In 2006, then-opposition leader David Cameron said troubled kids need "a lot more love if society is going to stop them from committing crimes."
Two years later, in an attempt to shed what the Telegraph called his "hug a hoodie" image and be tougher on crime, he called on the country to address an increasing "culture of violence" in Britain, saying, "We cannot let our shock one day turn into a shrug of the shoulder the next."
Now Prime Minister, Cameron returned to that imagery this week in response to several days of rioting. "This is not about poverty," he said. "It is about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, that shows disrespect to authority and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibility."
Cameron's statement drew little of the usual political disagreement. Video footage from Britain's streets has been clear enough, showing rioters driven by greed, a hunger for violence and utter disregard for the humanity of others. In one particularly upsetting clip, seemingly Good Samaritans help a boy with a broken jaw to his feet, only to rifle through his backpack for his wallet and phone. According to another report, a woman called a mother to inform her that her son was out rioting. The mother reacted by scolding the caller for ringing her up at 2:15 a.m.
Against that backdrop, Cameron's words about children growing up not knowing the difference between right and wrong — and parents who don't know or don't care where their children are — rang true. They are ringing true for other western countries, as well. In the United States, for example, recent Philadelphia flash mobs — until now, a phenomenon involving a harmless song or dance — have taken an ugly turn, with crowds of youth storming retail outlets or attacking citizens on the street.
One answer to the persistent question of "Why?" may lie in the kind of entertainment that has become normal. More than two thirds of television programming contains some violence, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, with an average of six violent acts per hour on the airwaves. And the instances of violence aren't the only thing increasing — today's violence is also progressively more graphic, more sadistic and more sexual.
Neuroimaging studies have shown that viewing violence physically changes the frontal lobes of young brains, and other sociological studies have demonstrated it increases violent behavior. This is why the recent Supreme Court decision not to ban the sale of extremely violent games to minors is of such concern. It may have been lauded as a win for freedom of speech, but it is also a troubling victory for the culture of violence.
Some psychologists have pointed out that not all violence is physical. A culture of violence is also fed by ruthless competition, material consumption and a lifestyle that emphasizes individual gain over sacrifice and service.
As right as Cameron is in his assessment of the culture of violence, he's wrong to imply it's completely unrelated to poverty. The effects of poverty on families and individuals can be devastating, and the anger bred by dependency on government is a cultural issue that must be addressed. Changing the culture of violence will involve reaching out to those in need in ways that encourage dignity and self-reliance.
It will also require a good dose of the love Cameron called for in 2006. Communities that have successfully combated gang violence have done so through partnerships that include law enforcement, faith communities and families that rally around the youth in their communities. At a time when governments, religious organizations, non-profits and families alike are being forced to tighten their purse-strings, such partnerships make even more sense.