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Prison education: why it matters?

Five year ago, Dame Sally Coates released an independent report on prison education. Recently the Chief Inspector for Ofsted, Amanda Spielman and The HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, made a joint statement reflecting on that report.  Their reflections are critical on the lack of implementation of the original report, but also of the difficulties of managing education in prison especially at a time of a global pandemic.  The lack of developing meaningful educational provision and delivering remote teaching led to many prisoners without sufficient opportunity to engage with learning.   

In a situation of crisis such as the global pandemic one must wonder if this is an issue that can be left to one side for now, to be reviewed at a later stage.  At the University of Northampton, as an educational institution we are passionate about learning opportunities for all including those incarcerated.  We have already developed an educational partnership with a local prison, and we are committed to offer Higher Education to prisoners.  Apart from the educational, I would add that there is a profound criminological approach to this issue.  Firstly, I would like to separate what Dame Coates refers to as education, which is focused on the basic skills and training as opposed to a university’s mandate for education designed to explore more advanced ideas. 

The main point to both however is the necessity for education for those incarcerated and why it should be offered or not.  In everyday conversations, people accept that “bad” people go to prison.  They have done something so horrible that it has crossed the custody threshold and therefore, society sends them to jail.  This is not a simple game of Monopoly, but an entire criminal justice process that explores evidence and decides to take away their freedom.  This is the highest punishment our society can bestow on a person found guilty of serious crimes.  For many people this is appropriate and the punishment a fitting end to criminality.  In criminology however we recognise that criminality is socially constructed and those who end up in prisons may be only but a specific section of those deemed “deviant” in our society.  The combination of wrongdoing and socioeconomic situations dictate if a person is more or less likely to go to prison.  This indicates that prison is not a punishment for all bad people, but some.  Dame Coates for example recognises the overrepresentation of particular ethnic minorities in the prison system. 

This raises the first criminological issue regarding education, and it relates to fairness and access to education.  We sometimes tend to forget that education is not a privilege but a fundamental human right.  Sometimes people forget that we live in a society that requires a level of educational sophistication that people with below basic levels of literacy and numeracy will struggle.  From online applications to job hunting or even banking, the internet has become an environment that has no place for the illiterate.  Consider those who have been in prison since the late 1990s and were released in the late 2010s.  People who entered the prison before the advancement of e-commerce and smart phones suddenly released to a world that feels like it is out of a sci-fi movie. 

The second criminological issue is to give all people, regardless of their crimes, the opportunity to change.  The opportunity of people to change, is always incumbent on their ability to change which in turn is dependent on their circumstances.  Education, among other things, requires the commitment of the learner to engage with the learning process.  For those in prison, education can offer an opportunity to gain some insight that their environment or personal circumstances have denied them.      

The final criminological issue is the prison itself.  What do we want people to do in them?  If prison is to become a human storage facility, then it will do nothing more than to pause a person’s life until they are to be released.  When they come out the process of decarceration is long and difficult.  People struggle to cope and the return to prison becomes a process known as “revolving doors”.  This prison system helps no one and does nothing to resolve criminality.  A prison that attempts to help the prisoners by offering them the tools to learn, helps with the process of deinstitutionalisation.  The prisoner is informed and aware of the society they are to re-join and prepares accordingly.  This is something that should work in theory, but we are nowhere there yet.  If anything, it is far from it, as read in Spielman and Taylor’s recent commentary.  Their observations identify poor quality education that is delivered in unacceptable conditions.  This is the crux of the matter, the institution is not really delivering what it claims that is does.  The side-effect of such as approach is the missed opportunity to use the institution as a place of reform and change. 

Of course, in criminological discourse the focus is on an abolitionist agenda that sees beyond the institution to a society less punitive that offers opportunities to all its citizens without discrimination or prejudice.  This is perhaps a different topic of conversation.  At this stage, one thing is for sure; education may not rehabilitate but it can allow people to self-improve and that is a process that needs to be embraced.  

 

References

Coates, S. (2016), Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prisons, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-potential-a-review-of-education-in-prison

Spielman, A. and Taylor, C. (2021), Launching our Prison Education Reviewhttps://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/launching-our-prison-education-review

Originally published here

The crime of war

Recently after yet another military campaign coming to an end, social media lit all over with opinions about what should and should not have been done as military and civilians are moving out. Who was at fault, and where lies the responsibility with. There are those who see the problem as a matter of logistics something here and now and those who explore the history of conflict and try to explain it. Either side however does not note perhaps the most significant issue; that the continuation of wars and the maintenance of conflict around the world is not a failure of politics, but an international crime that is largely neglected. For context, lets explore this conflict’s origin; 20 years ago one of the wealthiest countries on the planet declared war to one of the poorest; the military operations carried the code name “Enduring Freedom”! perhaps irony is lost on those in positions of power. The war was declared as part of a wider foreign policy by the wealthy country (and its allies) on what was called the “war on terror”. It ostensibly aimed to curtail, and eventually defeat, extremist groups around the world from using violence and oppressing people. Yes, that is right, they used war in order to stop others from using violence.

