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My love of poetry came in my sleep like a dream, a fever I could not escape and in little hours of the day I would read some poetry from different people who voice the volume of their emotions with words. In one of those poems by Elleni Vakalo How he became a bad man, she introduced me to a new understanding of criminological thinking. The idea of consequences, that lead a seemingly good person to become bad, without the usual motivational factors, other than fear. This was the main catalyst that became the source of this man’s turn to the bad.
This almost surrealistic description of criminal motivation has since fascinated me. It is incredibly focused, devoid of social motivations and personal blame. In fact, it demonstrates a social cognition that once activated is powerful enough to lead a seemingly decent person to behave in uncharacteristic moves of violence. This interesting perspective was forged during the war and the post war turmoil experienced. Like Camus, the act of evil is presented as a matter of fact and the product of thoughts that are originally innocent and even non-threatening.
The realisation in this way of thinking, is not the normalisation of violence, but the simplicity that violence in innate to everyone. The person who commits it, is not born for it, does not carry an elaborate personal story or trauma and has no personal compulsion to do it. In some ways, this violence is more terrifying, as criminality can be the product of any person without any significant predispositions, an everyday occurrence that can happen any time.
The couple that will meet, fall in love, cohabit, and get married, starting a family, follow all the normal everyday stages that millions of people follow or feel socially obliged to follow. In no part of this process do they discuss how he will control her, demean her, call her names, slap her, hit her or kick her. There is no plan or discussion of how terrified she will become, socially isolated and humiliated. At no point in the planning, will she be thinking of ways to exit their home, access helplines or spend a day in court. It happens, as a product of small thoughts and expressed emotions, that convert into micro aggressions, that become overt hostility, that leads to violence. No significant changes, just a series of events that lead to a prolonged suffering.
In some way, this matter of fact violence explains the confusion the victims feel, trapped in a relationship that they cannot recognise as abusive, because all other parts fall under the normality of everyday life. Of course, in these situations, emotion plays a key role and in a way that rearranges logic and reason. We are driven by emotion and if we are to leave criminological theory for a minute a series of decisions, we will make daily take a journey from logic to emotions and back.
This emotional change, the manifestation of thoughts is not always criminal nor destructive. The parents who are willing to fight an entire medical profession so that their newborn has a fighting chance are armed with emotion. Many stories come to mind of those who owe their lives to their determination of their parents who fought logic and against the odds, fought to keep them alive. Friends and partners of people who have been written off by the criminal justice system that assessed them as high risk for society and stuck with them, holding on to emotion as logic departs.
In Criminology, we talk about facts and figures, we consider theories and situations, but above all as a social science we recognise that we deal with people; people without emotions do not exist. So how do you/how do I become a bad man? Simple…the same way you are/I am a good man.
This is the poem by Eleni Vakalo, with my painful translation:
How He Became A Bad Man
I will tell you how it happened
In that order
A good little man met on his way
a battered man
the man was so close from him laying
he felt sad for him
He was so sad
That he became frightened
Before approaching him to bend down to
help him, he thought better
“What do you want, what are you looking for”
Someone else will be found by so many around here,
to assist this poor soul
I have never seen him
And because he was scared
So he thought
Would he not be guilty, after all no one is hit without being guilty?
And they did him good since he wanted to play with the nobles
So he started as well
To hit him
Beginning of the fairy tale
One thing we criminologists know is that it is impossible to prevent crime. Many a great criminologist has tried to theorise why crime occurs (my shelves are full of their books) and whilst almost all have made valuable contributions to our understanding of crime, it is an unfortunate fact that crime continues. But then crime itself is difficult to define and has its basis in time, power, opportunity and social discourses. What is criminal today will not be criminal tomorrow and what is important today will lose its importance tomorrow, in favour of some new or maybe, old, manifestation of that elusive concept we call crime. Perhaps we should we grateful, for in the industry of crime lies mass employment. From criminologists to those that attempt to stem the tide of crime, those that deal with its aftermath and those that report on it or write about it (real or fictional), there is money to be made. If we stopped crime, we would all be out of a job.
Most, if not all of us have at some stage in our lives committed some sort of crime. Most crimes will fortunately be almost inconsequential, maybe a flouting of a law such as driving a car over the speed limit. Other crimes will be more serious and whilst some criminals will be brought to book most are not. The inconsequential crime of driving over the speed limit, albeit perhaps due to a lapse of concentration, can have dire consequences. There is clear evidence that the survival rates of pedestrians struck by cars has a direct correlation with speed. So the inconsequential becomes the consequential, the ephemerality of crime, the reality.
When we think of crime, we often have little concept of its reality. We apply labels and our own rules to that we know and find acceptable. Speeding is not criminal, well not generally, unless it’s a boy racer. Drink driving is a no-no, but we might take it to the alcohol limit when having a drink. Drugs (the criminalised type) are ok, well some are and some aren’t, it all depends on your viewpoint. Drugs (the prescription type) are ok, even if they impair our ability to drive. Alcohol, well that’s absolutely ok, even if the abuse of it leads to more deaths than drugs and the consequences of that misuse has a really significant impact on the NHS. Tax evasion, illegal if you get caught, ok if you don’t. A bit like fraud really, ok if you can get away with it but then maybe not, if the victim is a little old lady or me. Assault, well it depends on the seriousness and the situation and probably the victim. Robbery, not good to go into an off licence with a gun and threaten the shopkeeper, bullying if you take lunch money off the lad outside the school gates.
Criminals don’t walk around with a label that says ‘criminal’ and even if they did, there would have to be a method of bestowing the label in an instance. Nonsense of course, only a fool would suggest such a thing. What about the people that committed a crime but have changed their ways I hear my colleagues ask? What about those that haven’t, or have and then relapse, I reply.
Nothing is black and white; the concept of crime is elusive, as are criminals (both by concept and nature). And yet we happily castigate those that attempt to uphold the law on our behalf and in doing so view crime and criminals as clear concepts. Each has a clear label, each is clearly identifiable, so how can they get it so wrong so many times. Whilst criticising those that attempt, and let’s be quite honest, fail most of the time to stem this tide of crime, perhaps we might also think about the impossibility of the job in hand. That’s not to say that a lot of the criticisms are not justified, nor that things should not change, but if we only examine all that is wrong, we lose sight of reality and only an intransigent fool would continue an argument that sees the problems and solutions as simply black and white.