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‘I read the news today, oh boy’

 

NagasakibombThe English army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book

(Lennon and McCartney, 1967),

 

The news these days, without fail, is terrible. Wherever you look you are confronted by misery, death, destruction and terror. Regular news channels and social media bombard us with increasingly horrific tales of people living and dying under tremendous pressure, both here in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Below are just a couple of examples drawn from the mainstream media over the space of a few days, each one an example of individual or collective misery. None of them are unique and they all made the headlines in the UK.

‘Deaths of UK homeless people more than double in five years’ 

‘Syria: 500 Douma patients had chemical attack symptoms, reports say’

‘London 2018 BLOODBATH: Capital on a knife edge as killings SOAR to 56 in three months’

‘Windrush generation NHS worker lost job and faces deportation despite living in the UK for more than 50 years’

So how do we make sense of these tumultuous times? Do we turn our backs and pretend it has nothing to do with us? Can we, as Criminologists, ignore such events and say they are for other people to think about, discuss and resolve?

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Stanley Cohen, posed a similar question; ‘How will we react to the atrocities and suffering that lie ahead?’ (2001: 287). Certainly his text States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering makes clear that each of us has a part to play, firstly by ‘knowing’ that these things happen; in essence, bearing witness and acknowledging the harm inherent in such atrocities. But is this enough? 

Cohen, persuasively argues, that our understanding has fundamentally changed:

The political changes of the last decade have radically altered how these issues are framed. The cold-war is over, ordinary “war” does not mean what it used to mean, nor do the terms “nationalism”, “socialism”, “welfare state”, “public order”, “security”, “victim”, “peace-keeping” and “intervention” (2001: 287).

With this in mind, shouldn’t our responses as a society, also have changed, adapted to these new discourses? I would argue, that there is very little evidence to show that this has happened; whilst problems are seemingly framed in different ways, society’s response continues to be overtly punitive. Certainly, the following responses are well rehearsed;

 

  • “move the homeless on”
  • “bomb Syria into submission”
  • “increase stop and search”
  • “longer/harsher prison sentences”
  • “it’s your own fault for not having the correct papers?”

Of course, none of the above are new “solutions”. It is well documented throughout much of history, that moving social problems (or as we should acknowledge, people) along, just ensures that the situation continues, after all everyone needs somewhere just to be.  Likewise, we have the recent experiences of invading Iraq and Afghanistan to show us (if we didn’t already know from Britain’s experiences during WWII) that you cannot bomb either people or states into submission. As criminologists, we know, only too well, the horrific impact of stop and search, incarceration and banishment and exile, on individuals, families and communities, but it seems, as a society, we do not learn from these experiences.

Yet if we were to imagine, those particular social problems in our own relationships, friendship groups, neighbourhoods and communities, would our responses be the same? Wouldn’t responses be more conciliatory, more empathetic, more helpful, more hopeful and more focused on solving problems, rather than exacerbating the situation?

Next time you read one of these news stories, ask yourself, if it was me or someone important to me that this was happening to, what would I do, how would I resolve the situation, would I be quite so punitive? Until then….

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you (Nietzsche, 1886/2003: 146)

References:

Cohen, Stanley, (2001), States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, (Cambridge: Polity Press)

Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1967), A Day in the Life, [LP]. Recorded by The Beatles in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, EMI Studios: Parlaphone

Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1886/2003), Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, tr. from the German by R. J. Hollingdale, (London: Penguin Books)

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“A Christmas Carol” for the twenty-first century

Christmas Carol

The build up to Christmas appears more frenetic every year, but there comes a point where you call it a day. This hiatus between preparation and the festivities lends itself to contemplation; reflection on Christmases gone by and a review of the year (both good and bad). Some of this is introspective and personal, some familiar or local and some more philosophical and global.

Following from @manosdaskalou’ recent contemplation on “The True Message of Christmas”, I thought I might follow up his fine example and explore another, familiar, depiction of the festive period. While @manosdaskalou focused on wider European and global concerns, particularly the crisis faced by many thousands of refugees, my entry takes a more domestic view, one that perhaps would be recognised by Charles Dickens (1812- 1870) despite being dead for nearly 150 years.

