The Belfast Bikes and trying to understand mindless vandalism…

The Irish Times reported recently that 210 or more than one-third of the 576 ‘Belfast Bikes’ had either been stolen or so damaged that they had been taken out of service. They contrasted this with the similar scheme in Dublin, where only twelve bikes were stolen or damaged in the first four years of the scheme.

Belfast City Council said the problem was due to ‘mindless vandalism’; the Irish Times noted that the bike locks in Dublin were more substantial than those in Belfast, so that improved locks, together with CCTV, in Belfast might ‘solve’ the problem.

That solution implies that the ultimate cause of the problem in Belfast is feeble locks; it ignores the possibility that such ‘mindless vandalism’ might not occur in Dublin (though it probably does), or the that the problem isn’t the ease with which bikes can be stolen, rather it is an easy opportunity for the release of discontent. It fails to attempt to understand the why of what ‘mindless vandalism’ is.

To say it is ‘mindless’, while entirely understandable, implies that there is no reason, no explanation for the vandalism, that it is simply a ‘given’, or even ‘just so’. Understanding why it happens isn’t easy or simple, yet is surely the way to overcome the problem, for otherwise we bury our heads in the sand.

Vandalism is generally defined the deliberate and wanton damage or destruction of other peoples’ property; mostly we think it is a ‘bad thing’. Yet the artist Bansky can be described as a vandal, as can also the Apostrophiser. Cohen attempted a typology of the causes of vandalism in 1973 (here); an analysis rather than a complete explanation.

The set of people who cause ‘mindless vandalism’ to these bikes is very probably adolescent youths and young men. These people are usually typified as being angry, frustrated, alienated and bored. To really understand their vandalism I suggest we need to understand these characteristics, and what cultural phenomena drive them.

This type of vandalism is typically seen in inner cities where the individual is anonymous. (Of course, such vandalism can occur elsewhere; I’m painting with a broad brush here.) Contrast this with our ancestors; they hunted and foraged in smallish groups, typically thought to be up to 150 individuals. Dunbar has studied this number, finding that in such groups social harmony is present until the group expands beyond this, when it splits into two. Such up to 150-memberships are also seen where cohesion, a group reliance, is necessary, such as in Roman and even present day armies. All members know one another, no one is excluded. Compare this with today’s conurbations; then think of ‘gangs’.

What of the anger, boredom and frustration? Perhaps this is related to the major changes in the adolescent brain; any parent of a teenager will have experienced this. This often collides with ‘authority’, and the frequent use of cannabis almost certainly only increases their feelings, their discontent. One way to counteract this is by ‘team building’. English public schools often emphasise team sports, and if the idea today is on teamwork, sports originated as a way of getting the kids fit for army service, and, more importantly, as a way to tire them out, a preventative against homosexuality.

And those kids who don’t go to public schools, what do they have to look forward to? Those who don’t go to university could expect, in the past, a straightforward entry to the shipyard or similar major employer. Or if that wasn’t available, they simply emigrated. And today? While we don’t have the appalling levels of youth unemployment such as in Greece or Spain, where it can be almost 50%, we do not have employers going crazy because of the lack of potential (skilled) employees. Further, it’s also clear that the ‘middle’ is being squeezed, that is skilled craftsmen and women are being replaced by automation, so that jobs are more and more concentrated in the extremes. At the top, the requirements are no longer A-levels, nor even a bachelors degree, but at least a masters or even a PhD. And at the bottom, the jobs are increasingly minimum-wage and zero hours; such insecure jobs aren’t really anyway to build a personal future. And where can the ‘average Joe’ emigrate to today? The usual places are largely closed. America has limits to immigration, perhaps even a ‘wall’.

The response to vandalism is so often to punish the offender by a prison sentence, or even a ‘short sharp shock’. This is a reflection of common law, where property is somehow more important than people. And those that call for such punishment can be said to exhibit ‘mindless authoritarianism’ without ever wondering why it all happened.

Our politicians, and not just locally, do give the appearance of relying on ‘mindless ideology’; evidence isn’t wanted or sought, nor is thought. They rely on soundbites such as ‘crocodiles’, or ‘ghaeilge’. I don’t dismiss these as trivial; rather they ought to be yesterday’s problems, things that should have been sorted long ago (along with many other issues). We can look to the past, but we cannot influence or change it; we are always in the present, but we can try to influence the future.

We should see the ‘mindless vandalism’ to bikes as a symptom of a disease, not as the disease itself. We ought to think about the disease, and its causes, rather than ‘treating’ the symptom. And by ‘we’ I don’t just mean our politicians, but our society as a whole; while we elect them to their roles to perform on our behalf, and for our and not their benefit, and we ought to expect that they will do just that.