A Reflection on the Riots. An essay on how we attribute causes

Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Over the last few days, I have read many arguments in the blogs about what is really causing the French riots. As people have variously mentioned, there are no doubt countless forces behind the trouble, from organized crime to Jihadist rhetorics and possibly recruiters, from corrupt politicos and state ideologies to high unemployment, testosterone, cultural separatism, racism, and the inability of France to articulate a vision to which immigrants might belong. All these explanations seem good as far as they go; they are at least necessary if not sufficient to fully explain the present scene.

Yet I wonder if there is not something to be gained by further reflecting on how we attribute blame for such violent social eruptions. The immediate or proximate causes of riots are much less easy to identify than are the name games we play in our attempts to stamp our meaning or sense of historical direction on the event.

To Continue reading this essay, please click here.

17 comments:

David Thomson said...

“I have read many arguments in the blogs about what is really causing the French riots.”

These debates are often deteriorating into an abstract intellectual exercise of secondary importance. Do we really want to imitate the philosophers of the Middle Ages who supposedly argued over the question of how many angels can sit on the head of a pin? The main thing is this: the situation is hopeless! Europe is finished. We must now make sure that the same thing doesn't happen in the United States.

Knucklehead said...

TP,

To some extent we are all blabbing away at different questions at different points in the discussions.

Who are these people? What are their unifying characteristics or attributes? How did it come to this? What might it come to over time? None of these are the same questions yet all are to some extent related. These questions are not always attempts to excuse or even find deep human or social meaning.

Your essay was very thoughtful and thought provoking. Unless I missed something, however, you missed something. There seems to be an assumption, and you are not alone in making it, that all forms of violence are for all people are at all times taboo.

I do not believe this is the case at all. Also it has only nominal relevance to the matters explored in your essay, that nominal relevance being to explain how we get so many suddenly willing to do violence where there were, just recently, so few. There are people willing to do violence in some or all of its varying forms when it serves some purpose or has some sanction they recognize. The soldier is somewhat of an obvious case of this. Criminals are another case.

But willingness to do violence in some form or other need not be anything so "permanent" or instantly recognizable as "soldier" or "criminal". For short durations of time the willingness to do violence can be stem from nothing more than simple fashion - "everybody" (at least everybody whose opinion matters at that moment) is doing it.

Since I've lost all track of what this has to do with any question your asked or point you pondered, I'll shut up about it.

Peter UK said...

One of the problems with the examination of human phenomena is that the veru process of examination changes it.
As soon as social and economic theories are applied the phenomena take on the characteristics of the theories used.
Marxist economic determinism is one such,but a realatively new causal determinant racism is interesting.
Being new racism is a perfect microcosm of the inverse effect of social theory.
Firstly,invent a new thesis and search for indicators,tabulate those indicators and soon the thesis takes on a life of its own.
As in all theses,a terminology will develop,soon this will be the thesis itself.At this point the thesis can become a political tool,similarly the terminology becomes jargon which is transfered to those who form the study group,which will start using the jargon and the concept automatically in response to investigation.
The generality will pick up the jargon and the terms will be bandied about cavalierly with little understanding of the underlying thesis
As a scientific method all social investigation is open to this corruption,this in turn corrupts the argument concerning root causes.
Perhaps we should define our terms.

David Thomson said...

My attitude is not “The heck with all this talk. Let’s kick some rear end.” No, I’m concerned that the focus on asking why the revolt (and that’s what it is!) has occurred might be some sort of a psychological defense mechanism. One must not be allowed to run away the reality that France has effectively been destroyed. Let’s get the funeral over for this once great nation---so that we can get back to combatting the Islamic nihilists.

flenser said...

I'm burned out on the French riots.

chuck said...

tp,

I think your essay would benefit from some ruthless editing. It is a bit long and diffuse, and I don't think you have yet settled on the central ideas that you want to emphasize. The language is also pretty academic (IMHO) and clutters the landscape: I found myself skipping through the essay trying to find the main points. What are those ideas:

1) Marxist analysis is inadequate. You might omit this alltogether or gather into one spot.

2) Ideology and ideas are dynamic and can develop from/during the act of rioting itself.

3) Bonding during rioting. OK, this is somewhat my own riff, but I think violent group action by young males creates bonding and community. It is a throwback to hunting parties. It is what we guys were born for.

4) Apropos Marxian materialism, the oddest thing in these riots is the lack of looting. Maybe there are no convenient sources of goods nearby -- perhaps an unintended consequence of the social housing design and isolation -- but I still find it strange. Indeed, the whole exercise seems more an assertion of power and domination than an immediate desire for goods.

