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A month of Black history through the eyes of a white, privileged man… an open letter

Dear friends,

Over the years, in my line of work, there was a conviction, that logic as the prevailing force allows us to see social situations around (im)passionately, impartially and fairly.  Principles most important especially for anyone who dwells in social sciences.  We were “raised” on the ideologies that promote inclusivity, justice and solidarity.  As a kid, I remember when we marched as a family against nuclear proliferation, and later as an adult I marched and protested for civil rights on the basis of sexuality, nationality and class.  I took part in anti-war marches and protested and took part in strikes when fees were introduced in higher education.    

All of these were based on one very strongly, deeply ingrained, view that whilst the world may be unfair, we can change it, rebel against injustices and make it better.  A romantic view/vision of the world that rests on a very basic principle “we are all human” and our humanity is the home of our unity and strength.  Take the environment for example, it is becoming obvious to most of us that this is a global issue that requires all of us to get involved.  The opt-out option may not be feasible if the environment becomes too hostile and decreases the habitable parts of the planet to an ever-growing population. 

As constant learners, according to Solon (Γηράσκω αεί διδασκόμενος)[1] it is important to introspect views such as those presented earlier and consider how successfully they are represented.  Recently I was fortunate to meet one of my former students (@wadzanain7) who came to visit and talk about their current job.  It is always welcome to see former students coming back, even more so when they come in a reflective mood at the same time as Black history month.  Every year, this is becoming a staple in my professional diary, as it is an opportunity to be educated in the history that was not spoken or taught at school. 

This year’s discussions and the former student’s reflections made it very clear to me that my idealism, however well intended, is part of an experience that is deeply steeped in white men’s privilege.  It made me question what an appropriate response to a continuous injustice is.  I was aware of the quote “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” growing up, part of my family’s narrative of getting involved in the resistance, but am I true to its spirit?  To understand there is a problem but do nothing about it, means that ultimately you become part of the same problem you identify.  Perhaps in some regards a considered person is even worse because they see the problem, read the situation and can offer words of solace, but not discernible actions.  A light touch liberalism, that is nice and inclusive, but sits quietly observing history written in the way as before, follow the same social discourses, but does nothing to change the problems.  Suddenly it became clear how wrong I am.  A great need to offer a profound apology for my inaction and implicit collaboration to the harm caused. 

I was recently challenged in a discussion about whether people who do not have direct experience are entitled to a view.  Do those who experience racism voice it?  Of course, the answer is no; we can read it, stand against it, but if we have not experienced it, maybe, just maybe, we need to shut up and let other voices be heard and tell their stories.  Black history month is the time to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

Sincerely yours

M



[1] A very rough translation: I learn, whilst I grow, life-long learning.

A Love Letter: in praise of art

Some time ago, I wrote ‘A Love Letter: in praise of poetry‘, making the case as to why this literary form is important to understanding the lived experience. This time, I intend to do similar in relation to visual art.

Tomorrow, I’m plan to make my annual visit to the Koestler Arts’ Exhibition on show at London’s Southbank Centre. This year’s exhibition is entitled Another Me and is curated by the musician, Soweto Kinch. Previous exhibitions have been curated by Benjamin Zephaniah, Antony Gormley and prisoners’ families. Each of the exhibitions contain a diverse range of unique pieces, displaying the sheer range of artistic endeavours from sculpture, to pastels and from music to embroidery. This annual exhibition has an obvious link to criminology, all submissions are from incarcerated people. However, art, regardless of medium, has lots of interest to criminologists and many other scholars.

I have never formally studied art, my reactions and interpretations are entirely personal. I reason that the skills inherent in criminological critique and analysis are applicable, whatever the context or medium. The picture above shows 4 of my favourite pieces of art (there are many others). Each of these, in their own unique way, allow me to explore the world in which we all live. For me, each illustrate aspects of social (in)justice, social harms, institutional violence and the fight for human rights. You may dislike my choices. arguing that graffiti (Banksy) and photography (Mona Hatoum) have no place within art proper. You may disagree with my interpretation of these pieces, dismissing them as pure ephemera, forgotten as quickly as they are seen and that is the beauty of discourse.

