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Are we really free?

freedom

This year the American Society of Criminology conference (Theme: Institutions, Cultures and Crime) is in Atlanta, GA a city famous for a number of things; Mitchell’s novel, (1936), Gone with the Wind and the home of both Coca-Cola, and CNN. More importantly the city is the birthplace and sometime home of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the city there are reminders of King’s legacy, from street names to schools and of course, The King Center for Non-Violent Social Change.

This week @manosdaskalou and I visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights, opened in 2014 with the aim of connecting the American Civil Rights Movement, to broader global claims for Human Rights. A venue like this is an obvious draw for criminologists, keen to explore these issues from an international perspective. Furthermore, such museums engender debate and discussion around complex questions; such as what it means to be free; individually and collectively, can a country be described as free and why individuals and societies commit atrocities.

According to a large-scale map housed within the Center the world is divided up into countries which are free, partially free and not free. The USA, the UK and large swathes of what we would recognise as the western world are designated free. Other countries such as Turkey and Bolivia are classified as partially free, whilst Russia and Nigeria are not free. Poor Tonga receives no classification at all. This all looks very scientific and makes for a graphic illustration of areas of the world deemed problematic, but by who or what? There is no information explaining how different countries were categorised or the criteria upon which decisions were made. Even more striking in the next gallery is a verbatim quotation from Walter Cronkite (journalist, 1916-2009) which insists that ‘There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.’ Unfortunately, these wise words do not appear to have been heeded when preparing the map.

Similarly, another gallery is divided into offenders and victims. In the first half is a police line-up containing a number of dictators, including Hitler, Pol Pot and Idi Amin suggesting that bad things can only happen in dictatorships. But what about genocide in Rwanda (just one example), where there is no obvious “bad guy” on which to pin blame? In the other half are interactive panels devoted to individuals chosen on the grounds of their characteristics (perceived or otherwise). By selecting characteristics such LGBT, female, migrant or refugee, visitors can read the narratives of individuals who have been subjected to such regimes. This idea is predicated on expanding human empathy, by reading these narratives we can understand that these people aren’t so different to us.

Museums such as the Center for Civil and Human Rights pose many more questions than they can answer. Their very presence demonstrates the importance of understanding these complex questions, whilst the displays and exhibits demonstrate a worldview, which visitors may or may not accept. More importantly, these provide a starting point, a nudge toward a dialogue which is empathetic and (potentially) focused toward social justice. As long as visitors recognise that nudge long after they have left the Center, taking the ideas and arguments further, through reading, thinking and discussion, there is much to be hopeful about.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr (in his 1963, Letter from Birmingham Jail):

‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly’

 

 

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Lest we forget

Chain_of_Friendship_cartoon

Today marks 100 years since the end of the First World War and commemorations will be taking place across the land. I will be overseas for much of the pomp and circumstance, but the build-up each year appears to begin earlier and earlier. As a pacifist, I always find this time of year very troubling, particularly the focus on the Royal British Legion [RBL] poppy.

Most combatants (both axis and allies) in both world wars were conscripted, that is they were legislatively compelled into military uniform. This was also the case in the UK, with the passing of the Military Service Act, 1916, Military Training Act, 1939 and National Service Act, 1948 ensuring that men had little option but to spend a period of time in the military. Objections on the grounds of conscience were legally tolerated, although not always upheld. As I have written about previously, this was a particularly treacherous path to follow in WWI.

So, for many men* during the period of 1916-1960, military service was not a choice, thus it makes sense to talk about a society which owes a debt to these individuals for the sacrifice of their time, energy and in some cases, lives. Remember these men were removed from their jobs and their families, any aspirations had to be put on hold until after the war, and who knew when that was likely to occur?

