London Started Burning a Long Time Ago

By Manie Bosman

How does a civilized society suddenly implode into mass violence, wanton destruction and plundering? The answer is that it doesn’t – not suddenly anyway.

While just about everything from the killing of an alleged drug smuggler by the police to social media, poor leadership, capitalism and a failed school system had already been blamed for last week’s violence and wanton destruction of property in London and other cities, the fact is that it didn’t happen overnight. “Civilized” people don’t turn into marauding barbarians over a single incident – instead, barbarians behave like barbarians when they find an excuse not to pretend being civilized any longer.

It has often been said that we all have the potential to turn violent and even to kill if pushed far enough. While that might be true I think that at the most basic level an individual’s inclination to violence is determined by two interacting multi-faceted factors:

  1. What I believe (determined by factors such as worldview, culture, values, education, etc) and;
  2. How I manage my emotions when interacting with the world around me (determined by some of the same factors which influence what I believe as well as personality, age, upbringing, current emotional state, specific circumstances, etc).

These factors – or perhaps I should say clusters of factors (of which there are many more not mentioned here) – determine how I respond to violence. For instance, if I grew up in a society where violence is acceptable or even applauded as a response to a challenge, I would be more likely to act violently when threatened even if by nature I am emotionally stable and disciplined. On the other hand, if I am emotionally unstable and immature I would also be more prone to violence even if the society in which I live does not encourage violence.

From this it would be clear that when emotionally unstable people live in societies where violence is acceptable or encouraged it will always just a matter of time before it erupts. If as a society the values we teach and model cause people to believe that violence is a justifiable means to get what they want, we are naive to think they will only revert to violence if sanctioned by the state (e.g. war). I am not by any means an expert on England’s school system or socio-economic dynamics. However it seems that in recent years Europe and other developed regions has become so “humane” that children are growing up on a diet overloaded with (often unrealistic) individual rights and starved of personal responsibility. Many have no moral compass as the truth have become “relative” and therefore also irrelevant. So at the risk of generalizing and being somewhat simplistic I propose that the flames we’ve seen in London’s streets last week were the manifestation of a generation that believes the world owes them something and that they have the right to use violence to get what they want.

On a global level, I hope that governments and pressure groups take heed of what happened in London as conditions there are by no means unique. While the detail and dynamics might differ, the pressure is building up in many countries including South Africa. Throughout history individuals and groups have harnessed such conditions to further their own agendas and interests. Fact is – it could and will happen again, and in South Africa the outcome might be very different as government might not have the capacity to stifle the violence so easily. Mubarak, Gadaffi and other once celebrated but now disgraced leaders have recently learnt this lesson.

On a personal level, self leadership is critical. My favorite movie quote is from Triple X where at one point Vin Diesel growls “In order to slay the monster you have to become the monster…”. Well, the fact is while that sounds great in a Hollywood script, if you become a monster to slay a monster you’re a monster no less… One of my personal goals (in which I fail quite often) is to live a life which is not a reaction to my environment, but a constant manifestation of who I really am. I couldn’t do that without believing in an ultimate Truth and values that are aligned with that Truth.


About Manie Bosman

Manie Bosman is Founder and CEO of the Strategic Leadership Institute. He is a leadership development consultant specializing in the emerging fields of neuroleadership and neurosafety. Based in Pretoria, South Africa, Manie has more than 20 years of international experience in cross-cultural interaction, diversity management, change management, public speaking, communication, corporate training and team development. He holds a Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership and believes that effective leadership is the key determiner of success in any venture, group or organization.
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4 Responses to London Started Burning a Long Time Ago

  1. Bill Withers says:

    Manie: I heard PM Cameron on the radio commenting that there is an element who feels that society owes them something, and who get very upset when they don’t get it. I had tuned in late, but assumed he was talking about the rioters, and not about his cabinet. I don’t think this generation feels any more entitled than did people in generations past who felt that their destiny was in the hands of people who did not have their best interest at heart. I do not condone the violence of the rioters, and think that many were simple hooligans taking advantage of an opporutnity, but I believe that the pressure that you sense is building comes in part from people of privelege who feel entitled and will fight to maintain their (our) positions by pushing back against having to acknowledge the need to adjust their world view to include people and ideas that may not have been apparent to them when their world view was formed. We can’t keep a pot from boiling by bolting down the lid.

  2. Manie – lovely article, particularly the last paragraph, “One of my personal goals (in which I fail quite often) is to live a life which is not a reaction to my environment, but a constant manifestation of who I really am.” That is powerful.

    What suggestions do you have for a culture that is out of balance, as per London?

  3. Manie Bosman says:

    Bill, I did not pick up on Cameron’s speech but if what you say is correct I tend to agree with what he is saying. In SA we pick it up among young white and black people, even though they often come from very different backgrounds. I’m generalizing, but there seems to be very little loyalty to anything, an acute awareness of personal rights, and inflated expectations of what society owes them. Unfortunately, there seem to be little or no adherence to moral principles and values, no willingness to take personal responsibility, and a reluctance to work hard (no-one wants to start at the bottom) and “do the right thing” in order to contribute to society and realize their personal goals.

    I contribute this to the system’s failure to teach, model, uphold and provide the values, skills and opportunities we need for a healthy society. As part of the system this is my failure too. Add to that current dubious senior leadership role models and the inflammatory racist statements of ANCYL leader Julius Malema, and you have a proportion of soeciety without moral guidelines who are starting to believe they have the right to do whatever it takes – even revert to violence – to get what they want. The extreme violent nature of crime in SA reflects this. In London the death of a drug dealer was the spark that set fire it all alight.

  4. Manie Bosman says:

    Thank you for the encouragement, Zoë. I would be very hesitant to even try and propose a “one-click” solution for this problem. I think some of the positives to take from London is that it now forces all of us to re-evaluate and assess the system to see where we went wrong and how that can be addressed. The economic recession forced organizations and even governments to rethink leadership, for instance, and partially as a result of that we’re seeing some really exciting developments in how we think about and apply leadership. On a more personal level, I think values, based on an absolute Truth, as stated before, is critical to self management and fulfillment. If people do not have something firm to stand on, they will continue to stumble.

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