Two remarks caught my eye yesterday. The first was from the mother of a 17-year-old caught looting in south London. “This is incredibly tough for us. I am not even sure she realises the consequences yet,” said the woman, as her daughter was remanded in custody after pleading guilty to taking T-shirts and sweets.
The second was from the controversial American psychologist Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus at Stanford University: “The majority of us can get seduced into behaving in ways that are totally atypical of everything we believe we are.”
It was Zimbardo who, 40 years ago this month, conceived and ran the famous Stanford prison study in which 24 volunteers – all middle class, healthy and male – were divided arbitrarily into prisoners and guards, and sent into a specially constructed “prison” in a basement corridor of Stanford University’s psychology department. By day two of the experiment, they had become so absorbed in their roles that the “guards” were meting out punishments and the “prisoners” were cracking up.
By day six, when the experiment was called off, it was obvious – in Zimbardo’s words – “that we had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation in which prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways and in which some of the guards were behaving sadistically”.
Over the years, the Stanford study has been criticised for its methods and lack of scientific rigour. Zimbardo’s conclusion that people have the capacity for evil behaviour if they find themselves in the right (or the wrong) circumstances has also been questioned, with psychologists arguing that individual personality may affect behaviour just as much as external factors.
But I have always been haunted by the image of those college boys turning into people that they themselves barely recognised – either as victims or as violators. Regardless of its implications for prison policy, the most resonant conclusion of the Stanford experiment is about the fragility of personality and moral action. People think they can predict how they will react – and find they were deluded.
The coincidence of this anniversary with the court cases resulting from the riots is therefore salutary. As the offenders are punished, it is becoming clear that many different people were out on the streets last week. Some were what the police would describe as “hardened criminals”; many were those who exist on the edges of that criminality; and some were people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and made a bad decision about how to behave.
The mother I quoted is a nurse; her husband is a doctor. They go to church, and live hard-working and structured lives. In advance, you would have predicted that their daughter would have stood with the great majority of law-abiding families who were horrified by the lawlessness they saw. In the event, she made a terrible choice to join the minority.
She was not the only one. Youngsters who lack for nothing in terms of home comforts, education and money joined with those who have none of those things, presumably working on the false notion that theft is a victimless crime and no one was hurt by their actions. But they were – and the victims include all those who have tried to be good parents and now find their certainties about their children in ruins.
As a parent, the riots have made me increasingly obsessed by the fineness of the line between right and wrong, between the civilised, ordered society in which we think we live and the anarchic one which suddenly emerged. The areas of south London where we live and where my teenage sons go to school were attacked; we were all shocked and frightened by the looting we witnessed.
But suppose the boys had been out shopping in Clapham, Brixton or Lewisham when the trouble began? Do I without a shadow of doubt know how they would have behaved? Or how I would at their age? I doubt any of us would have smashed a shop window, or punched someone to the ground. But if we were with a group of mates and the door to Poundland was already down, might we not have pocketed some sweets? Or picked up a bottle of water? I hope not, but the truth is, I don’t absolutely know.
The teenagers up in court have undoubtedly done something wrong. They lost their moral compass and they behaved like criminals who must be punished. But as the Stanford experiment reminds us, it is also important that those who sit in judgment, whether in the courts or in armchairs, should recognise that these things are not always as simple as they seem.
One test of a moral society, indeed, is to recognise human fallibility – and to be prepared to build a better world on that basis.
A thousand days to destroy your child’s future
'Oh, I don’t know what I am going to write about,” I moaned to 11-year-old Teodoro over breakfast. “You could write about parenting,” he said. “How it is the hardest and yet the best thing you have done.”
How right he is. It is a subject much on my mind as I struggle (reading the parenting guides about communication with your offspring) to be a good mother and feel (shouting at them for failing to put their socks in the linen basket) that I am a bad one.
But I can stop worrying. A report out this week says that our children’s future is fixed in the first thousand days of their life, by what we eat and do from the moment they are conceived until their second birthday.
This means I can continue to feel I am failing – because I ate the wrong things and was stressed during pregnancy – and it also means that I have to concede my (much-loved) sister-in-law has done a far better job than me. She fed her daughters perfect food up to the age of two – even though now they refuse to eat vegetables. Since my kids gobble spinach and salad with a vengeance, this was the only area of their upbringing about which I felt smug. No more.
Ladies, hide it up your sleeve
Every woman, whatever her age, hates her arms. They are always (though at different times) too skinny, too baggy, too white or too flabby. So why is it that every fashion designer thinks it’s a brilliant idea to produce sleeveless garments which expose our worst feature to the ferocious light of day?
But following a survey that revealed 75 per cent of women disliked their arms more than any other part of their body (and goodness knows we don’t much like the rest of it), there has been a sleeve revolution.
The signs are there: Mary Portas has teamed up with Charnos to design “armery” – effectively stockings for arms. Tops with sleeves are sneaking into the shops. The Duchess of Cambridge, who has very little to hide in the arms department, chose dresses with sleeves on her tour of Canada. The online website Asos has started a sleeve length search option.
With luck, we’ll soon be back in the Mad Men era (pictured) when not only did tops boast flattering sleeves, but some came in translucent fabrics that hinted at the flesh beneath without revealing it.
Women of the world unite. You have nothing to hide but your arms.
I think I’m a Center Parcs snob
My idea of a summer holiday is very much like the one I have just endured, sorry, enjoyed in Norfolk: you huddle behind a windshield/breakwater/sand dune on some breezy beach, and you jolly well have a good time. Failing that, I like a bit of continental sunshine, where the sunbathers are crammed so close that you can hear them falling out of love or into lust.
But my taste is constantly being questioned by friends who suggest we try a trip to Center Parcs. “The children will love it,” they say. David Miliband must have been listening, because he is now attacking the snobbery of those people who dared to criticise his choice of a summer sojourn in Center Parcs France – itself an exotic choice among my acquaintance, who rave about the Sherwood Forest branch, but perhaps he was looking for a bargain because it is cheaper to go abroad.
Anyhow, under great peer pressure I have now looked at the Center Parcs website and, yes, it does look lovely, and there are lots of happy children playing and blissful parents sipping wine while enjoying a relaxing spa. But it is still a holiday camp, which means you are confined with lots of other people you don’t know for an extended period.
I can bear such enforced proximity for a short time. Recently, I took a group of children to Chessington World of Adventure. I didn’t exactly throw myself into it, avoiding all but two of the rides, because I have a basic rule in life that I never want to be seen hanging upside down like a bat.
But I had a very pleasant day watching England at play, relaxed, multi-cultural and surprisingly at peace with itself. Parents didn’t shout at their children, children didn’t scream at their parents, and the whole experience was unexpectedly uplifting.
I imagine Center Parcs must be much the same, only rather healthier and with outdoor activities replacing rides. I am sure it is a sunny, joy-filled place. But the idea of staying there and calling it a holiday? I’d rather be messing around in chilly Norfolk.
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"With Yoweri Museveni and Dr. Kizza Besigye Uganda is in anarchy"
Groupe de communication Mulindwas
"avec Yoweri Museveni et Docteur Kiiza Besigye, l'Ouganda est dans l'anarchie"