Jun 23 2011

What Would 18 Year Old You Have Done?

Guest post by Cam McRae

As the self-righteousness of those decrying the Vancouver riots reaches a fever pitch I find myself asking some uncomfortable questions. Not just of myself but of many of the people who found themselves swept up in the current of destruction and violence.

If I had been there when everything began to melt down – perhaps at the ripe age of 18 and filled with some scary combination of testosterone, adrenaline, alcoholic beverages and/or drugs – would I have found myself carried into the melee beyond the point of curious voyeur? Would I now be facing the wrath of friends, coworker and relatives? Would I have been expelled, lost my job, kicked off a team or perhaps be facing charges? I hope not but I’m afraid I can’t say for sure – because I’ve never found myself in the midst of a riot. I hope my younger self would have left immediately when things went sideways – but it’s a hope that lacks the confidence of experience.

Those who lit the first fires, those who swarmed and beat individuals or those who confronted police because the VPD’s officers were showing tremendous restraint, are not the people I’m talking about. Those who started the literal and figurative fires deserve to be the focus of the city’s rage and I hope they face the consequences of their actions. I’m referring to those like a young high school student who found himself in front of a large chanting audience – with a hockey stick that someone had handed him – faced with a wall of glass, or a young athlete whose buddies encourage him to pose for a photo in front of a burning truck on Georgia St. Or the water polo star that felt compelled to try to set a police car ablaze. That last example is particularly troubling and tragic, but are we really to conclude that this young lad had this planned, that we can explain his behaviour by looking at past examples from his life? If not then how do we explain it?

There’s one common theme I’ve noticed in every video, every photo and every description of the night’s events; everyone involved was human. Of course there are more commonalities; the overwhelming majority are young males, many have had too much to drink, smoke or injest otherwise. I was watching a youtube video http://bb.nsmb.com/showthread.php?t=142703 showing the faces of those cleaning up broken glass and other refuse – and virtually all of those faces – particularly the younger ones – have doppelgangers who caused the mess they were cleaning up.

The fundamental attribution error states that when we see others make mistakes we blame it on their character, their intelligence or perhaps even their race. Driving is a perfect example. That guy who cut you off in traffic is an idiot or asshole – not someone rushing home because his wife is in labour – or late for his first day work because his daughter was up all night vomiting.

On the other side is the actor-observer bias – which leads us to explain our own behaviour because of the situations we find ourselves in. We ran that red light because some cirumstance caused us to be in a hurry. These are mistakes all of us make every day – generally without knowing it.

When we see those who were swept up in the frenzy of chaos and violence we say they are bad people. This may be true in many cases – particularly when we consider those who brought tools of destruction to the party. But in many more cases the psyches of these individuals may have been twisted and diverted by the insanity they saw around them.

It is now virtually impossible for many of us to be aware on a daiy basis that we are animals. We started off as single cell beings and we’ve become increasingly complex over millions of years – but all that DNA, which has kept our species alive and growing, still courses through our veins and influences our actions on a daily basis. Herd behaviour describes how people like you and I – individuals – can act together in unplanned ways when we find ourselves in a group. We do things because we see others doing things – sometimes good and sometimes bad. How and why this happens long after we lived in herds to survive isn’t clear. What is clear though is that the morality of the mob sinks to the lowest common denominator and individuals find themselves doing things they would never normally do. Our reptilian brains take over and we act like imbeciles. I say ‘we’ not because I can remember an example when this has happened to me – but because we are all humans.

Many seem to be delighted by the public shaming facebook and other venues is bringing down on many rioters. I’ve been guilty of it myself. We savour the schadenfreude http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schadenfreude and tell ourselves we are better – that we’d never do anything like that.

For some of us this may be true. Another herd behaviour is the well known ‘Bystander Effect’. This causes normally helpful, caring and productive members of society to fail to offer help to those in distress when there is a group witnessing the situation. The smaller the group the more likely it is that someone will help. There are those who aren’t affected by this tendency and they have been studied and shown to be fundamentally different from most of us. They are consistently more likely to make their own decisions in group situations – but they are a small minority. And there were many examples during the Stanley Cup riot of brave souls who stood up to the rampaging hordes – and sadly many of them paid for it with a shower of fists and feet.

While listening to a sports radio call in show I heard an interesting Vancouverite tell his tale. He was at the 1994 riot and he participated. He was young and perhaps a little drunk – he didn’t say – and carried by the masses to a place he never thought he would find himself. He was as disgusted and ashamed as you or I by what happened on June 15th 2011 – and he still can’t explain what happened to him the last time the Canucks lost a game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final.

Before you begin writing another self-righteous and self-congratulatory reply to this (as I have done) let me say that I was and am as disgusted, repulsed and ashamed as anyone by the events of this past Wednesday night. I sat mute disbelief in front of the television while the reputation of our beautiful city – where my parents and I were born and raised – was forever defaced. I also believe that those involved should face penalties for what they have done – particularly those who instigated the meltdown. But if we explain all of this by calling all of those involved idiots, vandals and morons who have nothing in common with the rest of humanity we risk having this scenario repeated again and again– as it has been throughout history.