In criminology, when we talk about violence we have a number of different ways of exploring it; institutional vs interpersonal or from instrumental to reactive. In all situations we anticipate that violence facilitates more violence, and in that way, those experiencing it become trapped in a loop, that when repeated becomes an inescapable reality. War is the king of violence. It uses both proactive and emotional responses that keep combatants locked in a continuous struggle until one of them surrenders. The victory attached to war and the incumbent heroism that it breeds make the violence more destructive. After all through a millennia of warfare humans have perfected the art of war. Who would have thought that Sun Tzu’s principles on using chariots and secret agents would be replaced with stealth bombers and satellites? Clearly war has evolved but not its destructive nature. The aftermath of a war carries numerous challenges. The most significant is the recognition that in all disputes violence has the last word. As we have seen from endless conflicts around the world the transition from war to peace is not as simple as the signing of a treaty. People take longer to adjust, and they carry the effects of war with them even in peace time.

In a war the causes and the motives of a war are different and anyone who studied history at school can attest to these differences. It is a useful tool in the study of war because it breaks down what has been claimed, what was expected, and what was the real reason people engaged in bloody conflict. The violence of war is different kind of violence one that takes individual disputes out and turns people into tribes. When a country prepares for war the patriotic rhetoric is promoted, the army becomes heroic and their engagement with the war an act of duty. This will keep the soldiers engaged and willing to use their weapons even on people that they do not know or have any personal disputes with. Among wealthy countries that can declare wars thousands of miles away this patriotic fervour becomes even more significant because you have to justify to your troops why they have to go so far away to fight. In the service of the war effort, language becomes an accomplice. For example they refrain from using words like murder (which is the unlawful killing of a person) to casualties; instead of talking about people it is replaced with combatants and non-combatants, excessive violence (or even torture) is renamed as an escalation of the situation. Maybe the worst of all is the way the aftermath of the war is reflected. In the US after the war in Vietnam there was a general opposition to war. Even some of the media claimed “never again” but 10 year after its end Hollywood was making movies glorifying the war and retelling a different rendition of events.

Of course the obvious criminological question to be asked is “why is war still permitted to happen”? The end of the second world war saw the formation of the United Nations and principles on Human Rights that should block any attempt for individual countries to go to war. This however has not happened. There are several reasons for that; the industry of war. Almost all developed countries in the world have a military industry that produces weapons. As an industry it is one of the highest grossing; Selling and buying arms is definitely big business. The UK for example spends more for its defence than it spends for the environment or for education. War is binary there is a victor and the defeated. If a politician banks their political fortunes on being victorious, engaging with wars will ensure their name to be carved in statues around cities and towns. During the war people do not question the social issues; during the first world war for example the suffragettes movement went on a pause and even (partly) threw itself behind the war effort.

What about the people who fight or live under war? There lies the biggest crime of all. The victimisation of thousands or even millions of people. The civilian population becomes accustomed to one of the most extreme forms of violence. I remember my grandmother’s tales from the Nazi occupation; seeing dead people floating in the nearby river on her way to collect coal in the morning. The absorption of this kind of violence can increase people’s tolerance for other forms of violence. In fact, in some parts of the world where young people were born and raised in war find it difficult to accept any peaceful resolution. Simply put they have not got the skills for peace. For societies inflicted with war, violence becomes currency and an instrument ready to be used. Seeing drawings of refugee children about their home, family and travel, it is very clear the imprint war leaves behind. A torched house in a child’s painting is what is etched in their mind, a trauma that will be with them for ever. Unfortunately no child’s painting will become a marble statue or receive the honours, the politicians and field marshals will. In 9/11 we witnessed people jumping from buildings because a place crashed into them; in the airport in Kabul we saw people falling from the planes because they were afraid to stay in the country. Seems this crime has come full circle.

Do we have to care?

In recently published The end-to-end rape review report on findings and actions the responsible minister admitted that “victims of rape [are] being failed”.  This stark admission is based on data that indicates that the current situation on dealing with rape is far worst than 5 years ago.  The ministers are “ashamed” of the data but luckily in their report they offer some suggestions on how to improve things; what to do to bring the conviction rates to the 2016 level and to move more cases forward for trial, leading to successful convictions.  At that point, the report presents the Criminal Justice System [CJS] as a singular entity that needs to address the issue collectively.  This, in part, is a fair assessment although it ignores the cultural differences of the constituent parts of the system.  Nonetheless, the government has identified a problem, commissioned a report and has a clear “ambitious” plan of how to address it.     

