Home » Morality
Category Archives: Morality
‘Stupid is, as stupid does’ a phrase that many people will recall from that brilliant film Forrest Gump, although as I understand the phrase was originally coined in the 19th century. I will return to the phrase a little later but my starting point for this blog is my colleague @jesjames50’s self-declared blog rant and an ensuing WhatsApp (other media are available) conversation resulting in a declaration that ‘maybe we are becoming less tolerant’.
So, I ask myself this, what do we mean by tolerant or intolerant and more importantly what behaviours should we tolerate? To some extent my thoughts were driven by two excellent papers (Thomson, 1971, 1985) set as reading for assessment questions for our first-year criminology students. The papers describe ethical dilemmas and take us through a moral maze where the answers, which are so seemingly obvious, are inevitably not so.
As a starting point I would like you to imagine that you frequent a public house in the countryside at weekends (I know that its not possible at the moment, but remember that sense of normality). You frequently witness another regular John drinking two to three pints of beer and then leave, getting into his car and driving home. John does not think he is incapable of driving home safely. John may or may not be over the proscribed limit (drink driving), but probably is. Would you be able to make some excuse for him, would you tolerate the behaviour?
Let us imagine that John had a lot to drink on one night and being sensible had a friend drive him and his car home. The next morning, he wakes up and drives to work and is over the proscribed limit, but thinks he’s fine to drive. Would you be able to make some excuse for him, would you tolerate the behaviour?
Of course, the behaviour becomes absolutely intolerable if he has a collision and kills someone, I think we would all agree on that. Or even if he simply injures someone, I think we would say we cannot tolerate this behaviour. Of course, our intolerance becomes even greater if we know or are in somehow related to the person killed or injured. Were we to know that John was on the road and we or someone we know was also driving on the same road, would we not be fearful of the consequences of John’s actions? The chances of us coming across John are probably quite slim but nonetheless, the question still applies. Would we tolerate what he is doing and continue with our own journey regardless?
Now imagine that John’s wife Jane is driving a car (might as well keep the problems in one family) and Jane through a moment of inattention, speeds in a residential street and knocks over a child, killing them. Can we make excuses for Jane? How tolerant would you be if the child were related to you? Inattention, we’ve all been there, how many times have you driven along a road, suddenly aware of your speed but unsure as to what the speed limit is? How often have you driven that all familiar journey and at its end you are unable to recall the journey?
The law of course is very clear in both the case of John and Jane. Driving whilst over the proscribed limit is a serious offence and will lead to a ban from driving, penalty points and a fine or even imprisonment. Death by dangerous driving through drink or drugs will lead to a prison sentence. Driving without due care and attention will lead to a fine and penalty points, death by careless driving is likely to result in a prison sentence.
So I ask this, what is the difference between the above and people’s behaviours during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Just to be clear, contracting Covid-19 may or may not kill you, of course we know the risk factors go up dependant on age, ethnicity and general health but even the youngest, healthiest have been killed by this virus. Covid-19 can cause complications, known as long Covid. Only now are we starting to see its long-term impact on both young and old people alike.
Now imagine that Michael has been out to the pub the night before and through social contact has contracted Covid but is unaware that he has the disease. Is it acceptable him to ignore the rules in the morning on social distancing or the wearing of a mask? What is the difference between him and John driving to work. What makes this behaviour more acceptable than John’s?
Imagine Bethany has symptoms but thinks that she may or may not have Covid or maybe just a cold. Should you tolerate her going to work? What if she says she must work to feed her family, can John not use the same excuse? If John’s behaviour is intolerable why should we tolerate this?
If people forget to move out of the way or get too close, what makes this behaviour any different to Jane’s? Of course, we see the immediate impact of Jane’s inattention whereas the actions of our pedestrians on the street or in a supermarket are unseen except by those close to the person that dies resultant of the inattention. Should we tolerate this behaviour?
To my colleagues that debated whether they have become less tolerant I say, no you have not. There are behaviours that are acceptable and those that are not, just because this is a new phenomenon does not negate the need for people to adhere to what are acceptable behaviours to protect others.
