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‘Now is the winter of our discontent’

As I write this blog, we await the detail of what on earth government are going to do to prevent millions of our nations’ populations plummeting headlong into poverty.  It is our nations in the plural because as it stands, we are a union of nations under the banner Great Britain; except that it doesn’t feel that great, does it?

As autumn begins and we move into winter we are seeing momentum gaining for mass strikes across various sectors somewhat reminiscent of the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979.  A few of us are old enough to remember the seventies with electricity blackouts and constant strikes and soaring inflation.  Enter Margaret Thatcher with a landslide election victory in 1979. People had had enough of strikes, believing the rhetoric that the unions had brought the downfall of the nation. Few could have foreseen the misery and social discord the Thatcher government and subsequent governments were about to sow.  Those governments sought to ensure that the unions would never be strong again, to ensure that working class people couldn’t rise up against their business masters and demand better working conditions and better pay.  And so, in some bizarre ironic twist, we have a new prime minister who styles herself on Thatcher just as we enter a period of huge inflationary pressures on families many of whom are already on the breadline.  It is no surprise that workers are voting to go on strike across a significant number of sectors, the wages just don’t pay the bills. Perhaps most surprising is the strike by barristers, those we wouldn’t consider working class. Jock Young was right, the middle classes are staring into the abyss.  Not only that but their fears are now rapidly being realised.

I listened to a young Conservative member on the radio the other day extolling the virtues of Liz Truss and agreeing with the view that tax cuts were the way forward. Trickle down economics will make us all better off.  It seems though that no matter what government is in power, I have yet to see very much trickle down to the poorer sectors of society or for that matter, anyone.  The blame for the current economic state and the forthcoming recession it seems rests fairly on the shoulders of Vladimir Putin.  Now I have no doubt that the invasion of Ukraine has unbalanced the world economic order but let’s be honest here, social care, the NHS, housing, and the criminal justice system, to name but a few, were all failing and in crisis long before any Russian set foot in the Ukraine.

That young Conservative also spoke about liberal values, the need for government to step back and to interfere in peoples lives as little as possible. Well previous governments have certainly done that. They’ve created or at least allowed for the creation of the mess we are now in by supporting, through act or omission, unscrupulous businesses to take advantage of people through scurrilous working practices and inadequate wages whilst lining the pockets of the wealthy. Except of course government have been quick to threaten action when people attempt to stand up for their rights through strike action.  Maybe being a libertarian allows you to pick and choose which values you favour at any given time, a bit of this and a bit of that.  It’s a bit like this country’s adherence to ideals around human rights.

I wondered as I started writing this whether we were heading back to a winter of discontent.  I fear that in reality that this is not a seasonal thing, it is a constant.  Our nations have been bedevilled with inadequate government that have lacked the wherewithal to see what has been developing before their very eyes.  Either that or they were too busy feathering their own nests in the cesspit they call politics.  Either way government has failed us, and I don’t think the new incumbent, judging on her past record, is likely to do anything different. I suppose there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we have pork markets somewhere or other.  

The silenced hybrid voices in lecturing teams

Rightly so, there has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the struggles of full-time academic staff in higher education institutions in our previous posts: Higher education, students, the strikes and me*, The strikes and me: never going back! and Industrial action, knowledge, and blurred lines. For the sake of clarity, this post is not designed to distract from some of the very real problems they face. Instead, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the silent voices in lecturing teams: PhD Students who are also Visiting Lecturers (VL’s) or Associate Lecturers (AL’s). Having been both an AL and VL in the past for various higher education institutions, and simultaneously a self-funded PhD student, the experience of those who have very kindly offered to share with me their stories, struggles and often deteriorating coping mechanisms resonate with my own. I am grateful for the unexpected avalanche of responses I received from VL/AL’s from various universities on this very issue, including current and former colleagues. I should stress that this is neither targeted at any one individual university, nor do I claim that these are universal experiences for those in similar positions.

These students are hybrid beings, often stuck in a limbo of loyalty to their respective graduate schools, their fellow lecturing colleagues and the students they teach. Despite this, or perhaps more appropriately because of this, many VL/AL’s are not fully trained or integrated into the roles they are expected to play within the university sector. Firstly, adequate training is almost non-existent in most universities for new starters, who are often expected to simply jump into the deep end without adequate experience. What is available to VL/AL’s in helping with building knowledge and experience in higher education teaching is the offer for them to take ‘independent initiative’ in signing up to undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate of Higher Education (PGCert/PGCHE) which leads to a subsequent Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). The experience of taking this course and securing the Fellowship was highly positive amongst those who contacted me prior to the writing of this post, though of course this may vary depending on the institution. The problem is, the course is rarely, if ever, offered before VL/AL’s begin teaching and is often treated as a simple tick box exercise to boost departmental or institutional reputation through an increased number of Associate or full Fellowships within their ranks. Secondly, integration into their roles is often stifled by various reasons, including somewhat critical outlooks within their teams on emerging pedagogical research focused on student experience, misguided assumptions that they are ‘more students than lecturers’ and/or the belief by others that they are not likely to remain as permanent members of the teaching team. These issues relating to hybridity lead to VL/AL’s often feeling as though they do not carry the same “worthy status” by colleagues or the department of being co-creators of the curriculum, being included in important communication relating to decision-making which will affect their ability to carry out their teaching and learning sessions, or in generally expressing discontent for various issues which they are facing in their roles.

