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How should we honour “Our sheroes and heroes”?*

The British, so it seems, love a statue. Over the last few months we’ve seen Edward Colston’s toppled, Winston Churchill’s protected and Robert Baden-Powell’s moved to a place of safety. Much of the narrative around these particular statues (and others) has recently been contextualised in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, as though nobody had ever criticised the subjects before. Colston, one time resident of Bristol and slave-trader was deemed worthy of commemoration some 174 years after his death and 62 years after the abolition of slavery. Likewise, one-time military man, accused of war crimes, homophobe and support for Nazism, Baden-Powell suddenly needed to be memorialised in 2008, almost 70 years after the second world world (and his death) and over 40 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. For both of these men profound problems were clear before the statues went up. Churchill, seen as a “hero” by many for his leadership in World War II has a very unsavoury history which is not difficult to locate in his own writings. His rehabilitation also ignores that his status for many of his contemporaries was as a warmonger. His passion for eugenics and his role in decisions to bomb Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be wilfully swept under the carpet. Hero-worship is a dangerous game, it is also anti-intellectual. Churchill, like all of us, was a complex human, thus his legacy needs to be explored deeply and contextualised and only then can we decide what his place in his history should be. His statues and soundbites from speeches on repeat, do not allow for this.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this debate is to witness the inflamed defence of individuals who have a clearly documented history as slave owners, or as enthusiastic proclaimers of eugenic ideology, racism, homophobia and so on. As long as they have been ascribed “hero” status, we can ignore the rest of the seedy detail. We are told we need these statues, these heroic men, to remind us of our history….strangely Germany is able to reflect on its history, without statues of Hitler.

It seems as a nation we far prefer these individuals, responsible for so much misery, harm and violence in their lifetimes, than to present Black Britons and British Asians on a plinth. When we are reliant on South African President, Nelson Mandela to take up two of those London plinths, it is evident we have a serious racial imbalance in those “we” choose to commemorate.

Furthermore, the British appear to love an argument about statues, for instance, the criticism levelled at the artist Maggi Hambling’s statue to “Mother of Feminism” Mary Wollstencraft and Martin Jenning’s artistic tribute to Nurse Mary Seacole. For Wollstencroft, much of the furore has been directed at the artist, rather than the subject. There appears to be no irony in women attacking other women, in this case, Hambling, all in the name of supposed defence of The feminism. In the case of Mary Seacole, racially infused arguments from The Nightingale Society have suggested that this statue should not be in sight of that of Florence Nightingale. It seems that even when all important parties are long dead, it is deemed appropriate to use barely disguised racism to protect the stone image of your heroine. Important to remember that patriarchy has no gender. It is evident that criticism revolves around women’s representation in statuary, as well as women’s involvement in sculpture. When statues of men are said to outnumber those of women by around 16 to 1 (and that’s only when Queen Victoria is counted) it is evident we have a serious gender imbalance in those “we” choose to commemorate.

If there’s one thing the British love more than statues, it’s war commemorations. Think of the Cenotaph, standing proud in Whitehall, a memorial to ‘The Glorious Dead’ of firstly, World War I and latterly, British and Commonwealth military personnel have died in all conflicts.

Close by in Park Lane, we even have the imagination to create a memorial to Animals in War. We love to worship at these altars to untold misery and suffering, as if we could learn something important from them. Unfortunately, the most important message of “Never Again” is lost as we continue to thrust our military personnel and their deadly arsenal all over the world.

There is a strong argument for commemorating the war dead of all nations in the two World Wars. All sides, both central powers/axis and allies were comprised in the main of conscripted personnel. These were men and women that did not join the armed forces voluntarily, but were compelled by legislation to take up arms. With little time to consider or prepare, these people, all over the world, were thrust into life-threatening situations, with little or no choice. The Cenotaph and other war memorials mark this sacrifice and to some degree, acknowledge the experiences of those who served in a uniform that they did not consent to, without the compulsion of legislation. Unfortunately, civilians don’t feature so heavily in memorialisation, yet we know they experienced life-changing events which have repercussions even today. From children who were evacuated, to families who experienced fathers and husbands with short fuses, to those whose fear of hunger has never really left them, those experiences leave a mark.

To me, as a nation it appears that we don’t want to engage seriously with our history, preferring instead a white-washed, heteronormative, male-dominated, war-infused, saccharine sweet, version of events. But British people, both historically and contemporaneously, are a diverse and disparate group, good, bad and indifferent, so surely our statues should reflect this?

I recognise the violence which runs throughout British history, I learnt it, not through statues, but through books and oral testimony, through documentary and discussion. I also recognise that I have only begun to explore a history that silences so very many, making any historical narrative, partial, poignant and heavy with the missing voices. I recognise the heavy burden left by slavery, discrimination, war and other myriad violences, understanding the desire to commemorate and celebrate and tear down and replace.

What we need is a statue that recognises all of us, in all shapes and sizes, warts and all? We are living in a global pandemic, the death toll is currently standing at over 2.5 million. In the UK alone, the death toll stands at close to 100,000. Why not have a memorial with all those names; men, women, children, Black, white, Asian, mixed heritage, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, atheists, gay, straight, trans, lesbian, young, old and all those in between. People that have been coerced, through financial impetus, caring responsibility, career or vocation into dangerous spaces, who have not chosen to sacrifice their lives on the altar of bad decisions taken by governments and institutions (reminiscent of the world wars). Such a commemoration would be a way to recognise the profound impact on all of our lives, as drastic as any world war. It will recognise that you don’t have to wear a uniform or conform to a particular ideal to be of value to Britain and every person counts.