Grenfell_Tower_fire

One of the most distressing news stories this year was the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower where 71 people lost their lives. [1]  Whilst Dickens, might not recognise the physicality of a tower block, the narratives which followed the disaster, would be all too familiar to him. His keen eye for social injustice and inequality is reflected in many of his books; A Christmas Carol certainly contains descriptions of gut wrenching, terrifying poverty, without which, Scrooge’s volte-face would have little impact.

In the immediacy of the  Grenfell Tower disaster tragic updates about individuals and families believed missing or killed in the fire filled the news channels. Simultaneously, stories of bravery; such as the successful endeavours of Luca Branislav to rescue his neighbour and of course, the sheer professionalism and steadfast determination of the firefighters who battled extremely challenging conditions also began to emerge. Subsequently we read/watched examples of enormous resilience; for example,  teenager Ines Alves who sat her GCSE’s in the immediate aftermath. In the aftermath, people clamoured to do whatever they could for survivors bringing food, clothes, toys and anything else that might help to restore some normality to individual life’s. Similarly, people came together for a variety of different celebrity and grassroots events such as Game4Grenfell, A Night of Comedy and West London Stand Tall designed to raise as much money as possible for survivors. All of these different narratives are to expected in the wake of a tragedy; the juxtaposition of  tragedy, bravery and resilience help people to make sense of traumatic events.

Ultimately, what Grenfell showed us, was what we already knew, and had known for centuries. It threw a horrific spotlight on social injustice, inequality, poverty, not to mention a distinct lack of national interest In individual and collective human rights.  Whilst Scrooge was “encouraged” to see the error of his ways, in the twenty-first century society appears to be increasingly resistant to such insight. While we are prepared to stand by and watch the growth in food banks, the increase in hunger, homelessness and poverty, the decline in children and adult physical and mental health with all that entails, we are far worse than Scrooge. After all, once confronted with reality, Scrooge did his best to make amends and to make things a little better. While the Grenfell Tower Inquiry might offer some insight in due course, the terms of reference are limited and previous experiences, such as Hillsborough demonstrate that such official investigations may obfuscate rather than address concerns. It would seem that rather than wait for official reports, with all their inherent problems, we, as a society we need to start thinking, and more, importantly addressing these fundamental problems and thus create a fairer, safer and more just future for everyone.

In the words of Scrooge:

“A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!” (Dickens, 1843/1915: 138)

[1] The final official figure of 71 includes a stillborn baby born just hours after his parents had escaped the fire.

Dickens, Charles, (1843/1915), A Christmas Carol, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co.)

The true message of Christmas

Xmas Card

One of the seasonal discussions we have at social fora is how early the Christmas celebrations start in the streets, shops and the media.  An image of snowy landscapes and joyful renditions of festive themes that appear sometime in October and intensify as the weeks unforld.  It seems that every year the preparations for the festive season start a little bit earlier, making some of us to wonder why make this fuss?  Employees in shops wearing festive antlers and jumpers add to the general merriment and fun usually “enforced” by insistent management whose only wish is to enhance our celebratory mood.  Even in my classes some of the students decided to chip in the holiday fun wearing oversized festive jumpers (you know who you are!).  In one of those classes I pointed out that this phenomenon panders to the commercialisation of festivals only to be called a “grinch” by one of the gobby ones.  Of course all in good humour, I thought.  

Nonetheless it was strange considering that we live in a consumerist society that the festive season is marred with the pressure to buy as much food as possible so much so, that those who cannot (according to a number of charities) feel embarrassed to go shopping;  or the promotion of new toys, cosmetics and other trendy items that people have to have badly wrapped ready for the big day.  The emphasis on consumption is not something that happened overnight.  There have been years of making the special season into a family event of Olympic proportions.  Personal and family budgets will dwindle in the need to buy parcels of goods, consume volumes of food and alcohol so that we can rejoice.       

Many of us by the end of the festive season will look back with regret, for the pounds we put on, the pounds we spent and the things we wanted to do but deferred them until next Christmas.  Which poses the question; What is the point of the holiday or even better, why celebrate Christmas anymore?  Maybe a secular society needs to move away from religious festivities and instead concentrate on civic matters alone.  Why does religion get to dictate the “season to be jolly” and not people’s own desire to be with the ones they want to be with?  If there is a message within the religious symbolism this is not reflected in the shop-windows that promote a round-shaped old man in red, non-existent (pagan) creatures and polar animals.  

