Everyone has an opinion on the riots and I’m no different. I’ve been listening to LBC (London’s talk radio in case you don’t know) and although these events seem to bring out the right-wing in even Lefty Lefterson of Liberal Town, there were also a few callers who expressed views closer to those of the rioters, trying to convey their feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. But it’s hard to sympathise with them. Very.
There’s a void between those affected by the riots (even just by association) and those instigating, which is so huge that it’s hard to see how it can be bridged. Not least because it’s hard to want to; on our side, we’re hurt, horrified and angry and on theirs, they appear to just be angry, I think (evidence of that void right there). Some of the more measured responses I’ve seen have demonstrated the distance between us and them – it would never occur to us to act like this no matter how angered we were by injustice. We just don’t get it.
There isn’t just one cause, obviously, but the one thing that keeps popping up in my mind is the amorality of the rioters, their lack of empathy. (And also their lack of comprehension of capitalism – if you want expensive stuff, you have to pay for it, if you don’t, the expensive stuff will cease to exist and we’ll all have to make do with cheap non-branded trainers from the supermarket.) Sorry, enough about capitalism, it’s the empathy I’m concerned with.
I reckon books are a very important way of getting children to think what it might be like to be someone else. You read a first person narrative and for a while you are that person. Many writers (especially in YA) are outstanding at getting you to feel things, or thinking about things, that you might otherwise have a callous disregard for. One such book for me is the amazing Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy. At the time of the Jamie Bulger incident I was an angry teen saying they should lock them in jail and throw away the key. I never thought about the kids that committed the crime as people until I read Looking for JJ. That book changed my view entirely.
But these kids probably don’t read so much (sweeping judgement there, yet again proving my void theory), so these amazing books that help promote empathy just aren’t going to reach them. Instead they have instant gratification in films, TV and music that doesn’t necessarily give them the time to feel what it’s like to be someone else.
I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking poor literacy is a contributing factor towards creating a group of people who felt no qualms about rioting and looting, but I do feel as someone working in publishing I should do something about it, somehow. I’ve contacted a few teen authors and I’m in touch with The National Literacy Trust and I’m just trying to get a few ideas going... I’d really appreciate yours too.
Basically, I want to help build a bridge over that void. I want them to understand how we feel, and maybe I want to understand how they feel. Key word “understand” – I can’t do that if you’re kicking in my high street and scaring my neighbours.
Because reading books doesn’t just make our speaking English good*. Maybe it can make us good too.
*That’s a misquote from Buffy, in case you don’t know.