One of these issues related to low wages, which is a rather common issue affecting employees across most sectors, especially in the current cost of living crisis. It may seem rather trivial to those in higher education institutions tasked solely with ensuring maximum profit by quantifying the experience of teaching, but the struggles faced by those VL/AL’s on 0-hour contracts are widespread and damaging. Though there are distinct differences across institutions in how these contracts are managed, or how their staff are paid, many practices seem to be commonplace, such as for instance paying solely for hours spent actually teaching. In circumstances where academic staff may spend hours on end preparing for teaching and learning sessions, engaging in a subsequent wind-down of emotions potentially triggered from the sessions, and then engage in copious amounts of marking (sometimes as many as 100 scripts at the same time due to the bunching of deadlines), being paid only on the basis of having taught a 1 or 2 hour session, even at what may seem a reasonable hourly wage in other sectors equates to less than minimum-wage if the maths is done correctly. There are nuanced differences of course between those VL/AL staff who are self-funded and those on studentships or scholarships, the latter receiving a flat-rate annual “salary” alongside a tuition fee waiver. Having said that, those on scholarships or studentships tended to face other challenges throughout the payment process, including lack of automatic payments, breakdown of communication with those organising these manually, and the general slowness in being ‘set up’ for all the admin-related tasks expected of them (including email accounts, e-learning, lack of training etc.).

The challenges of 0-hour contracts, although they are not described as such within the contracts themselves, also include a looming sense of dread for VL/AL academics approaching the summer months, when they know that they will be left penniless by their universities. If on a full-time status, those who are self-funded and undertaking a PhD are also barred from claiming any kind of benefit entitlements due to the receipt of a postgraduate student loan from Student Finance England. It is important to note that the maximum entitlement for this loan is £25,000 over the course of what is, on average, a 3-5 year research project. The average tuition fee for research degrees is over £5,000 per year. At the most ambitious end of the PhD completion scale, undertaking a 3-year research project with a £25,000 loan, leaves a £10,000 remainint total which is expected to help the student survive for 3 years. Of course, most PhDs exceed the 3-year mark and, combined with the challenges of not being paid by their universities over the summer months, this takes a serious toll on mental health which paradoxically affects their ability to dedicate full focus on their research projects. It inevitably leads to VL/AL staff scrambling to “take on” additional modules of teaching in an attempt to save enough to make ends meet throughout the summer, which again leaves them with little time or mental strength to focus on their PhD research.

Mental health is an issue which spans across a variety of challenges faced by VL/AL’s undertaking a PhD. There are intersectional elements which are not taken into consideration by higher education institutions that take a serious toll on their ability to juggle between their roles as facilitators of teaching and learning, students undertaking a PhD, but also human beings with a variety of other important identities in need of comfort, reassurance and support. Many universities fail to recognise nuanced issues arising from increasingly consumer-focused, neoliberal and bureaucratic practices adopted, which leave those who already struggle due to their class status, race, gender, or parenthood, with even less support than one individual characteristic that higher education assumes can be tick boxed away through a single counselling session. Some of the responses I received drew attention to the intersectional nature of class and race, others class and gender, and some even a combination of all three with an inclusion of motherhood or parenthood in general. It seems that experiences have been similar in that many higher education institutions still fail to take into consideration how the challenges associated with each individual identity are exacerbated when combined. These include a lack of acknowledgement that (1) money is a real issue, (2) there are racial, cultural and religious barriers which often mean an increased requirement of attention on family and social life beyond work, (3) certain departments and faculties are still male-centric, (4) motherhood and parenting requires serious review of pay and workload, and (5) many subject or course leaders are failing to recognise their curriculum content and teaching/learning practices are essentially colonising their own colleagues. A former colleague even encompassed all of these identities: an ethnically minoritised working-class mother of two children. One cannot begin to imagine the mental health struggles someone in this position faces during summer months in an ever-failing welfare system.

Academics who have not been through similar intersectional struggles seem to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge even the existence of them and the genuine impact that they have for their colleagues who spend a large proportion of their day-to-day work life trying (on top of everything else) to resist barriers to gender identities, dispel unconscious racial biases within their teams, or simply to provide their children with the level of care, love and support that they deserve. It can lead to a continuous interplay of unconscious gaslighting by one’s own full-time colleagues – some quotes provided to me by respondents were: “I teach more modules than you do, so you’ll be okay”, “yes but we all had the same amount of marking”, “can’t you do it over the weekend?” and “you need to work on your time management skills”. Despite many of us spending years drawing attention to stigma, oppression, marginalisation and social inequality, deconstructing and reconstructing by-gone theories that reproduce hegemony, we seem to allow it to flourish so easily under our noses and within our own institutions. This can perhaps serve as a reminder for all academics within higher education institutions, but also those focused on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, to step up their game by adopting principles of co-creation and genuine participatory change. After all, while the ultimate goal may be the same, the journey must be mapped out by those who have already experienced, and continue to experience, the inclines.

From Criminal to the ‘Rule of Law’? Johnson’s border policy on refugees

Photograph by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images in The Guardian

Britain has a very proud history of taking refugees and migrants from war-torn and destabilised areas of the world – this is a fact which has been made clear from all sides of the political spectrum. What is concerning, however, is that this statement has since Brexit been continuously added as a precursor to every new border policy blunder made by the UK Conservative government in an attempt to ‘soften the blow’ of public perception. It is the paradox of Boris Johnson trying to appeal to those sympathetic to migration, but to also appease hard-line anti-immigration Brexiteers. This paradox was inevitable, given (a) the close split between Leave and Remain votes in the 2016 EU Referendum, and (b) the amount of lies told to both sides of this debate by Johnson and his ‘mates’ in a desperate attempt to gain political power in 2019…leaving the British public in permanent limbo as whether or not ‘Brexit’ (in the way it was described) had even taken place at all; a state of ‘technically we’re out, but we’re not really out’.

Given the ease of shaping and reproducing ‘empty signifiers’ (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Torfing, 1999) within this discursive limbo, Boris Johnson’s latest border policy disaster relating to refugee border crossings was announced yesterday. The new “genius” idea will be to deport those who are single men crossing the Channel in boats or lorries from France to Rwanda for ‘processing’. Of course, as per usual, this was seemingly quite a surprise to the Minister of State for Refugees who claimed on LBC just over a week prior to the announcement that he had no knowledge of any new plans to send anyone to Rwanda.

