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The background to this post: On Saturday the 11th of November riots erupted in Brussels after the national soccer team of Morocco had just won an important match. It’s seems most of the rioters had migrant roots. The following week there were similar violent eruptions.
I have some -very limited- personal experience teaching at a Belgian school in Gent where the majority were migrants or children of migrants. I was only a substitute teacher, and the experience lasted only for two months, by then the regular teacher was back from sick leave. I will never forget the experience. I saw daily fights, students attacking each other, I saw colleagues burst into tears, I was targeted with rather vicious pranks once or twice. One student shook my hand, but he had sprayed his hand full of perfume, so I had a problem all day, which got worse when I forgot and rubbed my eye with my scented hand… Students showed outright hatred for Belgians and Belgian culture. They were also often particularly unmotivated. Some kept repeating how they would end up unemployed anyway, no matter what we tried to do. Quite a few were still motivated and there were some very sweet students as well, but the violent attitude of the others changed the atmosphere for everyone. Colleagues told me: ‘You don’t have to pretend you like it here, we know it’s hell.’ I have never seen similar behavior in other schools. I would be lying if I claimed otherwise. In one entire school year of teaching at a school with more than 500 Slovak teenagers, I saw not a single fight and never was I targeted in any way… Nor did I ever see a colleague driven to tears by students…
Some time later I had a job interview in a school in Brussels. Also largely made up of students with a migrant background. The principle wanted to be honest with me. He said: ‘What I will tell you will scare you. You will be their fifth teacher this year. Nobody can get a handle on them. We have called back our most strict teacher out of retirement, she’s a real disciplinarian and even she can’t get a handle on them. So please don’t have any illusions, you are going to have it very, very tough, and it’s unlikely you will be able to teach them anything. When it gets really bad all you can do is call their parents. Ok, do you still want the job?’
I respectfully declined and accepted a different teaching job elsewhere… I like teaching, but I don’t like to do nothing else than deal with chaos. Life is already chaotic enough without 20 teenagers breaking down a classroom, thank you very much.
Still, I can’t say that I’m really mad at the troublesome youngsters I had to deal with, although they bugged the hell out of me. They all had their story, and their behavior didn’t land out of nowhere. A lot of them had grown up in a violent environment. Lots of them really thought they had zero chance to climb the social ladder in our society, no matter how many times they were reminded that they did. Some thought -perhaps correctly- they would have to work five times as hard then their Flemish peers to reach the same position in life. Lots of them didn’t speak Dutch at home, so you can imagine it requires extra effort to make headway in school. And that’s just one example. Does this mean we should excuse their violent behavior? Of course not. It does mean that these violent eruptions are born out of structural frustration with complicated roots. Their behaviour is obnoxious and drives us crazy, but more repression won’t change their mentality. It won’t change their circumstances. A minority will still try to manifest themselves through negative behavior and not through positive behavior. We all want to feel important and if we can’t reach a prestigious position, we may jump to violence to show we are important. Not everybody reacts like that, but some of us do.
Some – potential- reasons why these violent eruptions happen, even in the wake of a positive event, when the youngsters started playing ‘smash’ with public and private property in Brussels, Morocco had just qualified for the World Championship of Football which will be held in Russia 2018.
1. Poverty does not cause violence, relative poverty does
If you live in a region where some people clearly have more chances to acquire wealth than others, some will try to climb the dominance hierarchy by turning to violence. Some of these youngsters may correctly or incorrectly believe that the only way to show that they exist, that they are a force to be reckoned with, is to engage in anti-social behavior. If you feel you are doomed in the social hierarchy you become a bit more prone to become violent. This is often just perception of course. Most people, also from migrant backgrounds, do have a decent chance to climb the social ladder, but it does require one hell of an effort, let’s not underestimate that. It’s easier to destroy shops and burn cars than get a useful degree… Again, not an excuse for what they did. In our current socio-economic system we are ALL fighting over limited resources in some ways, we all have to prove our worthiness to acquire resources every day. Some of these ways controibute something to the greater good, some do not. Some snap and turn violent. What these kids did is wrong, but they still caused less damage to society than the very respectable lawyers and accountants who help set up legal constructions that allow big corporations to avoid millions in taxes… To me this is also a form of violence, but a legal one that we tolerate and largely excuse.
2. Social media stars have replaced teachers and parents as educators
Youngsters today are daily confronted with young stars on social media who have a huge fan base and are making a lot of money by broadcasting themselves. These stars that youngsters grow up with are much more their guiding stars than any adults they come into contact with. A lot of them are flashy, hip, funny, wealth, sweat self- confidence through every pore and are incredibly popular. Compare this to their teachers and most adults they come into contact with. Adults who makes less money than these social media stars, exhibit less self- confidence, are often much more nuanced, and harder to relate to. Kids are kept in schools with the promise that education will lead to money and respect, but online they see the opposite is the case. You don’t need a highschool degree to break the internet. You can learn those skills on your own, and some very charismatic outliers rise to the top. No wonder educators find it hard to gain the respect of young frustrated, hungry, insecure students who crave succesful role models. Please read ‘Hang on to your kids, why parents need to matter more than peers’ for more background information.
3. Weak father figures
Boys actually seek discipline. They want to submit to the authority of strong male role models. When these are absent they will look up to the most dominant among their peers. Some of these young guys are acting out, because they lack the proper attention from father figures. In a way it’s a form a attention- seeking gone entirely wrong. If you want to read more about that, see the book Manhood.
It’s very likely that right wing parties in Flanders will do very well in the local elections of 2018 because they promise more repression. While something needs to be done in the short term to prevent more violence, this will do nothing to change the underlying dynamics. There will be no long term approach to better integrate these youngster and to convince them there are more positive ways to make their mark on society. And lots of people feel like we have given youngsters all possible chances already. The problem runs so deep that fundamental changes are needed, and even then it would take decades to change anything fundamentally…