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Visa by Impression, Atavism or Exploitation?

My paper, ‘beyond institutional autonomy: a quadrumvirate interaction theory of civil-military relations’ was accepted for presentation at the 2019 Biennial International Conference of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society scheduled for November 8-10, 2019 at the Hyatt Regency, Reston, Virginia. However, I am unable to attend the conference because I was denied visa at the US Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. In this entry, I wish to highlight and add my voice to the concerns academics and non-academics, especially those from the ‘Global South’ face in securing visas to enable them attend conferences in the supposed ‘developed world.’ Hence, this entry is a personal reflection on the US visa regime in Nigeria, and its nexus with criminology.

Individual visas are often issued based on the merit of an application and the adequacy of the supporting documents submitted by applicants who are also required to pay certain fees and charges for the application. The issuing authorities would normally consider the criminal background record of an applicant, their previous travel history and the adequacy of funds to cover for the cost of the trip. In some cases, as typical with the US visa regime in Nigeria, applicants are required to present themselves before a consular officer for a visa interview and the decision to issue a visa is at the discretion of the consular officer.

Given this, one would expect that the consular officer would in the least, view/review the supporting documents of an applicant, in addition to asking some pertinent questions. The rationale being that the US visa web-application platform does not provide a link/option for submitting the supporting system prior to the interview. However, this was not the case when I was denied a visa. In fact, the interview barely lasted two minutes, and the following was the ‘interview’ conversation I had with the male consular officer:

Why do you want to go to Reston Virginia? To attend a conference.

What do you intend to do in the conference? I will be presenting a paper, a theory from my PhD research.

Who would pay for the conference and travel fee? The conference organisers and (he interjects with the next question, but I told him I still have another source of income, but he replied saying I had told him enough and that I should answer the next question).

What is your highest academic qualification? A PhD from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, I just concluded last December.

What do you do for a living? I just concluded a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the University of Stellenbosch and I have just accepted an appointment with the University of Jos as a Lecturer.

Do you have a family? Yes, a wife and a child, and we are expecting another.

For how long have you been married? 3 years

How old is your child? 1 year and 8 months

What does your wife do for a living? She is a housewife, she looks after the family

Are you travelling alone? Yeah (At this point, he faced his computer keyboard, typed some few words, then turned to me and told me, unfortunately we cannot issue you the visa while handing over a pre-printed form containing the reasons for visa denials).

From this ‘interview’ conversation, two things stood out for me. One is the fact that the consular officer made his decisions without viewing or considering any of my supporting documents and the second was the question, what did I do, say, or answer wrongly?

In terms of the latter, I found nothing wrong with my responses, but I found a huge systemic fault with regards to the former. The internet is rife with complaints from individuals, organisations and recently countries accusing the US of implementing a harsh visa regime which deliberately frustrates and traumatises visa applicants. My web application process in Nigeria is nothing short of this, in fact, I thought it was easier to make heaven than to obtain the US visa from Nigeria.

Having carefully thought about the visa regime in the light of my ‘interview,’ I concluded that the US visa regime is anachronistically atavistic, an exploitative business strategy, or both. My opinion is simply that I was denied visa not because of my responses to the questions but because the consular officer found a questionable impression through observing my face as he had not viewed or considered my supporting documents. For this, I appreciate Cesare Lombroso and one needs not be a Criminologist before knowing that facial impression and appearance are never better yardstick than considering the merits of the supporting documents.

A fair and equitable visa system will consider the merit of an application, the travel history of an applicant (which I have a reasonable one), whether the supporting documents are convincing, the criminal record background, purpose of travel, sufficiency of funds, and the existence of a strong tie with one’s origin. However, this was not the case, and this led me to the business exploitation opinion.

Customarily, when one pays for a service, the norm is to provide quality and effective service worth the value of the money paid or promised, anything short of this is clear exploitation – unfortunately, this is how the US visa regime operates in Nigeria. On the day of my interview, there were at least seventy (70) persons queuing up for theirs early in the morning, but it is not my intention to analyse how much income the US derives from this.

Why Criminology terrifies me

Hitler-Jugend_(1933)

Cards on the table; I love my discipline with a passion, but I also fear it. As with other social sciences, criminology has a rather dark past. As Wetzell (2000) makes clear in his book Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology 1880-1945 the discipline has (perhaps inadvertently) provided the foundations for brutality and violence. In particular, the work of Cesare Lombroso was utilised by the Nazi regime because of his attempts to differentiate between the criminal and the non-criminal. Of course, Lombroso was not responsible (he died in 1909) and could not reasonably be expected to envisage the way in which his work would be used. Nevertheless, when taken in tandem with many of the criticisms thrown at Lombroso’s work over the past century or so, this experience sounds a cautionary note for all those who want to classify along the lines of good/evil. Of course, Criminology is inherently interested in criminals which makes this rather problematic on many grounds. Although, one of the earliest ideas students of Criminology are introduced to, is that crime is a social construction, which varies across time and place, this can often be forgotten in the excitement of empirical research.