Since 1960, military service in the UK has been on a voluntary basis, although, we can of course revisit criminological discussions around free will, to ascertain how freely decisions to enlist can truly be. Nevertheless, there is a substantive difference between servicemen during that period and those that opt for military service after that period. Such a distinction appears to pass by many, including the RBL, who are keen to commemorate and fetishize the serviceman as intrinsically heroic and worthy of society’s unquestioning support.

The decision to wear a poppy, whether RBL red or peace pledge union [ppu] white is a personal one. The former is seen as the official national symbol of commemoration, designed to recognise the special contribution of service personnel and their families. The latter is often attacked as an affront to British service personnel, although the ppu explicitly note that the white poppy represents everybody killed during warfare, including all military combatants and victims. It draws no distinctions across national borders, neither does it privilege the military over the civilian victims. These different motifs, each with their own specific narratives, pose the question of what it is as individuals and as a society we mean by ‘Lest we forget’.

  1. Do we want to remember those conscripted soldiers and swear that as a society we will not force individuals into the military, regardless of their personal viewpoints, desires, aspirations?
  2. Do we want to remember soldiers and swear that as a society we will not go to war again?

If it is the latter, we should take more notice of the work of RBL, who although coy about their relationships with arms dealers, accept a great deal of money from them (cf. Tweedy, 2015, BAE Systems, 2018). We should also consider the beautiful and poignant display at the Tower of London in 2014, entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (Cummins and Piper, 2014). The week after this display began to be dismantled, a dinner for arms dealers was held at the same venue. Whilst RBL is keen to deny that their poppy is partisan and political, it is evident that this little paper flower is not neutral. Discussions and arguments on social media have demonstrated that this motif can and is used as a battering ram to close down questions, anxieties and deliberation. Even more worrying is the rewriting of history, that WWI and WWII were won by British forces, neglecting that these were world wars, involving individuals; men, women and children, from all over the globe. This narrative seems to have attached itself to the furor around Brexit, “we saved Europe, they owe us”!

For me, on an extremely personal level, we should be looking to end war, not looking for ways in which to commemorate past wars.

*For more detail around the conscription of women during WWII see Nicholson (2007) and Elster and Sørensen (2010).

References

BAE Systems, (2018), ‘Supporting the Armed Forces,’ BAE Systems, [online]. Available from: https://www.baesystems.com/en-uk/our-company/corporate-responsibility/working-responsibly/supporting-communities/supporting-the-armed-forces [Last accessed 20 October 2018]

Cummins, Paul, (2016), ‘Important Notice,’ Paul Cummins Ceramics, [online]. Available from: https://www.paulcumminsceramics.com/important-notice/ [Last accessed 11 November 2016]

Cummins, Paul and Piper, Tom, (2014), Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, [Ceramic Installation], (London: Tower of London)

Elster, Ellen and Sørensen, Majken Jul, (2010), ‘(Eds), Women Conscientious Objectors: An Anthology, (London: War Resisters’ International)

Military Service Act, 1916, (London: HMSO)

Military Training Act, 1939, (London: HMSO)

Milmo, Cahai, (2014), ‘The Crass Insensitivity’ of Tower’s Luxury Dinner for Arms Dealers, Days After Poppy Display, i-news, Thursday 27 November 2014, [online]. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-crass-insensitivity-of-tower-s-luxury-dinner-for-arms-dealers-days-after-poppy-display-9888507.html [Last accessed 27 November 2014]

National Service Act, 1948, (London: HMSO)

Nicholson, Hazel, (2007), ‘A Disputed Identity: Women Conscientious Objectors in Second World War Britain,’ Twentieth Century British History, 18, 4: 409-28

peace pledge union [ppu], (2018), ‘Remembrance & White Poppies,’ peace pledge union, [online]. Available from: https://ppu.org.uk/remembrance-white-poppies [Last accessed 11 November 2018]

Tweedy, Rod, (2015), My Name is Legion: The British Legion and the Control of Remembrance, (London: Veterans for Peace UK), [online]. Available from: http://vfpuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/my_name_is_legion-web.pdf [Last accessed 14 May 2017]

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