According to the religious message about 2000 years ago a refugee family gave birth to a child on their way to exile.  The child would live for about 33 years but will change the face of modern religion.  He promised to come back and millions of people still wait for his second coming but in the meantime millions of refugee children are piling up in detention centers and hundreds of others are dying in the journey of the damned.  “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).  This is the true message of Christmas today.

Happy Holidays to our students and colleagues.  
FYI: Ramah is a town in war torn Middle East

 

Reading is dead, long live the book

Pile_of_books

The first week of teaching is always a bit of a culture shock. The transition at the end of term from teaching to other activities and vice versa marks a change of tempo and a change of focus. For me, the summer is a time of immersion in reading, thinking and writing. All of these activities continue throughout the year but far less intensively. It’s is perhaps ironic then, that this week’s blog post has left me struggling for ideas…

Previously, I have blogged about the stresses and strains of writing, so this week I thought I might turn my attention to reading; a far more pleasurable personal experience. The first questions is why read? The simple answer is to accumulate knowledge, to find the answer to a question and to educate and entertain. Arguably, all of these purposes can be achieved far more easily by looking on the internet, getting a quick (if not always correct) answer. Why bother learning things when the internet can provide information 24 hours a day?  Furthermore, who can fail to find something to entertain and amuse on the television, in the cinema or on the internet? Perhaps the death knell for the old-fashioned art of reading books is sounding with increasing urgency and volume? I disagree!

I learnt to read at around the age of 5 and very quickly I was hooked. Throughout my childhood I was teased for my seeming inability to put a book down even with eating or walking. This never dissuaded me away from the book and even when that one was finished, there would always be another one to take its place. This reading “addiction” has never left me and has meant that I have been able to explore mythical places such as Eastasia, Erewhon, Gilead, Lilliput, Manderley, Narnia and Utopia and without even leaving my armchair. I have explored America, Australia, Botswana, Germany, India, the Netherlands and South Africa to a name a few, not to mention my home city, both over ground and underground. In my reading life, I have travelled on the Orient Express, fought in the American Civil War, WWI and WWII, hidden from Nazis, as well as served prison sentences in Reading Gaol and Robben Island. I have solved crimes with Mikael Blomkvist, Scout Finch, the Famous Five and Hercule Poirot. I have felt the pains of Lady MacBeth, Jane Eyre and the second Mrs de Winter, been left unmoved by Flora Poste and Jay Gatsby and felt terrorised with Joanna Eberhart, Offred and Gregor Samsa.

Whilst the above may illustrate my love of reading, it does not really explain why it is so important to me and my career. For one, it is the only activity that really holds my concentration, particularly for extended periods of time. In the twenty-first century, where life seems so fast-paced and we jump from screen to screen, triggered by notifications as if we are one of Pavlov’s dogs, such a skill requires protection and cultivation. Second, it is intensely independent and personal; I can share stories with others, I can even discuss books in detail, but my reading is my own. Thirdly, and probably the most important for criminology is the opportunity to try someone else’s life for size. The famous line from Harper Lee; that ; ‘[y]ou never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’ sums this up beautifully (1960/2006: 30). By reading accounts of crime, criminality, victimisation and criminal justice; even if fictionalised, we have an opportunity to test out ideas, to find out how comfortable we are with responses, actions and penalties. In particular, dystopic novels offer the unique potential to imagine the world differently. Whilst on the surface such texts, as with criminology, are presented as negative; dealing with uncomfortable, frightening and disturbing behaviours and responses, they are ultimately full of hope. The potential for change is both explicit and implicit in dystopic fiction and criminology; all is never lost, hope remains no matter what.

If you still need to be persuaded by my argument for reading everything and anything that can get your hands on, perhaps Beccaria’s words of wisdom will help ‘I should have everything to fear, if tyrants were to read my book, but tyrants never read’ (1872: 18).

And after all, who wants to be a tyrant? Not me!

 

Beccaria, Cesare, (1872), An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, (Albany: W. C. Little Co.), [online]. Available from: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2193&Itemid=27 [Last accessed 24 March 2012]

Lee, Harper, (1960/2006), To Kill A Mockingbird, (London: Arrow Books)

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