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Empathy Amid the “Fake Tales of San Francisco”*
November 23, 2019 17:29 / Leave a comment
This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.
Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.
Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.
I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.
When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.
The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.
- Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
- Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
- Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
- Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
- Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?
I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.
Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.
*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records
‘Guilty’ of Coming Out Daily – Abroad. #BlackenAsiaWithLove
November 20, 2019 08:28 / Leave a comment
I am annoyed that our apartment-building manager told my husband that a two-bedroom had recently become available, and that we should move in because we would be “more comfortable.” My husband always takes such statements at face value, then performs his own cost/benefits analysis. Did the manager offer a discount, I asked? I mean, if he’s genuinely concerned about our comfort, shouldn’t he put his money where his mouth is? That’s probably just the American in me talking: He was either upselling the property or probing us to see what the deal was – not at all concerned about our comfort. I speak code, too.
The most homophobic thing that anyone has ever said to me is not any slur, but that gay people should not “flaunt it.” As if concealing our identities would magically erase homophobia. This reveals that the speaker either doesn’t know – or doesn’t care to know – how readily people everywhere speak about our personal lives. There are random people I have met in every single part of the world, that ask my marital status. It comes shortly after asking my name and where I’m from. The words used are revealing – just ask any divorced person who has engaged with any society’s traditions. Is it deceptive to say that they are “single,” instead? What’s more, regardless of language, preferred terms like “unmarried” reveal the value conferred upon this status. You’re not a whole person until you’re married, and a parent. It is only then that one is genuinely conferred what we sociologists call ‘personhood’. Also, are married lesbians called two Mrs.?
Come out, come out wherever you are.
In many parts of the world, being ‘out’ carries the death penalty, including parts of my father’s homeland, Nigeria. I’ve literally avoided visiting Nigeria because of the media-fueled fear of coming out. I hate the distance it’s wedged between my people, our culture and I. There was a time when coming out was literally the hardest thing I ever had to do. Now, l must come out daily.
Back in the UK, many educators would like to believe that they don’t discuss their personal lives with students. But who hasn’t been casually asked how one spent the weekend? Do I not say “My husband and I…” just as anyone else might? Abroad, do I correct co-workers when they refer to us as ‘friends’? Yesterday, I attended an academic conference. All the usual small talk. I came out a dozen times by lunch.
In teaching English here in Asia, isn’t it unfair for me to conceal from my students the gender of my “life-partner,” which is actually our formal legal status? Am I politicising my classroom by simply teaching gender-neutral terms like ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’? Or, do I simply use the term ‘husband’ and skim over their baffled faces as they try to figure out if they have understood me properly? Am I denying them the opportunity to prepare for the sought-after life in the west? Further, what about the inevitability of that one ‘questioning’ student in my classroom searching for signs of their existence!
I was recently cornered in the hallway by the choreographer hired by our department to support our contribution to the university’s staff talent competition (see picture below*). She spoke with me in German, explaining that she’d lived several years in the former GDR. There are many Vietnamese who’d been ‘repatriated’ from the GDR upon reunification. So, given the historical ties to Communism, it’s commonplace to meet German (and Russian) speakers here. Naturally, folks ask how/why I speak (basic) German. My spouse of seventeen years is German, so it’d be weird if I hadn’t picked up any of the language. It’s really deceptive to conceal gender in German, which has three. I speak German almost every day here in Hanoi.
The word is ‘out’.
In Delhi, we lived in the same 2-bedroom flat for over 7 years. It became clear to our landlady very early on that we slept in one bedroom. Neighbours, we’re told, also noticed that we only ever had one vehicle between us and went most places together. Neither the landlady nor any neighbour ever confronted us, so we never had to formally come out. Yet, the chatter always got back to us.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Mali in the late 90’s, I learned to speak Bambara. Bambara greetings are quite intimate: One normally asks about spouses, parents and/or children, just as Black-Americans traditionally would say “How yo’ momma doin?’” In Mali, village people make it their business to get single folks hitched. Between the Americans, then, it became commonplace to fake a spouse, just so one would be left in peace. Some women wore wedding bands for added protection, as a single woman living alone was unconscionable. The official advice for gays was to stay closeted L. While I pretended to be the husband of several volunteers, I could never really get the gist of it in my village. Besides, at 23 years old, being a single man wasn’t as damning as it is for women. I only needed excuses to reject the young women villagers presented to me. Anyhow, as soon as city migrants poured back to the village for Ramadan, I quickly discovered that there are plenty of LGBTQ+ folks in Mali! This was decades before Grindr.