4) I think there are many sources of ideology, television and talk radio come to mind. The cowboy and indian aspect of the Palestinian intifada portrayed in the French media no doubt plays a role. Do the rioters see themselve as the Palestinian Lone Ranger?

I may have more thoughts when I give the essay a more detailed reading.

truepeers said...

Thanks for all your comments; keep them coming. I have less time today to reply than I thought I would, but I will get back to this in a few hours' time and see if I can rework the kernel of my argument.

Peter UK identifies the essential dynamic with admirable verbal efficiency: watching and analyzing a human phenomena changes its nature when we are part of the system under analysis, that is to say when our analysis will enter the system as information.

Human society is always some kind of market, and the essential question is to what degree can we avoid taking these punks - i.e. when they behave as violent punks and not responsible citizens - as significant factors in our networks of exchange, be these intellectual, commmercial, political, etc. Can France rise above their provocation, or is David right that France is finished? Over at Belmont CLub, Wretchard is saying that a new nation has come onto the scene, we just don't know what it is yet.

Knucklehead said...

TP,

It may be useful (then again, maybe not) to note this important point made by Shannon Love over at Chicagoboyz.

I repeatedly see a lot of commentators repeating the idea that people riot because they feel weak, powerless and helpless. This is exactly backwards. The real pattern is that people tend to riot when they feel both entitled and empowered. (emphasis mine)

This a very legitimate point and he makes a reasonable case for it.

flenser said...

The level of attention given to the French riots and the passionate debate over their meaning is of more interest to me than the riots themselves.

I believe that many on the right have already written off France, and "Old Europe" in general, as being doomed by demography. This is not a new proposition. Pat Buchanan released "The Death of The West" in 2001, and the idea was not new then. Mark Steyn has also written often on the topic.

The mathematics of the situation are irrefutable, which leaves me a little puzzled at the shock at what is coming to pass. Among the under-twenty group, African immigrants and their descendants are equal in number to the native French, but see themselves, and are seen, as seperate.

The modern liberal welfare state produces as a by-product a large number of bored and alienated young people. When these young people are also distinct from the larger society in ethnic/racial/religious terms it creates a potentially explosive situation, as the US and UK have found to their cost, on a small scale.

My sense is that those of us of a more liberal sensibility, invested in the idea that people are ultimately all the same, are more disturbed by the rioting than those who accept that identity trumps all else, on the macro level.

truepeers said...

willingness to do violence in some form or other need not be anything so "permanent" or instantly recognizable as "soldier" or "criminal". For short durations of time the willingness to do violence can be stem from nothing more than simple fashion - "everybody" (at least everybody whose opinion matters at that moment) is doing it.

-yes, i agree. Knuck, I don't think all forms of violence are always taboo - one of the reasons I distinguish war and civil disturbance, not that i'm sure which is unfolding in France right now.

What you say about violence being possible when all of a sudden it becomes the thing that everyone is doing is very true, as anyone who has been in a riot or large fight knows. What explains this ability to move suddenly into violence is what Rene Girard - see my link in the essay - calls "mimetic desire".

This is his term for the literary discovery that we learn our desires from each other, and that this fact of shared and competing desires has all kinds of consequences for the social order. While there are good and bad forms of mimesis, Girard concentrates on the negative. Often mimesis leads to a loss of respect for difference and erodes the social order; this often leads to the need for scapegoating - socially sanctioned violence - as a way of re-establishing order. In the heat of the mimetic crisis when competing desires lead to the loss of the meaningful differences that maintain order, a scapegoat is inevitably sought, one who can focus the resentful tensions and, when the goat is sacrificed, provide the community a collective release from their misunderstood tensions and resentments - they think the goat is to blame, not their own moral implication in the good and evil consequences of our mimetic desire.

In a primitive society, Girard says, victims are remembered as gods, because the resolution of the mimetic crisis through scapegoating has such a powerful and mysterious effect in pacifying the community that the victim becomes represented as all powerful - what else can explain how the act of victimization has had such a miraculous effect on the community.

I was trying in the essay to play with such ideas, as for example when I was suggesting that the resentful don't understand their need for victims and misinterpret the causes of their resentment. Mythological thinking can only be replaced by an awareness of our mimetic desire and its causal role in making things like riots happen.

Anyway, this is just a half-assed way of opening a big can of worms, and perhaps the trouble with my essay is that I have yet to find a way very effectively to use these still somewhat unfamiliar ideas.

truepeers said...

As a scientific method all social investigation is open to this corruption,this in turn corrupts the argument concerning root causes.
Perhaps we should define our terms.


