“Blacks don’t go camping”; beliefs can fuel a riot!

The rather surprising first half of the title of this post is a direct quote from a conversation I had whilst camping this summer with a hugely interesting chap who thinks he may have been the first ‘black guy’ to live and work in Japan. Who knows if he was, but he certainly was the first ‘black guy’ I had met camping! As he went on to recount his experiences of Japanese people coming right up close to him and wanting to feel his skin and touch his hair, I was reminded of the simple and often-times, humorous curiosity we humans entertain about each other across the globe.

Yet, in spite of this child-like curiosity which can attract us to each other, we also have a need to define ourselves by boundaries of difference  which we create; identities which help us to feel safely ‘enclosed’ within an identifiable community; sometimes referred to by social anthropologists as a ‘tribe’. However, this ‘insider-outsider’ curiosity can turn to animosity when threat is either perceived or conceived.

My boundary-crossing friend, ‘Black Man in Japan’ went on to describe the shock of his relatives when he told them that he was planning a camping trip: “We Blacks don’t go camping” they told him, as if he had taken leave of his senses and forgotten this core identity-marker. With one trip to a camping supplier and a confirmed campsite booking, our friend had proven that that particular identity descriptor was selective and  subjective, rather than definitively objective. We can laugh about some of the more innocuous (but nonetheless important) cultural beliefs which form the fabric of our identity, but there are others which require us to reflect more deeply; to examine their roots more carefully.

A critical set of beliefs to examine are those which contribute to the defining and forming of a positive collective culture of justice or its dark side, a culture of injustice? In a previous post I considered how a culture of violence and discrimination can become behaviourally-normative and now, in the very recent aftermath of the UK riots, many are asking what factors lie behind the anger, retaliation, pillage and violence which erupted in a number of our cities?

When I listened to a young mum in Salford describe her reasons for picking up a new, ‘mass-produced’ phone from the pavement of a recently-looted shop, I was struck by the beliefs which had led her to diminish her own sense of wrong- doing. She detailed quite concisely the moral difference between stealing a mass-produced, new object, the value of which could be recouped on insurance against that of stealing a personal mobile phone which would contain personal data, photos, numbers etc. The latter, personal object, she maintained, she would not have dreamed of taking. The psychological distance which lay between her and the (lets not deny it) hugely-profitable mobile corporation was large enough to sever any cord of responsibility or guilt which she may have otherwise felt. This phenomenon of psychological distance between perpetrator and victim is a well-researched factor relating to criminal behaviour and is featured in individual and corporate ‘belief sets’ pre-genocide, pre-murder, pre-theft and, increasingly now in our globalised economy, pre-corporate extortion; psychological distance paves the way to many unjust behaviours.

Jesus Christ discerned this critical ‘psychological distance’ factor in the formation of ‘belief sets’. Second only to the command to love God was the command to love one’s neighbour as one loves oneself. Jesus’ teaching explicitly reduces the psychological distance between us as part of a foundation of equitable and just community. Furthermore, there was no room for classism, racism or spiritual superiority under the roof of his teaching as, in spite of the historical context of extreme social and racial tensions, economic hardship and imperial oppression and unrest, Jesus deliberately sets out the parameters of just who our neighbour is in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

There are a number of reasons put forward to try to explain the recent UK riots, where psychological distance within the UK community was clearly running at a high enough level to permit dangerous levels of violence. These reasons range from social exclusion, welfare-dependency culture, lack of good male role models, spending cuts leading to cuts in vital youth services, racism, “gangsta” culture, consumerism and opportunism. Interestingly, the unrest was also facilitated by the technology of social networking which rapidly reduced psychological distance between ‘tribe members’.

In addition to these structural and individual factors, David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University and a former prison governor, speaks of the growing culture of entitlement in the UK. This culture of entitlement, he says “…permeates all levels of society. When we see politicians claiming for flat-screen TVs and getting jailed for fiddling their expenses, it’s clear that young people of all classes aren’t being given appropriate leadership.” (cited here)

I think Professor Wilson has a point. Corrupt and unjust cultures and belief systems thrive when good leadership is lacking; be it leadership in educational establishments (already discussed here and here), in our homes, our civic, government and religious institutions. But for me, psychological distance remains key. When beliefs about what we can and can’t do become skewed (poor moral leadership) and proliferate unchecked amongst ‘tribal’ groups which have become distanced, alienated or dislocated from other parts of community (be that local, national and even global), they rapidly become expressed in the form of toxic normative sub-culture.

I admire people, like my friend, who challenged the belief that “black people don’t go camping”. Ultimately,  it matters little who does and doesn’t go camping and rather more who does and doesn’t go looting, forging, falsifying, raping, extorting and engaging in a host of other corrupted behaviours which all have their roots in skewed moral beliefs and are fuelled by dislocation, lack of accountability and psychological distance. In the words of  Peter Oborne  :

The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.

What do you think a moral reformation would look like in Britain today? How could we reduce the psychological distance from each other which so many of us experience within the UK and how can we re-ignite a tolerant curiosity which brings us into healthy proximity with each other?

Please join the conversation and post your comments and thoughts.

Carol Kingston-Smith

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