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June 26, 2011

On reading and riots

Last week,  a young woman who’d been photographed taking part in the Stanley Cup riots posted an online apology in which she first claimed to take responsibility for her actions, and then indignantly outlined the reasons why blame cast her way was disproportionate: mob mentality, that she’d only committed theft and not arson, the theft was for souvenir purposes, she’d been drunk–nice try, works for rapists– and besides, the whole thing was completely out of character. (I think she may have since had some PR consulting, however. The indignant bits of the post have been removed, and she now reads as genuinely sorry.)

As I read the post last week though, I thought about how much this young woman still had to learn about atonement. That perhaps she was victim of a culture that fools us into thinking public apology trumps being good in the first place. I thought of her remarkable sense of entitlement, how her fierce impression of who she was did not seem at all changed by what she had done. And if she was right, I thought, that her actions that night had indeed been completely out of character, then that was only because she didn’t have any character.

Character, according to Joan Didion (in “On Self-Respect”): “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life.”

I thought about the mob mentality which the girl claimed had swept her right up, and I sort of understood it. Though you’ve got to wonder about the kind of person who gets swept up in a mob in the first place. These are the kinds of people who think being alive is a spectator sport.

And I thought about how much I dislike the part of church services where a minister speaks, and the congregation responds in unison. How even fans at a baseball game singing the national anthem makes me cringe a bit, because in circumstances like this, we’re speaking automatically, not thinking about anything we are saying. It’s a different kind of mob mentality, and one that is benign, but then I start thinking about the Nuremburg Rally, like it’s all a slippery slope. On the rare occasions when I happen to be in a church, I don’t respond when called on. I listen instead. And the droning sound of everyone’s voices is always a little bit terrifying.

Naturally, I am being melodramatic, but I was also thinking about reading. About how reading can be a communal experience, how it’s an exchange between writer and reader, but mostly how the latter retains his individuality. The power of the reader to regard the text with a discerning eye, and to re-read so the text changes as he does. I’m thinking about how reading is the opposite of mob mentality, and that armed with critical skills to apply to the world, a reader is unlikely to be swept away by any such thing.

There are arguments against this, of course. Someone will always mention Mao’s Little Red Book. But I’m still thinking that to read well is to learn to reside inside one’s own head, and I think there’s such tremendous value in that.

7 thoughts on “On reading and riots”

  1. patricia says:

    Oh that I could be so brilliant and clever on a Sunday night or a Monday morning.

    That girl’s original ‘apology’ was unbelievably offensive.

  2. m says:

    I think our whole society needs to learn about atonement. I think of all those terrible celebrities and politicians who think a simple ‘I’m sorry’ makes their offences disappear. It’s a hard thing to teach, I’m learning, as I try to navigate my kids through learning to apologize. It’s hard enough to have the older one say the words let alone atone for them.

    It’s interesting what you say about the singing of the national anthems. I love that part. When we watch hockey at home, we often join in. Our Music Together teacher was explaining to the class that in our society there really is only two times when everyone singes: the national anthem and Happy Birthday. The cake comes out and you sing even if you think you can’t sing. In other cultures, singing is part of daily rhythms. I don’t think it’s part of mob mentality, but community and shared culture, though I can see how they can be connected.

    You’ve got me thinking, Ms. Clare, which can be a dangerous thing on a Monday morning!

    1. Kerry says:

      Oh, happy birthday: we LOVE that song. Though I rarely sing it in mobs larger then ten.

  3. Maria says:

    Oh, excellent post!
    It’s so true that pop culture encourages facile notions of forgiveness — often providing the (narcissistic) perpetrator with more attention while glossing over the impact of what’s been done. Last summer I picked up a book of essays called Guilt About the Past by Bernhard Schlink and loved its considered and nuanced ideas about forgiveness and reconciliation. You’re so right that reflection and an inner life are what’s needed. About singing: having come late to the joys of group singing I want to add that it can foster compassion as well as mob mentality. It all depends on the context.

    1. Kerry says:

      You know what, I love group singing too. And understanding its tradition as a source of strength for exploited workers– though I wonder if it ever kept them complacent? (I could be wrong. Am opining about things I know nothing about). It’s just the nationalist angle that makes me uncomfortable. Or even religious hymns– when we’re singing, we don’t always notice what we’re saying. Which undermines important themes, and also tricks us into saying what we might not mean.

  4. Maria says:

    You’re on to something important I think … worth discussing. My opinion: it IS possible to maintain critical thinking and a sense of responsibility while “letting go” in that way that happens in group singing, but it’s a skill that needs to be learned and practised — and we don’t. And that’s the scary part.

  5. Zsuzsi says:

    Personal responsibility has gone AWOL in our society — everyone’s a victim, it seems. And you’re also right about the crazy sense of entitlement among a certain demographic. (As a parent I try to hammer home this personal responsibility thing daily, as kids seem pre-programmed to blame someone else — it start with Mr. Nobody at daycare and moves along from there (sometimes it’s all my fault, it seems!). Although it doesn’t help that we’re always hearing how one indignity or crime or other is the fault of “the system” or “the govt” or in this particular case “the anarchists” or the mayor or the police or the CBC.

    Anyway, great post, Kerry, especially liked the “nice try, works for rapists”

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