UK Riots: The Language of the unheard or citings of yob culture?

September 7, 2011 by totalityservices

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What do you do when you’re not happy about something? Sulk around a bit, have the hump around your loved ones, buy a tub of ice cream or bar of chocolate, or maybe go set fire to some bins, homes, shops and have a good old time looting your local JD Sports?!

I recently read an article by an American journalist who referred to the riots as “the language of the unheard” and was quite surprised by the title to start with and then intrigued at the attempt to justify not the actions of the rioters, but their motives. The looting and rioting in London and the Midlands has caused millions of pounds of damage to local businesses and residents, but if we put this aside for a moment and listen to this Tweeter: “They are suffering from high taxes, low income, unemployment and high prices … Should they be called rioters or protesters?” can we really understand the motives of those responsible?

Living in a democratic society, freedom of speech is encouraged- not only by authorised bodies, but also by the news and media. We are offered various means to raise our concerns to the elected government. If these means are used effectively then change can, and has, happened. The majority of notable social changes have come as a result of the use of language. The Oxford Dictionary defines languages as “any method of expression”. A lobby, for instance, seeks to influence by means of organised communication; a form of language. Protests are defined as a “statement of dissent or disapproval” and, therefore, constitute another form of language. A riot, in contrast, is “an occurrence of public disorder” or “uncontrolled revelry”, which does not establish a form of expression or language.

That said, if the rioters were really acting out of suffering from high taxes, and high prices etc. (very much like what everybody suffers from nowadays), and expressing their lack of satisfaction, then we would need to refer to them as protestors and not rioters. However, some of those taking part were not even from deprived backgrounds so where exactly did their “protest” stem from?

Language has become much debated throughout the topic of the UK riots not only in reference to what, if anything, these riots expressed, but also how they were discussed and reported. The social media communities, as always, had a lot to say.

Tweeters, Facebookers and BBMers alike took to their status updates to express strong sentiments from both sides of the battlefield. Although I found Gerald Seymour’s “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” slogan a little extreme for this scenario at first, “terrorist” is exactly how one Tweeter referred to the rioters. But was this appropriate and how do we define appropriate? As one of the Guardian’s journalists rightly pointed out, the problem is that one man’s “excessive” is another man’s “appropriate” something which is a constant struggle when working with languages.

I have attempted to prise apart the actions of the rioters and the motives behind them, but I think my own attempts have fallen short. Isolating cause and effect and examining them as two unrelated entities is extremely difficult and it is something that I have not been able to master on this occasion. The images of wanton destruction on the streets of Croydon and Hackney are difficult to put down to an apt means of expression. However, if these riots are indeed to be considered as the language of the unheard then there must be something to be understood about the expressed communication of these people, something that society will need to address before we experience a re-run of August’s events.

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