In case you haven’t looked at the internet recently, London is burning. After spending the last 11 weeks researching youth frustration and violence, it occurs to me that I have a few ideas about why that might be. OK, Sierra Leone and the UK are really different. But the key findings of my report read something like this: youth are unemployed, excluded, frustrated and will do almost anything to be heard in Sierra Leone. I’m not in London, but it seems like the same goes for British youth.
So based on what I’ve learned in Sierra Leone, here is my initial analysis.
Poor young people (this is mostly poor young men, and the case of developed countries it is often poor young men of color) feel like they are being screwed over, excluded and ignored by the government. In the case of the UK, this is largely because thy are being screwed over, excluded and ignored by the government. Jobless benefits are being cut, all social services to the poor are being cut, the cost of universities is tripling this year. We can have a separate discussion about the wisdom/necessity of these cuts, but they are real and are really affecting people. The exclusion and being ignored piece is also an interesting problem–in democracies politicians pay attention to the people who vote for them (and I would argue also to those with whom they can identify personally), and youth vote infrequently and run for office even less frequently. So the need for better participation absolutely cuts both ways.
One of the biggest complaints of youth (and rightly so) is always unemployment. Minority male youth unemployment is always the highest of all. This leaves youth feeling not only excluded and ignored, but also like they have few prospects for the future. People who feel like they have few prospects for the future a) have nothing to lose by being violent and b) have few other ways of venting their frustration. They do not see themselves, for example, as being able to voice their problems in a way that someone will listen and respond. This is because typically no one ever has. These are the people who have no ability to impact society in any way except negatively. Basic human needs theory says that everybody needs to be recognized, so they are doing what they need to do to be recognized.
On the other hand, young people are also the most influence-able demographic. Genetically and physically young men are the most impulsive, least rational group of humans. They are also the most vulnerable to peer pressure. This plays directly into the constraining effects of society’s dominant discourse on masculinity. Predominant concepts of masculinity dictate that they have to live up to certain standards, and there are harsh social consequences for those who do not meet these. Many of these are tied directly to financial success and/or societal influence, which are difficult for young marginalized men to achieve (see above). There are different ways to meet these standards: for example being good at sports, acquiring (and objectifying) a lot of women, etc. But when any or all of those don’t work out, violence is an acceptable substitute because it approximates the masculine ideal that you get from those other things. In Sierra Leone during the war, this meant that poor youth were able to access women and wealth that they never would have had access to without the use of violence. But it also meant that they were able to upend the traditional social hierarchy, and wield power in society for once. Fear means a certain measure of control, and when control is hard to come by, it starts to seem like a viable option. I’d venture that we’re seeing the same dynamic play out on the streets of London.
Clearly there are many issues at play here: government policy toward the poor, youth participation in decision-making, masculinity, the nature of violence. On further reflection, it’s kind of surprising how much “poor” countries and “developed” countries have in common when it comes to youth crises of this nature. One thing that is definitely true across the board is that it is not random or “senseless”. There are good reasons these things happen. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this kind of youth violence, whether we’re talking about London or Freetown.