The report indeed presents some interesting findings and I urge people to review it whenever they can (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/end-to-end-rape-review-report-on-findings-and-actions).  We know for example already that the number of cases that went into prosecution were low; in the last years this has become even lower.  That despite the prevalence rate remaining more or less the same.  Victims report that they are treated poorly, not believed arguing that the investigative model needs changing.  No wonder the ministers appear apologetic of the situation.  A headline crime category that is likely to cause an uproar and whilst thinking of the political fallout they come out in support of the victims!  Who wouldn’t?  Supporting a victim of crime, any crime is one of the main objectives of the CJS; once they have handed out retribution and prioritised on making an example of specific crimes and focusing on particular criminals, then their focus is on the victims!  The findings were expected, but even so when reading about the higher vulnerability of disabled women to rape and sexual abuse, underscores the systemic failure to deal with this crime.  It does not read like care!             

If I was an agitator, I would say that a criminal committing rape has less chance (statistically) to be convicted than someone who commits theft; but then I will be making a criminological cardinal sin; conflating criminalities and confusing the data.  In our profession we deal with data all the time.  Many of them come in the form of metrics looking at the way different crimes are reported, recorded etc.  We also know that context gives a perspective to these data.  Numbers may look the same, but that is arguably part of the problem.  It does not take into account the source of the data and their circumstances.  Not all numbers are the same and most importantly they do not measure similar trends.  The way the success rates are to be measured is not dissimilar from before and without owning a magic ball, it can be foreseen that rape will remain as is.  Of course, the metrics may change colour to signal improvement, but that will not alter the fundamental issues.    

On the day, one may have their car broken into, to report the incident can be a requirement from their insurance if they are to cover the cost.  On the day, the said person got raped by a current/former partner the matter is not about insurance.  These acts are not similar and to treat criminality as a singularity draws up uneven comparisons.  In this case we have a list of recommendations trying to ameliorate the bad metrics.  What are the recommendations?  The focus is again on the police and the Crime Prosecution Service [CPS] and the court experience the victims will have.  Again, indicates that these institutions have been criticised before for similar failings.  The change of practices in the police does not go as far as exploring the institutional culture.  The CPS’s requirement to do more is tied with the successful cases they will prosecute.  The need for the two organisations to work together more closely has been a discussion point for the last 20 years; as for the better experience in courts, it is definitely welcomed but in recent years, Victim Support as an organisation was stripped bare, the additional services cut and the domestic violence shelters disappearing.  The call for more services was continuously met with the offer of voluntary organisations stepping in, into such a complex area to provide help and support.  One may think that if we are to prioritise on victim experience these services may need to become professional and even expand the current ones. 

Lastly in this document the tone is clear; the focus yet again is reactionary.  We have some bad data that we need to change somehow; we have got some clear action plans and we can measure them (as the report intimates) at regular times.  This approach is the main problem on dealing with rape!  It does not offer any interventions prior to the crime.  There is nothing to deal say with rape culture, the degradation of women, the inequality and the rape myths that women are still subjected to.  Interestingly there are mention of empathy toward the rape victim but there is not a plan to instil empathy for people more widely.  No plan to engage the educational system with respect for the other (whoever the other is; a woman, a person of colour, disability, different origin) regarding sexual behaviours.  The report tenuously mentions consent (or lack of understanding it) instead of making plans how it can be understood across.  Unfortunately, this crime reveals the challenges we face in the discipline but also the challenges we face as a society that has traded care for metrics and the tyranny of managerialism.    

#CriminologyBookClub: Bad Day at the Vulture Club

As you know by now, a small group of us decided the best way to thrive in lockdown was to seek solace in reading and talking about books. Hence the creation of #CriminologyBookClub! Building on on what has quickly become standard practice, we’ve decided to continue with all eight bloggers contributing! Our latest book was chosen by all of us (unanimously)  after we fell in love with the first instalment. Without more ado, let’s see why we all adore Inspector Chopra (retired) et al. and why we’re all so very sad to reach the (temporary, we hope!) end of @vaseemk2‘s wonderful series:

The final of the Chopra series was delightful. As with the previous books, the story is a crime novel but there is a continuance of a broader (and arguably) more damaging topic, social harm. I found this book so interesting to read as Vaseem shines a light on Parsee culture that was unknown to myself until reading this book. Although this is a series of fictional books, parts of these books are based on real life events and I think this allows for a lot of reflection. I finished the book thinking about the plight of the vultures and the impact that this has on humans. Book Club is yet to find another book that we all collectively enjoy, let alone a series. This series is wonderful.