Before going into the details of the hypocrisy associated with this policy in the light of the war in Ukraine, what I fail to understand is the entire point of this process. Boris Johnson’s announcement seemed to focus most of his rhetoric on the ‘illegality’ of the status of people entering UK borders, as well as the need to curb ‘people smuggling’. He merged this part of his speech with Ukrainian refugees in an attempt to, once again, appear to seem more sympathetic to the struggle of fleeing populations than he is in reality…’whether you are fleeing Putin or Assad, our aim is that you should not need to turn to people smugglers or any other kind of illegal option’. It is important to note that we shouldn’t be confusing (as often happens) the term ‘people smugglers’ with ‘sex traffickers’, whose motives are wholly different than merely receiving money to aid someone’s journey across nation state borders. People smugglers tend to take advantage of those who are in sheer desperation. This desperation is normally grounded in a combination of multiple factors: (1) destabilisation in their home country, (2) fear for their life, safety, or future (or that of their family), (3) strong desire for liberation or freedom and, most importantly, (4) a practical inability to actually escape their current borders.

With this in mind, it is astonishing to hear Johnson trying to justify this policy on the grounds that he is somewhat of a rule-of-law fan, wishing to drive out illegal behaviour from UK borders, given that he has recently become the first ever serving UK Prime Minister to have been sanctioned for breaking the criminal law. As with many similar approaches to these types of policies in the past (the obvious being the so-called ‘war on drugs’), the core motivation has very little to do with the actual human safety, and more rooted in neoliberal frustrations of the (and I deliberately use this term in its loosest possible sense) ’tax-paying’ Eton schoolboys at others, within UK borders or otherwise, earning any kind of money from which they are not directly benefitting. This ties in closely to, what I mentioned in a previous post, as the UK Conservative Party’s lazy response to sanctioning oligarchs linked to the Putin regime…for obvious personal reasons.

Most striking here is the level of hypocrisy between who is considered part of the in-group of migrants and refugees, and who is the ‘other’; the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ (Cottle, 2000; Van Dijck, 2000; Quinsaat, 2011; Reed, 2017). Without deflecting from Putin’s responsibility in reproducing anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia and surrounding former Soviet nations, and framing the ethnic group as some kind of leeching parasite on the Russian people, we have seen both overt and covert racism at play in Ukraine and other parts of the world in relation to this idea of ‘ideal’ refugees. The UK is no exception to this. Not since the aftermath of the Second World War have we seen the type of outpouring of sympathy by the British public towards a persecuted ethnic group, with hundreds-of-thousands opening up their homes to house refugees expected imminently. Of course we should be proud of every hand extended to any human in need of help, but where was this reaction when Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans were fleeing their countries due to botched UK military operations in their sovereign territory? Where is this reaction when innocent Yemeni people are calling on the world to help while we are funding Saudi Arabia’s genocidal campaign in their sovereign territory?

It is too simple to claim that this issue is purely related to skin-colour-based racism or another type of xeno-racism, because we know this not to be the case. Perhaps due to the personal nature of the conflict in the Republic of Artsakh in late 2020 which killed thousands of Armenians and displaced around 90,000, and the rhetoric of neutrality from the UK Conservative government (due to their close monetary ties with the aggressor and his oligarch friends), the mainstream media and near-total silence from prominent celebrities…all of whom seem to now scream for action in response to Ukraine (rightly so), but I can’t help but echo a question asked by another Armenian, Tatev Hovhannisyan: Where was the outpouring of empathy when my country was at war?

Photograph by Areg Balayan, Government of Armenia, from The Armenian Weekly

Perhaps to understand the nature of this hypocrisy we need to focus more on the complex interplay between the nation state, power and discourse. I would add another element into this equation: money. In a neoliberal, populist political model, dictators seemingly pay vast sums of money to other nation states in exchange for the unyielding, unchallenged and unregulated power to produce and reproduce dominant discourses which ground their version of hegemony within those states.

References

Cottle, S. (Ed.). (2000). Ethnic Minorities and the Media. Open University Press.

Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso.

Quinsaat, S. M. (2011). ‘Everybody Around Here is from Somewhere Else’: News frames and hegemonic discourses in the immigration debates in the United States, 2006 and 2010 [MA Thesis]. University of Pittsburgh: Kenneth P Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Reed, H. (2017). Framing of Immigrants and Refugees: A content analysis of mainstream and partisan news coverage of immigration [MA Thesis]. University of Missouri: Faculty of the Graduate School.

Torfing, J. (1999). New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Žižek. Blackwell.

Van Dijk, T. A. (2000). New(s) Racism: A Discourse Analytical Approach. European Journal of Political Economy, 33–49.

No April Fools

The first of April has consisted of a steep 54% rise in what energy company’s can charge customers for using energy, with further rises set to occur in October. This coincides with rises to other bills such as council tax, national insurance and water within a climate of inflation. Previous to this many were struggling to make ends meet…what are these people supposed to do now?

Russia’s atrocities and Covid-19 have been blamed for the steep price increases and inflation. I suspect that employers will be using this as a reason to not increase the persistent low rises in wages that workers are receiving, all whilst their bosses are becoming richer and richer. Of course, both Russia and Covid will have a significant impact on the economy, however, it does not take a genius to be aware that people have been struggling to survive well before this, hence terms like, food poverty, period poverty and fuel poverty predate these issues. Also, so do the persistent low rises in wages for workers.  

Apparently, MPs are due a £2,200 pay rise which whilst it seems low (2.7%) compared to inflation, a few MPs themselves (such as Zarah Sultana) have stated that they do not need this pay rise as they already receive a high paying wage.

Oh, and let us not forget that the increasing energy prices will ensure that privatised fuel companies such as Shell and BP continue to profit, with a predicted profit of £40 BILLION for this year.

Meanwhile benefits for those who are not formally employed and spend a higher proportion of money on household bills and rent are set to increase by 3.1% – a rise which will not cover these price increases.

How is it that employers and the State cannot afford to pay people more – but can ensure high wages for the already rich, privileged and powerful?