-Peter, one of the reasons there is so much utopian nonsense in academe is that the very desire for a consistent method in the social sciences is itself utopian. The desire for method is the desire to maintain a social or intellectual structure - and hence to control the future - in face of its inevitable erosion by the forces of human desire and our resentment of what is presently sanctioned by officialdom.

The desire to define terms - while a good thing in the context of a specific argument - can lead, when terms and jargons become officially sanctioned in academe, to a great structure of abstract terminological idols and arguments - a.k.a. metaphysics - without which credentialled or expert language will not be sanctioned. It is thus better to seek to minimize our terms than to try to make them generally uniform, as if concepts didn't depend for their usefulness on the particulars of the context in which we use them.

truepeers said...

I’m concerned that the focus on asking why the revolt (and that’s what it is!) has occurred might be some sort of a psychological defense mechanism.

-yes, it most certainly is this. But then the human need to continually reconstruct a sense of order must play itself out, whether or not France as we have known it can continue in any shape or form. Even if what comes after is some kind of Eurabia, the arguments now being made about the riot's causes will have some effect on how Eurabia is conceived and structured.

My initial question was whether we can push against the inevitability of Eurabia by refusing to get into the game of defining causes, of recognizing these punks as serious political actors. David, you are very clear that this is a vain wish. There is much to recommend your position; yet i cling to the hope you are wrong.

At some point, perhaps sooner than I thought, hopes for Europe may have to be discounted. I still want them to fight. And one who retains his authority is best served when he doesn't have to claim authority, when he can show his strenghth by not having to engage in debates about causes, etc. As I recall, Louis XIV could communicate his wishes with the slightest move of the hand.

truepeers said...

Chuck, I gave the essay a fair amount of editing - as much time as I can allow for this kind of thing. But the goal was not to argue a neatly defined thesis, laying out clearly at the start what I was going to do. Rather, I just wanted to raise some ideas, state a problem and let it unfold with no certain solution. Ultimately, this event is a power grab and the French either accomodate it or knock it down. If we favor the latter course, it's not clear what we have to talk about. ANd I guess my essay is an attempt to talk about why we don't have a lot to talk about.

Anyway, this point of yours jumped out at me: Bonding during rioting. OK, this is somewhat my own riff, but I think violent group action by young males creates bonding and community. It is a throwback to hunting parties. It is what we guys were born for.

-I would put it to you that all of culture is usefully understood in terms of its hypothetical origins in mediating the violent potential of young males. The essential human problem is that no animal pecking order will work for us. One on one relations of dominance and submission break down amidst our competing desires. Totalitarian societies are a very late development in human history; primitive societies are rather egalitarian. This is to say we are first of all political beings because biology did not provide us enough order and we had to supplement it by discovering/receiving culture, language - i.e. the name of god - as well.

truepeers said...

I repeatedly see a lot of commentators repeating the idea that people riot because they feel weak, powerless and helpless. This is exactly backwards. The real pattern is that people tend to riot when they feel both entitled and empowered.

- I would agree that people who feel weak and powerless don't riot. BUt I'm not sure it's right to say that rioters feel empowered, though entitled may be the correct word. The rioter has a resentful notion that what he deserves to be given has been refused. It is this self-righteous sense of being, of centrality denied, that can be so contagious and spark off a riot.

Rick Ballard said...

Truepeers,

I keep thinking that I can almost undeerstand what you are driving at and then I realize that I can't, as yet, reduce it.

Perhaps the concepts would become more clear if you could swap from the academic style to a literary style. If there is to be a "new mythos" I doubt that its transmission will be new at all. Stories must be developed and they must be understandable on multiple levels.

Tolkien wove Christian and Norse concepts together as he developed the 'Lord of the Rings'. The end product was something 'new' because of that incoporation, although the form itself is very old. In contrast, Lewis used all Judeo/Christian symbolism and concepts in developing the Narnia tales.

I'm still stuggling with the concept of a new mythos because I see a lack of totemic symbols as being a rather high hurdle to overcome.

truepeers said...

My sense is that those of us of a more liberal sensibility, invested in the idea that people are ultimately all the same, are more disturbed by the rioting than those who accept that identity trumps all else, on the macro level.

-you may be right about who is disturbed, but I'd point out that to say that people are all the same is, in effect, to say they are all equally different - their difference emerges from a common point. Or to say they are all different is also to say they are the same on some level, and it is this base sameness that allows us to grasp their differences.