My biggest fear as an academic involved in teaching has been graphically shown by events in the USA. The separation of children from their parents by border guards is heart-breaking to observe and read about. Furthermore, it reverberates uncomfortably with the historical narratives from the Nazi Holocaust. Some years ago, I visited Amsterdam’s Verzetsmuseum (The Resistance Museum), much of which has stayed with me. In particular, an observer had written of a child whose wheeled toy had upturned on the cobbled stones, an everyday occurrence for parents of young children. What was different and abhorrent in this case was a Nazi soldier shot that child dead. Of course, this is but one event, in Europe’s bloodbath from 1939-1945, but it, like many other accounts have stayed with me. Throughout my studies I have questioned what kind of person could do these things? Furthermore, this is what keeps me awake at night when it comes to teaching “apprentice” criminologists.

This fear can perhaps best be illustrated by a BBC video released this week. Entitled ‘We’re not bad guys’ this video shows American teenagers undertaking work experience with border control. The participants are articulate and enthusiastic; keen to get involved in the everyday practice of protecting what they see as theirs. It is clear that they see value in the work; not only in terms of monetary and individual success, but with a desire to provide a service to their government and fellow citizens. However, where is the individual thought? Which one of them is asking; “is this the right thing to do”? Furthermore; “is there another way of resolving these issues”? After all, many within the Hitler Youth could say the same.

For this reason alone, social justice, human rights and empathy are essential for any criminologist whether academic or practice based. Without considering these three values, all of us run the risk of doing harm. Criminology must be critical, it should never accept the status quo and should always question everything.  We must bear in mind Lee’s insistence that ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it’ (1960/2006: 36). Until we place ourselves in the shoes of those separated from their families, the Grenfell survivors , the Windrush generation and everyone else suffering untold distress we cannot even begin to understand Criminology.

Furthermore, criminologists can do no worse than to revist their childhood and Kipling’s Just So Stories:

 

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who (1912: 83)

Bibliography

Browning, Christopher, (1992), Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, (London: Penguin Books)

Kipling, Rudyard, (1912), Just So Stories, (New York: Doubleday Page and Company)

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

Lombroso, Cesare, (1911a), Crime, Its Causes and Remedies, tr. from the Italian by Henry P. Horton, (Boston: Little Brown and Co.)

-, (1911b), Criminal Man: According to the Classification of Cesare Lombroso, Briefly Summarised by His Daughter Gina Lombroso Ferrero, (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons)

-, (1876/1878/1884/1889/1896-7/ 2006), Criminal Man, tr. from the Italian by Mary Gibson and Nicole Hahn Rafter, (London: Duke University Press)

Solway, Richard A., (1982), ‘Counting the Degenerates: The Statistics of Race Deterioration in Edwardian England,’ Journal of Contemporary History, 17, 1: 137-64

Wetzell, Richard F., (2000), Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology 1880-1945, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press)

Tattoos: deviance or individualism?

Tattoo

For my blog this week I thought I’d follow up on @charlottejdann’s blog on tattoos and add some personal experiences to the discussion. The media certainly have had their part to play in the negative connotations surrounding tattoos and the types of people with them, however I question the extent to which the media influence those perceptions today. Based purely on my own experience and opinion I believe that tattoos have become relatively common and as we saw in Charlotte’s blog the rise in tattoo studios would certainly seem to support this assumption. In fact, I think a process of normalisation has occurred whereby it is more surprising when someone hasn’t got a tattoo than when they have. Furthermore, the negative connotations and ‘expressed shock’ at the increase in tattooing is, in my humble opinion, typically associated to those of the older, more traditional generation for whom tattooing was a symbol of deviance, rebellion and/or disrepute.

I got my first tattoo when I was just 14; a small black panther discreetly placed on my thigh. My choice of phrase here is not accidental, being just 14 and below the age of legal consent the placement of this tattoo had to be discrete to hide it from my mother. The intentional law breaking and deception of this act would certainly look like deviance to an outside observer. Since then I added two more tattoos to my collection and have another one planned for the near future. Reflecting on this notion of deviance and my own motivation I arrive at a number of conclusions. My first tattoo was, without doubt, an act of rebellion against the expectations placed upon me by family and peers to be a ‘good girl’ and a ‘high achiever’. I don’t in any way regret that tattoo but I can recognise the reason for getting it. My second tattoo was more daringly placed on my upper arm and in hindsight was not thought through or carefully picked but at the same time it was not an act of rebellion. Those of you with tattoos may understand when I say that getting tattoos is like an addiction, you either love them or hate them but once you’ve got one, you want more. It was this ‘addiction’ so to speak that led to my second tattoo. My third tattoo which covers my foot and spreads up my ankle, symbolises the changing direction of my life after the birth of my first child and is by far my favourite to date. In short, the meaning or motivation for each tattoo has shifted over time reflecting my growth as a person and my life experiences.

