Compound dystopia: ‘the rioters’ paradox’

Brilliant piece by Harry Eyres in his ‘Slow Lane’ column in the FT about how one of the challenges in intellectually responding to the riots is how the rioters themselves were so inarticulate in their message – and also in their actions.

Eyres highlights how this has influenced the response of consequently defining their acts as ‘criminality’ rather than being an articulated politically-directed act. Yet, what if the actors in this drama are inarticulate – are not able to compose or deliver a script – to define their response?

He points to a generation who arrive at school barely able to speak, as a result of parents not conversing or speaking to them. (My wife, who is a teacher, despaired of the majority of the parents at her former school, who put their child to bed to fall asleep to a DVD rather than reading them a story.)

Yet, in fairness is this not just about a generation who are not able to express themselves – but also about their context; the world is more complex.

We live in a world where the problems are ‘wicked’ – and I don’t mean that in a street slang way, but rather using the term proposed by Kevin Grint in his analysis of problems, where there are three key types of challenge.

Problems may be ‘Critical’ – where decisive action is needed at a time of great certainty, or ‘Tame’ where complicated, but familiar issues, but through effective management can be solved.

Wicked problems however, are more complex, unfamiliar, no clear-cut cause and effect, and there are no easy solutions.  

We live in an age of wicked complexity where problems are more complicated, unfamiliar, with no clear-cut cause and effect – and with no easy answers.

There are no easy slogans or soundbite cures for either the rioters – even if they are articulate – nor for the politicians.

When in doubt it seems, the easy answer is either to smash and grab your way to a pair of designer trainers (with the added appeal of doubtful provenance) or resort to quick-and-instant labels of ‘criminals’ followed by hollow statements of ‘broken society’. 

The problem for all of us is that rioters may, or may not be, wicked, but the nature of complexity we all face certainly is – and it’s only going to get worse.

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