Apathy in the streets!

A couple of weeks ago Sudhir Venkatesh (a sociologist I greatly admire for his brilliant work on street gangs) raised a question in the Freakonomics blog about why, given the widespread economic disruption in our country, there haven’t been any riots or collective protest.  He posits that riots have “gone the way of the Sony Walkman” for several reasons.  Now, I think Venkatesh has some great insight but he’s off the mark here.  I do think that it is interesting that rioting and other forms of collective protest haven’t been more commong in American recent history but I don’t think the reasons Venkatesh are particularly persuasive.  Since I’m not the kind to shy away from telling a best selling, top notch sociologist that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about in his own field, here is his explanation for this phenomenon (or lack thereof) with my comments in italics.

1) The iPod:

In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the “mob mentality,” which by its nature is not rational or formed through petitions. Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can’t join someone in a movement if you can’t hear the voices of its participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change.

This one reminded me of a talk I heard by Venkatesh in which, if I remember correctly, he remarked about how he was relied primarily on a typewriter until very recently and I couldn’t help thinking that, perhaps, this assertion reflects some sort of suspicion or unfamiliarity with technologyOf course, the same technology which created the iPod and allows citizens to tune out is the same as the one that created Facebook, MySpace, etc. which allows people, who otherwise couldn’t, to connect and exchange information.  Don’t think that this sort of connectivity can lead to actual action?  Check out this, this or this.

2) Prescription drugs:

What is the social function of anxiety reduction if not to increase the capacity of individuals to tolerate their social predicaments? Q.E.D.

While I have no evidence to support this, I suspect that the majority of anxiety prescriptions are not given to the poor, socially excluded and/or disenfranchised (the most likely to riot) but rather to those of us who are fat (Hey!  It’s just a baggy sweater!), dumb (Easy!  No need to get personal.) and lazy (Ok, you got me on that one).  In other words, the mind numbing drugs are going to the ones least likely to riot.

3) Debt:

This is a tricky one. In the short term, debt straps individuals into society and makes them fearful of acting out: failing to pay could land them in jail, in bankruptcy, etc. But in the long term, they may feel life has become intolerable and there is little to lose — so, why not tear down the walls? (This kind of thinking, by the way, is partly at the root of our current mess. Those who bought second homes walked away from their investments, accepting bankruptcy, when they realized they were never going to make payments in the long term.)

What about all those who didn’t have that second (or even a first) home before this mess?  You could argue that there were a whole lot of people who didn’t have much to lose before.

4) “Hey, things could be worse.”:

Riots require collective recognition that a threshold (of oppressive rule, inequity, etc.) has been surpassed and there’s little hope for improvement. In matters of social oppression, apart from a political assassination, it is rare that mass audiences will agree that such conditions hold. Things have to be downright awful, and we haven’t reached that stage yet. Yet.

I think this one is quite good.  Clearly, things are bad.  Really bad.  But, current polling has many Americans optimistic about the future.  No need to riot if things are going to get better.

5) No enemy in sight:

Rioters usually attack symbols of oppression. For example, in a riot in Chicago in 1992, protesters tore down streetlights, broke lamps, burned school buildings, and otherwise attacked government property. In Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the so-called “Rodney King affair,” non-black stores were attacked.

What might be the target of mobs violently responding to the financial mess? Maybe Midtown Manhattan? How about the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago?

A general rule is that contemporary rioters do not travel, so they would need to find symbols within their own communities: currency exchanges, banks, the offices of Congressional officials who voted “yes” on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, etc.

This one is good as well.  But what about areas where there are lots of people and symbols of the ‘enemy’?  I imagine you could scare up a decent sized pitchfork wielding mob to run amok on Wall Street without travelling too far.

Venkatesh here seems to be confining himself to rioters motivated by the recent economic downturn but what about other people who might be ‘riot prone’?  After all, social conservatives probably don’t think they have a particularly bright future.  The anti-war movement certainly didn’t have much hope after 2004.  Why didn’t they riot?

I’ve been interested in why we haven’t seen additional rioting or social unrest in inner cities over the past couple of decades.  I’ve hypothesized that the uptick of criminal activity (particularly semi-organized gang activity) is a manifestation of the same energy which otherwise would have led to civil unrest.  The reason we see it come out this way, instead of the riots and car burnings we’ve seen if France is, I believe, because ultimately, almost everyone here buys into our current social/economic system.  The poor and disenfranchised don’t want to change the system, they want to be further up the ladder in the same system.  They want their own homes, cars and plasma TVs.  If the only way to jump up that ladder means committing criminal activity so be it.

The BBC has a nice article that touches on some of the differences here in the context of the recent election.

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