John Walker's Electronic House


by on Aug.11, 2011, under The Rest

The behaviour of so many who have rioted has been shocking and appalling, and the stories coming out about some of the abysmal crimes committed have been horrendous. But something else that has upset me hugely throughout our week of English riots has been the use of the word “scum”.

Of course it upsets and offends me to see the looting, arson and brutality, and I’m weary with the tedium of those who cannot distinguish between asking questions and whatever it is people think counts as “justifying”. But one of the most concerning things to have come out of these events – to my eyes – has been the language used to describe the perpetrators.

“Scum” is such a vile word. It’s a word with a clear purpose: to dehumanise.

I, like everyone else alive, do not know the motivations and backgrounds of each and every one of the thousands who rioted. It seems likely to me that some did it because they are criminals, others because they are disenfranchised and had no structure that told them not to. Some because the saw opportunity that had never presented itself before, others because they were angry, others still because they’re cruel, selfish people who do not care about the consequences of their actions. There will be some whose backgrounds are so appalling that the veneer of society has never meant anything to them at any point. Others who fancied a widescreen TV and thought it was a chance to get away with it. And every single person who took part, for whatever reason, with whatever motivation, with whatever amount of deliberate malice or idiotic inertia, is a person with a story, a life, a set of experiences that took them to the day they rioted. And the moment they’re called “scum” is the moment they are discarded and dehumanised.

The use of the word scum is usually reserved for the lazy of thinking who like to write off sections of society for whom they have no tolerance. “Dole scum”, “foreign scum”, and so on. It’s a way of separating yourself from them. I am a human, they are scum.

To see this habit spreading across all sections, all political parties, all types, is devastating. It’s a label delivered out of fear, out of anger, and I suspect mostly, out of a desire to uncomplicate things. That lot, that group, that collection, they are scum. There, done. Easily sorted.

And yet still I just know that people will interpret my description above as being and attempt to “justify their actions”. I do not know what happened that we as a society got to the point where the simple act of not dehumanising someone becomes so suspicious, a matter of conspiratorial allegiance and acceptance of all actions, but it frightens me. It frightens me most because it’s exactly this separation, this “us and them”, this “humans and scum”, that exacerbates the social establishment that makes rioting acceptable in a minority’s mind.

I in no way think anyone’s act of looting, arson, brutality or spreading of fear is justified. It is unacceptable. These actions should be condemned. There is no ambiguity here.

But I do not believe that these people are to be written off, to be lumped into one amorphous blob of “scum”, and labelled as casteless. I believe that every one of them has potential, can be reformed, snapped out of it, educated, or offered opportunities never before available. Because I believe these things are true of every human being alive.

Without doubt someone’s background does not excuse their actions. Because of course there are hundreds of thousands living in poverty in the UK. (And yes, often it is not a comparable poverty with the worst famines in other nations. But having your leg chopped off by an axe isn’t as bad as having your head severed, yet I still wouldn’t opt to lose my leg. But sometimes, and we don’t like to think about this, it’s poverty that’s damned close.) Hundreds of thousands who don’t drop everything and riot at the first opportunity. As indeed most people don’t fiddle their taxes, lie about their expenses, steal cars, or rape, murder and abuse. Circumstance doesn’t justify actions like those seen in the last few nights. But circumstances do shape people, and some people are shaped differently by them than others. Why? The reasons are multifactorial, elaborately complex and not solved by anyone’s newspaper column or blog post. But those reasons are the reason why the response to such actions, once (or ideally before and during) whatever punishment deemed necessary by society has been given, is to listen to these people. To hear their stories.

Oh, what hand-wringing wishy-washy liberal nonsense. Listen to them?! But they’re scum! What an exceptionally easy position to take. Discard and disregard them, cross them off the human list, because they’re “just scum” and that’s just the way it is. Doesn’t that make things more simple?

And it allows the pattern to repeat.

As a youth worker I’ve been keenly aware of how teenagers, from all walks of life, are so quickly categorised and dismissed. Having worked with those who are so disenfranchised, so detached from any concept of what society is, that they simply cannot understand why they would follow the rules of this thing they don’t take part in, it’s abundantly obvious that each person’s story explains this. Teenagers who aren’t allowed in any schools because their behaviour is impossible to control, but who are too young to work, and thus escape anything we know what to do with – they weren’t born with that in their genes. Of those I’ve worked with, if they have fathers they’re either in prison or they’re physically abusing them. They’re generally “raising” their younger siblings, because if there’s a mother she’s at work or drunk. Their role models, their friends and their adult peers set them the only example they receive as they grow up, and as such they repeat what is learned. They get their drugs from their parents, or often deal them for their parents (children under around 12 can’t be charged with possession, so make useful drug runners). They steal because that is how you get stuff that you want. An understanding of the consequences of that action isn’t within their imagination. It’s rationalised away without troubling their consciousness, let alone consciences.

And these teenagers I’m describing, real people I knew, lived in Bath. Tea shops and cream cakes Bath. Hidden in the estates the locals don’t know the way to, or at least know the routes to avoid, of course. But in the rich, Georgian majesty of Bath.

They are not “scum”. They’re teenagers whose story tells you how they got to where they are. Stories to which no one wants to listen, because it complicates things. You might, God forbid, start to understand.

No, not every rioter came from such a background. Some were educated university students. Others were amoral opportunists. Others still were adult criminals. Many were gang members, taught broken understandings of machismo and respect. Others were lazy, cruel or stupid. And every single one of them is a human with a narrative that weaves back to when they were a baby with the same potential as you.

Yes, be angry. Yes, be horrified. Yes, be ashamed of how our society contains this. Yes, their actions are terrible, unjustified, and almost always to be condemned. But do not so lazily and ignorantly call them “scum”.


78 Comments for this entry

  • Jack Deeth (@JackDeeth)

    Well said, John.

  • Andy_Panthro

    Horrified and rather sad.

    I’d like the country to be able to stand together and find an appropriate solution to the core problems from which this sort of criminality arises. It would be difficult, it might be expensive, and it might take a long time, but I’d be happy to see my taxes go towards it.

    Unfortunately, in the sea of short term measures, petitions to “remove benefits” or “bring back hanging”, there are those who are desperate to put a lid on this, to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that everything will be okay (until next time).

    At least the riot clean-up folks organised through twitter and elsewhere put a smile back on my face. People like that make me believe that we have the capacity to make a better society.