At the point of my third tattoo I’d entered the world of academia and was establishing my professional identity; an identity that was in some ways at odds with my tattooed body. Wearing a professional suit and heels with a tattoo on my foot and ankle certainly led to some raised eyebrows and disapproving looks from older colleagues. This reaction was nothing compared to the openly disapproving judgements I later encountered from fellow magistrates; not only was I young to be a magistrate but I was also tattooed and had the audacity to display them in court! Linking this reaction back to my earlier statement about deviance, rebellion and disrepute, the simplest thing would be for me to wear a trouser suit in court and hide my tattoos, in essence, conforming to societies expectations of that position. However, my reasons for not doing so are twofold, firstly I am a bit of rebel at heart and secondly, I do not see my tattoos as an act of deviance but one of self-expression. In all other areas of life, I conform to the norms and values of society, I have a career and present myself as a professional, I’m trying to raise my children to be good law-abiding citizens, I pay my bills on time, I put out my rubbish when asked and I try to treat others with compassion and respect. In short, I’ve joined the collective, blended into society and accepted the expectations of me as a woman, a mother, a daughter and so forth. My tattoos therefore are a reflection of self-expression, my little rebellious side that says, “I’m more than one of the collective, I’m an individual”. Each tattoo reflects my journey, where I have come from, what I have experienced, who I am and where I am going. They tell the reader that I am more than just a number, I am an individual embracing self-expression through body art because to me tattoos are not just ink, they are pieces of art symbolising your life journey. For this reason, I agree with Charlotte’s argument that tattooed people cannot be stereotyped as a homogeneous group because tattoos by their very nature make us unique individuals.

Perceptions of tattooed bodies

tattoos

Charlotte Dann is a psychology lecturer in the Faculty of Health and Society, researching women’s tattooed bodies. You can find out more and get in touch via Twitter – @CharlotteJD

Whenever I discuss my tattoo research, I always frame it historically, because I think it’s important to consider how we have come to the point we are at with how tattoos are perceived and understood. And you know, it’s good for a laugh.

In the late 1800s, Lombroso researched deviancy and criminality, and as part of this, came to the conclusion that people who had tattoos were criminals and prostitutes. However, this research was conducted on – you guessed it – criminals and prostitutes. Despite the poor correlation that was presented, his research was influential in how we perceive deviancy and deviant bodies, to the point that those negative connotations towards tattooed bodies still ring true today. Tattoos may be ever rising in popularity (figures indicated one in five has a tattoo, and the number of studios rose by around 170% in the last decade in the UK), but tattooed bodies can still be found to be associated with deviancy.

Let’s consider the influence of the media in this. Over the past few years, there has been a flurry of articles that express shock for the fact that ‘normal’ people are getting tattoos, and why tattoos are becoming more popular for women. It only takes a quick gander at the comments left on these articles to see that public opinion hasn’t changed that much, and that these articles perpetuate negative perceptions about tattoos (i.e. they’re not meant for ‘normal’ people). Newspaper articles such as this often make reference to the ‘normal’ people who are now adorning their bodies – normal being white, middle-class, ‘respectable’ people. The narrative of such newspaper articles often seems to rely on a discourse that positions tattooing as the proper domain of ‘the other’, associated with deviant, problematised, and generally male bodies. Newspaper articles often reflect a certain moral panic about the rise of tattoos among so called ‘normal’ people, whilst at the same time, normalise the practice of tattooing itself.

The media does not do a good job in quelling negative connotations regarding tattooed people, as they tend to focus more on the extremes – the eye-catching headlines, the things that make you wince and tut, not the everyday person who is tattooed. In recent years, newspapers have reported on tattooed teachers as being ‘inappropriate’ for children, on young adults who get cheap ‘joke’ tattoos on holidays in Magaluf, and present morality tales such as those who regret their tattoo choices. In addition, they also frame our understandings of ‘who’ this ‘normal’ tattooed person is (look – even Samantha Cameron and David Dimbleby have them!)

I think what we need to do is question the idea of what a ‘normal’ body is, and really think about the assumptions we make about that body based on frankly outdated perceptions. There is no longer one particular type of person who is tattooed – the availability and accessibility of tattoo studios, designs, and techniques, has meant that you cannot stereotype all tattooed people as one homogenous group.

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