* Title borrowed from ‘Our sheroes and heroes’ (Maya Angelou ; interviewed by Susan Anderson in 1976)

2020: A Year on “Plague Island”

Last year in this blog, I argued that 2019 had been a year of violence. My colleague, @5teveh provided a gentle riposte, noting that whilst things had not been that good, they were perhaps not as bad as I had indicated. Looking back at both entries it is clear that my thoughts were well-evidenced, but it is @5teveh‘s rebuttal that has proved most prescient in respect of what was to come….

The year started off on a positive, personally and professionally, when both @manosdaskalou and I were nominated for Changemaker Awards. Although beaten by some very tough competition, shortly before leaving campus we were both awarded High Sheriff Awards, alongside our prison colleagues, for our module CRI3006 Beyond Justice. As colleagues and students will know, this module is taught entirely in prison to year 3 criminology students and their incarcerated peers. Unfortunately, the awards took place in the last week on campus, but we are hopeful that we can continue to work together in the near future.

Understandably much of our attention this year has been on Covid-19 and the changes it has wrought on individuals, communities, society and globally. Throughout this year, the Thoughts from the Criminology Team have documented the pandemic in a variety of different ways. From my very early thoughts, written in the panic of abandoning campus for the experience of lockdown to entries from @helentrinder @treventoursu @jesjames50 @cherylgardner2015 @5teveh @manosdaskalou @anfieldbhoy @samc0812 @drkukustr8talk @zeechee @saffrongarside @svr2727 @haleysread The blog has explored Covid-19 from a variety of different angles reflecting on the unprecedented experience of living through a pandemic. It is interesting to see how the situation and our understanding and responses have adapted over the past 9 months.

Alongside the serious materials, it was obvious very early on that we also needed to ensure some lightness for the team and our readers. With this in mind, early in the first lock down, we created the #CriminologyBookClub. We’re currently on our 8th novel and we’ve been highly critical of some of the texts ;), as well as fallen in love with others. However, I know I speak for my fellow members when I say this has offered some real respite for what’s going on around us.

Another early initiative was to invite all our bloggers to contribute an entry entitled #MyFavouriteThings. We ended up with over twenty entries (which you’ll find via the link) from the criminology team, students, as well as a our regular and occasional contributors. Surprisingly we learnt a lot about each other and about ourselves. The process of something as basic as writing down your favourite things, proved to be highly cathartic.

Whilst supporting each other in our learning community, we also didn’t forget our friends and colleagues in prison. Although, the focus has rightly been on the NHS and carers, the pandemic has hit the prison communities very hard. Technology can solve some of the issues of loneliness, but to be locked in a small room, far away from family and friends creates additional problems. For the men and the staff, the last 9 months has brought challenges never seen before. Although, we could not teach the module, we did our best, along with colleagues in Geography and the Vice Chancellor @npetfo, to provide quizzes and competitions to help pass the hours.

In June, the world was shocked by the killing of George Floyd in the USA. For many of us, this death was one in a long line of horrific killings of Black men and women, whereby society generally turned a blind eye. However, in the middle of a pandemic, the killing of George Floyd meant that people could not turn away from what was playing on every screen and every platform. This lead to a resurgence of interest in Black Lives Matter and an outpouring of statements by individuals, organisations, institutions and the State.

For a week in June, the Thoughts from the Criminology Team muted all their social media to make space for the #AmplifyMelanatedVoices initiative from Alishia McCullough and Jessica Wilson This was a tiny gesture in the grand scheme of things but refocused the team’s attention on making sure there is a space for anyone who wants to contribute.

Whether this new found interest in Black Lives Matters and discussions around diversity, racism, decolonisation and disproportionality continue, remains to be seen. Hopefully, the killing of George Floyd, alongside the profound evidence of privilege and need made evident by the pandemic, has provided a catalyst for change. One thing is clear, everyone knows now, we can no longer hide, there are no more excuses and we all can and must do better.

This year some old faces left for pastures new and we welcomed some new colleagues to the Criminology Team. If you haven’t already, you can read about our new (or, in some cases, not so new) team members’ – @jesjames50 @haleysread and @amycortvriend – academic journeys to becoming Lecturers in Criminology.

Finally, looking back over the last 12 months, certain themes catch my eye. Some of these are obvious, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter have occupied a lot of our minds. The focus has often been on high profile individuals – Captain Tom Moore, Joe Wickes, Marcus Rashford – but has also shone on teams/organisations/institutions such as the NHS, carers, shop workers, delivery drivers, the scientists working on the vaccines, the list goes on. Everyone has played a part, even if that is just by staying at home and out of the way, leaving space for those with a frontline role to play. Upon reflection it is evident that the over-riding themes (and why @5teveh was right last year) are ones of kindness, of going the extra mile, of trying to listen to each other, of reaching out to each other, acknowledging unfairness and privileges, recognising the huge loss of life and the impact of illness and bereavement and trying to make things a little better for all. Hope has become the default setting for all of us, hope that the pandemic will be over, alongside hopes that we can build a better world with its passing. It has also become extremely clear that critical thinking is at a premium during a pandemic, with competing narratives, contradictory evidence and uncertainty, testing all of our ability to cope with change and respond with humility and humanity.

There is no doubt 2020 has been an unprecedented year and one that will stay with us for ever in the collective memory. Going into 2021 it’s important that we remember to consider the positives and keep trying to do better. Hopefully, in 2021 we will get to celebrate Criminology’s 21st Birthday together

Remember to stay safe, strong and well and look out for yourself and others.

