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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?”
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’
Marginalised voices were the focal point of my dissertation.
My dissertation explored social issues through the musical genres of Rap and Hip-Hop. During the time period of writing my dissertation there was the rising debate surrounding the association of a new genre, Drill music, being linked to the rise in violent crimes by young people in England (London specifically). The following link to an article from the Guardian newspaper will provide a greater insight to the subject matter:
The idea of music having a direct correlation with criminality sweeps issues such as poverty, social deprivation, class and race all under the rug; when in reality these are just a few of the definitive issues that these marginalised groups face. We see prior examples of this in the late 80s, with rap group N.W.A with their song “F*** the police”. The song surrounded the topic of police brutality and brought light to the disgust and outrage of the wider community to this issue. Simultaneously to this, the N.W.A were refused from running concerts as they were accused of starting revolts. The song was made as a response to their environment, but why is freedom of speech limited to certain sectors of society?
In the present day, we see young people having lower prospects of being homeowners, high rates of unemployment, and the cost of living increasing. In essence the rich are getting richer and the poor continue to struggle; the violence of austerity at its finest. Grenfell Tower is the perfect example of this, for the sake of a cheaper cost lives were lost. Simply because these individuals were not in a position to greatly impact the design of their housing. Monetary status SHOULD NOT determine your right to life, but unfortunately in those circumstances it did.
The alienation of young people was also a topic that was highlighted within my research into my dissertation. In London specifically, youth clubs are being closed down and money is being directed heavily towards pensions. An idea would be to invest in young people as this would potentially provide an incentive and subsequently decrease the prospect of getting involved in negative activities.
In no means, was the aim to condone the violence but instead to simply shed light on the issues that young people face. There is a cry for help but the issue is only looked at from the surface as a musical problem. If only it were that simple, maybe considering the voice behind the music would lead to the solution of the problem.