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Policing as therapy

Thursday August 11, 2011

Dennis Hayes believes that the riots show how therapy culture has infected both the authorities and the ‘rioting’ kids, who think the welfare state should support them like an ineffectual and indulgent parent, whatever they do

I heard a young white girl ‘rioter’ in a tantrum shouting at a TV interviewer that she and her mates would keep trashing things till they were shown ‘respect.’  This sort of spoilt adolescent behaviour and self-centred whining is probably familiar to most people on a smaller domestic scale.
Many of us hear ineffectual parents giving in to tantrums on the street, or know many middle-class parents who support their children’s anarchic, narcissistic and often self-abusive behaviour in a non judgemental way. They love them and stand behind them whatever they do.
The ineffectual and indulgent police seem to be behaving the same way, letting children trash their communities in what is ultimately a tantrum of self-abuse. It is where they have to live. But, like hapless parents, what do the police offer the trashed communities? They offer therapeutic support. One Met spokesperson said about Tottenham: ‘we’re standing next to these people watching them cry because their businesses have been destroyed. We’re going to work with the partners in that local community to make sure we help them rebuild Tottenham. That’s what policing is all about.’
You couldn’t make these things up; the desire of young people for therapeutic attention because they are young, combined with the continuation of the therapeutic offer by the authorities. This is why I reject both the ‘more policing’ strategies and the idea that there is some political meaning in the destruction. More policing will be more therapy. Even swamping London was a therapeutic feel-good activity for the police and government. It made them think they were policing when for the most part they were just sitting doing nothing. More therapeutic policing will just encourage another tantrum later on.
As Suzie Dean has argued here on the The Free Society site, the idea that there was any political, racial or cultural explanation for the destruction is a fantasy in the heads of people who didn’t witness these events and who appear to live in the1980s. The Independent ran a leader with a banner headline that was a low point in the discussion of the riots: ‘If any good can emerge from the horrors of recent days it will be that we finally face up to the shame of our excluded underclass’ (10 August 2011).
Why should we feel ‘shame’ about this destruction? The Indy appears to think we need collective therapy!  What therapy culture has done to collective and individual relations between adults and children is exposed for me through the notion of adult or community ‘shame.’
Therapy culture seems to give institutions, politicians, the police, social workers and teachers real ‘authority’ through their concern with the thoughts and feelings of children and young people. The idea of listening to children or young people’s ‘voices’ in a myriad of ways is at the heart of the therapeutic approach. It offers unearned respect to children. The illusion of authority for the adults is that they are ‘in touch’ with young people’s real feelings and desires about the society in which they live. In reality they are abject before young people and it is easy to see why kids see through it and think ‘If you, an adult, have to ask me, a child, for my thoughts and feeling and even advice, what use are you?’
This is not to deny that there is a nihilistic or criminal element at play, but the inability of the police to act against vandals was also a clear consequence of the therapeutic culture of institutions and the mind-set it has created in young people. Unlike the Indy I believe the one good thing that may come out of the ‘riots’ is a decline in therapeutic approaches to young people and the re-emergence of adulthood.
Walking around Woolwich, where I live, and seeing the trashed shops and the burnt out Wetherspoon’s the evening after the destruction, the community – African, Asian, Chinese and many white, but all working class people – were in procession around the town disgusted and denouncing the vandalism. They were talking to one another but the conversations were without a hint of shame. They were about the stupidity of the vandals and what was to be done. If you hid away, as the therapy police advised you to, and watched events on TV you would have no idea how positive this new atmosphere was. Walking through nearby Plumstead even later that night, the shop keepers were all outside their shops keeping a collective eye open for trouble. These are small signs of the possibility of a society where personal and collective responsibility begins to grow without the nanny state and its therapeutic institutions.
Dennis Hayes is the director of Academics For Academic Freedom

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