August 2011

I’m still a bit dizzy from the events in London town these last few days but one thing jumped out of the disorientating static of misinformation, knee-jerk rage and analysis in the media. I was struck by the number of times the word “mindless” cropped up on Twitter and Facebook and in politician’s mouths.

“Mindless criminality”, “mindless violence” and even “mindless scum”.

It made me think: what could that possibly mean? To act or commit a crime without a mind to frame it?

Putting aside the very unlikely scenario that thousands of young people in one of the most affluent countries in the world were born without minds and lived unnoticed in estates across London waiting to explode onto our streets, I think we can assume we’re not talking literally. Last time I checked it takes a fairly sophisticated mind to work Blackberry Messenger. Moreover, the part of the mind that hankers after a plasma screen can’t be too alien to the people who want these ‘mindless chavs’ shot in the head. I’m sure most of the would-be executioners have such screens hanging on their living room walls.

Let’s face it, human greed and consumer covetousness are really not that mysterious for most people living in London. They are after all the petrol that drives our market economy. What was shocking was the seemingly inexplicable eruption of this lawless greed and thirst for anarchy in the middle of an English summer weekend…

But why do we assume such anti-social behaviour is mindless?

British psychoneurologist, Peter Fonagy, has promulgated for many years a ‘theory of mind’ that sets humans (and perhaps higher primates) apart from other animal life forms.
This theory of mind is the presupposition an infant makes within the first year of life, that other people have a discrete and volitional mind much like their own. Only through this (untestable) theory can humans makes sense of others. We know our own intentions but unless we presuppose that others have a similar intentional mind then it is very difficult to negotiate the world.

On Monday night as the rioting erupted for a third night, Twitter was – at first – awash with anguished cries: “Why are they doing this? I don’t understand! It’s madness! Please explain!”. Only in the small hours of the morning did the analysis really start pouring in. We needed to know why. What was their motivation? It’s a very human need – preprogrammed at birth – to want to understand other people’s motives.

And if we’re really honest most of us can make some inroads into imagining the thrill of transgression that teenage looter might feel. We could recreate the consumer rush of new electronic goods for free, the adrenalin of being chased, of fighting or even of smashing things up. We can probably get inside of boredom, frustration, a sense of being ignored, of being talked about but never listened to. If we were really trying we might even be able to imagine the exhilaration of lawlessness.

We can do these things – i.e. come up with a theory of mind for these ‘mindless scum’ – but we mostly chose not to. Why? Because then we’d be admitting that we have a mind in common.

Fonagy’s ‘theory of mind’ is a big milestone when we’re little babies. It allows us to makes sense of our nearest and dearest’s behaviours. But once we’re adults and our model of mind is up and working for us, we start to exlude people who don’t fit in. If someone behaves in a way that is completely unacceptable to us, we blank out that empathic leap that might lead us to imagine what is going on in their mind. We would rather assume that they have no mind than admit that their mind is much like ours.

This, presumably, is what going on when we insist that these London teenagers are mindless. They’re not but we’d prefer it if they were. That way we don’ t have to deal with any uncomfortable similarities.

Inconveniently in moments like these, I have to remember that I’m supposed to be a great champion of the meditation practice, mindfulness. It would much easier to slump into the ‘they’re mindless morons’ position and be done with it, but mindfulness insists on a shared ‘theory of mind’ that is challengingly big. The Buddhist shared mind would include all animals and living beings (and neurobiologist Alva Noe argues convincingly that the simplest life form – the amoeba – is ‘minded’ because it moves intentionally to food and intentionally away from danger) but I am content with the challenge of all human minds.

This exercise of mindfulness is to be aware and accepting of every aspect of your mind and recognize that all other human minds share the same palette of base and noble emotions and thoughts. This in no way excuses ones own harmful actions or the harmful actions of others – but it does rule out the loop-hole that other human are fundamentally alien. Rather, it points to the salutary fact that if we shave off all the unwanted human qualities and banish them into other, ‘mindless’ people then we are left with only half a mind. Hence the name: mind-full-ness.

And what does that have to do with the looters who destroyed family businesses, robbed the injured and terrorized the innocent? Well, everything. If we take the mindfulness challenge then we still have to find that empathic bridge and acknowledge those darker parts of ourselves as we admit the possibility that these kids might be – individually, – bright, intelligent, potentially noble. Otherwise what are left with? Locking up great swathes of London’s population in truely mindless penal institutions while we sit justified and high-minded fearing the next hot summer day?