Did we get the point of this Summer’s violence?

by Stef van Beek

Last Summer I was travelling for three weeks through Southern and Middle England. It was a memorable Summer because Europe was shocked by several violent incidents. In every country people had their own particular way of killing their boredom. It all started with a publicity-stunt of that overenthusiastic Norwegian fan of Geert Wilders (Dutch populist extreme right-wing politician): 93 casualties (lovely word by the way). In Germany randomly picked parked cars were used to make bonfires, while some people in the Netherlands took on a far greater challenge by shooting randomly at moving traffic, on the highway even! When they failed to provoke any fatal accidents (extra bonus points) in this way, they tried the technique of putting large objects on the highway during the night, in order to test the drivers’ alertness early in the morning. I’m wondering how boredom has become a deadly disease (for others).

So I visited England, where the country’s problems were put in the centre of everyone’s attention in a quite different way. It seemed that the massive looting of and setting fire to shops and houses, was an orgy of undirected and senseless violence by bored hooligans in the big cities. But when I looked at the news reports more closely, the barrel of the Londoner youngsters’ highly inflammable frustrations seemed to have been detonated by a combination of a mindless cut in the government’s expenses executed by the local authority of Tottenham, and a case of someone being shot and killed by the police. How the violence spread through London and other big cities in England, most of us will have seen on TV.

The reduction-programme of government expenditure in Tottenham entailed the closure of most youth centres, where a few dozen of great aid-workers until then had taken care of an army of marginalized youths from the lower levels of society. They used to make sure that these youths found a way to express themselves in a positive way. When you fire these aid-workers and close down the youth centres, then I see only two possible explanations: Or you’ve never visited such a youth centre and you only look at the papers when you decide on the economic reform measures, or you want the neighbourhood to get demolished, so contractors can start new rebuilding-projects. The maker of this decision might have had second intentions as well, because of the oncoming Olympic Games and the obviously necessary cleaning operations of London’s streets. He might have thought that these youth centres are hiding places of “violent scum, who are better off in prison”.

During my stay in England, I saw so many people from various layers of society, deeply felt frustrations with the system. I knew that England had good reasons, or should I say great necessity, for their excellent sense of humour. Hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness are so common, so all you can do is laugh about it. But what really astonished me was the degree of control the English have to endure from the moment they are born. Shocking! More so after than before coming to England I was very happy with the relative freedom there still is within the Dutch society. In the Netherlands you can still do what you want to do, or  at least, what you think you want to do. While in England the system and self-censorship seem to be structurally inserted into the people’s brains from a very early age, because of which most people spend a large part of their lives fighting against the system, sometimes more openly and sometimes mostly within themselves.

While being there, I met so many people who had turned away from the system to such an extent that they lived without internet, without telephone, and sometimes even without electricity, in a house or boat for which they didn’t pay rent nor anything else. Many of them had cancelled their jobs because they didn’t get enough time to do their jobs in a good way. Especially when they worked in the police force, in (health)care or in education, the lack of available money and time frustrated their sense of responsibility towards the people they served, as they witnessed how budget-cuts directly affected the humanity and quality of their work. So that was often the practical reason why their professional role within society had gone lost. When I looked further into their reasons to cut themselves loose from society in such an extreme way, I discovered a much deeper rooted, broader and greater general frustration with society as it is now.

From what I’ve perceived, it seems that English people are generally raised in a very impersonal and authoritarian way. Besides that, commonly matters are not openly or honestly discussed, and even less so, debated. A proper Englishman only says what he doesn’t mean. The English society is so full of repression of the free mind, that no one’s completely unaffected. The words “My dear and honourable friend”, are generally heard as a warning prelude for the rest of the sentence. Hence distrust between people is enormous. I noticed that when I gave my compliments to someone, they waited for the twist or joke that would surely follow. The possibility of me being such a direct and straightforward kind of person, that there wouldn’t be a black adder under the grass (a Dutch saying for a catch), didn’t even occur to them. Because I’m a Dutchman and we’re famous for our openness and directness, I could explain easily that I really meant what I said. But it shows how deeply the pattern of being closed about personal issues, is rooted within the English culture and most English people’s bringing up.

Now there is a logic that says: the stronger the repression, the stronger is the resistance. That’s exactly what I’ve seen in England, the common people’s great aversion against the wealthy and powerful people, the government and against society as a whole. I feel England is still standing in the middle of the class struggle.

Even with an interesting and friendly couple that I met, who camped without a tent under a drop off and cooked their food on a camp-fire, I saw how the system of society is stuck inside the people who rebel against it. I invited them to come and have dinner in my camper-van that same evening. But, as I heard afterwards, they assumed that I had been polite (a word hardly used nor practised in the Netherlands) after sharing their breakfast, by inviting them back. Result: they didn’t show up. I learned there are many more cultural differences, than I had assumed. And how alternative or controversial your lifestyle might be, before the system really leaves your mind, you need to go through an entire development process, in which you heal yourself, not by fighting and resist against society, but by acknowledging your most personal pains and by working them out.

To share this view of mine with England, was not easy. The resistance-people have hardened themselves in their struggle and have made themselves invulnerable, so they let no one tell them how things are. They believe they still need their protective wall to survive, so who am I to tell them otherwise? Who am I to show them what they don’t see from their trenches: that the real struggle takes place within themselves and that this is where you can stop the struggle? Well I’m sorry, but I feel the need to say it anyway:

When you fight against something in the outside world, you fight as well against something that is present within yourself. If you want to win, or even better, rise above the struggle, you should understand what exactly is the inside-issue you’re fighting against. Then you start dealing with your most inner personal struggle, and the underlying trauma, which is the cause of you feeling like a victim of injustice now and before. Firstly you were a victim of your own bringing up or something else within your own micro-system, your life. After healing this pain by crying about the pain you experienced then when your personal trauma was caused, you’ll lose the identity of a victim and the identification with other victims, with people facing injustice. You won’t stop being compassionate, that’s a different thing, but you won’t feel the same frustration and powerlessness like before, not towards your past and not towards your present and future. If you afterwards still feel you need to fight against injustice, you’ll do it in a better way. Instead of fighting against, you’ll fight for a better world. And the great thing will be, that you have started this development within yourself.

Translated from Dutch by Stef van Beek

Original title: “Hebben we iets begrepen van het geweld van deze zomer?”

© Stef van Beek. Utrecht, 8 december 2011