  • Nick Mailer

    “when they were a baby with the same potential as you”.

    I don’t wanna go all genetic deterministic on yo ass, but question begged, blood. Question begged.

    [sucks teeth and ensures trousers around knees so everyone may view my disenfranchised narrative]

    And no, that’s not racist. After all, Marcus Bridgestock does it, and he’s even more wet than John.

  • Patrick Rose

    Meh, I can say well said but I’m more looking at sighing.

    The horrific thing is how people are calling for the housing to be taken from them, that the police should be more brutal. That’s when the riots win.

    And EVERY time I point it out it goes to benefits within 10 comments.

  • Dumb Roer

    Unfortunately, someone has registered but isn’t putting it to good use. What a waste.

  • Ian Tyrrell (RodeoClown)

    Looters. “Them”, or “Us”

    Someone linked me to this earlier this morning. I thought it seemed right. I’m not in the UK, so I haven’t seeing anything like it up close. I don’t think the answer is just kicking heads/shooting rioters, though.

    How do you clean up a mess like this without leaving someone feeling aggrieved? We want to see justice, but we don’t want to continue whatever it is that’s driving it either. Fun times :(

  • will

    Anyway, I’ve seen it a lot in the people who call themselves liberal but talk all superior. Chavs is one word, scum is quite different. Like the stuff you scoop off a pond? I mean jeez. And the BBC and every newspaper and half the people I know calling it sheer opportunistic criminality… Are they expecting some solace from their arrogance? They are certainly not bringing me any. Do criminals not have stories now? Not have lives? I think a lot of stuff came to a head in those riots that people have been sitting on for too long. I think there needs to be a mood open debate.

  • sinister agent

    This is one of the best things I’ve read about this whole situation, even if it could be argued by some irksome wag that it’s basically another “think of the children”.

    Did you watch the Sangat TV coverage by any chance? The hospital bit was amazing.

  • Jambe

    Surely where and when one is born is more important to “potential” than the gene lottery.

    There’s too much repetition here for my liking but the overall point is sound (that we ought to be mindful of our retributive, marginalizing nature and should work to reign those behaviors in).

  • Greg Bailey

    I too have been frustrated that labelling people is seen as solving the problem, and that any curiosity into causes is confused with endorsing violence.

    Having said this, I don’t think there’s much to be gained by trying to understand what it is about people’s life situation that made them riot. I doubt there is much significant difference between those that rioted and those that didn’t, only opportunity and chance.

    Instead we should rightly try and understand how the police etc can more effectively manage and anticipate similar situations in the future.

    All of which leaves us with a large section of our society who live in horrible circumstances; there is nothing new here and the riots are just a reminder of this. Both the government and us as citizens have responsibility to do “something” about this, but it shouldn’t be done through the filter of the riots.

  • trellism

    I think you’ve redefined ‘scum’ to fit your narrative. Vile people have done vile things, but I never thought for *one second* that they were anything less than human.

    Is your constant request for us to consider their stories an attempt to make us understand them? Knowing their biography does not justify what they did

    Everyone has a story. Indeed, every bacterium has a story. I don’t see how appealing to us to consider it prevents us from using pejorative language about them.

  • trellism

    Can I call them wankers instead? The chap who runs the local post office used a much fruitier term.

  • sinister agent


    Is your constant request for us to consider their stories an attempt to make us understand them? Knowing their biography does not justify what they did

    “Understand” and “explain” are not the same thing as “justify” or “excuse”. I really don’t know why so many people apparently have difficulty grasping this concept.

  • Nick Mailer

    No, I cry foul, Sinister Agent. The whole tone of this leftist hand-wringing nonsense is a PR job such that we *do* justify what they do, to a degree. The campaign is to exculpate through diminished responsibility. It’s to suggest, in effect, that certain people do not have moral autonomy, and thus cannot properly be blamed, and that we then seek the true agency of the moral outrage elsewhere: be that nasty Tories, the market, “Zionists” or whatever.

    Sorry, I take this quite simply: certain people are nasty opportunists. Certainly, their context and environment provides a motive to this opportunism. Certainly, they could have been “Saved” (as John clearly wishes to do). But I don’t find their “stories” particularly interesting.

  • MIrqy

    Thanks John, been trying to say similar things to people all week, in a far less articulate manner.

    @Nick – nonsense. Prevention is cheaper and more effective than cure. Those seeking to understand do not condone or excuse, they just want a fix. The rightist scum-bashing nonsense is there to justify people’s lazy desire to dismiss the problem without having to address it.

  • Greg Bailey

    I agree with Nick.

    No I don’t really, but it raises an interesting point. I’m not sure how helpful moral outrage is, and targets for it can be found everywhere.

    Do we agree that individuals in this group are unable to help themselves? Are we then arguing over whether we as capable people choose to help them or to just manage their impact on us?

  • trellism

    My response to ‘understand’ or ‘explain’ is ‘yes, and?’ They freely chose to loot and destroy. Thousands of others in worse circumstances did not.

    By their own actions they have dehumanised themselves. To suggest that they had no other option, or that their circumstances have led them to take these actions, also dehumanises them.

  • Wood

    Labelling these rude, violent, greedy, amoral human beings as “scum” is not, as you suggest, an easy a way out. In fact it presents a lot more difficult questions as to what has gone so badly wrong. The easy way out is in fact to debate & intellectualise, to such an extent, that we begin to even question the vocabularly we use.

    We have stood by for too long while generations of these youth have been allowed to (literally in some cases) get away with murder. Hopefully if one good thing comes out of this carnage, it will be a completely overhaul of our “justice” system, which actually favours the victims of this rabble and removes the kid gloves that have protected and, dare I say, fostered, this criminality for so long.

  • mister k

    But Nick, the reason their stories are interesting is because we would like to try and prevent this rioting from happening again. This is an unusual type of event for this country, and it would be nice to know quite why it occured. Talking to the people who did it might, you know, help towards that.

    I don’t believe that John isn’t saying that those involved in breaking the law shouldn’t be prosecuted to the fullest extent of it, but it might be helpful to, if we are not going to throw away the key for these individuals, try to understand what drives them and try to show them a better way.

    My liberal hand wringing is based on the notion that

    1-we live in a democracy where we don’t lock people up forever if they commit a crime
    2-It’d be nice if we could stop those we have locked up from ever commiting a crime again
    3-Lets work out how to do that?

