Today I have mostly been reflecting on the riots, which started over fifty days ago on August 6th. This morning, while chatting on Skype to a Spanish friend, I was asked for my take on the ‘London trouble’. I didn’t blame failing schools or lenient parenting or chicken nuggets, as one journalist tried to claim. I blamed Simon Cowell.
Of course, like everyone else, I watched in shock as teenagers tore up our town centres, breaking in to shops and setting fire to family businesses. Of course, like most people, I didn’t approve of their actions. Their behaviour was irresponsible and punishment is necessary. But so too is understanding. So too is sitting up and taking notice of the message that’s being sent to us by some of our young people. I’m not naive enough to suggest that all the rioters were on a political crusade, protesting about EMA funding cuts or rising tuition fees as they torched Argos. However, the fact that so many reacted so explosively and with so little respect for their home towns tells us something – and we ignore that ‘something’ at our peril.
So what is it? Malnutrition. And no, I’m not talking about chicken nuggets or any other junk food that teenagers might put into their mouths. I’m talking about the junk they can’t help but see every single day of their lives – the limited, damaging, cultural ‘bad diet’ that is currently on offer to our young people, cooked up and dished out by people like Simon Cowell.
The rioters’ ‘smash and grab’ materialistic behaviour was undoubtedly selfish, but before we criticise and condemn, let’s remember that these teenagers have been brought up in a society that values selfishness far more highly than selflessness. They have been born into a warped world that prizes celebrity and greed and instant gratification above education and moderation and patience. Everywhere they look – be it on TV, in magazines, on the Internet, or even in the Houses of Parliament if we consider the expenses scandal – teenagers receive the same message: pursue pleasure, wealth, status and possessions at the expense of all else. In short, be selfish.
Take X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent – the McDonalds of the TV world – which shovel the same cheap, bland format down our throats with no regard whatsoever for the health of the viewer. I mean this quite seriously. The abhorrent message sent by these morally irresponsible shows is dangerous, trying to convince us that celebrity is the only thing that will make us happy. Week after week, the downtrodden, the damaged, the disappointed and (perhaps more worryingly) the perfectly content traipse onto the stage for a chance to ‘change their lives’, turning their backs on ordinary careers. As smug judges ask singers just how much they want this ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’, we see the contestants’ desperation to leave their ordinary lives and homes behind – ordinary lives and homes that we’re asking our young people to value while the message blaring out of their televisions is telling them that ordinary is not good enough.
I have seen for myself the detrimental effect this can have on some teenagers. I have taught in schools where the aspiration of most thirteen year olds is to be a pop star, to appear in Big Brother, or to become a WAG. Pouring over Heat magazine and hooked on dreadful shows that glamorise every aspect of celebrities’ lives from the red carpet to rehab (take a bow Piers Morgan), young people are growing up with a very narrow sense of what it means to be a success in the modern world. As the vast majority will never become famous or land the supposed ‘dream’ career or squeeze themselves into that size zero dress, teens with unrealistic expectations develop into disappointed adults, and we need only look at the soaring rates of depression in this country to see this in action. There is an alarming gap developing between what people expect life to be and what it actually is – and it is a gap that is shamelessly perpetuated and exploited by Simon Cowell and co.
To me, the people responsible for the riots are these parasitic individuals who are getting rich while morally bankrupting our society, the men and women who are making millions while robbing young people of any sense of satisfaction that they might find in achieving ordinary goals or leading normal lives. Their shows are the very breeding ground for the ‘smash and grab’ materialistic attitude seen in the rioters – take as much as you can, while you can, giving nothing in return. Though I can condemn the behaviour of the rioters as a law-abiding citizen, I do not blame them for their disappointment, depression, frustration, greed or anything else that made such behaviour possible in the first place. Their mentality is a product of the society in which we live - this warped world where Simon Cowell is king.