What separates righteous anger from rioting mobs?
What triggers the turn from peaceful protest against injustice, to looting and violence, on the scale most recently seen in Ferguson, Missouri?
In a recent piece in ‘National Affairs,’ Richard J Reeves, former advisor to UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, offered an answer.
Reflecting upon the violent London riots of 2011, Reeves claimed that the looted stores and torched buses were not the result of an austerity-driven lack of money or even an entrenched lack of morality, but instead, a distinct lack of character on the part of the rioters.
An inquiry called the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, set up by Clegg in search of answers, heard evidence from those who participated in the riots and those who chose not to. The panel posed that character was a mixture of attributes including “self-discipline, application, the ability to defer gratification and resilience in recovering from setbacks.”
In his article, Reeves labels these attributes as something called “performance character”—quite separate from a person’s “moral character.”
Performance character includes qualities like grit and prudence. Grit is determination or drive, sticking with tasks you probably don’t want to do.
A psychological test by Zurich Professor Carmit Segal showed that those who performed well on a dull, repetitive task were more likely to have higher future incomes.
Grit requires sacrifice, often doing things our feelings tell us otherwise.
Prudence means valuing our future, and as Reeves argues, is fundamental to our prosperity. “The struggle to place our long-term well-being above our short-term desires is the most potent expression of our humanity, of the battle between our animal flesh and reasoning mind.”
A famous test by Stanford Professor Walter Mischel offered marshmallows to four-year-olds, but promised them another one in fifteen minutes if they did not eat the first straight away. Those who held out for the second marshmallow were later found to be much more likely to perform better at school.
Higher grades and completion rates from initiatives that incorporate character development like KIPP (Knowledge is Power Programme) and the Harlem Children’s Zone in the US reinforce this finding.
Some schools have even introduced a CPA (Character Point Average).
While rioting is unlikely to break out in the streets of New Zealand anytime soon, we should take cultivating this kind of character seriously, because as Reeves notes, “Gaps in character development closely correlate to gaps in income, family functioning, education and employment.”
Developing character is a job for all of us, as raising wages and strengthening families can only take us so far.
It is said that unless we have restraint within, we will need restraint from without; in other words, big government has to make up for a lack of self-government.
If we care about reducing inequality and raising opportunity, we cannot afford not to care about character.
A society characterised by grit and prudence is a society where opportunities for a better life are not only presented, but grasped by those who need them most.
Kieran Madden is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.