Empty’s Theme Park

Reflections On The Vancouver Riot

“Tell me will I dream?
And tell me will it be serene?
Or tell me will I stay
With my feet in exactly the same place?”

– Matthew Good, Empty’s Theme Park

I held off commenting directly on the Vancouver riots for some time, as I needed to formulate my thoughts. I didn’t want to succumb to the obvious sense of disgust and hatred towards these destructive hooligans, without reflecting on the type of society that pushes these acts to occur.

After all, we don’t live in a vacuum. Drunk, malicious hockey fans don’t wander out of the forest, before disappearing into the night. While many of them did not live directly in the city of Vancouver, they certainly came from the same culture.

An editorial in the Georgia Strait sums it up perfectly:

We can’t just blame a few “bad apples.” This riot didn’t happen on its own. Society as a whole ensured that it was the only outcome, starting with the assumption that our over-amped if not war-like passion for something as inconsequential as a hockey game is appropriate to begin with, let alone officially sanctioned. But hey, it’s a fucking goldmine for advertisers and a hell of a vacuum to suck in a growing population of bored, distracted, disassociated, and quietly despairing Lower Mainlanders marinated in the hegemony of cheap sensation, and governed by institutions hostile to art, truth, and beauty. It’s a problem that, as always, starts at the very top.

Reading this piece I was struck by how it reminded me of Tyler Durden’s devastating critique of consumerist society, in the film Fight Club:

“We’re the middle children of history…. no purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.” – Tyler Durden, Fight Club

The day after the riots, a photo comparing the various “reasons for rioting” began circulating the web. It compared the social unrest in Egypt, fueled by a populace fed up with dictatorship, against the senseless violence of largely suburban kids, protesting…what? The loss of the Stanely Cup? A trigger but not the reason.

The reality is a truth nobody wants to answer. That’s because we have yet to face up to the inherent emptiness of our consumerist society. And that makes us stricken with a hole a younger generation struggles to fill.

“People increasingly see themselves as brands,” says a post-riot discussion in the National Post.

“They see themselves not as having inherent value (or values) but as a provisional entity the value of which is determined in the same ecology of popularity and renown that brands themselves exist. They see themselves, in other words, as having value in the same unstable and purely representational way as a sneaker or a handbag.

The Strait piece continues:

Why are there so many hungry souls out there, ready and willing to bring chaos down on the so-called most livable city on the planet? In reality, matters have only gotten much worse politically and economically since 1994, and Generation Y has been delivered into a beyond-callous world facing a perfect storm of crises. They know it.

What does the future look like for the average 20 year old? It’s a depressing, empty place where they can’t get decent-paying (let alone secure) jobs or ever have a hope of owning property. Can you imagine how much more fearful and angry they would be if they fully comprehended the seriousness of peak oil?

The anger that motivates an Egyptian youth to hurl a brick at an approaching tank is the same that guides the hand of the teenager smashing a window of the Hudson’s Bay.

“The anger of the teenager is the indignation of the dispossessed,” writes author Charles Eisenstein in The Great Robbery.

“The Great Robbery is first and foremost the pillage of their childhood. Childhood is supposed to be a realm of exploration in which we discover our passions, our selves, our life purpose. What we get instead is enslavement to schedules and obligations. Bereft of the chance to explore our inner world, we grow up not truly knowing what we love or what we want to make of our lives.

While this does not excuse the post-game offenders, it does explain how “privileged children” living in a hyper-abundant consumerist society can seize the first excuse to flip a car and dance among the flames. They have almost no other outlets of release, or any offering of meaning, in an ailing society.

As Eisenstein believes, this youthful intuition, often channelled into misguided means, is no less true:

“The world is not supposed to be like this. Your intuitions of something more beautiful are valid. You are meant for an amazing, divine purpose. You are brilliant, possessed of unique gifts just waiting to be discovered. And—very important—anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Worse than lying, they are stealing from you.”