To those of you that have thought it was a good idea to go to a party or a pub before lockdown or do not think the rules need apply to you. You are worse than John and Jane combined. It is akin to getting drunk, jumping in your cars and racing the wrong way down a busy motorway. ‘Stupid is as stupid does’ and oh boy, some people really are stupid.
Thomson, Judith Jarvis, (1971), ‘A Defense of Abortion,’ Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1, 1: 47-66
Thomson, Judith Jarvis, (1985), ‘The Trolley Problem,’ The Yale Law Journal, 94, 6 : 1395-1415,
Time and time again we revisit previous times of our lives, especially when trying to come to terms with unprecedented realities. Society works with precedent and continuity that allows people to negotiate their own individual identities. We live in a society that fostered the culture of the one, and played down the importance of the collective, especially when people in positions of power declared that they can do more with less.
One pandemic later, and we clapped at the heroes those we regarded as needy money-grabbers previously, those we acknowledge now, that we previously cast aside as low skilled workers. One pandemic later, and social movements came to prominence, asking big questions about the criminal justice system and the way it interacts with those numerous people, that are not perceived as “mainstream”. Across Western countries, people are registering the way the system is operating to maintain social order, through social injustice. Each case that appears in the news is not an individual story as before, but are becoming evidence of something wider, systemic and institutional.
Covid-19 affects people, and so we must maintain social distancing, cover our faces and clean our hands. Clear advice from WHO about the pandemic, but people also die when they drown as refugees crossing troubled waters. People also die when someone puts a knee on their throat (who knew?), people die when they have to deal with abject poverty and have no means to cover their basic subsistence. People die, and we record their deaths but officially some of those are normalised to the point that they become expected. Every year I pose the question about good and evil to a group of young adults who seem uncertain about the answer.
I was recently reminded of a statement made a long time ago by Manos Xatzidakis in relation to the normalisation of evil: “If you are not afraid of the face of evil it means that you have become accustomed to it. Then you accept the horror and you are frightened by beauty”. When we are expecting death for seemingly preventable causes, we have crossed that Rubicon according to Xatzidakis.
As a kid, one of my favourite stories was Hansel and Gretel. Like all fairy-tales it has a moral signature and is a cautionary lesson. In my mind it contracted the first image of evil, that of a witch. The illustration made it very real, but also quite specific. An oversized, badly dressed witch, with an unsatisfiable taste for children’s flesh. It was the embodiment of true evil. In later years, reading The Witches by Roald Dahl exacerbated the fear of this creature, seemingly normal but with layers of ugly under their skin. The evil that was on the face of the beholder, their intentions clear and their behaviour manipulative but clear on their objectives. This, I learn as an adult, is an evil that only exists in stories.
This kind of witch, is a demonstration of the social vilification of women and especially those who actively try to challenge the status quo, but not the evil that runs in our societies. The construction of social demons is a convenient invention to evoke fears and maintain order; well that is something a sceptic may say…but social scientists ought to question everything and be a bit of a sceptic. In my version of the fairytale the wicked witch is pushed into the oven by Hansel and Gretel, the image of her oversized bottom sticking out, whilst the rest of her body is consumed by the flames.
Admittedly, I was too old to get into the Harry Potter genre and read the books but the image of his opposition made it to popular culture. The “He who cannot be named” became another convenient, albeit complex, evil capable of unspeakable evils. An icon in its own right of the corruptive nature of evil.
The reality of course is slightly different. The big evils do not get extinguished with flames or other means. They do not cease and there is not necessarily happy ever after; social injustice and unfairness is continuous and so is the struggle to fight them. The victories are not complete, but gradual and small. If the pandemic shows us something other than death and heartache, it is the brittleness of life and the need to ask for more in a society that is geared to prime individualism over social solidarity. It is perhaps a good time, for those who never did, to engage with social movements, for those who left them to return and all find their passion of sharing human experience, that is predicated on equality and fairness.