It is not surprising that the government’s measures to deal with the problem, such as one-off payments and energy loans, have been heavily criticised as inadequate and significantly failing to support the lowest income homes. The government employs a group of elites and many are completely out of touch with reality. Apparently the man presiding over these measures, millionaire Rishi Sunak and his billionaire wife, often donate to charitable causes, such as donating £100,000 to Rishi’s former elitist private school. Because a private school in need is a pressing cause…yeah right!

Image from Hollie McNish Cherry Pie 2014

The opposition parties have rightly criticised the Conservatives take on this but listening to Keir Starmer’s bumbling take on what Labour would do to solve these issues is also worrying. During an interview he stated that windfall tax could be a solution ‘for right now’ with no feasible long term plan. My usual vote for Labour in May will be damage control against more Tory time in power.

A long term TAX on THE RICH to use this money to support those that need it is not even that simple, given that the government accepts donations from the super-rich it is unlikely that decisions would be made to genuinely reduce inequality between the rich and poor. The world will never be a better place if those in power continue to focus on their own interests and huge profits in place of looking after people. The rise in energy prices on the first of this month was no April Fools’ joke…I really wish that it was.

“…the result is the same:  beasts of prey and ignorant thieves”

Photograph by AP in The Guardian

Since the ousting of a close Putin ally (ex-President Viktor Yanukovich) from Ukrainian politics and territory in 2014 during the Euromaidan revolution, the closeness the country had come to actually joining the defensive NATO alliance seems to have irked Putin enough to swiftly “recognise the independence” of, as with Crimea in 2014, two Eastern-Ukrainian regions, Donetsk and Luhansk. It is not a new politically strategic move and certainly not unique to Russia. Examples of this kind of act can be seen around the world in regions where complex power interplays are rendering regional enclaves powerless in garnering enough support for the recognition of their own independence from oppressive regimes, genocide or in securing mere rights to self-determination (e.g. Kashmir in Northern India, Artsakh in South-Eastern Armenia etc.).

Yesterday morning we awoke to the news that Russia’s Vladimir Putin had ordered a full-scale attack on Ukrainian sovereign territory, in violation of international law (among many other violations of basic morality and human decency). I should emphasise here that this is a Putin-centred issue rather than one which encompasses the Russian Federation, since it is not inconceivable to suggest that ordinary Russian citizens are not particularly excited that their relatives, friends, children are being sent to die like cattle in another country while their billionaire leader basks in complete safety in his ivory tower. With an attack from the northern, eastern and southern borders of the country…and now the imminent arrival of Russian troops in Ukraine’s capital Kiev…this does not seem like just a case of Putin’s desire to rebuild a modern-day Russian empire incorporating its former Soviet nations, but a much deeper personal desperation to be seen to be the only globally-remaining strong leader.

The stepping down of Angela Merkel in Germany, ousting of Donald Trump from the US, and the failure of Brexit in achieving what he thought would be a political and economic disaster for the European Union, have all contributed to Putin’s desperation. The poisoning and subsequent arrest/detention of Alexei Navalny, the populist Russian opposition leader who in recent years managed to almost successfully stage a political coop against Putin, demonstrates the lengths Putin will go to convince his increasingly oppressed citizens that the alternative to his leadership will equate to the kinds of political and economic failures they have witnessed of Western nations.

It is clear that the UK’s sanctions have not gone near far enough in preventing the kinds of miscarriages of justice that will inevitably follow from Putin’s appointment of a de facto Russian leader on Ukrainian soil without democratic support from the Ukrainian people. But I wonder whether the seemingly lazy response from Boris Johnson and the UK Conservative Party is indicative of the deeply-rooted corruption which helped his eventual election into British politics. We had for many years been aware of the extent of foreign money laundering through UK banks by Russian and Azerbaijani oligarchs, the billions of pounds’ worth of UK property owned by those with close ties to the Kremlin, the millions donated to fund the Conservative Party, and perhaps most significantly, the “we’ll return the favour” investments by Conservative politicians in Russian-owned banks, stocks and shares. Is it then surprising that Putin was so supportive of the Brexit campaign and the election of Donald Trump, both seemingly aimed at destabilising the West; the US, UK and EU? Surely, now is the time for the British public to demand the highest level of openness and transparency of their politicians, particularly those who have already been elected under the banner of lies. Perhaps this will help in our collective political and economic response to miscarriages abroad, as well as within our borders.

NATO nations’ unwillingness to intervene, militarily, in this conflict is evidently the green light Putin needed to set foot in sovereign territory under the guise of “denazification” (bizarre considering Volodymyr Zelenskyy – the current Ukrainian President –  is himself Jewish).  This should form a stark reminder to former Soviet nations not to be seduced by the thought of reliving some kind of Soviet nostalgia of perceived religious and cultural similarities with Russia which has been drip-fed for many years since the collapse of the USSR. Those living in this hazy nostalgic dream will soon forget the reality that the experience of a Russian invasion will be grounded not in the form of communism which once secured its citizens with guaranteed housing, easy employment, and annual trips to the sanatorium…but in a dangerous oppressive dictatorship and an isolationist economic model. To quote a well-known message from a 1993 Russian film Window to Paris: ‘Sure. You brought up builders of communism. Now, it’s builders of capitalism. And the result is the same: beasts of prey and ignorant thieves’.

Former Soviet nations not aiding and abetting the current aggression in Ukraine (as Belarus is doing) should now be alert to the fact that they will never be safe in a military limbo, nor under Putin’s wing. It is a time where citizens of these regions should let go of any hope of a return to a “simpler way of life” and move to securing effective political and military support for their nations away from Russian influence.

Who’s to blame, Jimmy Carr or the system that feeds him?

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

NB: The term ‘white’ in this blog is being used to describe those racialised as white within the dominant culture of the UK, and those that benefit the most from white privilege. Though Gypsy Roma Traveller [GRT] communities may in cases be racialised as white, their culture sits juxtaposed to the dominant thus ‘not white enough’, so may not always be seen as white by white British people (see Bhopal, 2018: 29-47).

