Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Young and the Restless

The initial assumption that the post Stanley Cup "Vancouver Riot" was primarily the work of anarchists, has now given way to the realization that most of the vandalism and looting was actually done by youth. I've been thinking about that and I suspect that there are a number of factors at play. Of course much has been made of the pictures and video clips that are circulating online and that have been submitted to the authorities as evidence. There are valid questions about the vigilanteism that these events have triggered, the naming and shaming campaigns. And debates are raging about the appropriateness of sanctions for those who participated in the vandalism. Take the 17 year old - Nathan Kotylak - whose dreams of representing Canada as an Olympian (in water polo) now seem to be in jeopardy because of his actions that night. Or people who have lost their jobs. Or people who have received threats to their person or property. To what extent should those who participated in acts of vandalism and looting be held accountable, and how? Where should the vigilanteism stop, and how?

Here's at least a partial list of some of the factors that I think may have contributed to the chaos that night:

1. mob behavior - a mob does not have a conscience and so people will do things in a mob that they wouldn't do on their own;

2. the consumption of alcohol surely played some role in the events. Alcohol impairs judgment. A little alcohol impairs judgment a little and a lot of alcohol impairs judgment a lot. And that's even if there's no crowd effect;

3. although it does seem that youth were the ones doing most of the damage, I suspect that there were those in the crowd that night whose purpose was solely to stir up the crowd and incite them to violence and hooliganism;

4. the emotional state of many youth in our country (and in fact, around the world) these days is a tinder box - in Canada, figures out today indicate that the rate of youth unemployment is 13.9% (as compared with the National average of 7.4%). Combine this with two other facts: youth debt loads and the expectation that a post secondary education is a step to a better - i.e. more financially secure - future. Our youth are frustrated and perhaps it's not that surprising that that frustration should erupt into violence when an opportunity presents itself. Believe me, I'm not looking for excuses for bad behavior - just saying...

5. General sense of instability and anomie - a term used by French sociologist, Emile Durkheim that is roughly translated as "a state of normlessness". That is, the realization that the game has changed and we don't know how to deal with it. Besides the things listed in #4 above, post modernism (with its deconstruction of societal norms and values), the high rate of family breakdown (and I know that this isn't a popular sentiment, but I suspect that we have only just begun to see the impact of divorce on our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren), and the general sense of doom that is conveyed by the media on topics such as the global economy, climate change and environmental impacts, terrorism, etc. all contribute to a deep rooted sense of cynicism. Many youth - from all socio-economic backgrounds - find it hard to be hopeful in the face of all of the global and personal uncertainties;

6. Facebook and the larger world of social networking deserves a mention as well. Facebook gives youth the sense that they can create and maintain a fictitious reality, and at times, the fiction is more powerful - more real - than the actual reality. I wonder, though I'm not a psychologist, if this tendency to live vicariously through the fiction of facebook is perhaps producing a sort of dissociative disorder which affects individuals, but also our society. Capturing images digitally has taken on an immense role in our everyday lives. It's almost as though the image (perhaps doctored through photoshop or other programs) is more important than the experience it is meant to portray. Hm.

7. A culture of impunity where we have systematically protected our children from bearing responsibility for their actions. We have, it seems to me, thrown them into a moral abyss, where they only have to be accountable if they're caught, and not even then if we can figure a way around it. Young people engage in all manner of reckless behavior that endangers themselves and others, but yet we shy away from holding them responsible. We expect youth to have sex, to experiment with drugs, to drink regularly and to excess, to cheat, to lie. In fact, parents who aren't okay with all this are considered old fashioned and repressive - even bad or abusive parents! Have we lost our minds?!

8. A sense of entitlement. Let's face it - we have happily (for the most part) gone along with the business mandate that puts consumption ahead of everything else. Nothing is as powerful - not integrity or character or relationships or self respect - NOTHING is as powerful as our value as consumers. And our kids - that is, the children of the baby boom generation - have grown up expecting to have MORE and MORE and MORE again than their parents. They're entitled. And if they're from the middle class or the upper class, then the culture of entitlement is almost boundless.

Again, I'm not looking to make excuses. But it seems to me that this is a pivotal moment where we can either learn from this event - in all of its ugly dimensions - or we can sweep up the mess and settle for just putting it behind us - and quickly, before it has a negative impact on the tourism industry in Vancouver. This is a wake-up call. Let's not push the snooze button!

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