Fairytales, are interesting insomuch of giving us some moral direction but they do not help us to understand the wider social issues and the actions people have to take. The witches out there may not carry brooms and mix spells in cauldrons but evil carries indifference, apathy and lack of empathy. As Edmund Burke said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, now that is true evil. After all, is there such a thing called evil or are we content with finding easy answers?
The latest book to grace the Criminology book club was My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, and after some excellent choices by @5teveh and @manosdaskalou, and a meh choice from @paulaabowles, the pressure was on for my choice. Unfortunately, it received mixed reviews, but I think I speak for all members of the book club when I say: It’s definitely better than The Yellow Room (sorry @paulaabowles)!
The negatives of the book, as expressed by the uneducated and picky members of the club (I promise I’m not bitter-HA), include the unlikableness of the characters: all morally repulsive, selfish and uninspiring. Whilst the book is set in Nigeria, there isn’t much description to transport you there, something the other books have done well, so this was disappointing. And there is a lot left unanswered. At times the book drops some hints into the characters’ past, hinting at why the sisters are the way they are (basically why one of them is a serial killer of her ex-boyfriends and the other mops up the mess), which is gripping and exciting, until it is left unanswered. The ‘older’ members of the club who weren’t overly keen on the book, felt it had potential but it wasn’t their cup of tea… and in all fairness the factors which they raised as being disappointing, were disappointing. BUT, it was still an excellent read! Myself (@jesjames50), @saffrongarside and @haleysread enjoyed the book, and below we have shared our views:
It is fast past, written in what feels like snippets, dangling possibilities and explanations in each chapter, throwing it back to their childhood, alluding at the dangers they faced together, fighting over the same man who isn’t great so that is slightly confusing: c’mon, have better choices in life partners, or even just dates! So many questions raised and so many left unanswered, but this is part of the book’s charm. It’s a story, an experience, a gripping account of a sister’s devotion to her strange, ex-boyfriend stabbing, sister. How far will she go? Why does she go to these lengths? What happens when the sister becomes too much of a loose cannon? You’ll have to read and not find out! But that’s what makes it an excellent read, by an excellent writer!@jesjames50
My Sister, the Serial Killer is unlike any other book I have read before. I loved the fast pace and the creeping sense of dread that builds as you read on. The book is like a snapshot in time of the lives of two sisters – there are no right answers, no resolutions and no sense of justice served. Although I felt little affection for the characters, I was invested in their relationships, the story and how it would play out. I think it would work well as a TV or film adaptation and I look forward to reading other books by Oyinkan Braithwaite in the future@saffrongarside
In an odd sort of way this book reminds me of my relationship with my younger siblings. I’m sure that many older siblings will agree that there is an unwritten obligation to support and protect younger siblings in many situations. In Kerode’s case… she takes this obligation to the extremes! I enjoyed this book as a thriller, but as with the last thriller we endured for book club I did not like any of the amoral characters. I also desired a bit more depth to the story line, the characters and location background – but maybe this is what makes thrillers so successful? Who knows?@haleysread
So overall, not quite as successful as the Baby Ganesha Detective Agency novels, but I mean come on, its competing with a Cadbury chocolate eating baby elephant! But it’s a book that’s modern, well written, gripping and possess twists and turns. It’s short, sharp and snappy! I am proud and satisfied with my choice, as is Saffron and Haley. The others are in agreement that they struggled to put it down, it was intriguing! But alas not all literature is for everyone (albeit I think they are just being fussy)! On to @saffrongarside’s choice next, wonder what the club will think of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada? Stay tuned…
Way back when before we were in lockdown, social distancing and self-isolation, myself and my partner started to look for somewhere to move to. It wasn’t a decision made lightly, moving never is, but we had been in our current place of residency for 6 years and had got unlucky this year with the neighbours. Very unlucky! Fast forward to today, and we have signed contracts exchanged monies, and have received keys: a time to celebrate or a time of guilt?