“Extending the gaze to whiteness enables us to observe the many shades of difference that lie within this category – that some people are ‘whiter’ than others, some are not white enough and many are inescapably cast beneath the shadow of whiteness” (Nayak, 2007).


Following Haley’s excellent blog on the Jimmy Carr debacle, I would like to bring another perspective. For those of us racialised outside of whiteness, I know I do not need to describe the litany of examples where those racialised as white portray racist hatred as humour on and off social media. Haley continues in writing, “Jimmy Carr’s [His] Dark Material stand-up comedy is the latest in a long line of everyday racism that has been subjected to a trial by Twitter.” When we challenge these “jokes”, at least in my experience I was told iterations of “stop being so sensitive”; “it’s just a joke”; “lighten up” and so on …

In her long-essay What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition, Irish author-academic Emma Dabiri (2021) writes:

“I grew up in a culture of bantering and, ngl, I love a caustic riposte. And while in certain ways I resent the current policing of language, there is a distinction. I hate to break it to you, but a “joke” in which the gag is that the person is black isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humor. A joke told to a white audience where the punch line is a racist stereotype isn’t a joke, again it’s just racism; if there is only one black person present, it’s also cowardly and it’s bullying. Jokes of this nature probably aren’t funny for black people.”

Emma Dabiri (2021: 98)
Photo by Dorin Seremet on Unsplash

Whilst in my time writing for Thoughts I have engaged with many issues, one I have not yet written on is the ‘canteen culture’ of bantering I grew up in amid the English private school system. So, I am quite familiar with the culture of private schools having gone to them myself (aged 5-16) where racism (specifically anti-Blackness) against me was passed off as “a ‘joke’ in which the gag is … just racism disguised as humour”(Dabiri, 2021: 98). As a boy, Carr went to sixth form at Royal Grammar School, a selective boys’ school in High Wycombe in the image of a posh state school famous for projecting its boys into Oxbridge. Thus Jimmy Carr passed into Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

If there was to be a culture of ‘banter’ where Carr learned such behaviours, these selective schools and universities are a good place to start. For people not racialised as white, these places can be a new-kind of hell very much in the image of colonial-style racism. At school, in my experience there existed a toxic human concotion of racism (as banter) which infected not only the students but also the staff. It’s this sort of thing that may sit under the thinking behind Carr’s “joke”, and why he thought it was okay to make it in the first place. However, as much as I would like make this about him, this isn’t really about him at all.

Carr has had a very successful career of punching down on the marginalised and historically excluded, profiting from their suffering. For me, this is more about how large institutions like Netflix give platforms to people they know are bad news and let them espouse hatred anyway. Professor Sunny Singh tweeted how it is a “reminder that Jimmy Carr’s joke went through a whole production process in order to appear on @netflix.” When we consider how any piece of media goes through a rigorous editing / production process, the fact nobody questioned a Holocaust “joke” about Roma and Sinti people is a stark reminder of how white supremacy functions in media.

Here a white man makes a “joke” to an audience of mostly white people backed by a production team (largely white, let’s be honest) at a white institution Netflix … with ‘institutional whiteness’ hardening (Ahmed 2006; 2007; 2012; 2014; Hunter, 2015; 2019; White Spaces). Simply affirming what the late Charles Mills (2004) wrote where “… white supremacy implies the existence of a system that not only privileges whites but is run by whites, for white benefit” (p31).

The uproar to Jimmy Carr’s “joke” follows #ClanchyGate where author-schoolteacher Kate Clanchy was criticised for perpetuating racism and ableism in her 2019 memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She used descriptions like “chocolate-coloured skin” and “almond-shaped eyes.”Moreover, she referred to autistic children as “unselfconsciously odd” and “probably more than an hour a week” around them “would irriate me, too, but for that hour I like them very much.”

Like Netflix, her publisher Picador did not spot these in the editing process. Or they did spot them, and said nothing … reiterating the ableism, racism, and white supremacy that exists in publishing where rather than hold Kate Clanchy accountable, her colleagues like Philip Pullman berated women of colour who challenged her taking to Twitter and comparing them to the Taliban. The same three women of colour who have been erased from this discourse. The issue with Picador is a reminder of how predominantly white artists (not always … like Dave Chappelle in his Netflix special The Closer) with power are then platformed with no accountability when they cause harm (intended or not). Kate Clanchy has since gone on to find another publisher for her book after she was required to rewrite!!

Jimmy Carr follows Chapelle, Clanchy as well as Joe Rogan and his racist rhetoric. Not only is Carr’s just horrific, but it also reinforces the the discrimination Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller [GRT] people face in Britain where their cultures will be erased should the government’s crime, policing and sentencing bill reach fruition. The conversation around Carr’s “joke” reminds me how general opinion is still comfortable with racism so long as it is wrapped in ‘humour’. With the ‘free speech’ champions following behind. It’s also showing me the number of people that think racism only happens to those racialised as Black or Brown.

It is not so simple. The way we define racism is worthy of further discussion and analysis when we consider the racism that happens because of cultural belongings. As Emma Dabiri writes:

“The myth of a unified white ‘race’ makes white people, from what are in truth distinct groups, better able to identify common ground with each other and to imagine kinship and solidarity with others racialized as ‘white’, while at the same time withholding the humanity of racialized others. The ability of whiteness to create fictive kinships where differences might outweigh similarities, or where one ‘white’ group thrives and prospers through the exploitation of another ‘white’ group, all united under the rubric of whiteness constructs at the same time a zone of exclusion for racialized ‘others’, where in fact less expected affinities and even cultural resonances might reside.

In truth, this is the work of whiteness, who invention was to serve that function. Saying that all “white” people are the same irrespective of say, culture, nationality, locatioin, and class literally does the work of whiteness for it. But despite the continuities of whiteness – the sense of superiority that is embedded in its existence – we cannot disregard the differences that exist. This demands a truthful reckoning with the fact that the particulars of whiteness, as well as the nature of the relationship between black and white, will show up differently in different countries and require the crafting of different responses.”