Is justice fair?

There is a representation of justice.  A woman (lady justice) blindfolded holding the scales of justice in one hard and a sword in the other.  This representation demonstrates a visualisation of the core principles of justice: blindfold for impartiality, the scales for weighting the evidence and the sword, the authority.  The need for this representation is making the point that justice is fair.  To all people justice is an equaliser that brings the balance back to everyday life.  Those who break the natural order are faced with the consequences of the arbitration made by the system that assumes equality for all against the law.  

The representation of justice must be convincing in order to be accepted by the public.  The impartiality has to be demonstrable and the system forms a bond across all social strata.  Well, at least in principle.  There is a difference between representation and reality.  This is something we learn from early on.  As a kid, I remember a special ice-cream in a cup that had a little toy in the bottom of the cup.  It looked so appealing, but the reality never met my expectations.  Still, I continued to buy it, in anticipation that maybe the representation and the reality will meet.  Like the ice cream, the justice system, has a beautiful packaging that makes it incredibly appealing. 

Forged in the flames of the renaissance and the enlightenment, justice transformed from a convenient divinity to a philosophical ideal and a social need.  It became a concept that reflected social changes and economic growth.  Many of the principles of justice, like equality and fairness, carried forward from the classical era.  Only at this time these concepts were enriched with philosophical arguments influenced by humanism.  The age of exploration and knowledge added to the scientific rigour of forensic investigation and the procedures became standardised.  Great minds conceptualised some of theoretical aspects and transferred them in everyday practice.  Cesare Beccaria’s treatise On Crimes and Punishments demonstrated how humanist principles can affect procedure and sentencing. 

This justice system was/is our social “ice cream”.  Desirable and available to all citizens.  A system beyond people and social status, able to call individuals to account.  Unfortunately like my childhood “ice cream” equally disappointing, primarily because the reality is not even close to the representation.  The principles of justice are all noble and inspiring.  There is however something behind the systems that needs to be explored in order to understand why reality and representation are so far apart.  The guiding principle of any justice system from inception to this day is not to restore the balance (as so beautifully demonstrated with the scales) but to maintain the established order or the social status quo

On the occasions where societies broke down because of war or revolution, significant changes happened.  Those allowed some reforms in different parts of the system allowing changes, sometimes even radical.  Even at those situations the reforms were never too radical or too extensive.  Regardless of the political system, tyrannical, dictatorial or democratic, the establishment is keen to maintain its authority over the people.  For this to happen, the system must be biased in its inception about what we mean about justice.  If the expectations of law and order are given a direction, then the entire system follows that direction and all changes are more cosmetic than fundamental.  Quite possibly this explains what we recognise as miscarriages of justice as simply the inability of the system to be more tactful about its choices and arbitrations. 

Therefore, tax avoidance and drug use take a different level of priority in the system.  It is the same reason that people from different socioeconomic groups are seem differently, regardless of the system’s reassurance on equality and fairness.  Maybe the biggest irony of all is that the representation of justice is a woman, in one of the most male dominated systems.  From the senior judiciary to the heads of police and the prison systems, women are still highly underrepresented.  Whilst the representation of ethnic minorities is even lower.  Of course, even if it was to change in composition, that would be arguably a cosmetic change.  Perhaps it is time as society to use consumer law and demand that our justice system is like it’s been advertised…fair.       

https://www.pikrepo.com/flrpo/lady-justice-statue

“Things you need to know about criminology”: A student perspective – Mary Adams, recent Graduate and mature student.

Vincent van Gogh – The Prison Courtyard (1890)
We are all living in very strange times, not sure when life will return to normal...but if you're thinking about studying criminology, here is some advice from those best placed to know!

The most important module to my understanding of criminology is: I would have to say they are all equally important for understanding different aspects of Criminology. In first year I loved The Science of Crime which showed how things have evolved over time, and that what we now see as funny was actually cutting edge in its day. True Crime also makes you look beyond the sensational headlines and separate fact from fiction. In second year Crime & Justice gave a brilliant grounding in the inner workings, and failings, of the criminal justice system. And in third year, the Violence module explores personal and institutional violence, which is especially relevant in current times

The academic criminology book you must read: Becker’s Outsiders and Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics are a must. I also found Hopkins-Burke’s An Introduction to Criminological Theory and Newburn’s Criminology essential reading for first year as well as Finch & Fafinski’s Criminological Skills. For second year I recommend Davies, Croall & Tyrer’s Criminal Justice. If you choose the Violence module in third year you will be grateful for Curtin & Litke’s Institutional Violence. And don’t forget Foucault’s Discipline & Punish!

The academic journal article you must read:
There are so many excellent journal articles out there, it’s difficult to choose! Some of my favourites have been:
'Alphonse Bertillon & the measure of man' by Farebrother & Champkin;
'Bad Boys, Good Mothers & the ‘’Miracle’’ of Ritalin by Ilina Singh';
'Detainee Abuse & the Ethics of Psychology' by Kathryn French;
'Attachment, Masculinity & Self-control' by Hayslett-McCall & Bernard;
'Grenfell, Austerity & Institutional Violence' by Cooper & Whyte;
'The Phenomenology of Paid Killing' by Laurie Calhoun;
'A Utilitarian Argument Against Torture Interrogation of Terrorists' by J. Arrigo.

