When I first saw the headline — “Pumpkin Festival Riot” — I thought it might be a parody, along the lines of spoofs published by The Onion.
But it was all too true: there really was a riot at the “Pumpkin Festival” held Oct. 19th, 2014 in Keene, New Hampshire. What is it about a small-town annual festival that has turned it into a chance to party — and riot? Does it say something about changing societal norms?
I am not in a position to pass judgment on the guilt or innocence of specific persons involved, but this is what the New York Times reported…
“… hordes of partyers…turned parts of the city near Keene State College into chaos, and drew police officers in riot gear to break them up. Video and photos posted to social media on Saturday and Sunday showed revelers knocking over street signs, setting boxes on fire, standing triumphantly atop an overturned car and chanting obscenities at the police, who moved in formation to disperse them.” 
Now, as one who has often pontificated on “the downfall of Western civilization,” I am tempted to see this latest incident as confirmatory evidence. Indeed, I have never been fully persuaded by Prof. Steven Pinker’s thesis that violence has actually been in decline over long stretches of history  — though we may indeed be less likely to see certain kinds of mass violence that were common in ancient or medieval times.
But even if Pinker is correct, I would still argue that when a small-town pumpkin festival turns into a riot, we have an obligation to look deeply into our social norms and mores, if not into our own souls.
On the one hand, the young man quoted above might be seen as reflecting an attitude almost as old as Western civilization. Thus, the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was a period of revelry, feasting, and role reversal, in which rules were suspended; slaves were served by their masters; and the “… whole mob… let itself go in pleasures.” 
The phenomenon of student rioting is at least as ancient as the thirteenth century. According to Matthew Milner of McGill University, this is what happened at the University of Paris, in the year 1229:
The strike at the University of Paris occurred between March 6, 1229 and April 13, 1231 … The origin of the strike begins on Shrove Tuesday, the carnival day preceding Lent (March 6th, 1229). During the events of the day, a group of students from the university instigated a brawl in a tavern on Rue Saint Marcel, which ended in them being ejected from the establishment. Returning to the tavern the next day (March 7, 1229), the students started a riot. First by attacking the tavern itself, before moving onto the surrounding area. 
Perhaps, then, from a historical perspective, the “Pumpkin Fest Riot” should not come as a big shock: when large crowds of young people gather — particularly in the haze of heavy alcohol use — some degree of rowdiness is understandable and predictable. And, in fairness, some of the violence in Keene was apparently instigated by “outsiders,” intent on causing mayhem. 
On the other hand, there are reasons to wonder if recent changes in American society may be exacerbating some of these age-old tendencies. I have written elsewhere on the evidence that narcissism has been increasing among young people in this country.  Leaving aside various technical and psychoanalytic definition of this term, we can think of narcissism as the attitude that proclaims, “I should be able to do whatever the hell I please, and if other people don’t like it, that’s just too bad!”
Perhaps society really has changed in ways that foster the kind of violent, mean-spirited hell-raising we witnessed in Keene.
I cited the work of Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D and W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., as discussed in their book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.  These researchers argue that several social and cultural trends have contributed to “the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture,” including a breakdown in “community-oriented thinking” and an overemphasis on individual privilege. Twenge and Campbell see these trends as having begun in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Their thesis remains controversial, and it isn’t my intention here to dissect it. But, having grown up in the 1950s, in a town about the size of Keene, New Hampshire, it is almost inconceivable to me that a pumpkin festival could have devolved into an alcohol-fueled riot in our little town.
Maybe I’m just indulging in self-comforting nostalgia — but maybe not. Perhaps society really has changed in ways that foster the kind of violent, mean-spirited hell-raising we witnessed in Keene.
Sheriff Frank McKeithen of Bay County, Florida has observed such a trend in the increased rowdiness and violence during spring break in recent years. Commenting on the deteriorating behavior of partygoers on Panama City Beach, Florida, McKeithen observed that, in earlier years, “Most college students were like, ‘Oh my god, my mother’s gonna find out and I’m done for.’ Now it’s like, ‘Eff my mother and eff the police.'” 
One societal change is undeniable: the increasing anonymity fostered by the Internet — a medium scarcely imaginable in small-town America during the 1950s. As I have argued elsewhere, for all its many blessings and benefits, the Internet has permitted — if not encouraged — a profusion of anonymous abuse and invective.  Arguing along similar lines, commentator Gwen Ifill described the “dearth of civility in the public square,” which most Americans believe has gotten worse in the past few years. 
There are probably many social, economic and familial forces at work in generating this trend toward public incivility, and it would be silly to blame the Internet for the riot in Keene, New Hampshire. If anything, the anonymous abuse generated on the Internet is as much as a symptom as a cause of American society’s increasingly uncivil behavior. But one thing seems very likely to me: both the abusive, anonymous Internet troll and the young rioter in Keene embody a worldview that shouts, “I should be able to do whatever the hell I please, and if other people don’t like it, that’s just too bad!”
- See Pinker S, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin Books, 2012.
- Seneca, Epistles, XVIII.3 http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/calendar/saturnalia.html
- Pies, R. Have we become a nation of narcissists? https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/09/16/have-we-become-a-nation-of-narcissists/
- Twenge, J.M., Campbell, W.K. (2010). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Atria Books.
- The history of spring break. http://www.wjhg.com/home/headlines/The-History-of-Spring-Break-257129781.html
- Pies, R. Our Uncivil Society and Internet Abuse: Time to End Anonymous Postings? Medscape, July 30, 2012. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/768163_2
- Ifill, G. “Dearth of Civility in the Public Square.” PBS News Hour, June 14, 2012. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/gwens-take-dearth-of-civility-in-the-public-square/