Did this week's riots suggest that there are sizeable numbers of young people willing to behave with an appalling disregard for other human beings? Yes, they did. And does this require those responsible to face up to the consequence of their actions? Yes, it does.
But do the riots require us to write off some young people, or to make stereotypical assumptions about their family circumstances; their motivations; their communities? Do they require us to give a knee-jerk policy response to what happened? No they don't.
So first things first, what do we actually know?
Well, we know that - for numerous reasons - being a young person today is a far less comfortable place to be than it was a couple of generations ago. We know that recorded youth unemployment is at an all-time high – more than 1 in 5 of 16-24 year-olds – and that going the higher education route carries a heavy price tag, always assuming you manage to enter it. We also know that - despite everyone's wish that it were otherwise - work is not necessarily a route out of poverty, and that along with a shortage of suitable jobs, there is a chronic under-supply of housing which bears particularly heavily on young people.
We know too that the opportunities available to some communities are not the same as those open to others; that some places barely felt the result of the most recent recession because they were still reeling from the effects of the last; that very unequal societies tend to be less cohesive, and their members less happy across the board. And alongside the evidence that traditional values of hard work, thrift and responsibility are alive and kicking in disadvantaged communities and that parents bringing their children up on low incomes have the same aspirations and concerns as others, we also have evidence of the importance of territoriality amongst young people (especially young men) and how this can (sometimes) link to criminality.
But what we don't know in a simple sound-bite is how these different things relate to each other, let alone how they relate to the actions of the last few days. It's complicated – maybe too complicated for us ever to fully get our heads round it in an entirely evidence-based way.
A couple of years back, JRF took on a public consultation exploring what people thought about today's 'social evils'. Results showed that amongst the biggest worries was the seemingly unstoppable growth of consumerism and greed. These were certainly on show in the 'free-for-all consumerism' of the last few days but we don’t have to cast our minds back too far to see that they aren’t the preserve of young people rioting on the streets. At the forefront of what people did want to see was a more equal society, with stronger communities and stronger shared values.
So before we jump in to assess, analyse and conclude, let's make sure we do so in a language that reflects values of which we can be proud; values we want young people to emulate. Condemning actions is one thing; labelling people 'scum' or 'underclass' another. Expecting people to face consequences is fair; setting up extra penalties for those in certain sorts of housing or with certain sources of income isn't.
Let's look forward with the mindset of making a society of which we can all be part, all be proud. Even if the riots had never happened, we have some massive issues to tackle. The riots served to put them in the spotlight; let’s make the most of the opportunity to move forward on them together.
Values do matter. Few could watch Tariq Jahan's dignified and respectful statement and think otherwise.
[This blog first appeared on the Guardian's Joe Public blog. ©Guardian News and Media Limited 2011]