(Dabiri, 2021: 45-46)

Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next (2021) follows David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness (1991), Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (1995), Matthew Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1998) and Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People (2010), all of which in some way show how different white groups have modifiers attached when talking about “white people.” This must be discussed interlocking with other factors including culture, place/geography, and class. Through Roediger, Ignatiev, Jacobson, Painter, Dabiri, and other scholars, we can see how whiteness splits and mutates to serve its purpose of divide and rule, and really how white supremacy may also negatively impact against those read as white and ‘not white enough’ in different ways.

Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash

The late archbishop Desmond Tutu believed that our quest for liberating the oppressed must also come with liberating the oppressor too. He saw how white South Africans during Apartheid had become bitter and hateful as a result of the racism that pervaded through their lives on a daily basis. Visiting Israel as well, he saw the same thing in the Israeli state’s dehumanisation of the Palestinian people. As Tutu himself states:

“Part of my own concern for what is happening there [Israel] is in fact not what is happening to the Palestinians, but is what the Israelis are doing to themselves. When you go to those checkpoints and you see these young soldiers behaving abominably badly, they are not aware when you carry out dehumanising policies, whether you like it or not those policies dehumanise the perpetrator.”

Demond Tutu

That ‘dehumanisation of the Other’ is central to any system of oppression, and we see this again in Britain with the police’s treatment of Black people going all the way back to 1919. However, we also see it in the state’s treatment of GRT people, compounded by the policing and sentencing bill. On a local level, the dehumanisation of GRT communities can be seen again when we observe the comments sections of local news. The comments of everyday people reflect the racist policymaking of politicians. In the continuous persecution of racialised minorities more generally in Britain, we must also consider what racism does to the perpetrators and what this ‘dehumanisation of the Other’ has done to the cultural majority. Even scarier, what has this dehumanisation done to the people that do not even realise they are racist?

When that ‘dehumanising’ appears on big public platforms like stand-up “comedy” shows, we have a problem – essentially giving racism the green light underpinned by violent policymaking in government. So, the discussions around Jimmy Carr not only show me that there needs to be more conversation about how whiteness impacts those read as Black or Brown, but also how whiteness impacts those read as white or not white enough (GRT, Eastern Europeans and so forth). We have work to do and lots of it.

Colston, the toppling of a pejorative narrative

https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-the-uk/how-statues-in-britain-began-to-fall

The acquittal of the four defendants for their role in the toppling of Edward Colston in Bristol has created an interesting debate and in some, more right-wing quarters, fury.  In an interview following the verdict Boris Johnson stated we cannot seek to “retrospectively change our history

But what history is he talking about, the one where this country was heavily involved in slavery or some other history around Empire and ‘jolly hockey sticks and all that sort of thing’?  

History tells us that this country’s empire, like all empires significantly benefited from its conquests to the detriment of those conquered.  Although if you watch the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, the right of the political spectrum might find some comfort in the sketch that starts with ‘What have the Romans ever done for us’?  This country’s history is complex more so because it is a shared history with its own inhabits and those of other countries across most of the world.  A history of slaves and slave traders.  A history of rich and powerful and poor and powerless. A history of remapping of countries, redefining of borders, of the creation of unrest, uncertainty and chaos.  A history of theft, asset stripping, taking advantage and disempowerment. As well as a history of standing up to would be oppressors.  It is a complex history but not one that is somehow rewritten or removed by the toppling of a statue of a slave trader.

The tearing down of the statue is history. It is a fact that this country’s so called great and good of the time were tarnished by a despicable trade in human misery.  The legacy of that lives on to this day. Great and good then, not so now, in fact they never were, were they? It may be questionable whether the circumstances of the removal of the statue were right, hence the charges of criminal damage. It might be questionable whether the verdict given by the jury was right, but surely this isn’t about changing history, it is about making it.

There are suggestions that the verdict may be referred to a higher authority, perhaps the Supreme Court.  It appears right that there was a case to answer, and it seems right that the jury were allowed to deliver the verdict they did. There is nothing perverse in this, nothing to challenge, due process has taken place and the people have spoken. The removal of the statue was not criminal damage and therefore was lawful.

If a statue is an affront to the people of a locality, then they should be able to have it removed. If is such an affront to common decency, then the only people guilty of an offence are those that failed to remove it in the first place.  Of course, it is more complex than that and perhaps the bigger question is why this didn’t happen sooner?

It would seem fitting to replace the statue with something else. Something perhaps that shows that slowly people of this country are waking up to the country’s past, well at least some of them. A statue that commemorates a new beginning, that acknowledges the country’s true past and points the way to a far more humane future for all.  No Mr Johnson, we shouldn’t try to rewrite or obliterate history, we just need to change the way it written and stop ignoring the truth.    

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-57350650

A microcosm of deviancy

A little over a week ago our university introduced the compulsory wearing of face masks indoors.  This included wearing of masks in classrooms as well as common areas and offices.  Some may argue that the new rules were introduced a little too late in the day, whilst I’m sure others will point to the fact that government guidance is that the wearing of face masks is advisory and therefore the introduction of the new rules was unwarranted. Let’s be honest the government and their political party haven’t set much of an example regarding the basic safety ideas, let alone rules, as evidenced by the recent Conservative party conference.  The new rules at the university, however, are not enforced, instead there is a reliance that students and staff will comply.  This of course creates several dilemmas for students and staff where there is a failure to comply and it makes for some interesting observations about general human behaviour and deviance. To that extent, university life might be viewed as a microcosm of life in the general population and this lends itself quite nicely to the analogy of behaviours whilst driving on a road.