    Punishment is an important part of that on this occasion- I get the impression that many involved in these events did so because they believed they could get away with it, so proving them wrong would be useful, but changing their minds so they didn’t WANT do do it again? Well that’d be ideal.

  • John Walker

    It doesn’t matter how clear you are, for some the idea of considering people as individuals rather than a collective “scum” makes it impossible for them to not reject that and scream “justifying!” in response.

    I could not have been more abundantly clear that nothing is justified, that learning stories does not justify, and that their actions are to be condemned no matter their circumstances. People have an agenda, and so it is they imagine the opposing agenda wherever their easy path is challenged.

    Victoria, that you felt able to write “Is your constant request for us to consider their stories an attempt to make us understand them? Knowing their biography does not justify what they did” just bemuses me. That is a willing, deliberate attempt to not engage with what I’ve said, and to ignore exactly what I’ve written.

    Nick, instead, sees conspiracy. So all the lazy pejoratives come out – “leftist”, “hand-wringing” – and then astonishingly the insinuation that this would somehow correlate with an anti-Semitic ruse. It doesn’t matter how clearly I argue that these people DO have moral autonomy, the argument can only be parsed as that I’m arguing they don’t. Because otherwise they can’t be rounded up, labelled as “scum”, and forgotten.

    To want to dismiss their individual narratives is to want to ignore the complexity of this entire situation, and thus to ensure the patterns repeat. It’s far easier to claim that anyone trying to understand individuals, rather than dismiss artificial groups, is trying to justify and excuse.

  • trellism

    I’m sure all members of Al-Shaabab have stories to tell, most of horrible brutalisation. Those stories do not make them less of a bunch of scumbags who are letting Somalia starve.

  • Nick Mailer

    Fine, Mister K: if you actually believe this (and it’s not just hand-wringing) then the single most effective thing you could do is find a way to promote contraception and abortion in these communities. As in Freakonimics, this is the *only* strategy that has been proven to work.

    But I suspect you find that distasteful.

    And you seem to be confusing liberalism with democracy. It is only because we do NOT live in a properly representative democracy (thank heavens) that we don’t have the death penalty, throwing-the-key-away and such.

  • trellism

    But we already understand, John. It’s not difficult. Some were opportunistic, some have no moral compass due to their upbringing or lack thereof. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to know that some of the teenagers in court at the moment have.come alone as their parents don’t care where they are.

    I think you’ve become enmired in nomenclature and it’s a bottleneck. I’m a bit insulted that you think I can’t know that people have difficult lives. We know that. What to do about it is what’s important. Part of it is to shpw that society does not find looting acceptable and part of that is the use of language.

  • John Walker

    No Victoria – I assume large intelligence on your part. Which makes responses like yours I quoted above so very bemusing.

    You have said that I’m justifying, that you never think of them as less than human but yet you believe they’ve dehumanised themselves, and that you already know the individual circumstances and therefore they are all scum. I am suggesting you rethink some of this.

  • Wood

    Artifical Groups? Astonishing! There was nothing “artificial” about the flames that engulfed Croydon on Monday night. There was nothing “artifical” about the fear and terror the majority of law-abiding citizens felt watching their neighbourhoods burn. There is nothing “artifical” about the death of the 68 year old man who died this morning, having bravely tried to defend his community against thuggery.

    There is nothing “artificial” about these groups.

  • John Walker

    Nick – reaching for the Freakanomics argument is poor logic. Yes, if the rioters had never been born the riots wouldn’t have happened. But that’s not the book’s point.

    There’s no doubt that access to abortion, better understanding of contraception, and a greater understanding that crapping out babies isn’t a solution to anything, would lead to fewer people growing up in poor circumstances. That’s the rationale of the book’s chapter.

    The problems are: 1) we have easy access to abortion in this country, and did 15 to 20 years ago, so the American comparison is irrelevant. 2) these people are currently alive, and your wish that they were never born isn’t going to come true, and certainly doesn’t make their life worthless. 3) you are talking utter nonsense when you say “this is the only strategy that has been proven to work”. You have NO evidence whatsoever for such a ludicrous claim. And indeed there is abundant evidence for the effectiveness of intervention, support and alternative opportunities. Look up Glasgow’s “Community Initiative to Reduce Violence” for one of literally thousands of examples.

  • mister k

    You’re correct of course, I am conflating democracy and liberalism there, which is somewhat lazy.

    As to your suggestion? Well if there was solid evidence that this was effective, then sure, promoting reduced unwanted pregnancy, and downplaying pregnancy as a means to an end would by no means be distasteful to me. I don’t think people having children before they are ready is terribly useful. I’ve never read freakonimics, so can not speak to how accurate your assertion here is.

    I am of the belief that the less poverty one sees (and by that I think I mean poverty of opportunity. While people in poverty in this nation are by no means starving, they are (for the most part) trapped in a cycle where their children will have much the same existence. One can argue that this is self-perpetuating, and one might be correct, but it still might be fixable) then the less of this type of crime one will see.

    I don’t know what the solutions are- that last paragraph is based on my own predilictions, but I’d be happy to live in a society where we lived in a more pragmatic manner. The general population’s attitude towards prison I find infuriating, because thanks to conflicting views it doesn’t really punish (as some would have it) or rehabilitate.

  • John Walker

    Wood – there’s nothing artificial about the Eiffel Tower, thunderstorms or beans on toast either.

    I’m aware you’re extremely angry, but unfortunately anger isn’t the same as thinking.

  • Jo

    Thanks for taking to time to write this, I totally agree. There’s a lot of denial about the fact these are british citizens who are a product of the same nation as us, whether we like it or not. People are trying every trick in the book to pretend they aren’t part of the country- from lazily calling them ‘scum’, assuming they’re all immigrants, or revoking their benefits (as if that alone will stop them stealing?)- Anything to convince themselves this is someone else’s problem and it can be wished away if we all close our eyes hard enough.

  • Matt Kemp

    When I’m going through my photos and tagging them, I don’t sit down and annotate each individual one with the full details of where it happened and what I was feeling at the time. While scum isn’t a nice word (and I think this is the heart of what John is saying, really) I don’t think calling the rioters ‘Crete Holiday 2009’ would be much more useful.

