Don't you just love the light-hearted banter of pleasant lunches?

“Anyone who follows the news knows why those riots took place in England.”

My stomach tightened and my super-ego yelled at me to stay calm; this wasn’t the place for a heated political debate.  The gentleman speaking was well dressed and had really been quite charming and friendly up until this point.

We were both attending a celebratory luncheon that included dozens of friends and relatives of a family marking a special event.  Done with the buffet line, I frankly just grabbed the first open seat I saw and introduced myself to everyone at the table.  We had been enjoying some friendly banter just prior to the to the announcement that one of us at the table was sure he understood something that most government officials, police and social commentators in Great Britain have been unable to explain.

“The Tory government in Britain has made massive cuts to the social-welfare programs that many minority groups, immigrants and such, have become dependent on.  Naturally, they’re angry.  That’s the problem with these social welfare programs.  Once you offer someone help, they immediately become dependent on assistance.”

Others at the table nodded their heads in agreement.  This was exactly the kind of narrow-minded social commentary I dread.

My mind reeled.  If I were not a friend of the family that was hosting the event and if this was not a joyous occasion, I would have liked to have shared some reflections on both the content of the remarks just made as well as the type of person who feels compelled to make grand, unfounded generalizations about the character of minorities, immigrants and the poor.   Was this not  the standard, self-serving, reactionary dribble people come up with to condemn those individuals and minority groups they don’t like?  Was this not the standard rationalization for why the social assistance programs that conservatives don’t want to pay for through their taxes, are inherently dangerous?

After all, what successful, self sufficient business-person wants their hard-earned dollars providing assistance to people who we all know are just too damn lazy?

But this was a celebratory meal and knowing that I can get a bit too blustery, to0 sarcastic and condescending with people who choose not to inform themselves about the nature and challenges of abject poverty, social isolation, the economic hardships faced by people with physical or mental limitations, etc., I worked hard to check my desire to respond enthusiastically.  What was there to be gained by identifying FACTS about the people who benefit for government programs,  to a mature adult who had probably resisted recognizing such truths for the better of his/her life?

That said, I felt compelled to share a story that I thought might make a point better than a confrontational argument.

“I’m not sure that quite explains it all,” I said.  A few people at the table looked up at me stunned.  “I vividly remember a not dissimilar situation that had nothing to do with government social service programs.”  In spite of some nervous squirming, I had everyone’s attention.

“Back when I was in high school, a million years ago,” friendly chuckles all around the table, “there was power outage in the middle of a school day and none of the school’s emergency lights worked.  The timing could not have been worse; the lights went out between classes when most of the students found themselves in pitch-black hallways that had no windows.

For the 20 to 30 minutes the lights were out, there were two kinds of students in those hallways:  Those who wanted to explore that side of their personality that said, let’s enjoy this new freedom by doing crazy things we think we can get away with.  And there were students like me who were not so inclined and suddenly found themselves being pushed and pummeled by laughing and screaming peers running down the hallway destroying whatever they could with their bare hands, chairs or whatever hard objects they could find.

“When the lights finally came back on, the hallways of my high school were strewn with broken plaster, ceiling tiles and light fixtures.  How could the people we sat next to in classes and in the cafeteria do this?  How could friends we thought were as reasonable and rational as ourselves, turn into such destructive, mindless animals in the dark?”

One couple at the table were clearly uncomfortable with the story I had just told and were looking around the room; others were curiously engaged.  A second  gentlemen politely wondered:  “But the lights didn’t go off in England and the police were still on the streets to keep order.  How do you explain the destructive behavior of the rioters?”

“I can’t,” I responded.  “No one can definitively say why some people in some circumstances, throw the proverbial rule-book out the window and find satisfaction in destroying and stealing property for no other reason than  they think they can get away with it.  But the fact that almost one in four of the rioters who were arrested are actually gainfully employed tells us that cuts to social welfare programs had nothing to do with the riots in England.”

I looked at the first speaker who had  implied that the usual suspects”– poor people, minorities and immigrants– were to blame.  He looked at me for a moment as if he wanted to challenge me, then hesitated.

“That really happened at your high school,” he asked.  “Yes it did,” I assured him.

“Was your school integrated? Were there a lot of minorities and poor kids at the school?  Was it in a bad neighborhood?”

I did, but I didn’t want to react to his stupid question.  “Actually, I attended a special high school that required a student to go through an application process for admission.”   His question pissed me off.  I wasn’t about to discuss demographics with him. That would play right into his intolerant reasoning.

We let the conversation end there.

Driving home from the celebration, I wondered what a guy like that might do if he found himself in the dark, unable to see his own hand in front of his face.  The liberal-elitist in me said, maybe that explains his narrow perspective on humanity: the world that exists beyond his own limited frame of reference is a very dark and frightening place filled with lots of dangerous “thems.”  It’s always “their” fault, isn’t it?