@haleysread

The fifth book of the series introduces us to the community of the Parsees. Inspector Chopra is exploring a world full of secrecy, hidden messages and innuendos. Is it a family dispute gone wrong or an attack on a small community that is flickering away? The victim is powerful, well respected and without any obvious foes. Maybe the death is an accident or one of those unfortunate events? Chopra doesn’t think so! With the help of his pet elephant he uncovers the truth, despite the authorities’ incompetence collecting evidence and the need of many in the circle of suspects to withhold information. This is a more mature outing of the detective as the case makes him question his own mortality when he is faced with ancient customs. The team remains the same although the addition of a recovering vulture makes the group as surreal as ever. The dialogues are lively and the exchanges are sharp but in the end, what is the truth? Who is going to crack when Inspector Chopra reveals “whodunit”?

@manosdaskalou

As a latecomer to book club, this was my second of the Chopra series and once again I loved it. @vaseemk2 writes in such a way that he brings everything to life with vibrancy. This book featured a vulture who developed a personality of its own and just like the previous book, I enjoy the characters of the animals. Aside from the characters, the author is very good at introducing real life events or people. This book introduced the Parsee community which I had not heard of and it encouraged me to go away and learn more. I am looking forward to playing Chopra catch up over summer.

@amycortvriend

I approached this book with mixed feelings. I desperately wanted to immerse myself into the sunshine and colour of India. However, I also was very aware this was the (current!) last book in Vaseem Khan’s awesome series (I am seriously hoping for many more, take note @vaseemk2!). Fortunately, I forgot the latter, as I immersed myself in the former. As with previous Inspector Chopra cases there is the theme of institutional violence, of ordinary people, elephants and vultures subjected to the vagaries of powerful people. In 1967, Howard Becker asked “whose side are we on? and answered, the powerless. Vaseem’s series takes the same approach, there is a sense of camaraderie and empathy towards those who are different, those who are outside of mainstream society, the underdogs. Whether they are eunuchs, Parsees or even vultures, compassion is present in Chopra et al.’s responses and actions. Although gutted that the series has come to a (temporary!) halt, this book was a joy to read. I’m going to miss all the characters but will simply pretend they’ve gone on a holiday!

@paulaabowles

Bad Day at the Vulture Club was yet another wonderful investigation involving the Book Club’s favourite motley crew! The story was intriguing, the characters charming (although some of them not so much), scenery vivid and as always, overall utterly brilliant! This is the last book in the Inspector Chopra series, so far, and if I’m being overly critical it did not feel like an ending. Maybe there will be more to come? Hint Hint @vaseemk2!

@jesjames50

Having read the previous books in the series and having become embroiled in the Baby Ganesh Agency’s quirky and endearing machinations, I picked up this final book with eagerness, anticipation and dread in equal measure. Why dread, well it’s the last in the series (I know I’ve already said that but its worth restating), no more Insp. Chopra (Retd), no more Ganesha, Poppy, Irfan or the erstwhile Rangwalla. As we have become accustomed to, the book paints a colourful and wonderful picture of Mombai and its inhabitants whilst also providing saddening detail of the darker side of corruption and desperate poverty. With the usual twists and turns, injections of humour and triumph coupled with some interesting historical backdrops the story line is both intriguing and captivating. Another page turner, but as each page disappears, so too is the recognition that it is all going to come to an end. Whilst all the characters deserve a well-earned rest, it would seem a travesty for the redoubtable Insp. Chopra and his less than ordinary sidekick Ganesha to permanently retire

@5teveh

Goodbye for now, Inspector…….

Another great addition to the inspector Chopra series. More wacky characters, great comedy, and a great mysterious plot. I have also learned some interesting things about India’s culture, which has encouraged me to do further reading.

Reflecting on my time reading this series, I have enjoyed every single book. Like the other 4 books prior, Bad Day at the Vulture Club gives you delightful excitement and adventure which is far from what has been present in real life. During uncertain times and difficult lockdowns these books have provided much need escapism. During the final chapters I did feel a wave of sadness, as I knew this was the last book in the series. But I hopeful we will see a return of baby Ganesh, Poppy and Inspector Chopra, as we have still not unlocked the mystery of Ganesh. I recommend the complete series, if you like courageous elephants and want a light hearted page turner.

@svr2727

It goes without saying that I loved this book. I’ve so enjoyed following the exploits of Chopra and Ganesha over the last year and a half and there’s definitely a bit of a hole in my life now! I’ll admit that I read it with trepidation – worried that something awful would befall the characters I had come to care about, given that it’s the final book in the series. But I needn’t have worried! I found myself once again immersed in a mystery and following the threads through India – learning loads about the country and the culture on the way. I almost loved the vulture as much as I love the elephant. I really hope this isn’t the last we hear from these characters!