  • John Walker

    Oh, and I should add, at no point have I argued, “Ah, but isn’t the problem really the fault of X?” Sad that some are pretending that I did.

  • Jess Mountifield

    I agree with John that while nothing justifies looting and rioting it is important we find out why they think they did it. In some cases there is something we could have done to prevent it and in some ways society as a large is to blame if these kids have not had sufficient role models.

    If a kid grows up watching his father beat his mother and abuse his sisters repeatedly and neighbours are highly likely to be aware of this. It is as much the observers fault for letting this go on as it is the childs for thinking this is acceptable behaviour.

    Kids thinking no one cares is a direct result of not enough people caring. Now in some cases they are letting the world no they equally don’t care. Who’s fault is that? Not the childs, they didn’t get shown anything different.

    Now I get in some cases people decide to take the opposite tact and they care more because no one cared for them but wouldn’t it just make more sense to elliminate the possibility all together and actually make an effort to provide all the children of our communities with decent role models.

    Short term, however justice does need to be done and all the offenders should be locked up but long term, if we don’t want this to just happen again with the next generation of children then something needs to change with how we help stop them getting into that mindset to begin with.

  • sinister agent

    Oh, and the backtracking starts. So now you’re saying it’s NOT because of beans on toast?

  • Turrican

    Reading the news sites over the past week I really did get a sense of each one taking a position and preaching, with every article being followed by very polarised comments beneath.

    I agree with your point about scum, it reminds me of how I try to discipline my 2 year old – I don’t tell her she’s naughty, instead that she’s doing a naughty thing, its important for her to know she can be a good person. I know its a simple analogy but it kind of applies – I would say the people did a scum act.

    As an aside, I was watching Sky news and like the way the interviewer stopped asking a councilman questions in a live interview and turned the camera round to actually ask the people on the streets why they were there.

  • Wood

    Walker – Anger is not the same as thinking, you are correct.

    Well, let me know how your thinking goes, because by the time of the next riot I’m sure Websters will be only too pleased to incorporate the fruits of your efforts so far in their next publication.

  • Nick Mailer

    Why on earth do you think that asking these people for their “reasons” will be at all useful? To suggest that can, would or even should have a cogent ex-party description and explication of their actions is beyond naive: it is illogical. You precisely need people who can have a view from beyond their damaged milieu to begin to get any sense. I would sooner talk to neurologists, endochronolohists and psychiatric researchers than any of these scum… sorry, oiks. One was asked and said “it’s cos we pay taxes like and we only getting it back yeah?” I mean, the fact I doubt she’d ever paid taxes is besides the point: her narration of confused egotistical selfishness isn’t actually illuminating at all, except perhaps how prevalent is brain-damaging foetal alcohol syndrome (looking at the faces of many of the looters, I imagine this is a not inconsiderable part of it – so perhaps many are of diminished responsibilty on account of retardation after all).

  • trellism

    John, my point is that you are stuck on the use of the word ‘scum’ and want us to consider why they did what they did.

    Let’s assume we’ve done that, and move on.

    How do you stop people of whatever kidney looting their local Argos?

  • sinister agent

    @Nick Mailer:

    I would sooner talk to neurologists, endochronolohists and psychiatric researchers than any of these scum… sorry, oiks

    How do you think psychiatric researchers and neurologists learned what they know, exactly? A: They spend hundreds of hours talking to these people. Yes, even the ones who just say “cos I want a telly innit” or whatever.

    If you understand something, you can engage with it. You can predict it. You can stop it from happening again. Dismissing it the second it’s stopped offers no chance that it won’t just happen again. This is how almost every human discovery in history was made. It’s quite important.

  • Tim Rogers

    John, I liked your post. Haven’t read the kibitzing afterwards, it does run on… A girl on the front of the Times today was quoted as saying she didn’t know why she did it, and thus turned herself in to the police. I think many rioters don’t know why they did it, but don’t know they don’t know why they did it. We are all members of the crowd, with diminished responsibility. Distinctive intelligence or role models can work to set us a little apart from the crowd (for good or ill). Use of that intelligent (or modeled) distinction to form a new crowd that condemns, at least verbally, the Other crowd, does not seem the best use of that distinction.

  • Nick Mailer

    sinister agent: I am not ignoring it at all. I would like it targeted like the metastasising cancer it is.

  • sinister agent

    @Nick Mailer

    sinister agent: I am not ignoring it at all. I would like it targeted like the metastasising cancer it is.

    Ironically, you’ve just provided my point with the perfect analogy, because if you just ‘target’ and remove a tumour, then consider your work done, your patient will be back months or years later with tumours all throughout their body.

  • Chups

    In the study of linguistics and politics and psychology and sociology language is studied because it does have an effect on how we think whether it be consciously or subconsciously. Therefore, discussing the term ‘scum’ and its use in this context is both relevant and important.

    By acknowledging the humanity and stories of these inexcusable looters we actually remind ourselves that they are not aliens intent on destroying our way of life, unfortunately they are as human as you or I. Saying that a reactionary cut off from the safety net provided in our welfare state is unreasonable, is not the same as condoning the actions of the looters, it’s acknowledging that we will pick up the tab later (prison, rehab, police units dedicated to fighting gangs, foster care…).

    Being offended, disgusted and shocked does not prevent rational thought and a cold objective look at the facts. Funny how those most willing to engage with these people through their work or volunteering are also those most willing to give them a chance to reintegrate.

    If you want to beat the drum of “we pay for their comfy lives” then think about this: we cannot afford to institutionalise every person who kicked off in these riots. Giving them a way back into tax paying, socially acceptable roles benefits all of us.

  • Jambe

    I’m sympathetic to both sides but neither side’s view is clearly delineated. Two fairly distinct issues are being muddled together:

    1) is use of words like “scum” counterproductive?

    2) should extenuating circumstances factor into any individual rioter’s punishment?

    #1 seems true. To #2: yes, on a case-by-case basis.

    We already have relatively robust and fair justice systems. I’m largely ignorant of British law, but I suppose it’s possible that British officials might increase the punishments for these rioters to “make an example of them”.

    Would anyone find that ethically supportable?

    I ask this specifically of Nick as it’s conceivable that popular outrage voiced via derogatory and/or inflammatory language could precipitate such government action.

