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Teaching Criminology….Cui Bono?

Following several conversations with students and reflecting on another year of studying it got me thinking, what is or can be the quintessentially criminological issue that we can impart onto them?  It is always interesting to hear from others how your ideas are transferred into their notes, phrases and general understanding.  I think that there are a few things that are becoming clear early on, like the usual amazement of those outside the discipline who hear one studying criminology; a reverence as if the person reading the subject is on a par with those committing the deed.  There is a natural curiosity to crime in all walks of life and those seen closer to the topic, attract part of that curiosity.      

There are however some more profound issues relating to criminology that are neither clear nor so straightforward.  The discipline is an amalgamation of thoughts and theories making it incredibly difficult to pinpoint a generic appreciation for the discipline.  Some of us like the social discourses relating to social injustice, a matter traditionally closer to sociology or social work, while others ponder the conceptual dynamics of human behaviour, mostly addressed in philosophical debates, then there are those who find the individual characteristics and personality socio-dynamic dimensions intriguing.  These distinct impressions will not only inform our understanding but will also provide each of us with a perspective, a way of understanding criminology at a granular level.    

In criminological discourses, informed by law, I used to pose the old Latin question: Cui bono (who benefits)?  A question posed by the old legal experts to trace liability and responsibility of the act committed.  Obviously in their view crime is a choice committed freely by a deviant mind.  But then I was never a legal expert, so my take on the old question was rather subversive.  The question of who benefits can potentially lay the question of responsibility wide open, if it is to be looked from a social harm perspective.  The original question was incredibly precise to identify a person for the benefit of a trial.  That’s the old criminal evidence track.    

Taking this question outside the forensic setting and suddenly this becomes quite a loaded query that can unpack different responses.  Cui bono? Why are we talking about drug abuse as a crime and not about tax avoidance?  Why is the first regarded a crime, whilst the second is simply frowned upon?  Cui bono? When we criminalise the movement of people whose undocumented by we have very little information for those who have procured numerous properties in the country?  If our objection is on transparency of movement then there is clearly a difference of how this is addressed.  Cui bono?  When we identify violence at interpersonal level and we have the mechanisms to suppress it, but we can engage in state violence against another state without applying the same mechanisms?  If our objection is the use of violence, this is something that needs to be addressed regardless of the situation, but it is not.  Ironically some of the state violence, may contribute to the movement of people, may contribute to the exploitation of population and to the use of substances of those who returned home broken from a violence they embraced.      

Our criminology is merely informed from our perspective and it is my perspective that led me to those thoughts.  I am very sure that another colleague would have been making a series of different connections when asked “Cui Bono?”

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Celebrations and Commemorations: What to remember and what to forget

Today is Good Friday (in the UK at least) a day full of meaning for those of the Christian faith. For others, more secularly minded, today is the beginning of a long weekend. For Blur (1994), these special days manifest in a brief escape from work:  

Bank holiday comes six times a year
Days of enjoyment to which everyone cheers
Bank holiday comes with six-pack of beer
Then it’s back to work A-G-A-I-N


(James et al., 1994).

However, you choose to spend your long weekend (that is, if you are lucky enough to have one), Easter is a time to pause and mark the occasion (however, you might choose). This occasion appears annually on the UK calendar alongside a number other dates identified as special or meaningful; Bandi Chhorh Divas, Christmas, Diwali, Eid al-Adha, Father’s Day, Guys Fawkes’ Night, Hallowe’en, Hanukkah, Hogmanay, Holi, Mothering Sunday, Navaratri, Shrove Tuesday, Ramadan, Yule and so on. Alongside these are more personal occasions; birthdays, first days at school/college/university, work, graduations, marriages and bereavements. When marked, each of these days is surrounded by ritual, some more elaborate than others. Although many of these special days have a religious connection, it is not uncommon (in the UK at least) to mark them with non-religious ritual. For example; putting a decorated tree in your house, eating chocolate eggs or going trick or treating. Nevertheless, many of these special dates have been marked for centuries and whatever meanings you apply individually, there is an acknowledgement that each of these has a place in many people’s lives.