The criminology documentary you must watch:
Without a doubt, a must-see is the Panorama documentary London Tower Fire: Britain’s Shame. I would also highly recommend the movie The Stanford Prison Experiment

The most important criminologist you must read:
Of course you must read Lombroso, Beccaria & Bentham. I also enjoyed reading work by feminist criminologists like Pat Carlen, Carol Smart & Sandra Walklate. And of course, Angela Davis is a must!

Something criminological that fascinates me:
What fascinates me is how the powers that be, and a good proportion of the public, cannot seem to realise that social injustice is one of the major factors behind why people commit crime. And the fact that putting more & more people in prison is seen as a ‘good’ thing is mind-boggling!

The most surprising thing I know about criminology is:
The fact that it is such a diverse subject & incorporates so many other disciplines

The most important thing I've learnt from studying criminology is:
Question everything! Don’t take anything at face-value. Try to look beyond the attention grabbing headlines to find out the real story. Read, read, read!

The most pressing criminological problem facing society is:
Unfortunately I think there are many pressing problems facing society today, the main ones being social injustice & inequality, systemic racism, institutional violence, and mass incarceration


When family and friends ask, I tell them criminology is:
Some people joke that I’m learning how to be a criminal! Others think it’s all about locking people up! I tell them it’s all about looking at the mechanisms in-built in our society that disadvantage & discriminate against whole groups of people, and that, unless we are part of the rich & powerful elite, any one of us could find ourselves in the ‘out’ group at any time. I also tell them to stop reading The Daily Mail, vote Labour, and question everything!!


“A small case of injustice”

Gilbert Baker

Pride as a movement in the UK but also across the world signals a history of struggles for LGBTQ+ community and their recognition of their civil rights.  A long journey fraught with difficulties from decriminalisation to legalisation and the eventual acceptance of equal civil rights.  The movement is generational, and in its long history revealed the way social reactions mark our relationship to morality, prejudice, criminalisation and the recognition of individual rights.  In the midst of this struggle, which is ongoing, some people lost their lives, others fell compelled to end theirs whilst others suffer social humiliation, given one of the many colourful pejoratives the English language reserved for whose accused or suspected for being homosexuals. 

This blog will focus on one of the elements that demonstrates the relationship between the group of people identified homosexual and the law.  In sociological terms, marginalised groups, has a meaning and signals how social exclusion operates against some groups of people, in these case homosexuals but it does apply to any group.  These groups face a “sharper end” of the law, that presumably is equal to all.  This is the fallacy of the law; that there are no inherent unfairness or injustice in laws.  The contention for marginalised groups is that there are presumptions in the law on purported normality that disallows them to engage fully with the wider community in some cases forced to live a life that leads all the way to segregation. 

Take for example “entrapment”.  Originally the practice was used by law enforcement officers to identify counterfeit money, later to investigate the sales of untaxed tobacco or the use of unlicensed taxis.  The investigation in law allows for the protection of the public, non uniform officers to pose as customers in order to reveal criminalities that occur in the dark corners of society.  The focus predominantly was to protect consumers and the treasury from unpaid tax.  So, from that how did the law enforcement officers use it to arrest homosexuals?  It is interesting to note we can separate the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law.  This distinction is an important one criminologically whilst for the law enforcement agencies evidently there is no such distinction.     

The most recent celebrity case led to the arrest of George Michael in Los Angeles, US; the operation led to the outing of the artist and his conviction.  As a practice across many years, entrapment played a significant part in the way numerous homosexuals found themselves arrested given a criminal record, loss of employment and in some cases ending up in prison.  It is important to note that prior to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, the biggest sexual crime in England and Wales was that of homosexuality (recorded as indecency or buggery).  It took decades for that statistic to change, although historically remains still the highest category. 

The practice of entrapment employed by the police demonstrates the uphill struggle the LGBTQ+ community faced.  Not only they had to deal with social repulsion of the wider community that detested, both their practices and their existence, but also with public officials who used entrapment to criminalise them.  This was happening whilst the professionals were divided about the origins of homosexual “anomaly” and how to deal with it, the practice of entrapment added new convictions and supplied more humiliation to those arrested.  For the record, the criminological community was split along theoretical lines on this; the classicists such as Bentham argued for the decriminalisation of sodomy whilst the positivists namely Lombroso considered homosexuals to be in the class of moral criminals (one of the worst because they are undeterred) . 

The issue however is neither theoretical, nor conceptual; for those who were aware of their sexuality it was real and pressing.  During the post WWII civil rights movement, people started taking note of individual differences and how these should be protected by privacy laws allowing those who do not meet the prescribed “normal” lifestyles to be allowed to live.  It emerged that people who were successful in their professional lives, like Alan Turing, John Forbes Nash Jr, John Gielgud etc etc, found themselves facing criminal procedures, following string operations from the police.  This injustice became more and more evident raising the profile of the change in the law but also in the social attitudes.    

In 2001 Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead addressed the issue of entrapment head on. In his judgement in Regina v Looseley:

It is simply not acceptable that the state through its agents should lure its citizens into committing acts forbidden by the law and then seek to prosecute them for doing so. That would be entrapment. That would be a misuse of state power, and an abuse of the process of the courts. The unattractive consequences, frightening and sinister in extreme cases, which state conduct of this nature could have are obvious. The role of the courts is to stand between the state and its citizens and make sure this does not happen.”