Here in Hanoi, guys regularly, casually make gestures serving up females, as if to say: ‘Look, she’s available, have her’. I’ve never bothered to learn the expected response, nor paid enough attention to how straight men handle such scenarios. Recently, as we left a local beer hall with another (gay) couple, one waiter rather cheekily made such gestures at a hostess. In response, I made the same gestures towards him; he then served himself up as if to say ‘OK’. That’s what’s different about NOW as opposed to any earlier period: Millennials everywhere are aware of gay people.
A group of lads I sat with recently at a local tea stall made the same gestures to the one girl in their group. After coming out, the main instigator seamlessly gestured towards the most handsome in his clique. When I press Nigerian youth about the issue, the response is often the same: We don’t have a problem with gay people, we know gay people, it’s the old folk’s problem. Our building manager may be such a relic.
*Picture from The 2019 Traditional Arts Festival at Hanoi University of Science and Technology (HUST)
Ignorance to curiosity
February 26, 2019 11:00 / Leave a comment
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.
The Criminology Toolbox
August 28, 2018 11:00 / Leave a comment
Whilst sitting at my desk at work recently I realised just how much I took away with me in my toolbox from my time studying Criminology. I wanted this blog to be about exactly how this discipline has helped me in my personal and working life and the transferable skills I acquired without even realising I was using them.
In 2011 I came to University an 18 year old with a very closed and one sided mind set and this is something I will openly admit to! A memory that I feel will stick with me forever is from a Crime and Society seminar in the first year with @manosdaskalou. I remember openly saying to him that I felt prisoners should not be allowed to have televisions whilst in prison and that they were there to do their sentence and not watch this week’s Hollyoaks (@manosdaskalou you may remember that sour faced girl sat in front of you, although the sour face is still very much there!). I am sure those of you reading will be cursing BUT my self-righteous opinions did change and the more I attended various lectures and seminars, the more I became open to listening to and respecting the opinions of my peers and became further educated about the impact rehabilitation and second chances have on lives.
In my second year I volunteered for an organisation focusing primarily on helping individuals who had been in the Criminal Justice System with gaining employment and education. As soon as I walked through those doors I saw first-hand the positive impact this organisation had on the lives of those using the service.
I had an opportunity to assist on a healthy living course for individuals recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. Some of those attending the course had never taken an exam before or even been in an educational setting and others struggled with reading. I quickly realised the privileged position I was in to be able to even be at University and do things I feel we all take for granted sometimes such as reading. I also provided some advice to a young female who completely freaked out at the idea of taking a multiple choice test. I gave her some tips before that I had acquired from my own experiences. She was so very thankful to me and I will always remember her.
In terms of the other skills I now have in my toolbox, the thought of standing up and presenting in front of my peers at University terrified me, however in doing that I can now confidently stand up in front of my colleagues and bosses to present information and contribute in meetings. I can also provide evidence in court thanks to learning about the criminal process.
Having the opportunity to debate certain issues within the criminological world and society has taught me to have a voice and provide my point in a professional manner whilst listening to others. From the assignments set, to working within a timetable, it has all enabled me to build upon my time management and organisational skills. Working to tight deadlines also does not daunt me especially when I now have work to them daily.
I think we can all be truthful here and say we did groan a little bit when we were given extra reading to do at home and to critically analyse various pieces of text for the next seminar (heaven forbid!). However, being able to analyse a piece of text is a skill I use every day in my job with Northamptonshire Police especially when building court files and reading the fibs and fairy tales that some of our customers can provide. Criminology taught me to be critical of everything around me, take on board criticism and ask questions. I now ensure I stick my head above the parapet and often put the police officers in their place, as they do need it sometimes!
On the whole, I am thankful for the transferable skills I acquired from studying Criminology despite using them daily and not realising until my desk epiphany! I graduated in 2014 with a toolbox of skills ready for the big wide world and I will cherish them always. Who knows, it may even help me with becoming a parent in November!