Alongside these permanent fixtures in the year, other commemorations occur, and it is here where I want to focus my attention. Who decides what will be commemorated and who decides how it will be commemorated?  For example; Armistice Day which in 2018 marked 100 years since the end of World War I. This commemoration is modern, in comparison with the celebrations I discuss above, yet it has a set of rituals which are fiercely protected (Tweedy, 2015). Prior to 11.11.18 I raised the issue of the appropriateness of displaying RBL poppies on a multi-cultural campus in the twenty-first century, but to no avail. This commemoration is marked on behalf of individuals who are no longing living. More importantly, there is no living person alive who survived the carnage of WWI, to engage with the rituals. Whilst the sheer horror of WWI, not to mention WWII, which began a mere 21 years later, makes commemoration important to many, given the long-standing impact both had (and continue to have). Likewise, last year the centenary of (some) women and men gaining suffrage in the UK was deemed worthy of commemoration. This, as with WWI and WWII, was life-changing and had profound impact on society, yet is not an annual commemoration.  Nevertheless, these commemoration offer the prospect of learning from history and making sure that as a society, we do much better.

Other examples less clear-cut include the sinking of RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912 (1,503 dead). An annual commemoration was held at Belfast’s City Hall and paying guests to the Titanic Museum could watch A Night to Remember. This year’s anniversary was further marked by the announcement that plans are afoot to exhume the dead, to try and identify the unknown victims. Far less interest is paid in her sister ship; RMS Lusitania (sank 1915, 1,198 dead). It is difficult to understand the hold this event (horrific as it was) still has and why attention is still raised on an annual basis. Of course, for the families affected by both disasters, commemoration may have meaning, but that does not explain why only one ship’s sinking is worthy of comment. Certainly it is unclear what lessons are to be learnt from this disaster.

Earlier this week, @anfieldbhoy discussed the importance of commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster. This year also marks 30 years since the publication of MacPherson (1999) and Monday marks the 26th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder. In less than two months it will two years since the horror of Grenfell Tower. All of these events and many others (the murder of James Bulger, the shootings of Jean Charles de Menezes and Mark Duggan, the Dunblane and Hungerford massacres, to name but a few) are familiar and deemed important criminologically. But what sets these cases apart? What is it we want to remember? In the cases of Hillsborough, Lawrence and Grenfell, I would argue this is unfinished business and these horrible events remind us that, until there is justice, there can be no end.

However, what about Arthur Clatworthy? This is a name unknown to many and forgotten by most. Mr Clatworthy was a 20-year-old borstal boy, who died in Wormwood Scrubs in 1945. Prior to his death he had told his mother that he had been assaulted by prison officers. In the Houses of Parliament, the MP for Shoreditch, Mr Thurtle told a tale, familiar to twenty-first century criminologists, of institutional violence. If commemoration was about just learning from the past, we would all be familiar with the death of Mr Clatworthy. His case would be held up as a shining example of how we do things differently today, how such horrific events could never happen again.  Unfortunately, that is not the case and Mr Clatworthy’s death remains unremarked and unremarkable. So again, I ask the question: who decides what it is worthy of commemoration?

Selected Bibliography:

James, Alexander, Rowntree, David, Albarn, Damon and Coxon, Graham, (1994), Bank Holiday, [CD], Recorded by Blur in Parklife, Food SBK, [RAK Studios]

The lone wolf: a media creation or a criminological phenomenon?

In a previous blog post, I spoke how the attention of the public is captivated by crime stories.  Family tragedies, acts of mindless violence and other unusual cases, that seem to capture the Zeitgeist, with public discussion becoming topics in social situations.  It happened again; Friday March 15 after 1:00 local time, a lone gunman entered the local Mosque in Christchurch and started shooting indiscriminately, causing the death of 50 and injuring as many, entering what the New Zealand Prime Minister would later call, in a televised address, one of NZ’s darkest days.

The singular gunman entering a public space and using a weapon/or weaponised machine (a car, nail bomb) is becoming a familiar aberration in society that the media describe as the “lone wolf”.  A single, radicalised individual, with or without a cause, that leaves a trail of havoc described in the media using the darkest shades, as carnage or massacre.  These reports focus on the person who does such an act, and the motivations behind it.  In criminology, this is the illusive “criminal mind”.  A process of radicalisation towards an ideology of hate, is usually the prevailing explanation, combined with the personal attributes of the person, including personality and previous lifestyle. 