This was the most damming condemnation of the practice of entrapment and a vindication for all those who faced prosecution as the unintended consequence of the practise.  For the record, in 2017 under the Policing and Crime Act, included the “Alan Turing law” that pardoned men who were cautioned or convicted for historical homosexual acts.  The amnesty received mixed reviews and some of those who could apply for denied doing so because that would require admission of wrongdoing.  The struggle continues…    

Regina v Looseley, 2001 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200102/ldjudgmt/jd011025/loose-1.htm

Please don’t clap or cheer

In an uncomfortable irony, my regular blog entry has fallen on the 8 May 2020, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War 2 in Europe. I say uncomfortable because I find this kind of commemoration particularly challenging to comprehend, given my pacifist tendencies. I’m therefore going to take a rather circuitous route through this entry.

On the 20 March 2020 I wrote the first Thoughts from the Criminology team blog entry (focused on Covid-19), just a few hours after the University had moved to virtual working. Since then the team has tackled the situation in a variety of different ways.  In that I detailed my feelings and observations of life, as we knew it, suddenly coming to abrupt halt. Since then we have had 7 weeks of lockdown and it is worth taking stock of where we are currently.

At present the UK has recorded over 30,000 deaths attributed to the virus. These figures are by necessity inaccurate, the situation has been moving extremely fast. Furthermore, it is incredibly challenging to attribute the case of death, particularly in cases where there is no prior diagnosis of Covid-19. There has been, and remains a passionate discourse surrounding testing (or the lack of it), the supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (or the lack of it) and the government’s response (or lack of) to the pandemic. Throughout there has been growing awareness of disparity, discrimination and disproportionality. It is clear that we are not in all this together and that some people, some groups, some communities are bearing the brunt of the current crisis.

Having studied institutional violence for many years, it is evident that the current pandemic has shown a spotlight on inequality, austerity and victimisation. The role of institutions has been thrown into sharp relief, with their many failings in full view of anyone who cared to look. In 1942, Beveridge was clear that his “five giant evils” could have been addressed, prior to World War 2, yet in the twenty-first century we have been told these are insurmountable. Suddenly, in the Spring of 2020, we find that councils can house the homeless, that hungry children can be fed, that money can be found to ensure that those same children have access to educational resources. We also find that funds can be located to build emergency hospitals and pay staff to work there and across all other NHS sites.

Alongside this new-found largesse, we find NHS staff talking about the violences they face. The violence of being unable to access the equipment they need to do their jobs, the violence of being deprived of regular breaks, the violence of racism, which many staff face both internally and externally. We hear similar tales from care workers, supermarkets workers, delivery drivers, the list goes on. Yet we are told by the government that we are all in this together. This we are told, is demonstrated by gathering on doorsteps to clap the NHS and carers. It can be compared with the effort of those during World War II, or so we are told. If we just invoke that “Blitz Spirit” “We’ll Meet Again” at the “White Cliffs of Dover”.

However, such exhortations come cheap, it costs nothing in time, or money, to clap, or to sing war time songs. To do so puts a veneer of respectability and hides the violent injustices inherent in UK society and the government which leads it. It disguises and obfuscates the data that shows graphic racial and social economic disparity in the death toll. Similarly, it avoids discussion of the role that different individuals, groups and communities play in working to combat this horrible virus.  As a society we have quickly forgotten discussions around deserving/undeserving poor, the “hostile environment” and those deemed “low-skilled”. It camouflages the millions of people who are terrified of unemployment, poverty and all of the other injustices inherent within such statuses. It hides the fact that these narratives are white and male and generally horribly jingoistic by ignoring the contribution of anyone, outside of that narrow definition, to WWII and to the current pandemic. It is trite and demonstrates an indifference to human suffering across generations.

Let’s stop focusing on the cheap, the obvious and the trite and instead, once this is over, treat people (all people) with respect. Pay decent wages, enable access to good quality nutrition, education, health care, welfare and all of the other necessities for a good life. And by all means commemorate the anniversary of whatever you like, but do not celebrate war, the biggest violence of all, without which many more lives would be improved.

Teaching, Technology, and reality

I’m not a fan of technology used for communication for the most part, I’d rather do things face to face. But, I have to admit that at this time of enforced lockdown technology has been to a large extent our saviour. It is a case of needs must and if we want to engage with students at all, we have to use technology and if we want to communicate with the outside world, well in the main, its technology.

However, this is forced upon us, it is not a choice.  Why raise this, well let me tell you about my experiences of using technology and being shut at home!  Most, if not all my problems, probably relate to broadband.  It keeps dropping out, sometimes I don’t notice, that is until I go to save my work or try to add the final comment to my marking. I know other colleagues have had the same problem.  Try marking on Turnitin only to find that nearly all of your feedback has just disappeared in a flash.  Try talking to colleagues on Webex and watch some of them disappearing and reappearing. Sometimes you can hear them, sometimes you can’t. And isn’t it funny when there is a time lag, a Two Ronnies moment when the question before the last is answered. ‘You go, no you go’, we say as we all talk over each other because the social cues relied on in face to face meetings just aren’t there. I’ve tried discussion boards with students, it’s not like WhatsApp or Messenger or even text. It is far more staid than that. Some students take part, but most don’t and that in a module where attendance in class before the shutdown was running at over seventy per cent. I’m lucky to get 20% involved in the discussion board.  Colleagues using Collaborate tell me a similar tale, a tale of woe where only a few students, if any appear.  Six hours of emptiness, thumb twiddling and reading, that’s the lecturer, not the students.

