Did Christmas cause the riots?

I spotted these Christmas crackers on sale in our local town centre yesterday.

Christmas starts in August

It was horrible weather and the combination of torrential rain and Yuletide money-spinning gave me the feeling that the rest of summer was cancelled. (I usually try to pretend it’s still summer until the end of September, so this was a depressing development.)

I posted the pic on Facebook yesterday and one friend commented that Selfridges has had Christmas decorations on sale for weeks already. There were other comments expressing dismay and outrage.

I find this unseasonal selling particularly ironic and cynical when so much Xmas imagery focuses on the fact that it happens in winter – even in parts of the world where it doesn’t. Snow, robins, holly berries, mistletoe…they all seem to be at least as prominent as Jesus.

It is depressing; the sense that every year a little bit more of the “true spirit of Christmas” – whatever that means to you – is annihilated by rampant commercialism, typified for me by this. One can’t help feeling that the only reason that Christmas is still such a major festival in this country is because of the intense energy retailers and other businesses put into building it up and stretching it out. If it didn’t traditionally involve the giving of presents, it probably would have fallen into semi-obscurity by now.

And isn’t one of the causes cited for the recent public disorder and violence in this country the excessive commercialisation of society? One by-product of mass materialism is a loss of perspective about what really matters in life; an erosion of human values which is dehumanising in a very real sense. The truth is, we live our lives in the throes of systematic and sustained psychological manipulation by multifarious commercial interests, supported by and influencing the media, and using things that are important to us like status, beauty, security, nostalgia, family, etc. to make us buy stuff. It’s fatuous to say that doesn’t have an effect on us.

Most of us simultaneously outwardly repel and inwardly succumb to the hype. We may feel dismayed that Christmas starts in August and seems to be all about profit, but we will quite possibly still spend hundreds of pounds on presents and paraphernalia between now and December 25th, even if we’re not Christian.

If you follow where this line of tension (between knowing you’re being manipulated and still letting it happen) ultimately leads, you end up with people smashing, looting and burning the premises that sell the stuff they are constantly pressurised to want. The “OMG I can’t believe that!” comments on my Facebook post are one end of spectrum; smashing, grabbing, destroying and releasing pent up fury in an animal frenzy of excitement and adrenalin are the other. Same spectrum though.

Of course there are many other factors – pressures heaped on pressures – that lead up to the riots. As my good friend the social and political commentator Jonathan Keane wrote:

“There are lots of complicated factors, overlapping, understandable if we tease them out. It’s partly about young people being disentitled. It’s partly about Black young people being constantly shamed. It’s partly about young men living in a world where all they have is the gang built on fear. It’s partly about a society that runs its value system on having a mobile phone or a pair of trainers, and massive inequalities in wealth living side by side … And it’s partly about stupid Tories thinking it’s ok to withdraw all the money that tries to help from EMAs to summer youth projects because they think it costs too much.”

I’d add to that list: additional pressures caused by recession and economic uncertainties and the related reduction in opportunities and aspirations; a political and financial elite that frequently sets a very poor moral example; an inability to empathise that may or may not be caused or exacerbated by a digitised childhood spent surrounded by screens and the compound impact of all these problems building over generations. (After all, so many blame the parents, but whose fault is it that they themselves don’t know better? Everyone does what they can, based on what they know and we’re all products of our environment.)

But contained within this steaming morass of factors are two conflicting elements. On the one hand there’s poverty of opportunity; on the other the commercialisation of society. Ultimately retailers flog Christmas in August in order to stimulate spending and make more money, which should create more general wealth and opportunities. If nothing else, it certainly creates a load of temporary ‘Christmas jobs’. So I suppose that makes it a good thing in some ways too, doesn’t it? Maybe the counterbalance to looting is buying stuff.

So I guess what I seem to be driving at is that the correct response to Cameron et al’s riot response strategy might be “Crackers”.

About jopratt

I’m a communications consultant specialising in non-profits. You can follow me on Twitter @jo108.
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