Driving behaviours vary, from those drivers that consistently and diligently stick to the speed limit despite what others may be doing, to those that have complete disregard for limits or indeed others including those that police the roads.  Let us be quite clear at this stage, speed limits are nearly always there for a reason. There is ample research that speed kills and that reductions in speed limits injuries and saves life. Whilst those drivers that drive over the speed limit will not always be involved in a collision and that a collision will not always result in serious injury or death, there is a much greater potential for this. The risks of course are spread across the population in the locality, the impact is not just felt by the speeding driver but other drivers and pedestrians as well. To some extent we can make the comparison to the risks associated with catching Covid and the wearing of masks and social distancing, failure to comply increases risks to all. As a quick reminder, the wearing of masks is to protect others more so than it is to protect the individual mask wearer.

Observations of behaviours regarding staff and students wearing masks at the university are interesting.  There are those that comply, regardless of what others are doing, some of these will have been wearing masks indoors before the new rules came in.  Not dissimilar to the careful driver, sticking to the speed limit but also prepared to drive slower where they perceive there is a greater risk.   Then there is the well-intentioned mask wearer, the one that knows the rules and will stick to them but through absent mindedness or through some of life’s many distractions, they fail to wear their masks at various points of the day.  As with the well-meaning driver, they are easily reminded and often apologetic, even if it is only to themselves. Of course, there is the ‘follow the flock’ wearer, the person that could quite easily be persuaded to not wear their mask by the rest of the flock as they fail to wear theirs. The driver that joins the rest and drives at 40mph in a 30mph limit because the rest of the traffic is doing so.  Next is the deviant that has disregard for the rules as long as no one in authority is looking.  The person that keeps their mask handy, probably under their chin and then when challenged in some way, perhaps by a disapproving look from a member of staff or by a direct challenge, puts their mask on but only for the duration they are under observation. Not dissimilar to the speedster that slows down when they see a police vehicle or a static speed camera only to speed up again when the danger of being caught and sanctioned has passed. Finally, there is the person that has complete disregard for any rules, they will blatantly fail to wear a mask and wave away with complete disdain any attempt by student ambassadors positioned at the door to offer them a mask. They like the speeding driver that fails to obey any of the rules of the road have complete disregard for the rules or indeed any rules.

Whilst we may lament the fact that some people forget, are distracted but are generally well meaning, we probably wouldn’t want to impose any sanction for their deviance. But what of those that have complete disregard for the rules? It is worth returning here to the general ethos of wearing masks; to protect others. The disregard for the rules is inter alia a disregard for the safety of others. Whilst we might observe that the deviancy is apparent amongst several students (a problem that might be generalised to society), it is somewhat disconcerting that there are a significant number of staff who clearly do not think the rules apply to them. They seem to neither care about their colleagues nor the students and it would seem consider themselves above the rules. Another comparable trait in general society where those in positions of power seem to have a disregard for rules and others. Finally, we might consider how we could police these new rules as clearly our university society of students and staff are unable to do so. I can hear the cries now, haven’t you got anything better to do, this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut and all the usual rhetoric endured by the police across the land. If you make a rule, you must be prepared to enforce it otherwise there’s no point in having it. Imposing an unenforceable rule is simply playing politics and attempting to appease those that question the conditions in which students and staff work. Imagine speed limits on the road but no enforcement cameras, no police and no sanctions for breaches. It will be interesting to see how long the general population at the university follow the new rules, recent observations are that the flock of sheep mentality is starting to come to the fore. As a parting thought, isn’t it amazing how easy it is to study crime and deviance.

“Sheep” by James Good is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The pathology of performance management: obscuration, manipulation and power

My colleague @manosdaskalou’s recent blog Do we have to care prompted me to think about how data is used to inform government, its agencies and other organisations.  This in turn led me back to the ideas of New Public Management (NPM), later to morph into what some authors called Administrative Management.  For some of you that have read about NPM and its various iterations and for those of you that have lived through it, you will know that the success or failure of organisations was seen through a lens of objectives, targets and performance indicators or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).  In the early 1980s and for a decade or so thereafter, Vision statements, Mission statements, objectives, targets, KPI’s and league tables, both formal and informal became the new lingua franca for public sector bodies, alongside terms such as ‘thinking outside the box’ or ‘blue sky thinking’.  Added to this was the media frenzy when data was released showing how organisations were somehow failing.

Policing was a little late joining the party, predominately as many an author has suggested, for political reasons which had something to do with neutering the unions; considered a threat to right wing capitalist ideologies.  But policing could not avoid the evidence provided by the data.  In the late 1980s and beyond, crime was inexorably on the rise and significant increases in police funding didn’t seem to stem the tide.  Any self-respecting criminologist will tell you that the link between crime and policing is tenuous at best. But when politicians decide that there is a link and the police state there definitely is, demonstrated by the misleading and at best naïve mantra, give us more resources and we will control crime, then it is little wonder that the police were made to fall in line with every other public sector body, adopting NPM as the nirvana.  

Since crime is so vaguely linked to policing, it was little wonder that the police managed to fail to meet targets on almost every level. At one stage there were over 400 KPIs from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, let alone the rest imposed by government and the now defunct Audit Commission.  This resulted in what was described as an audit explosion, a whole industry around collecting, manipulating and publishing data.  Chief Constables were held to account for the poor performance and in some cases chief officers started to adopt styles of management akin to COMPSTAT, a tactic born in the New York police department, alongside the much vaunted ‘zero tolerance policing’ style.  At first both were seen as progressive.  Later, it became clear that COMPSTAT was just another way of bullying in the workplace and zero tolerance policing was totally out of kilter with the ethos of policing in England and Wales, but it certainly left an indelible mark.

As chief officers pushed the responsibility for meeting targets downwards through so called Performance and Development Reviews (PDRs), managers at all levels became somewhat creative with the crime figures and manipulating the rules around how crime is both recorded and detected. This working practice was pushed further down the line so that officers on the front line failed to record crime and became more interested in how to increase their own detection rates by choosing to pick what became known in academic circles as’ low hanging fruit’.  Easy detections, usually associated with minor crime such as possession of cannabis, and inevitably to the detriment of young people and minority ethnic groups.  How else do you produce what is required when you have so little impact on the real problem?  Nobody, perhaps save for some enlightened academics, could see what the problem was.  If you aren’t too sure let me spell it out, the police were never going to produce pleasing statistics because there was too much about the crime phenomenon that was outside of their control. The only way to do so was to cheat.  To borrow a phrase from a recent Inquiry into policing, this was quite simply ‘institutional corruption’.