In the aftermath of such attacks, communities go through a process of introspection, internalising what happened, and families will try to come together to support each other.  23 years ago, a person entered a school in Dunblane, Scotland and murdered 16 children and their teacher.  The country went into shock, and in the subsequent years the gun laws changed.  The community was the focus of national and international attention, until the lights dimmed, the cameras left, and the families were left alone in grief. 

Since then numerous attacks from little people with big weapons have occurred from Norway to USA, France to Russia and to New Zealand, as the latest.  And still, we try to keep a sense of why this happened.  We allow the media to talk about the attacker; a lone wolf is always a man, his history the backstory and his victims, as he is entitled to posthumous ownership of those he murdered.  The information we retain in our collective consciousness, is that of his aggression and his methodology of murder.  Regrettably as a society we merely focus on the gun and the gunman but never on the society that produces the guns and raises gunmen. 

At this point, it is significant to declare that I have no interest in the “true crime” genre and I find the cult of the lone wolf, an appalling distraction for societies that feed and reproduce violence for the sake of panem et circenses.  Back in 2015, in Charleston another gunman entered a church and murdered another group of people.  Families of the victims stood up and court and told the defendant, that they would pray for his soul and forgive him for his terrible act.  Many took issue, but behind this act, a community took matters into their own hands.  This was not about an insignificant person with a gun, but the resilience of a community to rise above it and their pain.  A similar response in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando in 2016, where the LGBTQ+ community held vigils in the US and across the world (even in Northampton).  In New Zealand, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern was praised for her sombre message and her tribute to the community, not mentioning the gunman by name, not even once.  This is not a subject that I could address in a single blog post (I feel I should come back to it in time) but there is something quite empowering to know the person who did the act, but to deliberately and publicly, ignore him.  We forget the importance celebrity plays in our culture and so taking that away, from whomever decides to make a name for themselves by killing, is our collective retribution.  In ancient Egypt they rubbed off the hieroglyphs of the columns.  Maybe now we need to take his name from the newspaper columns, do not make the story about him, but reflect instead, on the way we live as a community and the people who matter. 

Questions, questions, questions…..

Question everything

Over the last two weeks we have welcomed new and returning students to our brand-new campus. From the outside, this period of time appears frenetic, chaotic, and incredibly noisy. During this period, I feel as if I am constantly talking; explaining, indicating, signposting, answering questions and offering solutions. All of this is necessary, after all we’re all in a new place, the only difference is that some of us moved in before others. This part of my role has, on the surface, little to do with Criminology. However, once the housekeeping is out of the way we can move to more interesting criminological discussion.

For me, this focuses on the posing of questions and working out ways in which answers can be sought. It’s a common maxim, that within academia, there is no such thing as a silly question and Criminology is no exception (although students are often very sceptical). When you are studying people, everything becomes complicated and complex and of course posing questions does not necessarily guarantee a straightforward answer. As many students/graduates over the years will attest, criminological questions are often followed by yet more criminological questions… At first, this is incredibly frustrating but once you get into the swing of things, it becomes incredibly empowering, allowing individual mental agility to navigate questions in their own unique way. Of course, criminologists, as with all other social scientists, are dependent upon the quality of the evidence they provide in support of their arguments. However, criminology’s inherent interdisciplinarity enables us to choose from a far wider range of materials than many of our colleagues.

So back to the questions…which can appear from anywhere and everywhere. Just to demonstrate there are no silly questions, here are some of those floating around my head currently:

  1. This week I watched a little video on Facebook, one of those cases of mindlessly scrolling, whilst waiting for something else to begin. It was all about a Dutch innovation, the Tovertafel (Magic Table) and I wondered why in the UK, discussions focus on struggling to feed and keep our elders warm, yet other countries are interested in improving quality of life for all?
  2. Why, when with every fibre of my being, I abhor violence, I am attracted to boxing?

Nicola Adams

3. Why in a supposedly wealthy country do we still have poverty?

4. Why do we think boys and girls need different toys?

boys toys

5. Why does 50% of the world’s population have to spend more on day-to-day living simply because they menstruate?

6. Why as a society are we happy to have big houses with lots of empty rooms but struggle to house the homeless?

buckingham palace

7. Why do female ballroom dancers wear so little and who decided that women would dance better in extremely high-heeled shoes?