Now I don’t know whether my problems with the internet are resultant of the increased usage across the country, or just in my area.  I suspect not because I had problems before the lockdown. I live in a village and whilst my broadband package promises me, and delivers brilliant broadband speed at times, it is inconsistent, frequently inexplicably dropping out for a minute or two. It is frustrating at times, even demoralising.  I have a very good laptop (supplied by the university) and it is hardwired in, so not reliant on Wi-Fi, but it makes little difference.  I suspect the problems could be anywhere in the broadband ether.  It could be at the other end, the university, it could be at Turnitin for instance or maybe its somewhere in a black hole in the middle.  Who knows, and I increasingly think, who cares? When my broadband disappeared for a whole day, a colleague suggested that I could tether my phone.  A brilliant idea I thought as our discussion became distorted and it sounded like he was talking to me from a goldfish bowl. I guess the satellite overhead moved and my signal gradually disappeared. I can tell you now that my mobile phone operator is the only one that provides decent coverage in my area. Tethered to a goldfish bowl, probably not a solution, but thanks anyway.

If I suffer from IT issues, then what about students? We are assured that those that live on campus have brilliant Wi-Fi but does this represent the majority of our student body? Not usually and certainly not now. Do they all have good laptops; do they all have a decent Wi-Fi package? I hazard a guess, probably not. But even if what they have is on par with what I have available to me could they not also be encumbered with the same problems? We push technology as the way forward in education but don’t bother to ask the end user about their experience in using it. I can tell you from student feedback that many don’t like Collaborate, find the discussion boards difficult to engage with and some are completely demotivated if they cannot attend physical classes. That’s not to say that all students feel this way, some like recorded lectures as it gives them the opportunity to watch it at their leisure, but many don’t take that final step of actually watching it. They intend to, but don’t for whatever reason. Some like the fact that they can get books electronically, but many don’t, preferring to read from a hard copy. Even browsing the shelves in the library has for some, a mystical pleasure.

I’ll go back to the beginning, technology has undoubtedly been our saviour at this time of lockdown, but wouldn’t it be a real opportunity to think about teaching and technology after this enforced lockdown? Instead of assuming all students are technology savvy or indeed, want to engage with technology regardless of what it is, should we not ask them what works for them.  Instead of telling staff what they can do with technology, e.g. you can even remotely mark students’ work on a Caribbean island, should we not ask staff what works?  Let’s change the negative narrative, “you’re not engaging with technology”, to the positive what works in teaching our students and how might technology help in that.  Note I say our students, not other students at other universities or some pseudo student in a theoretical vacuum.  We should simply be asking what is best for our students and a starting point might be to ask them and those that actually teach them.

The day after!

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“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” This quote allegedly belongs to A. Einstein who imagined a grim day in the aftermath of a world war among nations who carried nuclear arms. 

It is part of human curiosity to imagine beyond the current as to let the mind to wonder on the aftermath of this unique international lockdown!  Thoughts wonder on some prosaic elements of the lockdown and to wonder the side effects on our psyche.  Obviously as I do not have a vast epidemiological knowledge, I can only consider what I know from previous health scares.    

The previous large-scale health scare was in the 1980s.  I still remember the horrible ad with the carved headstone that read AIDS.  One word that scared so many people then.  People were told to practice safe sex and to avoid sharing needles.  People became worried and at the time an HIV diagnoses was a death sentence.  Images of people suffering Kaposi’s sarcoma began to surface in what became more than a global epidemic; it became a test in our compassion.  Early on, gay people reported discrimination, victimisation and eventual, vilification.  It took some mobilisation from the gay community and the death of some famous people to turn the tide of misconceptions, before we turned the tide of the disease.  At this stage, HIV is not a death sentence and people who are in receipt of medical attention can live full and long lives. 

It is interesting to consider how we will react to the easing of the restrictions and the ushering on a new age.  In some Asian countries, since SARS in 2003 some people wear face masks and gloves.  Will that become part of our attire and will it be part of professional wear beyond the health care professions?  If this becomes a condition, how many people will comply, and what will happen to those who will defy them. 

We currently talk about resilience and the war spirit (a very British motif) but is this the same for all?  This is not a lockdown on equal terms.  There are people in isolation in mansions, whilst some others share rooms or even beds with people, they would rather they did not.  At the same time, we talk about resilience, all domestic violence charities speak of a surge in calls that have reached crisis levels.  “Social distancing” has entered the lexicon of our everyday, but there are people who simply cannot cope.  One of the effects the day after, will be several people who will be left quite traumatised.  Some may develop an aversion to people and large crowds so it will be interesting to investigate if agoraphobia will surge in years to come. 

In one of my exercise walks. I was observing the following scene. Grandparents waving at their children and grandchildren from a distance.  The little ones have been told not to approach the others.  You could see the uneasiness of contactless interaction.  It was like a rehearsal from an Ibsen play; distant and emotionally frigid.  If this takes a few more months, will the little ones behave differently when these restrictions are lifted?  We forget that we are social animals and although we do not consciously sniff each other like dogs, we find the scent of each other quite affirming for our interactions.  Smell is one of the senses that has the longest memory and our proximity to a person is to reinforce that closeness. 

People can talk on social media, use webcams and their phones to be together.  This is an important lifeline for those fortunate to use technology, but no one can reach the level of intimacy that comes from a hug, the touch on the skin, the warmth of the body that reassures.  This was what I missed when my grandparents died, the ability to touch them, even for the last time. 

If we are to come out of social distancing, only to go into social isolation, then the disease will have managed something that previous epidemics did not; to alter the way we socialise, the way we express our humanity.  If fear of the contagion makes us withdrawn and depressed, then we will suffer a different kind of death; that of what makes us human. 

