When words fail us all

Image of Harry Eyres

If the riots in English cities, including my home city of London, both invited and defied commentary, that was surely because they seemed so inarticulate. The BBC began by calling these outbreaks “protests” but withdrew this description when, after the original non-violent demonstration about the shooting of Mark Duggan, what appeared to be taking place was more or less random acts of destruction, arson and looting. Those arrested were shame-faced and silent rather than defiant and vocal. People on the streets heckling politicians or being interviewed by journalists did have things to say but their remarks, however suggestive, did not really amount to reasons for action.

So these were not protests in any articulate sense – in the sense, that is, of having a defined target or grievance at their core. They were different from the only other riots in London that I can remember, the Brixton riots of 1981 and 1985 and the poll tax riot of 1990; the former arising out of long-standing tensions between the black community and the police, as the subsequent Scarman report confirmed, and the latter arising out of a demonstration against a levy very widely seen as unfair. They were also different from the essentially non-violent protests of the Spanish indignados, people with defined grievances, especially concerning unemployment, able at least to articulate their own mood. They were certainly different from the protests in Tahrir Square, marked by bravery and eloquence.

An inarticulate protest is both easier and more difficult to respond to. You can respond with punitive authoritarianism, on the grounds that if those responsible for violence cannot come up with reasons for their actions, then they have no reasons and should be sent to prison – an experience which, no doubt, will create a whole new set of reasons. That is the way of repression, at both a social and an individual, psychological level. In the second of his Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud develops a suggestive analogy to explain the nature of repression; a noisy heckler at his lecture, “whose ill-mannered laughter, chattering and shuffling with his feet are distracting my attention”, is manhandled out of the room by three or four strongmen, who barricade the door. But that may well not be the end of the story; perhaps the expelled individual, “who has become embittered and reckless, will cause us further trouble”.

Repressing inarticulate protest may well cause further trouble. I think the first thing to do is to look at the thing which defines these protests – inarticulateness itself. You can view these events as a peculiarly English tragedy of inarticulateness. Being inarticulate means being unable to express yourself clearly, fluently or intelligibly. My dictionary gives as a suggestive example the phrase “inarticulate suffering”. Inarticulate suffering is no less real than articulate suffering; in fact it may be even more painful, because giving expression to suffering tends to alleviate it.

A week or two before the riots, I was listening to an astonishing feature on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about the language deprivation of many young British children. According to the British government’s “poverty tsar” Frank Field, some children arriving for their first day at school do not know their own names. The government’s communication champion for children, Jean Gross, quoted a young mother talking about her small child: “He don’t [sic] speak to me, so I don’t speak to him.” The point made by a Manchester head teacher, Neil Wilson, was that many parents are no longer speaking to their children, beyond the most basic level, so it is no wonder that the children have difficulty learning to speak, or developing a satisfyingly rich vocabulary. Here is the tragedy of inarticulateness in its starkest form.

It is something you can see being passed on from generation to generation and, though there may be biological bases for some cases of language impairment, it is obviously at least partly associated with social deprivation. I doubt there are many instances of middle-class mothers not speaking to their toddlers.

Widespread civil disorder, as opposed to essentially peaceful protest, has occurred very rarely in Britain in the 20th century. In my lifetime it has happened only under very specific circumstances, when austerity programmes were being pushed through in the teeth of recession, or when there was a general sense of manifest inequity. To attribute it to “criminality, pure and simple”, as the British prime minister and others have done, is to commit the language crime of tautology. Of course criminality is criminality. But that gets you no closer to understanding anything.

Here the ruling classes seem as inarticulate as the so-called rioting underclass. Perhaps we should not be surprised, since in England (not in Scotland, Ireland or Wales) there is an inarticulateness of the upper classes, the mumbling, stumbling inability to perceive what is staring you in the face.


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