@saffrongarside

We shall leave the final thought to some younger fans of Baby Ganesha and the Vulture….thanks to Quinn and Paisley for their fabulous artistry

Making a Criminal: A game on criminology

Summer is here and as we try to destress from another annus horribilis …let us play a game.  This is one of the mental games we play in a way to understand a discipline shrouded in mystery and speculation.  You will need no pen, nor paper, just your imagination and a few minutes. 

Clear you mind, isolate your thoughts and give yourself 5 minutes of time to complete. It is all about your imagination. 

Think of a criminal.  Try to think of their face first.  What do they look like?  Imagine their face, their eyes, the nose and the cheekbones.  Hair colour and style.  How’s the neck, the body type, the hands, the legs.  Can you tell their gender, age and their race?  Any other features?  What are they wearing? 

Now try to keep that image in your mind.  You have conjured your criminal and you ought to give them a crime.  What crime has this person committed?  Was it their first crime or have they done the same crime before?  What made them do the crime(s) they did?   

How do you feel about them?  What do you wish to be done about them?  What is your solution to your imaginary villain?  Do you think there are others like them, or was this the one that once removed from your imagination will become unable to generate more images? 

Our mind is truly wonderous.  It can conjure all sorts of images and for those of you, who, managed to engage and to get through the questions and to develop your criminal, well done. 

This approach was used when investigators tried to help people to recall events following a crime, usually involving violence.  The questions are reasonable, and it allowed you, at least those who tried, to form an image and a backstory.  This approach was later discredited, purely because it allowed our stereotypes and prejudices to come to the surface.  You see this game is not about crime; it is about your perception of crime.  It is not about those who do crime, it is simply about you. 

Bring back to mind your criminal.  Your details and characteristics are the projections that you make on what you think about the other, the criminal.  For example, did you think of yourself when asked to imagine a criminal?  What you don’t think you are a criminal?  Ah, you are one of those who think they have never committed a crime.  Ever!  Are you sure?  Not even drinking in the park in your teen years, or a little bit of speeding away from speed cameras? 

Still you do not consider yourself as a criminal, but as a person.  Which is why criminality takes such a hold of people’s imagination.  Criminals are always other people.  Crime is something unthinkable.  Our representation of crime is to evoke our fears and insecurities, as when we were kids entering a dark room.  The mind is truly wonderous, but it can also make us imagine the most horrible things.  Not that horrible things do not happen, but the mind reinforces what it hears, what is sees and what it experiences.  If any of you have experienced crime before, the face of the person who victimised you may become traumatically etched in your consciousness.  Part of that trauma will become fear; it is interesting to note that similar fear is experienced from those who have never been victims of crime. 

Previously, I mentioned investigative processes.  Our fear of crime and our desire to control crime has generated a number of approaches in crime investigation that have tried to unmask the criminal.  Unfortunately, many of those were based on imagination rather than fact.  Why?  Because of how we feel about crime.  Crime causes harm and pain and invokes a lot of our emotions.  Those emotions when tapped by investigators blind us and release our darker stereotypes about the others!                        

Let it be Light

You may have probably heard of the title before and you may or may not be able to place it.  It is a quote from the bible!  It is profoundly creationist proclaiming the world created in days; from the 1st for the light and the 6th for the people and animals.  A seemingly busy week for an almighty being who needed a day of rest afterwards.  The contribution of organised religion to everyday life, the realisation that people need rest and recuperation from the labours of work.  This however is not the reason I chose this dive into scriptures.  I am not a theologian so I will not examine the religious content. 

Instead there are two different reasons I have chosen to start with this quote; the first is the positive affirming message it conveys, the second is its immediacy.  What we have here is light and brightness that is instant gratification.  This message feels like a piece of chocolate melting in your mouth, releasing sweet sensations, as a flooding of smooth cocoa disintegrates, releasing its sensual solids.  Therefore, the command on creating light resonates; we rejoice because unlike reality we find pleasure in immediate gratification.

Would we care that light was not created but emerged after the Big Bang and took billions of years to form in the way we now recognise it as our sun?  Does it matter that progress is long and arduous and not immediate as the command suggests?  Our sense of time dwarfs in the time required for events to happen.  It is astonishing that we still try to comprehend the vastness of time through human lifetime.  The command is also palatable because it happens without virtually any real effort.  It does not represent the labours, pains of creation and development.  In short, evolution is painful, long but here is presented as something immediate and effortless.  In that a series of commands completing complex processes seems preferable to the reality of evolution. Maybe it is pertinent to point out that the command reveals the “majestic totalitarianism” of the divine against the great equalizer of nature and progression.  