    Language is powerful and we should probably be somewhat loathe to broad-brush groups with terms like “scum”. I also don’t think “humanity” should be contingent on a person’s actions. Infusing the word with extra-special connotations usually indicates ham-fisted moralizing BS (extra-species… no, extra-special is right, it just sounds funny). But I simply appreciate clarity of expression.

    Perhaps this is a… pedantic point to be making. Perhaps use of “scum” in this instance isn’t a problem. I’d just rather err on the side of caution and side with John, given the terrible history of some of the world’s most powerful speakers and the predilection of our species towards vindictiveness and mob behavior.

    I think any reasonable person would agree that the phrase “these people did odious, terrible deeds a-z” is more useful and descriptive AND less inflammatory than “these people were/are scum because they did a-z”.

  • Jambe


    Tangentially, it’s interesting trying to reckon my belief in determinism (probabilistic) with punitive justice. The question is always, in essence, “where does the causal buck finally stop?” Take your words for example:

    Sorry, I take this quite simply: certain people are nasty opportunists. Certainly, their context and environment provides a motive to this opportunism. Certainly, they could have been “Saved” (as John clearly wishes to do). But I don’t find their “stories” particularly interesting.

    In so many words: people’s behaviors are to some degree products of their surroundings, but the surroundings of these rioters don’t seem to assuage the severity of their behavior”.


    Eh… I dunno. I’m cynical so I’m actually inclined to agree but as has been said, if the perps are merely written off as scum, pushed through the judiciary and prison meatgrinder and forgotten about afterwards… they probably won’t emerge as fantastic members society.

    Recidivism is a MASSIVE problem here in America and yet most Americans are complacent. Perhaps the correctional/rehab facilities of Britain are actually effective, though.


  • Jimmy

    Load of crap. Absolute crap. The very fact this article exists shows you are justifying it, otherwise why bother saying anything at all? So a few people say the word scum. Who cares? You talk about their story and they all have lives and reasons. We all have hard lives, no matter who we are. Lots of people in worse of situations than those who did it don’t turn to looting, arson and murder. What about the father who’s lost a son? Or the hard-working businessman who lost his shop? Why do you always go on about “disenfranchised” and “potential”? High sodding horse. Rising above everyone on a misplaced sense of superiority. Well, you’re not. Also, what has this article got to do with anything going on at the moment except to again try to justify and find good in people when it isn’t there? you think we need to sit all of them down and have a chat? You’ll be flat down bleeding and a wallet lighter in a second. Why can’t you just accept…people aren’t very nice. Get over it and concentrate on sorting out your own problems. It’s easier to change the world than yourself isn’t it? These people are twats, wankers. Regardless of their situation, regardless of how hard they have it, that’s life. Be angry, fine, but we all have to bear it, not take it out on others. Nothing EVER allows someone the right to purposefully hurt another human being EVER, and you justifying it makes you basically no better than them. And the fact you keep trying to pretend otherwise is just plain irritating. Wow, I honestly didn’t think I could be more annoyed this morning but this article managed it. Idiotic and pointless, this article is.

  • Xercies

    I really don’t like the general language that some people are using, people in my own family to these rioters. Lets all shoot them, its all the black peoples fault, they are scum, they should all be put underground and never seen the light of day and so on. i do think anger like that never really gets you anywhere. Do you really think that kind of thing will prevent a riot really? It will probably only cause another more damaging one if anything.

    I’m all for looking at these peoples lives, rehabilitating them and making this kind of thing about social change. It doesn’t matter if all the rioters were benefit or poverty stricken or anything like that. Just that the idea that they are like that could make people really think and do something about the problems that these people face.

    If that happens then there will definitely be a positive future to these terrible Riots. If that happened I really wouldn’t mind that the riot had to cause that to happen.

    Also I have to say I really diasagree with Nick here so much and really am a bit disturbed of what he is saying there. I usually agree with him but not this time definitely!

  • mister k

    “Perhaps the correctional/rehab facilities of Britain are actually effective, though.”

    They are not, unfortunately. Reoffender rates are HUGE/

  • John Walker

    Jimmy, thank goodness you got here in time.

    You’ve cut through the lies, and exposed the raw truth. Like that bit where I was going on about how they’re all good people deep down. I mean, I didn’t write that, or think it, or anything, but it’s great the way you made it up and then got really, really angry about it. It’s also good that you pointed out how there are other people in similar and worse circumstances who didn’t riot, because I’d completely overlooked that. I wrote it in the post and all, but if you ignore that bit then yours was a really astute response.

    Thank you for pointing out that nothing ever allows someone the right to purposefully hurt another. Even though I never said anything other than that, and even though I made it very clear that I of course think the same, maybe that had been an accident, and I’d meant the opposite. But you were there, just in case, and that’s why you’ll always be so valuable to me.

    You’re absolutely right. Even though I didn’t say their actions were justified, and in fact said that they definitely weren’t, I *am* just as bad as the rioters. My thoughts and actions, even though they only exist in your imagination, were the same as burning down a house and beating a man to death. I should be in prison.

    And it’s awful of me to “always go on about” the disenfranchised in the one article I’ve ever written on the subject. “Disenfranchised, disenfranchised disenfranchised”, it’s all I ever say. In the decade this blog’s existed, I’ve gone on about it no less than two times, once to argue that the BNP were not disenfranchised voters. I mean, why can’t I just get over it? It’s unhealthy, the obsession I show for the matter.

    And yes. I really must stop my stupid, selfish interest in wanting other people’s lives to improve. This narcissistic solipsism has got to come to an end, and I really should just bloody well concentrate on my own problems for once. I’m disgusting.

    Thank you. You’ve been like a shining light of clarity in this debate.

  • sinister agent

    Just for clarity here, this isn’t a case of “two sides”. Almost nothing political is, and that kind of binary attitude exacerbates many, many problems in this and many other countries. In this case, there seems to be a common misconception that you have two camps

    Camp A: “Looters are criminals should be punished and that’s the end of that.”

    Camp B: “Looters are a product of society and should not be punished.”

    These camps, right, they do exist. But they’re populated by about maybe 50 people in the country. Everyone else falls into a third, fourth, fifth, sixteenth camp. But most people seem to lump everyone who disagrees with them in the slightest into Camp A or Camp B, where they’re easily dismissed, because both those views are simplistic, naive, and completely bloody stupid.

