By Terry O’Neill in The National Post Jun 23, 2011
It has been a good week to be a psychologist, criminologist or sociologist in B.C., as quote-seeking reporters and columnists scoured the academic countryside looking for insights, observations, theories, explanations and opinions about all things to do with Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot. Disappointingly, however, their responses invariably fell short of being truly illuminating.
Even some of the rioters and looters themselves have turned to the usual lineup of deep thinkers to help them explain why they did what they did during that infamous night.
This, in fact, is exactly the strategy one university student embraced in a now-notorious essay she posted online in an attempt to apologize for her looting of a men’s wear store. Parroting many of the experts — and, indeed, actually quoting a few of them — Camille Cacnio described how an allegedly conscience-numbing combination of alcohol and adrenaline caused her to steal two pairs of pants, which she said she took as souvenirs of the evening’s events.
As noted in Wednesday’s National Post, Cacnio’s original, 3,000-word-long mea culpa declared, “I had no intentions of defiling the city … But in my immature, intoxicated perspective all I saw was that the riot was happening, and would continue happening with or without me, so I might as well get my adrenaline fix.”
Statements like that led many online critics to blast Cacnio for attempting to rationalize or even justify her actions, and she subsequently posted a far-shorter, more straightforward apology in response.
Nevertheless, her original tract remains accessible. This is undoubtedly good news for students of human nature, because the document provides some important insights into the destructive riot and, in doing so, also inadvertently rebuts facile rationalizations about its causes.
Facile, because a great many experts, such as Christopher Schneider, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia (who was, in fact, quoted by Cacnio), concentrated their ruminations on explanations relating to “mob mentality.”
Regrettably, however, few ventured into the more complex and potentially more revealing territory of personal conscience and responsibility. This omission inevitably led casual observers to conclude that many of the rioters were little more than biological machines that reacted in strange and dangerous ways to the stimuli of the night: the bitter disappointment or anger over the Canucks’ game seven loss, the booze and the adrenaline.
Insights and observations about the role of free will, individual choice and ethical action were difficult to find, even though it is clear that a great many fans, who were subjected to exactly the same stimuli as Cacnio and the other rioters and looters, did not join the mayhem.
What could explain dissimilar responses to similar stimuli? Ironically, Cacnio herself provides a clue in a passage in which she attempts to persuade the reader that she is a “good person.”
She writes: “As many of you already know, I am majoring in Conservation Biology at UBC. I strongly believe in ecological conservation and sustainability. That night [the night of the riot], I saw a few people that were trying to knock trees down. So what did I do? I yelled at them, saying ‘Pleaaseee [sic], not the trees!!!!’ And what did they do? They stopped. And I felt like a hero.”
What Cacnio is telling us, then, is that, on a night in which she says she was so jumped up with adrenaline and booze that she found looting a store to be a perfectly rational thing to do, she was also morally aware and clear-headed enough to put her love of the natural world into action by saving some trees.
Something doesn’t add up. She can’t have it both ways, just as the experts’ musing about the effects of stimuli on the rioters doesn’t explain how the same stimuli can leave so many people unaffected.
Clearly, there’s an element missing in Cacnio’s self-analysis and the experts’ cogitations, and that’s the role that one’s moral standards play in determining one’s actions. Cacnio’s strong convictions relating to the environment allowed her to overcome the otherwise conscience-numbing effects of the evening’s stimuli and to make the “right” decision about saving trees.
Similarly, it can be speculated that the majority of the fans were able to resist the temptation to join in the mayhem because of their moral convictions about such things as responsible action and the value of personal property. Conversely, it can also be said that those with less-well-formed moral character succumbed to the stimuli.
Ultimately, then, participation in the riot was a matter of free will. Some chose to do evil. Thankfully, however, a great many chose to do good.
Terry O’Neill is a Vancouver journalist and community activist who co-hosts Roadkillradio.com