Considering the circumstances we leave behind regarding neighbours, I am mostly happy, and grateful that the Government have stated moving is essential and still able to go ahead. The issues with this are as we have gone from a furnished property to an unfurnished property, we will be sleeping on a mattress until normalcy returns (or whatever that will look like when we are eventually through the end of the tunnel). Additionally we can’t help feeling guilty with being outside, packing/ unpacking cars, walking mattresses through the streets (because you cannot hire a van), and potentially increasing the risk of spreading anything. We are both fine, and have been in isolation since teaching moved online so we believe we are not carrying anything, but then I assume that is what everyone thinks.
So, it is an exciting time for us, but also a time filled with unease. What will people think of us moving in this time, should we have cancelled/pulled out? But then equally having this normal part of life during this time, I know, is making us happy: but is this selfish? My parents, whom I am contacting daily, and my grandparents are very excited and it seems to also be bringing them some kind of escape (not literally, they are isolating as hopefully we all are), so should I feel guilty?
Would this be something we could universalise? Is this absolutely wrong? I am not saying it is right, but knowing our previous circumstances and why we are moving, it is not a case of we want to live somewhere different (I would have stayed indefinitely – its home), but we were left with little choice, and the timing just outright sucks. But we will be sensible and get moved as soon as possible, and maintain social distancing whilst moving, and also fully submerge back into isolation when we are done!
Maybe I am being selfish, maybe us moving is wrong? What do you think?
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) 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.
 A very rough translation: I learn, whilst I grow, life-long learning.
My name is Sean, I started studying Criminology at the University of Northampton in 2012, graduating in July 2016.
I started University as a switched off young man. I was very much in tune with media and social attitudes as wearing them cost very little and seemed to reap gratification. Studying was always enjoyable as it sparked my brain in ways television and games, or at least my choices in such, didn’t. Appreciating the concept and the opportunity however was always lacking in my 18 year old self. Coming to University and experiencing the electricity of passion mixed with contempt was very perplexing time. Not for long had I decided to think freely or passionately; choosing to study Criminology was a start. Meeting peers and idols of simultaneous do-good and work little nature, was an intense influence. Gratification ultimately came from within and this was the basis to which I began to restructure myself.
Personally, the highest credit should be placed with my course leaders and the content provided. Never in an academical setting had I experienced someone ask me so many questions, yet rather than make me feel stupid; made me feel unprepared. Rather than build themselves up to be superior and towering; made them feel wise and welcoming. It was this, paired with the already enticingly dark yet morally complex content of Criminology that lead to me to free many barriers and much ignorance. This is when the real questions followed and the search for real answers began. Never before had I truly questioned what I had read, seen, heard, even felt or experienced and wholly questioned myself.
This change truly opened a new way of living for me. I am fully aware that such reasoning and ways of thinking could been explored previously, however it was my ignorance and choices, rebellion and ego, that locked these gates. In reference to the timeless ‘Nature vs Nurture’ topic; it was within my path that University, Criminology, @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou were to be the ones to trigger the break in the lock. Now, admittedly, this was not just an overnight spawning of a butterfly from a larva. I still, like many in life, held onto what was familiar with a tight grasp as for an ignorant; change is to admit defeat. Furthermore, to change, to really change, requires dedication and belief. But once logically thinking, questioning and reasoning, alongside giving in to pure curiosity; it is extremely hard not to follow the exciting direction within a moral compass.
From here I can genuinely say I have enjoyed life more and all of its experiences. I have appreciated people more, and taken much more time to try and understand exactly where they stand and come from. I have spent a long time questioning everything, looking for answers or options wherever I can, trying to better myself as a human and continuing to do so. I am honestly far from where I would like to ideally be, but I am truly proud of my experience and change. When I finished University I saw this as the end of my further education, and having worked full time for a few years I could feel my curiosity shift towards less academic interests and the passion begin to fade. However it was not long before a shift back began. This is where I came to a conclusion, which fills me with a happy heart when taken with a positive perspective, that we are all students; students of life. The stronger my curiosity is, the more passionately I will study. So thank you, Criminology Team, for igniting mine. I intend to try and share this passion wherever I go.