    Here’s a popular camp, let’s call it Camp C:

    Looters comitted crimes and should be punished. We should also try to understand why they committed these crimes.

    You see? Already, it’s noticeably different to both camps A and B, and yet there’s common ground with both of them. Yet one person might see the “looters should be punished” line and lump this Camp C person in with Camp A, and therefore dismiss him. Another might see the “we should try to understand” bit and lump them in with Camp B, and then dismiss him.

    All this goes away if you stop trying to reduce everything down to A or B, black or white, punish or forgive. Few things in life are that simple, and a nationwide campaign of theft and destruction perpetrated by thousands of people from, it appears, every race, religion, age and background, will never, ever be that simple. We – all of us – need to stop looking for the easy answers, and focus on the correct answers.

  • John Walker

    sinister agent – please can you take your reasonable-minded nonsense elsewhere. This is a blog for people like Jimmy who do not tolerate your thought-through garbage.

  • Scolopendra

    You know, the fact that external observers of the looters can’t discuss them without calling _each_other_ names (looking at both sides here) doesn’t bode well. Never mind “scum,” it’s all about “leftists” and “rightists” and this and that and character assassination and sarcasm.

  • Jack Deeth (@JackDeeth)

    I’m too tired to figure it out – but Jimmy wrote at 5pm British time and talked about how annoyed your article made him ‘in the morning’. So, which part of the world is he writing from? I don’t remember which way the planet turns anymore. Not that any of it’s relevant.

    Thanks Jimmy for writing such an amusing response, wherever you wrote it from!

  • Nick Mailer

    Xercies: What *precisely* disturbs you here by what I’m saying? Because if it’s just the mood music, as it is with bonkers Jimmy, then I really must despair at the paucity of dialectical skill about.

  • Pace

    I had something to say this on this matter, though it seems to have been said already. So instead I’ll step back from trying to sound intelligent and just point out that I seem to derive a certain satisfaction from calling people ‘scum’ or equivalent, probably because it makes me feel better about myself by implicitly placing myself above them.
    I don’t know if it sounds like I’m trying to be cleverly ironic or something but I’m not.

  • Mister k

    Nick, that article is appalling. It has a scattering of reasonable points (dehumanising the rioters is not constructive) but is full of hateful detached rhetoric, an embarrassment for the left. I think smithereen’s comment nails it.

  • John Walker

    Nick – the article is not simple to agree or disagree with. Yes, of course I sympathise with its points that mirror my own above – that the manner in which the discourse takes place is essential, and the dehumanising of a section of society is horrendously damaging.

    However, the route taken to get there is a peculiar one. I do now know about the organisation of the clean up, and I have no idea of the agenda of any taking part, but the suggestion (as much as she may wish to protest it afterward) that it was, en masse, an attempt to marginalise a section of society is paranoia at best. Again, living in Bath I have no first-hand accounts of who was cleaning up, but it was my understanding that it was the people who lived near the damage. People cleaning up their own communities.

    Yes, Boris wielding a broom for the cameras was vile opportunism. And certainly the rhetoric surrounding the events was often disturbing, primarily in the way it was used by the media coverage to create a sense of discrimination, of “us” and “scum”. And the self-congratulatory follow-up to the clean-up has been distasteful. But the post appears to condemn not the opportunists, but the participants, stereotyping them without evidence.

    I’m not sure whether the inference many in the comments are taking that the riots are justified by the arguments laid out is fair. It’s ambiguous. However, I think she certainly paints a naively ideological view of the events. The notion that chain stores were deliberately targeted is a nonsense predicated on its own evidence. They are everywhere! Of course lots of people targeted them, because merely by swinging a traffic cone anywhere on any street you’re going to hit one. Sure, rave about their prevalence if that’s your beef (just before you pop to the corner Sainsbury’s because, well, the milk’s cheaper), but don’t conflate that for there being some wit or commentary behind the looters’ choices. I think if anything is in danger of “justifying”, it’s remarks like that, as if this were some elaborate anti-capitalist stand. (It’s interesting how much the anti-caps stayed out of it, as it happens.)

    So yes. Lovely writing, lots of words I didn’t know before, but I think ultimately paranoid and unhelpful to the cause.

  • Nick Mailer

    That you have had any sympathy for that vile, nasty – frankly, evil – article surprises me.

    The fact that she edited the photo of the cleanup to remove the black participants is pretty QED for me.

  • Angela

    Listening to a debate on the the radio yesterday here in NZ….the term scum was used frequently in conjunction with the word ‘welfare’. The right wing here are certainly of the opinion that the riots in the UK are totally the result of ‘too much welfare’….and that has given rise to a breed known as ‘welfare scum’….this is the language of incitement isn’t it!

  • John Walker

    The issue is, I’m quite certain you think the article is evil for reasons other than I would. I’m sure you just imagine-read, “The looters were justified,” over and over and over until your keyboard was frazzled by the spittle.

    I’m not defending the article, by the way. Just pointing out that you’re not really on a good run for interpreting what people have written of late.

    So yes, where she echoes my thoughts about dehumanising through “us” and “scum” labelling, obviously it resonates. She could then go on to say, “Therefore all poor people should be used as ballasts on ocean liners,” and that wouldn’t mean I stopped agreeing with the bit before it. The ability to do this is a nuance you appear to have abandoned.

  • Xercies


    Just the level of the response your giving is a little OTT lets take down the scum and all that. I know you have gone on the other side just to be devils advocate sometimes. But I have no idea if your doing that now.

    I have to say your response of this is a bit to on the level of the angry people out there, just a knee jerk reaction to this I feel doesn’t really solve anything and I find that you a person I usually respect the opinion of on the great Rum Doings and elsewhere are saying something that is more out of anger then a reasoned intelligent one that I usually find from your response.

    Maybe I completly wrong and you are doing it out of more intelligent thougt weiging the pros and cons and all that. But from the level you are at it doesn’t really feel that way.

  • Nick Mailer

    “Just the level of the response your giving is a little OTT lets take down the scum and all that”

    The fact that you suggest my response was OTT makes me wonder whether it was that you didn’t like its tone, rather than its content, because you haven’t actually quoted anything *specific* that upset you.

    I’ll debate this with John not on the next Rum Doings, which is already recorded, but on the one after. Then you should be able to determine my thinking on this.

