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Nothing is black and white: the intransigence of fools

“Burglar!” by Maydela is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

One thing we criminologists know is that it is impossible to prevent crime. Many a great criminologist has tried to theorise why crime occurs (my shelves are full of their books) and whilst almost all have made valuable contributions to our understanding of crime, it is an unfortunate fact that crime continues. But then crime itself is difficult to define and has its basis in time, power, opportunity and social discourses. What is criminal today will not be criminal tomorrow and what is important today will lose its importance tomorrow, in favour of some new or maybe, old, manifestation of that elusive concept we call crime. Perhaps we should we grateful, for in the industry of crime lies mass employment. From criminologists to those that attempt to stem the tide of crime, those that deal with its aftermath and those that report on it or write about it (real or fictional), there is money to be made. If we stopped crime, we would all be out of a job.

Most, if not all of us have at some stage in our lives committed some sort of crime. Most crimes will fortunately be almost inconsequential, maybe a flouting of a law such as driving a car over the speed limit. Other crimes will be more serious and whilst some criminals will be brought to book most are not. The inconsequential crime of driving over the speed limit, albeit perhaps due to a lapse of concentration, can have dire consequences. There is clear evidence that the survival rates of pedestrians struck by cars has a direct correlation with speed. So the inconsequential becomes the consequential, the ephemerality of crime, the reality.

When we think of crime, we often have little concept of its reality. We apply labels and our own rules to that we know and find acceptable. Speeding is not criminal, well not generally, unless it’s a boy racer. Drink driving is a no-no, but we might take it to the alcohol limit when having a drink. Drugs (the criminalised type) are ok, well some are and some aren’t, it all depends on your viewpoint. Drugs (the prescription type) are ok, even if they impair our ability to drive.  Alcohol, well that’s absolutely ok, even if the abuse of it leads to more deaths than drugs and the consequences of that misuse has a really significant impact on the NHS.  Tax evasion, illegal if you get caught, ok if you don’t. A bit like fraud really, ok if you can get away with it but then maybe not, if the victim is a little old lady or me.  Assault, well it depends on the seriousness and the situation and probably the victim.  Robbery, not good to go into an off licence with a gun and threaten the shopkeeper, bullying if you take lunch money off the lad outside the school gates.

Criminals don’t walk around with a label that says ‘criminal’ and even if they did, there would have to be a method of bestowing the label in an instance.  Nonsense of course, only a fool would suggest such a thing.  What about the people that committed a crime but have changed their ways I hear my colleagues ask? What about those that haven’t, or have and then relapse, I reply.

Nothing is black and white; the concept of crime is elusive, as are criminals (both by concept and nature). And yet we happily castigate those that attempt to uphold the law on our behalf and in doing so view crime and criminals as clear concepts. Each has a clear label, each is clearly identifiable, so how can they get it so wrong so many times.  Whilst criticising those that attempt, and let’s be quite honest, fail most of the time to stem this tide of crime, perhaps we might also think about the impossibility of the job in hand.  That’s not to say that a lot of the criticisms are not justified, nor that things should not change, but if we only examine all that is wrong, we lose sight of reality and only an intransigent fool would continue an argument that sees the problems and solutions as simply black and white.

Speeding towards disaster: the absence of a capable guardian

car crash

Vehicles are lethal weapons, we all recognise that, particularly after the reminders given to us by the terrorist attacks across Europe.  Every year in this country, there are more people killed on the roads than there are as a result of murder and yet people still drive on the roads like complete morons.  It seems that driving cars, vans, and lorries brings out aggressive behaviour that to most would seem quite out of character.   A good few years ago, the media castigated ‘White Van Man’, the drivers of white vans that displayed all the worst of driving behaviours, in particular positioning their vehicles aggressively so close to another vehicles’s rear bumper that they might as well have been sitting in the boot.

The shame of it is that White Van Man is now replaced by the general driving public. Gender and age seem to have no bearing on the manner of driving.  Minor mistakes and indiscretions by other drivers are punished with blaring horns, flashing headlights and hand gestures more at home on the football terraces, although if you watched the recent England game, you might suggest on the pitch as well.  Drivers barge their way past parked cars despite oncoming traffic and drive at speeds exceeding the speed limit.  The dual carriageway that reverts to a single carriageway sees drivers racing to get ahead of each other determined not to let anyone into the now single file of traffic.

And yet, introduce a capable guardian, I borrowed the term from Felson’s 1998 Routine Activity Theory, and behaviour seems to change almost instantaneously; let me explain.  The village I live in is fairly large and sits on the outskirts of a county town.  The village is expanding rapidly and consequently through traffic can be quite considerable, particularly during school runs. This accompanied by pedestrians on narrow pathways and the gaggle of school children massing around the bus stop waiting for the bus to another village increases risk considerably.  The road which meanders in and out of both semi-rural and urbanised space has a thirty mile an hour speed limit and the odd flashing sign that warns motorists to slow down.  Not unreasonable given the volume of traffic and pedestrians and yet it has little meaning to drivers, including those carrying children in the car, who regularly exceed the speed limit.  Dare to drive at thirty miles an hour and you will rapidly find cars sitting on your rear bumper itching to get by or aggressively getting closer and closer in an attempt to bully you into going faster.   A slight glimpse of empty road sees overtaking manoeuvres more suitable to the Silverstone racetrack but accomplished by drivers who probably lack anything like the skill required.  Demonic aggression and recklessness is the name of the game and yet the very same drivers will change their driving behaviour just a few minutes later.

About a mile from my village is a small hamlet dissected by a fairly busy road.  The speed limit leading up to the hamlet is 40 miles an hour and the speed limit through the hamlet is 30 miles an hour.  Watch vehicles traverse this stretch of road and you will see politeness, adherence to the speed limit and gaps between vehicles that would make the author of the highway code proud.  Why such change in behaviour, you probably already know? Two somewhat insignificant, inconspicuous, despite the bright yellow paint, average speed cameras. Nobody knows if they function but they certainly work.  It seems that altering driver behaviour is simply down to the presence of a capable guardian but it does beg the question why so many people have little regard for the law or their fellow human beings when they get into that driving seat.

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