounted on a plinth where a statue of William Huskisson had stood until it was mistaken for a tribute to a slave-trader and torn down in the protests against racism and police brutality of 1981 (the unfortunate Huskisson had, in fact, been the world’s first railway victim in 1830).

The myth that has arisen around Bouazizi is relevant to the UK, the artist explained, where the conservative government's cutbacks have taken their toll on people's daily life.

"[Bouazizi] represented everyday struggle, his gesture was not politically motivated but about the right to exist, to provide for one's family," he said. "I like that fruit and vegetables were the cornerstone of the revolution – not political ideology or other beliefs."

In any event, such overt political messages or symbols have been largely absent during the riots in the UK, which have been left many commentators stunned by the apparent lack of any political agenda.

Will Davies, a spokesperson for Avaaz, an international organisation that works for social justice and has rallied in support of the Arab Spring, told Al Jazeera that those rioting in the UK were, in stark contrast, not politically minded and were causing "anarchy for anarchy's sake".

"Juxtapose that with the situation in Syria, where they've finally got the courage to stand up to a brutal regime and they've done that entirely peacefully."

"They should take a long hard look at what is going on in places like Yemen and Syria," Davies said, noting the state violence and forced disappearances endured by protesters elsewhere in the world simply for exercising the right to peaceful protest or for speaking to the media.

There have, nonetheless, been some attempts to link the UK riots with the string of uprisings in North Africa and Middle East.

For some, emphasising such a link is a way of eliminating any need to discuss the local and national roots to the violence.

The neighbourhood of Toxteth in Liverpool saw some of worst riots over police brutality in 1980s [REUTERS]
Stuart Bell, a British Labour Party MP, told Europe 1, a television station, that "these riots have nothing to do with unemployment, or with government cutbacks. It has its origins in Tunisia".

Others, meanwhile, have taken a more nuanced approached.

Expressing his frustration with the way the media were covering the unrest, Darcus Howe, a 68-year-old West Indian writer, broadcaster and resident of South London, told the BBC that turmoil was very much a consequence of the British police's shooting of Mark Duggan, and of routine police bullying.

Parallel to this very local root cause, the writer argued that the social dissent should also be viewed as part of a global movement.

"I don't call it rioting - I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it's happening in Liverpool, it's happening in Port-au-Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment," he told the BBC host.

'Only then do the media listen to you'

While most other commentators agree it would be a stretch to argue that the Arab Spring in helped to ferment social unrest in the UK, North African activists who had participated in protests against their own governments told Al Jazeera that they felt solidarity with the British youths who have taken to the streets.

. . . [much is excised here]

[For more, click on the title above for a link to the source]
. . .

As a consequence of issues highlighted by those riots, there was social change which benefited the Liverpool community as a whole, he said.

"The dynamic of this riot is very difficult. This riot is not being led by black people, it is being led by youth," he said. "There's no colour bar, no gender bar."

While the rioters have no clear agenda and their behaviour should not be excused, the poet said, the existence of so many restless young people was directly linked to David Cameron’s conservative government cutbacks to community and social services.

"It should be said that the last civil unrest we've had in this country was under [former prime minister] Margaret Thatcher, during a similar time of austerity," he said.

There had been "disproportionate investment" in the upper and middle classes, notably in the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the bank bailouts, while millions of children have received little from their government.

"These are children who now appear to have no purpose. Society does not seem to see them as a significant enough group to invest in."

The story of Bouazizi captured so much attention because of the sheer desperation embodied by the act of self-immolation. Britain’s youth may be speaking a different language and their violence turned outwards, rather than inwards, but they have no less legitimacy than their counterparts in the Arab world.

Follow Yasmine Ryan on twitter: @YasmineRyan

Source: Al Jazeera

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