In life however, big creations cannot happen by command.  “Let it be Baby!”  I wonder how many mothers would favour this one, or in our line of work “let it be knowledge” how many will choose this option.  This is when we realise that this pleasant message is shielding us from the reality of the process and the nature of reality itself.  We may want things to happen immediately, but this is not necessarily the best option.  In parenting, if you could more forward into having a baby, why not move further past the terrible twos or even further into the dreadful adolescent years of having your authority challenged.  Essentially have a child created fully functioning and obedient to parental will.  Maybe because this is not parenting.  The stories that remain are those of growing pains; without growth there is no parenting.  Let’s explore it in knowledge; can we find shortcuts in the way we learn a trade, an education, a professional identity?  Maybe skipping the first parts on getting to know how to write in the appropriate conventions; perhaps we can skip on the tedious referencing process that only anally retentive individuals apparently enjoy.  What if instead of books and hours of reading different texts we got laminated sheets with terms and conditions and whenever we embark on writing we are told step by step what we write.  Because this will not be knowledge.  The slow and arduous process has an exceptional trait within it; insight!  After reading my books, making notes on my articles, going over my notes and trying to make sense of what it the point I am trying to make; in a moment after hours and hours of studying, suddenly and unexpectedly, the “penny drops”!  This moment of insight is like a lightbulb moment…and that is light!  A light, not by magic or immediate gratification, but the sustained understanding that comes from knowledge.  It has been a difficult year for all of us but please remember that light comes from inside and to quote a great teacher Goethe, “more light”.  

Keep Calm and Forget the Pandemic or What to do in a pandemic? Take advantage of the situation

Eleven months now and there is a new spectre haunting Europe; a plague that has taken hold of our lives and altered our lifestyles.  Lockdowns, the r rate, viral transmission, mutations are new terms that common people use as if we are experienced epidemiologists.  Masks, made of cloth or the surgical ones, gloves and little bottles of antiseptic have become new fashion accessories.  Many people report mental fatigue and others a state of confinement inside their own homes.  Some people have started complaining that there is no light in this long tunnel, in country after country face with overwhelmed medical staff and system.

The optimist in me is unequivocal.  We can make it through.  Life is far more powerful than a disease and it always finds a way to continue, even in the most hostile of conditions.  In my view however this is not going to be a feat of a great person; this is not going to be resolved by one solution.  The answer is in us as a collective.  Humanity thrived when it gets together and the ability to form meaningful bonds that is the backbone of our success to survival.

Imagine our ancestors making their first communities; people that had no speed like the felines, no strength like the great apes and no defensive shell to protect them.  Coming out of Africa thousands of years ago, this blood creature had no offensive nor defensive structures to prevail.  Our ancestors’ survival must have been on the brink.  Who could imagine that some thousands of years ago, we were the endangered species?  Our endurance lies on the ability to form a group that worked together and understood each other, carried logic, used tools and communicated with each other. 

The current situation is a great reminder of the importance of society and its true purpose.  People form societies to protect each other and advance their opportunity for success. We may have forgotten that and understandably so, since we have had people who claimed that there is no such thing as a society, only the individual.  The prevailing economic system focuses on individual success, values individual recognition and prioritises individual issues.  In short, why worry about others, miles away, feet away, steps away from us if we are doing well. 

It is interesting to try to imagine a society as a random collection of indifferent individuals, but more people begin to value the importance of the other.  After years of austerity and the promotion of individualism, more people live alone, make relationships through social networking and mostly continue to live a solitary life even when they live with others.  Communities, as an ex-prime minister claimed as broken and so people waste no time with them.  We take from our communities, the things we need, and we discard the rest.  Since the start of the pandemic, deliveries, and online companies have been thriving.  Whilst physical shops are facing closure, online ones can hardly cope with the demand.  As a system, capitalism is flexible enough to retune the way wealth is made.  Of course, when you live alone, there are things you cannot have delivered; intimacy, closeness, intercourse.  People can fulfil their basic needs apart from the one that makes them people; their socialisation.  We will have to address it and perhaps talk about the need to be a community again. 