Nonetheless, for me they capture the quintessential essence of criminology. It is a positive discipline, focused on what “ought” to be, rather than what is. To stand small, in front of Picasso’s (1937) enormous canvas Guernica allows for consideration of the sheer scale of destruction, inherent in mechanised warfare. Likewise, Banksy’s (2005) The Kissing Coppers provides an interesting juxtaposition of the upholders of the law behaving in such a way that their predecessors would have persecuted them. Each of the art pieces I have selected show that over time and space, the behaviours remain the same, the only change, the level of approbation applied from without.

Art galleries and museums can appear terrifying places, open only to a select few. Those that understand the rules of art, those who make the right noises, those that have the language to describe what they see. This is a fallacy, art belongs to all of us. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the Southbank Centre very soon. It’s not scary, nobody will ask you questions, everyone is just there to see the art. Who knows you might just find something that calls out to you and helps to spark your criminological imagination. You’ll have to hurry though…closes 3 November, don’t miss out!

Corrosive substances – A knee-jerk reaction or a sensible solution?

Corrosive substances

Following the apparent growth in acid attacks the suggestion from Amber Rudd on a potential means of tackling the problem has all the markings of another knee-jerk policy that lacks careful planning and application. The proposal is to restrict the sales of corrosive substances and introduce new, specific legislation for possession and use of such substances against another person. The justification for these suggestions is based on the doubling of attacks between 2012 and 2016-17. Furthermore a 6 month review by National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) report 400 acid or corrosive substance attacks between October 2016 and April 2017. The impact of such attacks is long lasting and without question, a horrific life changing experience, however is this reaction the right one for all concerned?

The plan to ban the sale of corrosive substances to under 18s in itself may be a sensible idea, if there is careful consultation on what substances are to be included in this blanket approach. A similar approach already exists with the sale of knives, tobacco and alcohol yet the extent to which these policies are a success is a moot point. Policing such an approach will also be considerably challenging because there is currently no clear outline of what the government intends to class as a corrosive substance. If the suggestions that bleach will be on the list then this may prove very difficult, if not impossible to police. Many of the corrosive substances being used today are household names readily available in most local shops and supermarkets, not to mention the internet. When purchasing items subject to restriction on the internet, the only check of age is you clicking a button to confirm it and maybe adding a date of birth, neither of which are particularly secure.

Taking this a step further the other suggestion is the creation of a new offence; possession of a corrosive substance in a public place. Such legislation is modelled on legislation already used to tackle knife offences and offensive weapons whereby a prison sentence of upto 4 years can be issues for possession, with intent to carry out an attack. However, why is such an approach necessary when perpetrators of acid attacks can already receive a life sentence under existing legislation. Is it because of the tremendous success of the approach taken to knife crime?  Unlikely, if you consider the resistance by the judiciary to use such an approach which would inevitably lead to much higher prison numbers than we already have. In short, the ‘do it again…threat’ is highly unlikely to act as a deterrence when deterrence as a reason for punishment has long been questionable.

Is this another knee-jerk reaction to media hype? Evidence of another poorly considered policy response driven by political self-interest and the desire to be ‘seen to be doing something’. Many of these attacks have been linked to societies folk devils; youth or personal vendetta’s therefore rather than creating new policy, why not focus on existing measures using them to their full force and improving the services offered to the victims of these heinous crimes. Under existing legislations those convicted of an acid attack can receive a life sentences so why new legislation. Survivors also get a life sentence so surely the more appropriate response is to focus on victim’s needs (physical and psychological) rather than the creation  of unnecessary legislation

Farewell

frog

After much deliberation and careful consideration I have decided to leave the University. I have, for the most part, enjoyed my time here and have learned a great deal from my colleagues who are never short of advice and a willingness to share it. Their patience, enthusiasm, understanding and commitment have been greatly appreciated and are something I shall strive to emulate. Much is often made of the importance of the ‘student experience’ without commensurate attention afforded to the staff experience. Whilst I do not wish to enter into discussion about the institutional factors that prompted my decision to leave, I would like to acknowledge some positive elements of my ‘staff experience’.