This is just a sample and not in any particular order. On the surface, they are chaotic and disjointed, however, what they all demonstrate is my mind’s attempt to grapple with extremely serious issues such as inequality, social deprivation, violence, discrimination, vulnerability, to name just a few.

So, to answer the question posed last week by @manosdaskalou, ‘What are Universities for?’, I would proffer my seven questions. On their own, they do not provide an answer to his question, but together they suggest avenues to explore within a safe and supportive space where free, open and academic dialogue can take place. That description suggests, for me at least, exactly what a university should be for!

And if anyone has answers for my questions, please get in touch….

Public attitudes towards male victimisation

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I graduated from the University of Northampton as a Criminology student in July 2016 and not a day goes by where I don’t miss studying. I miss everything about the University experience, from the lectures and seminars, to the countless hours spent working in the library. One of the positive things about being a graduate however, is that any time spent scrolling through social media or binge-watching a Netflix series is guilt-free. There is no dissertation to write or any exams to revise for any more, meaning you can enjoy your leisure time without the dreaded guilt that you’re not spending your time productively. I have, admittedly, taken this privilege too far, and spend far too much time on my phone. Bizarrely, I spend a lot of my time scrolling through comments on social media posts, even when I know there are bound to be comments which will annoy me.

For instance, last month, a video clip from ITV’s ‘This Morning’ emerged on Twitter and Instagram, in which Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby interviewed a young male who had suffered as a victim of domestic violence at the hands of his female partner. He revealed how he had been starved, physically and mentally abused by his girlfriend and that his injuries were so severe, they were almost fatal. What was really encouraging to see, were the hundreds of supportive comments left by people online. The majority of people were praising the man for his bravery and recognised that there needs to be much greater awareness for male victimisation. Sadly, the comments that caught my attention were “what a wimp” and “…he shoulda manned up sooner!”. These comments really riled me, as for my own dissertation, I interviewed an organisation specialising in support for male victims of domestic violence. It was shocking to discover the challenges the organisation face in terms of securing public funding, professional support, and most importantly, encouraging male victims to come forward and seek help. One of the over-arching themes which emerged was that men are still very reluctant to seek help, largely due to embarrassment and fears of being ridiculed. There is still a societal perception that men should be able to deal with problems by themselves, and that if they are unable to, they must be “weak”. It is for this reason that these particular comments left by strangers online infuriated me so much. Quite simply, domestic violence is a human issue, not just a gender one. Not only this, but these few words have the potential to be extremely damaging and may deter men who are suffering in silence from getting the help they need.

Over two years have passed since I carried out my research on this topic area and I am still very passionate about it. I have nothing but admiration for the young male on ‘This Morning’ and am hopeful that his bravery will encourage other male victims to seek help. I also hope that the positive comments online will always overshadow the thoughtless, negative ones. Help is out there and no victim, regardless of their gender, should be discouraged from seeking it.

(In)Human Rights in the “Compliant Environment”

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In the aftermath of the Windrush generation debacle being brought into the light, Amber Rudd resigned, and a new Home Secretary was appointed. This was hailed by the government as a turning point, an opportunity to draw a line in the sand. Certainly, within hours of his appointment, Sajid Javid announced that he ‘would do right by the Windrush generation’. Furthermore, he insisted that he did not ‘like the phrase hostile’, adding that ‘the terminology is incorrect’ and that the term itself, was ‘unhelpful’. In its place, Javid offered a new term, that of; ‘a compliant environment’. At first glance, the language appears neutral and far less threatening, however, you do not need to dig too deep to read the threat contained within.

According to the Oxford Dictionary (2018) the definition of compliant indicates a disposition ‘to agree with others or obey rules, especially to an excessive degree; acquiescent’. Compliance implies obeying orders, keeping your mouth shut and tolerating whatever follows. It offers, no space for discussion, debate or dissent and is far more reflective of the military environment, than civilian life.  Furthermore, how does a narrative of compliance fit in with a twenty-first century (supposedly) democratic society?