In the meantime, what happens at the top? In the Bible there was the story of the pool of Siloam.  This miraculous pond blessed by an angel offered the opportunity for clemency for those who swam in the waters.  Wipe the slate clean and start again.  So, what do governments do? Interestingly not as much.  Right now, as people try to come to terms with loss, isolation and pain, different governments try to address other political issues.  One country is rocked by the revelations that its head of state has created a palace to live in.  Another one, has finished construction of his summer palace.  In another country they are bringing legislation to end abortions, in another they propose the introduction of police on campuses.  Others are restricting the right to protest, and in a country famed for its civil rights, legislation is being introduced not to take pictures of police officers in public, even if they may be regarded in violation of duties.  It seems that it is open season for the curtail of civil liberties through the back door.  In an island kingdom the system has ordered and moves forward with the construction of more and bigger prisons.  A sign that they anticipate public upheaval. Maybe; whatever the reason this opportunity to supress the masses may be tantalising, but it is wrong.  When ever we come out of this we need to reconnect as a community.  If this becomes an opportunity for some, under the suppression of civic rights, things will become problematic.  For starters, people will want to see their patience and perseverance rewarded.  My advice to those who rule, listen to your base. 

A pit and no pendulum

Laughter is a great healer; it makes us forget miserable situations, fill us with endorphins, decreases our stress and make us feel better.  Laughter is good and we like people that make us laugh.  Comedians are like ugly rock-stars bringing their version of satire to everyday situations.  Some people enjoy situational comedy, with a little bit of slapstick, others like jokes, others enjoy parodies on familiar situations.  Hard to find a person across the planet that does not enjoy a form of comedy.  In recent years entertainment opened more venues for comedy, programmes on television and shows on the theatres becoming quite popular among so many of us. 

In comedy, political satire plays an important part to control authority and question the power held by those in government.  People like to laugh at people in power, as a mechanism of distancing themselves from the control, they are under.  The corrosive property of power is so potent that even the wisest leaders in power are likely to lose control or become more authoritarian.  Against that, satire offers some much needed relief on cases of everyday political aggression.  To some people, politics have become so toxic that they can only follow the every day events through the lens of a comedian to make it bearable.  

People lose their work, homes and even their right to stay in a country on political decisions made about them.  Against these situations, comedy has been an antidote to the immense pain they face.  Some politicians are becoming aware of the power comedy has and employ it, whilst others embrace the parody they receive.  It was well known that a US president that accepted parody well was Ronald Reagan.  On the other end, Boris Johnson embraced comedy, joining the panel of comedy programmes, as he was building his political profile.  Tony Blair and David Cameron participated in comedy programmes for charity “taking the piss” out of themselves.  These actions endear the leaders to the public who accept the self-deprecating attitude as an acknowledgment of their fallibility.   

The ability to humanise leaders is not new, but mass media, including social media, make it more possible now.  There is nothing wrong with that, but it is something that, like smoking, should come with some health warnings.  The politicians are human, but their politics can sometimes be unfair, unjust or outright inhuman.  A person in power can make the decision to send people to war and ultimately lead numerous people to death.  A politician can take the “sensible option” to cut funding to public spending directed at people who may suffer consequently.  A leader can decide on people’s future and their impact will be long lasting.  The most important consequence of power is the devastation that it can cause as the unanticipated consequence of actions.  A leader makes the decision to move people back into agriculture and moves millions to farms.  The consequence; famine.  A leader makes the decision not to accept the results of an election; a militia emerges to defend that leader.  The political system is trying to defend itself, but the unexpected consequences will emerge in the future. 

What is to do then? To laugh at those in power is important, because it controls the volume of power, but to simply laugh at politicians as if they were comedians, is wrong.  They are not equivalent and most importantly we can “take the piss” at their demeanour, mannerisms or political ideology, but we need to observe and take their actions seriously.  A bad comedian can simply ruin your night, a bad politician can ruin your life. 

Midnight’s Children

Recently I was reading a blog entry from @vaseemk2 on Midnight’s Children and it was like opening a door to a past that I temporarily forgot.  It was 1989 and the work of Salman Rushdie received a lot of international attention.  His book, The Satanic Verses was becoming a book that was banned across the world with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the supreme religious leader of Iran), issuing a Fatwa requesting the author’s death for blasphemy. 

The controversy alone was enough to entice me to my local bookshop to get the book.  The title, the Fatwa on the author and the protests around the world intrigued me and spiked my curiosity of what could be so offensive in that book.  I began to read it and chapter after chapter I was trying to find the offensive text with great anticipation.  The more I read, the more confused I became.  The story was disjointed between some references to England and some dream sequences I did not understand or relate.  To be really honest, I did not like the book at all.  It was disappointing to find that the book that caused some much upheaval in my eyes was not the literary contribution that I expected. 

I returned to the book shop, I used to go there a lot and talk to the people.  Told them of my disappointment of reading something that I did not really like. It was then that I was recommended a different book from the Rushdie.  It was Midnight’s Children.  The book is talking in metaphor about the birth of a new nation of one of the world’s oldest civilisations.  At that point, in my life I knew of Gandhi and the peaceful resistance movement.  The idea of coming against a superpower with no guns, no armies but solely on conviction and principles excited me but that is all I knew.  Very little for such a rich culture. 

