Opinion | Columnists

The poison behind last summer’s UK riots

Antisocial societies cause antisocial behaviour as greater inequality weakens community and family life while strengthening prejudices

  • By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
  • Published: 20:00 August 8, 2012
  • Gulf News

If you’re trying to explain the riots that started a year ago, the safest strategy is not to put all your eggs in one basket but to come up with a long list of contributory factors. That is what the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel set up by the government did. It lists lack of community, family difficulties, low social mobility, poor relations between police and young people, consumerism and of course the panel is right. But we need to think a bit further. We need to join up the dots and think about the causes of these causes.

None of these things crop up by chance, quite unrelated to one another. That’s like thinking it’s just bad luck that smokers are not only at greater risk of lung cancer, but also of cancers of the bladder, larynx, mouth and throat, and of respiratory diseases and cardiovascular diseases too. The truth is that just as tobacco is a physiological poison, Britain’s high levels of inequality are a social poison that increases the risks of a wide range of social ills.

As the most unequal of the rich developed countries, the US suffers from among the highest rates of violence, obesity, teenage births, mental illness and imprisonment, as well as low levels of child wellbeing, social mobility and life expectancy. The US will no more be able to put all these things right while ignoring inequality than Britain will be able to tackle the social ills contributing to the riots without reducing inequality.

But how does this social poison work? It makes some people look as if they are worth much more than others not just a little bit more, but anything from supremely important to almost worthless. Money becomes the measure of personal worth. Among the FTSE 100 companies, many CEOs are paid 300 times as much as their most junior employees. There can be no more powerful way of telling huge swaths of the population that they are almost worthless than to pay them one-third of 1 per cent of their CEOs’ salaries.

Many assume that pay differences simply reflect differences in ability — that the rich are brilliant and the poor are stupid. But as we learn more about the malleability of the human brain from early childhood onwards, we discover that differences in status or class position are much more the cause than the result of differences in ability.

We are all sensitive to being thought less of, disrespected, put down. Indeed, loss of face and humiliation are the most common triggers to violence. Our need to be valued and our sensitivity to these issues is a constant source of angst, even in close relationships. Fears of inadequacy can make some social situations feel like an ordeal as we worry about appearances, maintaining face and performance. And inequality ups the stakes, so some of us go under — unable to cope with what psychologists call “the social evaluative threat”. But others tough it out; they talk themselves up, hiding insecure egos under attempts at self-aggrandisement.

Experiments have repeatedly shown that situations in which you might be judged negatively and face threats to self-esteem or social status have the strongest and most reliable impact on levels of stress hormones. And only last week research published in the British Medical Journal showed us the fatal consequences of even low levels of stress.

We have evolved to be so sensitive to inequality and status because they are rooted in issues of dominance and subordination dating back to pre-human social ranking systems. They shape behaviour because we need different social strategies depending on where we come in the hierarchy and how hierarchical our society is.

And it doesn’t just affect adults: children are shaped by parenting styles and their wider experience — either in a society in which they will depend on co-operation, reciprocity and empathy, or in one in which they learn that we are all rivals who must fend for ourselves and not trust others.

Basically, antisocial societies cause antisocial behaviour. Greater inequality weakens community life, trust gives way to status competition, family life suffers, children grow up prepared for a dog-eat-dog world, class divisions and prejudices are strengthened and social mobility slows. If consumerism helps bolster the increasingly strained sense of self-worth even of those on above average incomes, how do you deal with the sense of worthlessness that comes with youth unemployment and a job seekers’ allowance of only £56 (Dh324.66) a week?

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

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