I’ve been thinking about Criminology a great deal this summer! Nothing new you might say, given that my career revolves around the discipline. However, my thoughts and reading have focused on the term ‘criminology’ rather than individual studies around crime, criminals, criminal justice and victims. The history of the word itself, is complex, with attempts to identify etymology and attribute ownership, contested (cf. Wilson, 2015). This challenge, however, pales into insignificance, once you wander into the debates about what Criminology is and, by default, what criminology isn’t (cf. Cohen, 1988, Bosworth and Hoyle, 2011, Carlen, 2011, Daly, 2011).
Foucault (1977) infamously described criminology as the embodiment of utilitarianism, suggesting that the discipline both enabled and perpetuated discipline and punishment. That, rather than critical and empathetic, criminology was only ever concerned with finding increasingly sophisticated ways of recording transgression and creating more efficient mechanisms for punishment and control. For a long time, I have resisted and tried to dismiss this description, from my understanding of criminology, perpetually searching for alternative and disruptive narratives, showing that the discipline can be far greater in its search for knowledge, than Foucault (1977) claimed.
However, it is becoming increasingly evident that Foucault (1977) was right; which begs the question how do we move away from this fixation with discipline and punishment? As a consequence, we could then focus on what criminology could be? From my perspective, criminology should be outspoken around what appears to be a culture of misery and suspicion. Instead of focusing on improving fraud detection for peddlers of misery (see the recent collapse of Wonga), or creating ever increasing bureaucracy to enable border control to jostle British citizens from the UK (see the recent Windrush scandal), or ways in which to excuse barbaric and violent processes against passive resistance (see case of Assistant Professor Duff), criminology should demand and inspire something far more profound. A discipline with social justice, civil liberties and human rights at its heart, would see these injustices for what they are, the creation of misery. It would identify, the increasing disproportionality of wealth in the UK and elsewhere and would see food banks, period poverty and homelessness as clearly criminal in intent and symptomatic of an unjust society.
Unless we can move past these law and order narratives and seek a criminology that is focused on making the world a better place, Foucault’s (1977) criticism must stand.
Bosworth, May and Hoyle, Carolyn, (2010), ‘What is Criminology? An Introduction’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (2011), (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 1-12
Carlen, Pat, (2011), ‘Against Evangelism in Academic Criminology: For Criminology as a Scientific Art’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 95-110
Cohen, Stanley, (1988), Against Criminology, (Oxford: Transaction Books)
Daly, Kathleen, (2011), ‘Shake It Up Baby: Practising Rock ‘n’ Roll Criminology’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 111-24
Foucault, Michel, (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. from the French by Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books)
Wilson, Jeffrey R., (2015), ‘The Word Criminology: A Philology and a Definition,’ Criminology, Criminal Justice Law, & Society, 16, 3: 61-82
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)
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)
The English army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book
(Lennon and McCartney, 1967),
The news these days, without fail, is terrible. Wherever you look you are confronted by misery, death, destruction and terror. Regular news channels and social media bombard us with increasingly horrific tales of people living and dying under tremendous pressure, both here in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Below are just a couple of examples drawn from the mainstream media over the space of a few days, each one an example of individual or collective misery. None of them are unique and they all made the headlines in the UK.
So how do we make sense of these tumultuous times? Do we turn our backs and pretend it has nothing to do with us? Can we, as Criminologists, ignore such events and say they are for other people to think about, discuss and resolve?
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Stanley Cohen, posed a similar question; ‘How will we react to the atrocities and suffering that lie ahead?’ (2001: 287). Certainly his text States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering makes clear that each of us has a part to play, firstly by ‘knowing’ that these things happen; in essence, bearing witness and acknowledging the harm inherent in such atrocities. But is this enough?
Cohen, persuasively argues, that our understanding has fundamentally changed:
The political changes of the last decade have radically altered how these issues are framed. The cold-war is over, ordinary “war” does not mean what it used to mean, nor do the terms “nationalism”, “socialism”, “welfare state”, “public order”, “security”, “victim”, “peace-keeping” and “intervention” (2001: 287).
