This past week I’ve been plugged into the riots in Britain (sparked, initially, during a peaceful protest against the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan) and, since the US news outlets are woefully narcissistic, much of my information about London has come via Twitter.
I had recently connected to London-based writer, Lawrence Pearce, who lives in Croyden, and on Monday night his tweets took on a most alarming tone. He was at his office and the police had blocked off the streets. His wife and infant son were at home in Croyden and he was on the phone to them constantly. And then, just down the street from his flat, someone set fire to the furniture store. Flames rose like dragons in the sky. The air around his flat was thick with black smoke. Regardless of the danger on the streets, he decided to make a run for home. How could he not? The idea of his wife and child in such peril was overwhelming. He said he’d ‘tweet’ again when he made it home.
It was a nervous time, waiting for that ‘tweet’. The news was suddenly not about what was happening ‘over there’, not about ‘those people’. Even though I’ve never personally met Lawrence, I was connected to him; I had skin in the game, as they say.
Well, he did make it home, and spent a terrifying night watching over his family as rioters swept through the streets around him, praying they wouldn’t set fire to his home as well.
I kept turning on CNN, hoping to find coverage, but of course it was nothing but Casey Anthony and the ‘Debt Crisis”. We are a myopic nation.
I switched to live BBC coverage on the net and was, frankly, horrified. Wilding in the streets, burning cars and buildings, senseless violence, absurd looting, terrified families . . .
Over the next days, as CNN and FOX and MSNBC waffled on about what idiots politicians were and why the United States is either a) doomed or b) on the brink of catastrophe or c) about to implode, there continued to be scant coverage of the riots.
Hmm, I thought, what the hell is wrong with us?
And then, details about the rioters in London began to take shape. At first, it was assumed (and isn’t it always?) the miscreants were immigrants and marginalized youth. Two particularly vapid and drunk young women were interviewed and talked about what “good fun” it all was and how the riots were all about showing “the rich” “We can do what we want.”
The media blamed “feral teenagers” and to me it all felt like an urban Lord of the Flies. And yet, as happened with the Vancouver Stanley Cup riots, it turns out many of the rioters were not marginalized, feral children, but were people with ‘respectable’ lives. According to a CNN article:
Those passing through London’s courtrooms on Tuesday and Wednesday — some courts sat overnight to cope with the numbers — have included a teaching assistant, a lifeguard, a postman, a chef, a charity worker, a millionaire’s daughter and an 11-year-old boy, newspapers reported.
Why are we shocked by this? Perhaps more shocked than if they had been poverty-stricken, abandoned youths?
Surely it is because, although we don’t condone it, we can understand how someone who’s been treated poorly all of his or her life might suddenly snap. What’s harder to understand is what amounts to an appalling lack of empathy.
These looters and rioters cared nothing at all about the people they frightened, the people whose businesses they destroyed, the people whose homes they destroyed, the people they battered and robbed. The level of selfishness is stunning.
So, if there is a lesson to be learned from these flare ups — whether in staid old Canada or England or elsewhere — is that it isn’t grinding poverty and injustice that are the main culprits (although certainly they are issues we cannot ignore) but rather it is this narcissism, this inability to see beyond our own immediate gratification, this inability to see the world from someone else’s point of view.
And perhaps this is utterly idealistic on my part, but one of the reasons I have devoted so much of my life to literature is that I truly believe it is one of the few effective tools we have to develop empathy. When I read a well written book I am granted access to a “living dream” in which I experience the world through the sense of another person, and quite possibly a person vastly different from me. A war veteran in The Things They Carried. A New Brunswick logger in The Friends of Meager Fortune. A prairie farmer in On the Night Plain. A man whose child has disappeared in A Child in Time. A youth struggling in the South African Townships in Tsotsi . . . And so forth. Widows and textile workers, shipbuilders and thieves, First Nations families and African American jazz musicians . . the homeless and the privileged, the sick, the strong, the fearless and the frightened . . . on and on.
I open the pages of a book and — if the author is talented — whoosh –– I am transported into a life other than my own; I am transported into the mind and heart and gut of another human being. I feel what they feel. I grieve with them, fear with them, rejoice with them. And then, perhaps, when I pass someone on the street who might otherwise seem alien to me, something I have identified with, imagined — dreamed-with-eyes-wide-open — returns to me and that person doesn’t seem so strange after all.
The boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ blur.
Will literature save the world? Possibly not, but I can’t help but wonder if it might not have opened the hearts of a few of those looting lunatics who appear to care very little for their neighbors, who seem to perceive themselves as ‘us’ and those around them as ‘them’.