During the early stages of the austerity we saw the recurrence of xenophobia and nationalism across Europe.  This was expected and sociologically seemed to move the general discussions about migration in rather negative terms. In the days before the lockdown people from the Asian community already reported instances of abusive behaviour. It will be very interesting to see how people will react to one another once the restrictions are lifted.  Will we be prepared to accept or reject people different from ourselves? 

In the meantime, whilst doctors will be reassessing the global data the pandemic will leave behind, the rest of us will be left to wonder.  Ultimately for every country the strength of healthcare and social systems will inevitably be evaluated.  Countries will be judged, and questions will be asked and rightfully so.  Once we burry our dead, we must hold people to account.  This however should not be driven by finding a scapegoat but so we can make the most of it for the future. Only if we prepare to see the disease globally, we can make good use of knowledge and advance our understanding of the medicine.

So maybe, instead of recriminations, when we come outside from our confinement, we connect with our empathy and address the social inequalities that made so many people around us, vulnerable to this and many other diseases. 

Coronavirus (Covid-19): The greatest public health crisis in my lifetime

The coronavirus has caused an ongoing pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome. The outbreak started in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, as early as November 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020 and recognized it as a pandemic on 11 March 2020. Whilst we all have an interest in the ongoing spread and consequence of the greatest public health crisis in generations it holds a specific interest for me given my visits to Wuhan and Hubei province whilst working for Coventry University. Wuhan is a massive city with over 11 million of a population, but little heard of until this outbreak. It is believed that its origins are most likely linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, in Wuhan which also sold live animals, and one theory is that the virus came from one of these kinds of animals. The virus spread quickly through the population of Wuhan City which led to comprehensive lockdown to contain the virus. However, the virus spread beyond the city across China and into other countries. The scale of the spread has been significant and by the time the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a full pandemic in March 2020 there were cases recorded in hundreds of countries.

Cases in the UK emerged on January 31st 2020, which prompted a government response to manage the outbreak. In the early stages there was some discussion about “taking it on the chin” and allowing the virus to spread through the population in order to gain “herd immunity”. However, the public health, medical and scientific experts at Imperial College London suggested that the death toll through their modelling exercises, if this strategy played out, could be in excess of 500,000. This was a situation that would be socially and politically unpalatable, and a change of thinking emerged with a combination of social distancing, public health advice on washing hands and a strategy to protect the capacity of the NHS to cope with escalating cases. A new lexicon emerged that we are now all familiar with: flattening the curve, delaying the spread, the peak of the infection and latterly the language of the health professionals in the frontline supporting and caring for people acutely ill with Covid-19; Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), ventilation and oxygen saturation and therapy. This is because the virus can attack the respiratory system leading to pneumonia and in several cases an immune response that leads to multi-organ shutdown. The media presentation of this crisis is all very frightening.

At the time of writing the pandemic has progressed relentlessly in the UK with currently over 65,000 people have tested positive and of those hospitalised nearly 8,000 patients have died. Some commentators have suggested that the UK was slow to recognise the seriousness of the virus and was slow to initiate the “lockdown” measures required to halt the spread. In addition, the UK’s position on testing for the virus has been criticised as slow, lacking preparation despite the global warnings from WHO and a shortage of the essential materials required. Whether these criticisms are valid only time will tell but the UK’s data on cases, hospitalisation, need for critical care and deaths is on a trajectory like other countries which could be described as liberal democracies. Here is the first clue to the timing of the response. The measures required to halt the spread of the virus have massive economic consequences. Balancing these two issues is incredibly difficult and has led to some commentators suggesting all liberal democracies will struggle to respond quickly enough.

What is now abundantly clear is that this is going to take some time for us to get through as a society and the consequences for large sections of our society are going to be devastating. However, what I’d like to discuss in the remainder of this blog are a number of early lessons and personal observations in terms of what we are seeing play out.

First, the data emerging indicates that the narrative about the “virus does not discriminate” is a false one. It is clear that health professionals are much more greatly exposed and that the data on cases and deaths indicate higher numbers of the socially deprived and BAME community. This should not be a surprise as the virus will be keenest felt in communities negatively impacted by health inequalities. This has been the case ever since we recognised this in the “Black Report” (DHSS 1980). The Report showed in detail the extent to which ill-health and death are unequally distributed among the population of Britain and suggested that these inequalities have been widening rather than diminishing since the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. It is generally accepted that those with underlying health issues and therefore most at risk will be disproportionately from socially deprived communities.

Second, the coronavirus will force the return of big government. The response already supports this. In times of real crisis, the “State” always takes over. Will this lead to more state intervention going forward? If so then we will witness the greatest interventionist Conservative government in my lifetime.

Third, the coronavirus provides one more demonstration of the mystique of borders and will help reassert the role of the nation state. Therefore, the coronavirus is likely to strengthen nationalism, albeit not ethnic nationalism. To survive, the government will ask citizens to erect walls not simply between states but between individuals, as the danger of being infected comes from the people we meet most often. It is not the stranger but those closest to you who present the greatest risk.

Fourth, we see the return of the “expert”. Most people are very open to trusting experts and heeding the science when their own lives are at stake. One can already see the growing legitimacy that this has lent to the professionals who lead the fight against the virus. Professionalism is back in fashion, including recognition of the vital role of the NHS.

Fifth, the coronavirus could increase the appeal of the big data authoritarianism employed by some like the Chinese government. One can blame Chinese leaders for the lack of transparency that made them react slowly to the spread of the virus, but the efficiency of their response and the Chinese state’s capacity to control the movement and behaviour of people has been impressive.