    In summary, though: I believe that both “sides” are wankin themselves off with trite platitudes. I find John’s article as annoying as a Thought For the Day sermon, of which it reminds me. Now, my instinct is to side with the general thrust of John’s argument (as he knows when we’ve discussed seriously the rehabilitation of serious criminals like paedophiles and such). However, I think the platitudinous, haughty “look at how the stupid people are angry, whereas I’m clever and thoughtful” articles upset me more than the “string-em-up” articles, because I expect more from “my side” than a sugary greetings card – or worse.

  • John Walker

    While you’re asking people to cite your crimes, I’d ask you to point out where you think I’ve been haughty.

    Also, your tweeted ideas for intervention are dependent upon someone from the outside thinking they know better. Because… maybe they do?

  • Xercies


    Yeah it pretty much is the tone then, you definitely seemed to come across as a bit angry and well from reading it it didn’t seem like the tone I always associated from you I guess. But with that post right there I do see where your coming from and I guess kind of agree with it a bit.

  • John Walker

    Well, it was that Nick was behaving and coming across like a bigot, which he absolutely is not. Which is why it was all so problematic.

  • Nick Mailer

    It depends what you mean by a bigot. I am sure I can be a bigot, as can everyone here. I hope that I am soon able to moderate this bigotry as my rational circuits come into play.

    That said, not every generalisation is bigotry. After all, inductive reasoning is effectively a kind of universal bigotry – making assumptions about one aspect of the universe merely because you assume another aspect of the universe has acted thus previously.

    So, the question then is “when does rational pattern-matching become bigotry”?

    Furthermore, there are legitimate questions to be asked about cultures and their malfeasant, recursive influence on people. But whether the question is accepted or not depends on who asks it, and how they ask it. So the comments that David Starkey made of late about black culture, for example, have been echoed by people like Trevor Phillips, with little controversy; but Starkey, because he has no tact and little nuance, is attacked for pretty much the same sentiments.

  • Jambe

    Criticizing cultures can be quite civilized, Nick. But calling a human being “scum” isn’t a particularly civilized critique, is it? Nor is it “tactful” or “nuanced”. Surely that’s John’s point; words and how we use them matter.

    Maybe I misread the piece, but if I didn’t, the comment thread can only be seen as a massive overreaction. Either people reject the notion outright, believing derogatory name-calling is ethically justifiable, or they go the non sequitur “oh so we should just let them all off the hook then?” route.

    Surely it isn’t haughty or naively leftist to expect considered speech in a civilized society.

  • Greg Bailey

    That article was so irritating I couldn’t finish it.

    Nick – I’m glad to see you returning to your articulate normalcy with his last response. I very much enjoy listening to/reading your Rum Doings and formspring musings, even when I don’t agree with you, so I have found your recent twittering and comments on John’s article quite maddening – definitely a case of your tone obscuring whatever it was you were trying to say.

    It’s probably a good thing then that the two of you have some time to consider your views before the riot-themed Rum Doings comes out. I’m very much looking forward to it.

  • Alex B

    This is a post by RPS User ‘Quirk’. I have his permission to repost.


    So, let’s talk about the underclass. We call them neds up here, rather than chavs, but the principle remains the same. Firstly, it needs to be pointed out that being poor is not what causes people to call them chavs. Plenty of homeless people wouldn’t qualify. The word is used to describe a particular way of speaking, of dressing, and particularly of acting: a subculture.

    We have a reasonably good education system in the UK. If you have some talent and stick in and work, you can go pretty far. The huge tuition fees kerfuffle is mostly a red herring: the point at which you start having to pay back the debts is when you have a yearly income of £21,000, and you have to pay back just 9% of the excess earnings over £21,000 per year. If you were earning £25,000 p.a., slightly greater than the median wage, that’s just £30 per month. After 30 years, your loan gets written off. Given the impact on earnings a university education has, getting one is a no-brainer. You’re pretty much guaranteed to be better off as things stand.…ance/DG_194804

    (The government gets flak for completely the wrong reasons about tuition fees. They markedly raised the threshold for repayment at the time the fees went up, and the fees are very much a tax on the well-educated rich. The real problem with the way they’re doing things is that they face a major shortfall from people unable to eventually repay the loans, which will need to be covered somehow.)

    It’s possible to dig yourself out of the underclass through education, then, and people do. It’s possible to remove the perceived taint of the underclass culture from the way you dress, learn the etiquette of wider society, even lose the accent of the deprived areas. All these things are possible – and so, many people view it as justified to scorn those who are left, who have not bettered themselves, who remain ignorant and antisocial. After all, haven’t they chosen the path they have?

    For most of them it is not a choice. The education in a rough inner-city school is not on a par with that of a genteel suburban school. Only the most hard-working and dedicated rise from these places. At home, it is unlikely their parents teach them to value education; and they will grow up in turn to pass that apathy on to their own children. Without the help of the state their lives would be even more miserable than they already are. Some of them do find ways to eke out more benefits than they are strictly entitled to, though the practice is not as widespread as it is sometimes reported to be. They are products of their environment, and should not be despised for being such.

    Fifty years ago, many of them would have found work in factories or mines or shipyards. The world is changing. There are now progressively few jobs for the illiterate and unskilled, and relatively little effort is made to teach them skills within their capabilities that are not academic ones. Bunging them cash to keep them quiet solves none of the long-term problems, indeed plays a part in creating a culture that is a long-term problem in itself – but leaving people to starve is worse, and there are no simple easy solutions that don’t introduce more problems still.

    Many of the people who’re rioting are ignorant, even stupid, are greedy and thoughtless and callous. They aren’t making a coherent political protest because they aren’t equipped to understand the complexities of the politics. Most of them are the product however of dead-end areas, born into a poverty trap which could only be escaped through academic brilliance or a work ethic they were never taught, enticed by a society that offers every kind of material good to those who can afford it. One of the main political parties doesn’t really give a damn whether they live or die, the other just forks over money and hopes it keeps them quiet. If we throw them all into jail, does it solve anything?

    How do you find jobs for people from the sink estates that give them something they can take satisfaction in? How do you make them feel they matter to society? One thing that is apparent is that the geographical concentration of poverty leads to problems increasing. Once poverty’s set in within a particular area, perhaps a former seat of a now historical industry, how do you banish it? And once you’ve found reasonable answers to the above, how do you force them through the rough and tumble of political discourse, enemy to all subtle solutions? I wish I knew.