The Windrush shambles demonstrates quite clearly a blatant disregard for British citizens and implicit, if not, downright aggression.  Government ministers, civil servants, immigration officers, NHS workers, as well as those in education and other organisations/industries, all complying with rules and regulations, together with pressures to exceed targets, meant that any semblance of humanity is left behind. The strategy of creating a hostile environment could only ever result in misery for those subjected to the State’s machinations. Whilst, there may be concerns around people living in the country without the official right to stay, these people are fully aware of their uncertain status and are thus unlikely to be highly visible. As we’ve seen many times within the CJS, where there are targets that “must” be met, individuals and agencies will tend to go for the low-hanging fruit. In the case of immigration, this made the Windrush generation incredibly vulnerable; whether they wanted to travel to their country of origin to visit ill or dying relatives, change employment or if they needed to call on the services of the NHS. Although attention has now been drawn to the plight of many of the Windrush generation facing varying levels of discrimination, we can never really know for sure how many individuals and families have been impacted. The only narratives we will hear are those who are able to make their voices heard either independently or through the support of MPs (such as David Lammy) and the media. Hopefully, these voices will continue to be raised and new ones added, in order that all may receive justice; rather than an off-the-cuff apology.

However, what of Javid’s new ‘compliant environment’? I would argue that even in this new, supposedly less aggressive environment, individuals such as Sonia Williams, Glenda Caesar and Michael Braithwaite would still be faced with the same impossible situation. By speaking out, these British women and man, as well as countless others, demonstrate anything but compliance and that can only be a positive for a humane and empathetic society.

Speeding towards disaster: the absence of a capable guardian

car crash

Vehicles are lethal weapons, we all recognise that, particularly after the reminders given to us by the terrorist attacks across Europe.  Every year in this country, there are more people killed on the roads than there are as a result of murder and yet people still drive on the roads like complete morons.  It seems that driving cars, vans, and lorries brings out aggressive behaviour that to most would seem quite out of character.   A good few years ago, the media castigated ‘White Van Man’, the drivers of white vans that displayed all the worst of driving behaviours, in particular positioning their vehicles aggressively so close to another vehicles’s rear bumper that they might as well have been sitting in the boot.

The shame of it is that White Van Man is now replaced by the general driving public. Gender and age seem to have no bearing on the manner of driving.  Minor mistakes and indiscretions by other drivers are punished with blaring horns, flashing headlights and hand gestures more at home on the football terraces, although if you watched the recent England game, you might suggest on the pitch as well.  Drivers barge their way past parked cars despite oncoming traffic and drive at speeds exceeding the speed limit.  The dual carriageway that reverts to a single carriageway sees drivers racing to get ahead of each other determined not to let anyone into the now single file of traffic.

And yet, introduce a capable guardian, I borrowed the term from Felson’s 1998 Routine Activity Theory, and behaviour seems to change almost instantaneously; let me explain.  The village I live in is fairly large and sits on the outskirts of a county town.  The village is expanding rapidly and consequently through traffic can be quite considerable, particularly during school runs. This accompanied by pedestrians on narrow pathways and the gaggle of school children massing around the bus stop waiting for the bus to another village increases risk considerably.  The road which meanders in and out of both semi-rural and urbanised space has a thirty mile an hour speed limit and the odd flashing sign that warns motorists to slow down.  Not unreasonable given the volume of traffic and pedestrians and yet it has little meaning to drivers, including those carrying children in the car, who regularly exceed the speed limit.  Dare to drive at thirty miles an hour and you will rapidly find cars sitting on your rear bumper itching to get by or aggressively getting closer and closer in an attempt to bully you into going faster.   A slight glimpse of empty road sees overtaking manoeuvres more suitable to the Silverstone racetrack but accomplished by drivers who probably lack anything like the skill required.  Demonic aggression and recklessness is the name of the game and yet the very same drivers will change their driving behaviour just a few minutes later.

About a mile from my village is a small hamlet dissected by a fairly busy road.  The speed limit leading up to the hamlet is 40 miles an hour and the speed limit through the hamlet is 30 miles an hour.  Watch vehicles traverse this stretch of road and you will see politeness, adherence to the speed limit and gaps between vehicles that would make the author of the highway code proud.  Why such change in behaviour, you probably already know? Two somewhat insignificant, inconspicuous, despite the bright yellow paint, average speed cameras. Nobody knows if they function but they certainly work.  It seems that altering driver behaviour is simply down to the presence of a capable guardian but it does beg the question why so many people have little regard for the law or their fellow human beings when they get into that driving seat.

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