In the late 1990s the bubble began to burst to some extent. A series of inquiries and inspections showed that the police were manipulating data; queue another media frenzy.  The National Crime Recording Standard came to fruition and with it another audit explosion.  The auditing stopped and the manipulation increased, old habits die hard, so the auditing started again.  In the meantime, the media and politicians and all those that mattered (at least that’s what they think) used crime data and criminal justice statistics as if they were somehow a spotlight on what was really happening.  So, accurate when you want to show that the criminal justice system is failing but grossly inaccurate when you can show the data is being manipulated.  For the media, they got their cake and were scoffing on it.   

But it isn’t just about the data being accurate, it is also about it being politically acceptable at both the macro and micro level.  The data at the macro level is very often somehow divorced from the micro.  For example, in order for the police to record and carry out enquiries to detect a crime there needs to be sufficient resources to enable officers to attend a reported crime incident in a timely manner.  In one police force, previous work around how many officers were required to respond to incidents in any given 24-hour period was carefully researched, triangulating various sources of data.  This resulted in a formula that provided the optimum number of officers required, taking into account officers training, days off, sickness, briefings, paperwork and enquiries.  It considered volumes and seriousness of incidents at various periods of time and the number of officers required for each incident. It also considered redundant time, that is time that officers are engaged in activities that are not directly related to attending incidents. For example, time to load up and get the patrol car ready for patrol, time to go to the toilet, time to get a drink, time to answer emails and a myriad of other necessary human activities.  The end result was that the formula indicated that nearly double the number of officers were required than were available.  It really couldn’t have come as any surprise to senior management as the force struggled to attend incidents in a timely fashion on a daily basis.  The dilemma though was there was no funding for those additional officers, so the solution, change the formula and obscure and manipulate the data.

With data, it seems, comes power.  It doesn’t matter how good the data is, all that matters is that it can be used pejoratively.  Politicians can hold organisations to account through the use of data.  Managers in organisations can hold their employees to account through the use of data.  And those of us that are being held to account, are either told we are failing or made to feel like we are.  I think a colleague of mine would call this ‘institutional violence’.  How accurate the data is, or what it tells you, or more to the point doesn’t, is irrelevant, it is the power that is derived from the data that matters.  The underlying issues and problems that have a significant contribution to the so called ‘poor performance’ are obscured by manipulation of data and facts.  How else would managers hold you to account without that data?  And whilst you may point to so many other factors that contribute to the data, it is after all just seen as an excuse.  Such is the power of the data that if you are not performing badly, you still feel like you are.

The above account is predominantly about policing because that is my background. I was fortunate that I became far more informed about NPM and the unintended consequences of the performance culture and over reliance on data due to my academic endeavours in the latter part of my policing career.  Academia it seemed to me, had seen through this nonsense and academics were writing about it.  But it seems, somewhat disappointingly, that the very same managerialist ideals and practices pervade academia.  You really would have thought they’d know better. 

#ReadingForCriminologists: The End Of Policing- Alex S.Vitale

During the past year, like many, I have certainly had more time on my hands, I’ve started a plethora of hobbies (some more successful than others) but a constant past time for me has been reading. In the past I’ve sporadically read a few classic fiction books but this year that I’ve been focusing on nonfiction literature.

This book focuses mainly on the American police force in a historical and contemporary context. The book tackles some of the big topics in current policing such as the school to prison pipeline, the war on drugs, prostitution and mental health. In each chapter, the author critiques current policing strategy and gives recommendations towards effective reform.

My Thoughts

Of course, it is important to note that this book comments on American policing strategies and discusses social issues from a western, North American perspective. However, the book at times, does become relevant to UK topics. Comments about the war on drugs, the criminalisation of the homeless, immigrants and prostitutes and political policing are some examples.

“Tactical equipment with semi-automatic weapons”

Vitale, A., 2018. The end of policing. Verso Books, p.65.

There was one main part in the book that stuck out to me. In the School to Prison Pipeline chapter, the author gives a quote from an annual convention held for police officers based on school sites (known as Resource Officers). The book says it mainly consists of military contractors selling security systems to schools, a keynote speaker, specialising in anti-terrorism describes American schools as all containing ‘the next Columbine’, that every officer must be a ‘one-man fighting force’ and that police officers in schools must always wear full ‘tactical equipment with semi-automatic weapons’.

The author used this example in an extremely effective way, commenting on how the very nature of policing must change. It was written that currently, the police force is inherently a force and that the ethos of policing along with the ‘warrior mentality’ is part of the reason that policing in America is not as effective and beneficial as it could be to its citizens and communities.

With the continuation of social and racial unrest in America, the topics raised in the book could not be more relevant. The most interesting thing about this book was that it presented concepts and opinions I had never thought of before, and whether or not I was in agreement with the points raised, it became an extremely thought provoking read.

I guess that if escapism is more of your reasoning for reading this, perhaps, isn’t the book for you. The author speaks about the harsh reality that certain communities face when it comes to American policing and society.

Some Main Takeaways

Since beginning to take a greater interest in nonfiction books, I’ve realised how beneficial it is to to take note of differing opinions. The beauty in any social science is that one topic can have many opinions attached to it and often, opinions that differ from your own can be the most interesting and thought provoking ones. On the whole, the author presented quite a lot of concepts that I agree with, which made for a passionate read and the opinions I did not agree with, opened up opportunity to research and further understand.

This book has called into question some of my own opinions and thoughts around police reform. Perhaps more police training, more funding and education within the police force cannot fix an institution that was formed to essentially supress and control some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups of people.

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