  • Fiyenyaa

    Great post, Alex B/Quirk. I should think that a more balanced economy would do wonders in terms of sorting our some of these problems, but actually achieving that would be a whole heap of challenge.

    Nick: the reason that Starkey was criticised for his objections to “black culture” – or at least the reason that I think they were ludicrous – is because he’s summing up “black culture” as something homogeneous and as such has committed either a crime of ignorance or a crime of laziness because no such thing exists in an easily generalisable form. What is “black culture”? Is it the culture of every black person in the world – every black person in this country – every black person in a certain area of London – every black person in a certain socio-economic class – every black person who is a Labour supporter, or a Liberal, or a Tory, or apolitical – every black person from a Caribbean background, or from an African background – every black man or woman, every straight black person or every gay black person? What happens if a black person doesn’t conform to these arbitrary standards – does that mean that they are a part of “white culture” (with every minuscule division between the constituent parts of that group)?
    Complain about social malaise within certain communities, complain about the philosophy (or lack of it) that certain elements of pop-culture inspire, complain about benefits creating a climate of zero ambition and wanting for nothing if you want to: but to say “black culture” is bad is stupid or lazy. It’s obviously offensive, and it’s obviously not true: or perhaps I’m just being maddeningly politically correct.

  • Alex

    That RPS crosspost reminded me of a good TED lecture Naheed Nenshi gave before he became mayor of Calgary.

    Calgary is a young place compared to basically any town or city in England, but I think you can draw some parallels. The town’s initial neighbourhood mix of low, middle and upper income families changed over time and lead to the same geographic concentrations of wealth and poverty Quirk mentioned. The parts of down with the most to gain from new government buildings or initiatives seemed to be the least likely to actually get them. It’s a vicious cycle that nobody in power seemed to want to tackle.

  • Coccyx

    Ignoring the drama that seems to be happening in the comments thread for the moment, I’d like to talk about peoples annoyingly right wind attitudes to all the rioting. I’ve been somewhat vilified amongst my friends for saying something other than that the looters are vile, opportunistic thugs. I’ve been saying that, but I’ve also been saying that the people in power sitting at the houses of Parliament are equally barbaric and twisted. There seems to be some controversy about the cause of the riots, which surprises me. Yes they were kicked off by a police shooting, yes they were fuelled by opportunistic idiots and criminals, but what fundamentally caused the riots is the growing discord between members of the public and our new Conservative Government, and yes, particularly with those people in the lower class. The Tories have been gradually removing as much support as the can possibly get away with from the working class, and are continuing to make things harder and harder for them. I can’t be the first to point this out, but we haven’t had serious rioting on this scale for 30 years; the last time we had a far right conservative government, under Thatcher. What bothers me is that people are forgetting their hand in this. I’ve been accused of being ridiculous, accused of hating them so much that I’m looking for excuses to blame them – but surely when we have mass public disorder it’s ridiculous NOT to blame the Government. They’re supposed to be the ones preventing this from ever happening – not just sanctioning increasingly violent measures to try and stop it from continuing. You’ll notice the lack of rioting after the London underground shooting last year. Police atrocities occur regularly, and a percentage of society has always been greedy; the only thing that’s changed is the system under which they live under.

    More relevant to your post in particular is my argument for why we have no free will. It bassically goes that everything that makes you you is entirely based on your past, which is entirely out of your control. From birth, you are exposed to certain events which you could not avoid, such as being introduced to certain people or discovering a program by flicking though T.V channels. The results of those events then entirely influence any future ‘decisions’ you’ve made, meaning there’s no gap for you to have actually chosen to do anything. Here’s a link to my blog, where I explain in much more depth –

  • Nick Mailer

    Coccyx: That you posit that we have no moral autonomy is a more vile and dangerous notion than anything the rioters OR the businessmen in their suits and ties have said. You want the true progenitor of fascism, it’s that.

  • Coccyx

    I was a tad worried that putting my argument across in a condensed post would make it seem like I was making assumptions, But I’m not sure what grounds you have to call me a fascist. Also, I didn’t go on to say in the post (though I do in my blog) that we shouldn’t really bear the fact that we probably don’t have free will in mind, as society would most likely collapse. Criminals have to be punished, etc. So yeah, the notion is dangerous – if you consider it any more than a thought experiment.

  • Nick Mailer

    I didn’t say you were a fascist. I’m saying that the notion that the populace are nothing more than malleable automata is the primary motive to fascism. It’s the mother idea, if you will.

  • Coccyx

    Your saying my line of reasoning could be used to justify a fascists point of view? Well, I dare say it could. Ultimately, our human concept of morality is just a social construct – but one that very happy to go along with. I point out in my blog that the best thing to do with the knowledge (or even just a vague inkling) that we may not be, in a way, entirely responsible for our actions is just to ignore it. Think about it, debate it with friends, explore the possible consequences it could have on society then leave it to the side. I could go around saying ‘we’re all going to die’. You may very well accuse me of being hopelessly negative; the statement on it
    s own most certainly is. However, I don’t go around thinking about it every hour of every day;I recognise the truth but don’t let it negatively influence my life.

  • Daniel Rivas

    Coccyx’s method is to break up a mechanism into (what he perceives as) its constituent parts and then, through whooshy non sequitur, damn the whole as a figment. If someone under your system may ask a question and come upon an answer that is original (because of your quanta) and coherent (because of the historical forces you identify), then what is the difference between this illusion and free will? The distinction is just one of nomenclature and attitude. You say that one can’t ignore history, but that it’s equally silly to deify it. I agree. But from that you jump to nihilism, and I don’t understand that leap.

    I’m more on the Nick end of this argument, but I do get uneasy about the use of ‘scum’. Perhaps because it’s a word I associate with lazy class hatred, which leads you to a similar place as more liberal hand-wringing: they did it because they’re poor, and were incapable of making any other choice. Because scum does as scum does.

  • Coccyx

    I would say that they are one and the same thing. I honestly think that our everyday decisions are illusions, albeit incredibly strong ones. There’s simply no gap for free will to enter into the equation – there’s no magical moment where we somehow acquire a distinct and unique personality. That occurs over a long period of time; ie our entire lives. I say that our personality is entirely based on the past, on events that are outside our control. It’s not a jump to say that means we never originally decide anything, to me it seems like a logical step.