I taught across all three years of the criminology degree programme and have met some very interesting students. Of course not all shared my passion for the discipline or enthusiasm for studying but a number of students made the lecturing experience incredibly thought provoking and enjoyable. Those to which I refer were never short of challenging questions, views, opinions and the drive to seek out answers to complex questions if only to be in a position to ponder more searching questions; in short every lecturer’s dream. What I found most remarkable was their willingness to listen, to consider and perhaps even accept new ideas that not only challenged their existing world view but elements of the very discipline they were studying. This receptiveness allowed me to pitch ideas and content, at what was considered a high level, which was not only understood and owned but utilised in seminar discussions, social media commentary and assessments. If I could take you with me I most certainly would.

As I move to another university, and since I cannot take you with me, I would like to offer some last bits of advice which you may take or leave as you like.

  • Maintain your intellectual curiosity and continue to develop your critical faculties. Remember success in your studies is built from perseverance rather than some innate intellectualism you think you may or may not have. Persevere with what may appear as ‘long and boring’ readings, do not become disheartened if you do not understand; more sticks than you might think and besides seminars are the ideal place to explore what you understood and what you did not.

 

  • Resist the temptation to view yourself as a customer, granted the issues around fees make this difficult, but ultimately it does more harm than good. As a customer you expect the commodity (a degree) for which you are in the process of paying to be given to you. Yet as a student you earn through determined perseverance a qualification that is infinitely more valuable.

 

  • Lastly, make the most of the opportunity. Work hard and attain the best degree that you are capable of achieving. Remember that, whilst there are people around to support you throughout your studies, it is ultimately up to you.

It has been a pleasure, good luck for the future.

 

Justin Kotzé, August 2017

How do you punish the incorrigible?

Banksy dove of peae

This week saw the (very low key) commemoration of International Conscientious Objectors Day (15 May) which got me thinking about a number of different contemporary issues. Although the events which I describe happened a century ago, the criminalisation, and indeed, punishment of conscience has never truly been resolved.

Conscientious objection in the UK first came to the attention for most after the passing of the Military Services Act 1916. This legislation allowed for the conscription of certain categories of men into the military. The enactment of this law enabled men to be forcibly coerced into military service regardless of their personal and individual aspirations. Subsequent to this, further legislation was passed (Military Training Act 1939, National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939, National Service Act 1948) continuing this system of coercive enlistment into the military. By default, such legislation also laid the foundations for conscientious objection; after all, without such coercion there is no need to register dissent, simply don’t enlist in the military.

During WWI (and for some considerable time after) Conscientious Objectors [COs] were bullied, cajoled, ridiculed and stigmatised, not to mention, incarcerated, multiple times. In one horrific incident it was alleged that COs were driven to the trenches of France and threatened with a firing squad if they did not comply. Despite this type of treatment the vast majority of COs continued to resist, strongly suggesting that their conscience, moral compass or faith was far stronger than anything the state could throw at them.

In the UK the individual and collective dilemma of the conscientious objector has largely faded into history; although the same cannot be said internationally (for instance; Greece, Israel and the USA). However, their very existence and that of other non-conformists (at different times and places) raises questions around the purpose and supposed effectiveness of incarceration.  In essence; what do we do when the “deviant” refuses to conform, how far are we prepared to go, as a society to punish the incorrigible and persistent offender and what do we do when nothing seems to work?

We could attempt the practices used with the WWI COs and keep convicting whilst ratcheting up the tariff of their sentence each time. However, we know from their experiences that this appeared to consolidate their objections and harden their resolve. We can try and talk to individuals in order to help them see the “errors of their ways” but given the conviction held by COs, that the war was fundamentally at odds with their belief system, this is also likely to fail. We could try punishment in the community, but for many of the COs anything which they felt compromised their standpoint was equally resisted, making any such approach also likely to be unsuccessful.

Although the “problem” of the COs no longer exists in 21st century Britain, other individuals and groups have filled the space they have vacated. We could replace the COs with the Black civil rights movement (think Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King) or other protests (think “Tank Man” in  Tiananmen Square or Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge) or those deemed traitors by many (as were the COs) , such as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. The question remains: is it possible to rehabilitate the heart and mind of someone who is so clear as to their moral standpoint and committed to doing what they perceive to be “the right thing”?

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