The Straight article agrees, but offers little solace:

Unfortunately, there’s no simple band-aid solution that will fix a sick society. The symptoms are clearly manifesting but, without facing up to the fact that there is an overarching problem, there is absolutely no chance for us to heal. But perhaps the first step towards solving this systemic problem is to acknowledge the fact that there is actually something wrong with us.

While I agree with the complexity of the challenges, I do not agree with the diagnosis: that there is something inherently wrong with us. Self-reflection can often lead to self-hatred – if you don’t go deep enough. But it will eventually lead to the clarity that lies beyond, and the courage to step into both beauty and pain, a necessary quality as we move into an uncertain future.

Because our generation’s great task is already calling us.

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  • http://vagabonderz.com Carlo Alcos

    Well done Ian.

  • http://evaholland.com Eva

    Nice post, Ian. I agree that there are some big-picture causes at work here that it can be pretty hard to face up to. I also think, though, that there are some specifics to address, and that “a few bad apples” ignores them too. After all, a couple of years ago Ottawa lost in the finals and there was no riot there.

    That’s not to say, at all, that “Ottawa teens are better than Vancouver teens” or anything similarly ridiculous, but in addition to the larger forces at work, there are specific factors that let this happen, whether it’s to do with crowd control strategy or what, I don’t know. But I think it’s worth figuring out, and that can get lost in all the finger-pointing.

  • http://twitter.com/charenton_ Miranda

    You’re 100 percent right; we offered very little solace. I felt the whole piece was a downer overall but I’ve had a surprising number say it seemed pretty optimistic. And we didn’t take the time to put it in a larger historical context, so here’s my brief summation: Yes, humans have always sucked and had a propensity towards violence and rioting. However, with the advent of the Internet and this unprecedented change in human connectedness, it’s scary that we’re still so out of touch with each other. We’re created an increasingly narcissistic and passively consuming society that can’t take in events without having them mediated through media, even media we create.

    At my core, I really REALLY want to believe humans are good. I’ve seen unimaginable human kindness in my life and I know that we can be kind, thoughtful, empathetic, caring creatures. But it’s hard to reconcile that knowledge with the mainstream media’s unrelentingly depressing picture of the world. It’s hard to remember that we are all in this together when we purposely shut ourselves off, refuse to interact with each other in respectful ways, when we don’t feel safe or happy or cared about.

    We need to start giving a shit about each other again, in a real, concerted, genuine way. We need to make friendly conversation with our neighbours, learn their names, build community, take an interest. We need to reconnect with the earth and our food. We need to start respecting ourselves and each other.

    I’ve read lots of pieces about the riot that essentially reduces the violence to, “oh, it was just bored drunk white suburban dudes with nothing else to do.” Aside from the fact that it wasn’t just people like that involved, we need to seriously question why. Why are people so bored that they think getting drunk and smashing shit is an acceptable outlet for their rage? Why are we so hopped up on the spectacle of hockey? Why are we so angry to begin with? Lots of people will dismiss that with, “Oh, well I’m not like that so it isn’t true.” But it IS true for a lot of people. Negating other peoples’ truth doesn’t make it disappear.

    Sorry, I come off as one part feel-good hippie and one part very disaffected college kid, eh?

  • Karen MacKenzie

    Loved it Ian, caused a lot of reflection. The last quote from the Straight said “there is actually something wrong with us” not inherently wrong (you said below). There’s a sharp difference between the two. Actually means that in this current time there is a sickness, and I think it’s very valid that this be the first step towards the solution: if something is agreed to be wrong we’ll start looking for deeply for the problem. You quoted it as “inherently wrong” which means it’s uanavoidable, ingrained in our psyche, instinctual. And I don’t agree with that. There’s a reason it happens here time and time again, but it’s not something to hate ourselves for (as you say), but to inspire us to look towards a solution. I’m feeling that we should almost embrace this scar, we have so much to learn.