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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.
One of the most distressing news stories this year was the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower where 71 people lost their lives.  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)
 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.)
Despite my love of criminology, there are also aspects which I find deeply troubling. One of the earliest things that an undergraduate student learns to parrot is that “crime is a social construct”. Unfortunately, for much criminological research whilst this may be acknowledged it is largely ignored, with the focus firmly on those actions which are defined by law to be criminal. The first of my concerns, is criminology’s potential to do harm all in the name of making contributions to solving the “crime problem”. All this measuring, trying to find out what works, always seems to involve finding innovative ways in which humans can be
forced coerced to do another’s bidding. It seems to me that this project is inherently designed to hurt individuals, supposedly in the name of justice.
Another concern is criminology’s seeming inability to address bigger issues, which are often dismissed as some other unspecified form of harm, rather than crime.Those of you who have studied with me are likely to know that my academic interests revolve around institutions and violence. I’m not interested in what they do and how we measure their supposed efficacy and “improve” them – administrative criminology leaves me cold – but the impact of these institutions on individual lives.
Much criminological research focuses on individual motivations for criminality (as reflected in some of our earlier blog entries on cyber crime, murder and manslaughter) and these explanations can offer extraordinary insight. Such individualised explanations often follow the classical tenets of freewill and choice, leading to discussions around punishment, and particularly deterrence. Whilst these offer the promise of understanding crime and criminality they run the risk of decontexualising crime; removing the criminal(s), the victim(s) and the criminal justice system from the environments in which both operate. If we consider events such as the Aberfan (21.10.1966) and Hillsborough (15.04.1989) disasters and more recently the catastrophe of Grenfell Tower; (14.06.2017) individualised criminological explanations make little sense, instead we are faced with complex arguments as to whether or not these are actually crimes. However, the sheer number of deaths and injuries involved in these tragic events cannot simply be dismissed as if they are somehow natural disasters. Furthermore, the violence inherent in all of these events is far bigger than any one individual, making traditional criminological theories appear inadequate.
It would seem that perhaps the concept of institutional violence, although contested, can offer a gateway to a more nuanced understanding of crime and harm. One of my starting points for understanding institutional violence is Steven Lee’s question ‘Is poverty violence?’ (1999: 5). He makes his standpoint explicit and argues that ‘[p]overty results in a whole range of serious physical and psychological harms: higher risks of disease, shortened life spans, stunted mental and emotional development, and inadequate opportunity to lead a meaningful life’ (Lee, 1999: 9).
Such a perspective widens our view of what might be understood as violence, taking it away from the overt (two chaps squaring up after a night out) to something less obvious and arguably more damaging. It also recognises that events such as the fire at Grenfell Tower do not happen in a vacuum but are predicated on historical, social and political factors. Justice for the victims of Grenfell Tower cannot be achieved through blaming individuals and rationalising their actions (important as that may be). What is required is a great deal of soul-searching and an exploration of the wider institutional harms, including poverty. Only then can we really begin to understand the impact of institutional violence on the everyday lives of the residents of Grenfell Tower which ultimately led to such devastation on the night of 14 June 2017.
Lee, Steven, (1999), ‘Is Poverty Violence’ in Deane Curtin and Robert Litke, Institutional Violence, (Amsterdam: Rodopi): 5-12