With this in mind, shouldn’t our responses as a society, also have changed, adapted to these new discourses? I would argue, that there is very little evidence to show that this has happened; whilst problems are seemingly framed in different ways, society’s response continues to be overtly punitive. Certainly, the following responses are well rehearsed;
- “move the homeless on”
- “bomb Syria into submission”
- “increase stop and search”
- “longer/harsher prison sentences”
- “it’s your own fault for not having the correct papers?”
Of course, none of the above are new “solutions”. It is well documented throughout much of history, that moving social problems (or as we should acknowledge, people) along, just ensures that the situation continues, after all everyone needs somewhere just to be. Likewise, we have the recent experiences of invading Iraq and Afghanistan to show us (if we didn’t already know from Britain’s experiences during WWII) that you cannot bomb either people or states into submission. As criminologists, we know, only too well, the horrific impact of stop and search, incarceration and banishment and exile, on individuals, families and communities, but it seems, as a society, we do not learn from these experiences.
Yet if we were to imagine, those particular social problems in our own relationships, friendship groups, neighbourhoods and communities, would our responses be the same? Wouldn’t responses be more conciliatory, more empathetic, more helpful, more hopeful and more focused on solving problems, rather than exacerbating the situation?
Next time you read one of these news stories, ask yourself, if it was me or someone important to me that this was happening to, what would I do, how would I resolve the situation, would I be quite so punitive? Until then….
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you (Nietzsche, 1886/2003: 146)
Cohen, Stanley, (2001), States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, (Cambridge: Polity Press)
Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1967), A Day in the Life, [LP]. Recorded by The Beatles in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, EMI Studios: Parlaphone
Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1886/2003), Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, tr. from the German by R. J. Hollingdale, (London: Penguin Books)
Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching on modules in years 1 and 3.
Last term, my 9-year-old son’s class topic was “Crime and Punishment”. They took a historical perspective, comparing punishments across different periods of time and they began their topic with a “creative kickstart”: a visit to the National Museum of Justice in Nottingham (albeit two weeks later than planned because the bus failed to turn up!). They had a whale of a time! They were photographed with a range of gruesome artefacts and they took part in a mock trial (a re-enactment of a genuine historical case). My son’s group acquitted the defendant, Isabella, who was accused of stealing clothes, on the basis of insufficient evidence, but the other group from his school found her guilty.
Part of the class’s enthusiasm for this topic undoubtedly stems from the fascination of 9-year-old children with blood and guts. The teacher reported that they were particularly excited to learn about criminals who had been hung, drawn and quartered (although she refrained from playing them the clips from Gunpowder which depicted what this actually looked and sounded like!!). My son drew great pleasure from thinking about what it would be like if he was actually allowed to impose mediaeval punishments on his arch enemy. However, exploration of issues of crime and punishment has value far beyond satisfying a fascination for the gory.
Thinking about crime and punishment requires critical reasoning skills. What is fair? What is reasonable? How much evidence do I need? How good is this evidence? Why do we do things differently now? And critical reasoning skills are essential for navigating a world of social media, peer pressure, advertising and fake (or at least dubious) news that these children will soon be entering. My son’s class had a debate on the death penalty. When I asked him his views later, over tea, he thought carefully and told me that the death penalty was a good thing because if someone had done something really bad, they deserved a really serious punishment. It was a very good example of level two moral reasoning (Kohlberg, 1964): what you would expect from a reasonably well-adjusted 9-year-old. But the class vote at the end of the debate was split equally for and against, demonstrating a range of views. As we ate our tea, I explained my own position on the death penalty (formulated much later, when I was a post-graduate student), that there are some things that a good society just should not do and killing its own citizens, for whatever reason, is one of those things. That argument might have been a bit abstract for my son to take on board, but it is exactly through discussion and debate and exposure to different views that we develop and improve our critical and moral reasoning skills. It’s never too early to start!
Kohlberg, L. (1964) Development of moral character and moral ideology. In M. Hoffman and L. Hoffman (Eds.) Review of Child Development Research, Vol. 1. (pp. 381-343). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.