The book was a revelation.  Apart from the writing the characters brought to life an unknown conflict to me in such a way I could relate to the suffering and the loss.  Despite the superhuman abilities of the children the narrative had an incredibly sensitivity and humanity about the everyday people.  Contrary to that those in power appear less favourably.  This took away the usual history is written by the victors.  There are no victors in a civil conflict.  All of the protagonists are underdogs who are trying to make sense of the madness of conflict.  The challenge is to continue to aim for something higher even when war brings primordial hate on to the surface.

I felt pain and sorrow not just for Saleem but for all of the children born into a world that gears up for conflict.  The superpower of bringing people together is fantastic but it is not his telepathy that is endearing but his empathy.  The humanity in situations of incredible cruelty is palpable and follows those Gandhi ideas of peaceful resistance.  Out of a rather disappointing experience I got to know a writer that I respect and a book and that I regard as a classic.  So, the lesson for me was not to judge a writer on one of his works without seeing what else they have done.  Also, not all pieces of work will relate to me in that same way and to accept that not everything is a masterpiece.  In life like in fiction we can only manage to succeed if you are prepare to tolerate and accept even those things that may not be tolerable.  It is difficult, but Gandhi, among so many others has pointed the way.        

To be reminded of that time that blasphemy carried so much offence around the world, arousing tensions and dividing communities.  In the UK the law regarding blasphemy changed in 2008 but still around the world this is regarded as a very serious crime, one that to this day carries the death penalty, in several countries.  In addition, the control of a writer’s freedom of expression was always the counterweight of these laws.  These tension results in laws about censorship which, in some cases, can restrict the way writers and artists can express themselves.  It is interesting to observe this tension vis a vis of something like the work of Rushdie now.  I wonder if the changes to the law post terrorism law in the UK would have allowed its publication or not.  This is a definitely an issue for another blog….                

A Christmas blog

What is Christmas?  A date in the calendar in winter towards the end of the year to celebrate one of the main religious festivals of the Christian calendar.  The Romans replaced a pagan festival with the birth of the head of the, then new, religion.  Since then as time progresses, more customs and traditions are added, to make this festival more packed with meaning and importance.  The gift of the 20th century’s big corporations was the addition to the date, the red Santa Claus who travels the planet on his sledge from the North Pole in a single day, offering gifts to all the well-behaved kids.  The birth of Christ is miles away from the Poles but somehow the story’s embellishment continues. 

In schools, kids across the world will re-enact the nativity scene, a romantic version of the birth of Jesus, minus their flight to Egypt and the slaughter of the infants.  The nativity, is for many, their first attempt at theatre and most educators’ worst nightmare, as they will have to include all children regardless of talent or interest to this production.  The play consists mostly of male characters (usually baby Jesus is someone’s doll) except for one.  That of the mother of Jesus.  The virgin Mary is located centre stage, sitting quietly, the envy of all other parent’s that their kid was not cast in such a reverent role.  In recent years, charlatans tried to add more female roles by feminising the Angels and even giving the Inn keeper a daughter or even a wife.  In most cases it was the need of introducing more characters in the play.  Most productions now include barn animals (cats and dogs included), reindeers, trees, villagers, stars and even a moon.  All castable parts not necessarily with a talking part. 

The show usually feels that it lasts longer than it does.  The actors become nervous, some forget their lines, others remember different lines, the music is off key and the parents jostle to get to prime position in order to record this show, that very few will ever watch.  The costumes will be coming apart almost right after the show and the props are just about holding on with a lot of tape and superglue.  The play will signal the end of the school season carrying the joyful message from the carpark to the people’s homes.  This tradition carries on regardless of religious sentiments and affiliations.  People to commemorate the birth of a man that billions of people consider the head of their faith. 

Nativity is symbolic but its meaning changes with the times, leaving me wondering what our nativity will be in the 21st century.  Imagine a baby Jesus floating face down on torrential Aegean waters, a virgin Mary hoping that this will be the last client for the day on the makeshift brothel maybe today is the day she gets her passport back; Joseph a broken man, laying by the side of the street on a cardboard; the angel a wingless woman living alone in emergency accommodation, living in fear, the villagers stunned in fear and everyone carrying on .  Not as festive as the school production but after all, people living for year in austerity, and a lockdown and post-referendum decisions make it difficult to be festive.  Regardless of the darkness that we live in, the nativity has a more fundamental message: life happens irrespective of circumstances and nothing can stop the birth of a new-born.   

Merry Christmas to all from the Criminology Team

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