It seems clear to me that people are in ways all the same and all different. In other words, I believe that all languages and cultures share a common origin - which is why all languages are mutually translatable - and that difference is best understood as having emerged from this common origin. And, if people can be convinced to take the question of their common origin seriously, they will have a basis to communicate over their many differences that have arisen since that time, and will not have to get trapped in religious definitions of human origins, even as they respect their religions for raising - and so far doing it better than science - the very important question of where our culture comes from.

You say the mathematics of Europe's demise are irrefutable. But the numbers could change: westerners could become more fertile and end immigration. Or, non-westerners could discover that western ways are best - in fact I think this is what they do tend to discover (though some may be too proud to admit it, or too lazily multiculti) when they are given opportunities and power. It is a common enough thing for me to run into people, here in Canada, who obviously have family histories in nonwestern worlds but who, when they open their mouths, sound and think like most other Canadians.

Once we get over the narcissism of small differences, assimilation, integration, whatever you want to call it can happen effectively - in fact the only real exception to the usual tendancy for people to assimilate to ruling norms is where strong religious identities mitigate agaisnt it. And so Europe has to learn how to assilate, sooner rather than later, if it wants to survive. This may mean finding a new source of immigrants. Or maybe they have to learn to fight again, and, as Wretchard says, survive by discovering why they deserve to survive.

truepeers said...

Rick, on the one hand, we will never be able to live without stories, wherever the symbols must come from. On the other hand, I can't help but think the future of stories is going to be less one where great authors give it all to us, and we instead share in writing them, in some kind of interactive setting - such as the blogosphere where we are quite literally writing history together. Or perhaps your idea will be most effectively pursued in a medium like video games or some kind of AI environment.

My interest in fiction - especially novels - wains as I get older, and I used to have a strong appetite for novels. Maybe it will reverse, I'm not sure. I am trying to read Tolkien right now, but have yet to get far. Presently, my mind lusts for the analytical and this desire is not well situated in fiction unless one has a tolerance for great authorial voices constantly imposing themselves, as they do in certain kinds of intellectualized novels.

Right now, I only have a lot of tolerance for great nonfiction authors. The reason for this is that in nonfiction, content and its synthesis trumps form, and nonfiction is always discovering new ways to extend our visions of humanity in terms of an ever unfolding history and its analysis. But fiction - especially the novel - both depends on form and tends to renew the same basic form over and over so that the author who gets the spotlight is more someone who is being given a special privilege - and a resenter like myself asks why should I spend days listening to this privileged voice - than someone who is developing something significantly new.
It's like the novel is always making the same theoretical point, a profound point but nonetheless it is not involving us in developing a new practice for every day living.

Another thing is that fiction can create an esthetic effect - it can make us feel transcendence. It cannot show us, however, how this transcendence works - and this is a problem when the issue is a quest for faith. WHile transcendence is a mystery no one can fully solve, we best unfold it, to the degree we can, in a self-consciously anthropological or religious language. Today, secular anthropological language of the kind I am attempting is substituting more for, or supplementing, traditional religious language, rather than literature. Perhaps what I need to develop is less a new kind of literature as a new kind of faith community, though you may be right that you can't have the latter without the former.

SO, perhaps it is a question of how much we want to communicate in terms of feeling vs. seeing, etc. And right now I am in seeing mode, rather addicted to analytical and perhaps academic ways.

We will always need stories, but there are always some things stories cannot do, namely analyze the origin of our impulse to tell stories. You can fictionalize an originary scene, the first scene of the human story - and a fiction is a kind of hypothesis we can all comment on - but if you do so fictionalize, you cannot make it into a fully scientific hypothesis, a hypothesis whose development we can all share in a maximally interactive fashion. Furthermore, what we want to know about our origins is less what some fiction writer imagines it looked like, as how or why did this new beginning happen and what does this mean for how we understand what is happening today.

And if you are so spiritually distressed that you are driven to ask fundamental questions about our origins and purpose, you perhaps have to move beyond stories and get your medicine in a more forthright and rigorous hypothesis of human truth, just as theology emerged from stories.

I'm not sure the reverse can happen. A writer like Tolkien or Lewis writes stories to discover theological truths - it's a way of developing a hypothesis; I don't think they have it all figured out and then write stories to communicate to people.

It is a great spiritual need that drives me, and I can only say that people who don't share it may be blessed. This raises its own problem when it comes to trying to share a conversation. New ideas take time, as fundamental truths have to do battle with pragmatic truths, but in the long run the two kinds of truth come to terms and go on together in push and pull. BUt it's always going to be a rocky road with many twists and turns we can't foresee but must discover fortuitously as we experiment in good faith. Thanks for the comment.