Sixth, changing views on crisis management. What governments learned in dealing with economic crises, the refugee crisis, and terrorist attacks was that panic was their worst enemy. However, to contain the pandemic, people should panic – and they should drastically change their way of living.

Seventh, this will have an impact on intergenerational dynamics. In the context of debates about climate change and the risk it presents, younger generations have been very critical of their elders for being selfish and not thinking about the future seriously. Ironically the coronavirus reverses these dynamics.

Finally, I return to a point made earlier, governments will be forced to choose between containing the spread of the pandemic at the cost of destroying the economy or tolerating a higher human cost to save the economy. In conclusion, I have heard many say that this crisis is different to others we may have faced in the past 30 years and that as a result we can see society changing. Whilst I’m sure a number of the issues raised in this blog could potentially lead to society change it is also a truism that our memories are short, and we may return to life as it looked before this crisis quite quickly. Only time will tell.

Reference
“The Black Report” (1980): Inequalities in Health: Report of a Research Working Group. Department of Health and Social Security, London, 1980.

Black son of the south (A 2-part short story in prose). #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Pt. 1: Somewhere Over the Rainbow

As the sun rises, and over the horizon, I can see the first capital of the Confederacy, I am forced to remember that this is the south.

There’s country music blasting from the speakers in this restaurant, and the young woman serving me has such a twang, you’d think she’s about to sing…her own rendition of Achy Breaky Heart.

The waitress calls me ‘Sweetie’ though she’s clearly half my age.

I’d much rather be called ‘sweetie’ than sir, not that I’m ashamed of being middle-aged.

I appreciate coming back down south and feeling this cosy feeling from virtually everyone I meet. Plus she’s sincere, too. I can see that the staff here are mixed, and yet I have this burning feeling that there’s more here than meets the eye.

In this part of the country, we pride ourselves on our gentile ways.  For years I’ve wondered if this is just how we southerners learned to cope with an excessively violent past.

My grandparents fled from here in the 40’s, just after the war, so terrorized were they of establishing a life of dignity outside the cotton fields they plucked as kids. Now, there is a localised justice initiative to mark the numerous racial hate crimes known as lynching.

The initiative has an eerie collection of jars filled with actual soil from (known) lynching sites. There’s at least one of these large pickle jars full-o-dirt from every county in this state alone. You know it’s Bama, too; there’s so much of that familiar chalky, red clay that’s still all around us. Dirt so red, you now wonder if it’s ferrous or blood!

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Notoriously, lynching is NOT a practice of the antebellum south, for black labour was far too valuable to just maim, torture and burn up black bodies like what’s done in these heinous hate crimes then.

I know not every white person down here is a descendant of slave-holders, slave-drivers or slave-catchers. Many may have never owned a single slave, yet…

Yet, any white person down here benefits from white-skin-privilege. Even white immigrants have famously fallen into line, capitalising on the slave economy, commoditizing King Cotton in one way or another. Not only Stevie Wonder, but even Wikipedia can see that.

The Wiki history entry of the in-famous commodities firm Lehman Brothers’ opens dryly like this: “In 1844, 23-year-old Henry Lehman, the son of a Jewish cattle merchant, emigrated to the United States from RimparBavaria. He settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where he opened a dry-goods store…”

Henry’s brothers came over within a few years – legally, supposedly – and thus began the in-famous firm. The brothers quickly saw that the farmers were rich during harvest and broke when it came time to plant. The dry-goods store quickly began accepting raw cotton as a form of payment. They hoarded cotton when it was plentiful and cheap, selling it when stocks drew low; economics running counter-cyclical to farm life. Did it matter to the brothers that the cotton was produced by slaves?

The brothers opened their first branch in NYC in 1858. That’d be New Yawk ‘fore the Northern War of aggression, y’all. Their firm dug so deep into the commodities trading economy that the youngest Lehman brother’s son, Herbert, was eventually a senator, 4-time governor of New York, and among other accolades is quoted in the current US passports espousing the value of immigrants to the nation’s roots and success. Lehman Brothers’ 2008 bankruptcy has been called “the biggest corporate failure in history!”

Did you know there are entire regions of the United Kingdom that evolved on the back of King Kotton as a commodity? Manchester, “famed as the world’s first industrial city,” was nicknamed Cottonopolis. The Industrial Revolution was fuelled by slavery! Ironically, the liberation of one group of people depended upon the enslavement of another. His-story should tell both sides, else it’s a damn lie. Did you know those cotton mill workers were sent aid by the Union government when the Civil War curtailed these cheap exports?

But anyone down south was in one way or another entangled in the slave economy as much as all of us today can’t have a smartphone free of labour and land exploitation. The fact that I may never see a child mining tin in Indonesia, or set sights on bonded labourers toiling away for cobalt in the Congo, does not admonish me and my gadgetry from any responsibility to do better.

So, the pleasantries that we southerners find necessary are well-crafted ways of disarming one another from a past filled with mass artilleries in everyday life.

I am a Black son of the south.

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@ The Equal Justice Initiative

Free from these chains, I hasten to think what life was like for my grandparents. Armed with their southern draws, having actually grown up cultivating the region’s cash crops, what life could they possibly have imagined for themselves as adults there?

What I do know, however, and I’ve heard this from my own elders, is that while they couldn’t imagine a future there for themselves, they did dream of that vision for us.

And so, here I am living my life…somewhere. Over the rainbow.

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