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‘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,
This blog entry comes with a content warning. This is not an eloquently written, or question raising blog post. Instead, this is what can only be described as a rant post. Sometimes its’ important for us to offload on to our friends, family, the wider public about some of the things that are getting to us. For me, it’s the small differences between Lockdown and Lockdown 2.0 which are driving my slightly mad. I wish to share an example of things that have changed between the two lockdowns we have experienced this year, and why I am offloading to you kind and wonderful readers. Although if you find you have been guilty of either of the behaviours in the example provided, please ‘step the **** back’.
The first example I wish to focus on relates to when I have been out and about running. In the first lockdown I was running regularly: those glorious heatwaves meant I ran either very early or very late. Originally I started running around some of the parks, however these soon became infested with people (regardless of what time you visited), so I began running ‘road routes’: as I like to call them. There was not much traffic during the lockdown, although still a fair amount of pedestrians to contend with. However, whenever I approached a person or pair, we made a big effort of maintaining a solid distance between us. Sometimes this meant going on the grass (thankfully dry because of the sunny sunny sun), and other times it meant me going on the road (which had little if any traffic on it). Pairs or adults with children always went in single file, and I always made an effort to smile. I did not feel at risk running during the first lockdown when I switched to the ‘road routes’ and kept it up all the way through to September. Then term started and all got a bit crazy!
However we are only a week in to Lockdown 2.0 and I am not a happy bunny! I have started running again over the past week, and on multiple occasions I have returned more frustrated and annoyed then when I left because people are not ‘stepping the **** back’. Naturally, traffic has increased (again regardless of what time I run), and the ground it wet and slippery thanks to the wet, wet rain! Therefore when it comes to approaching single pedestrians or pairs it is a bit more challenging to maintain a safe distance between us, without slipping on the grass or potentially be hit by a car. But I am not approaching single pedestrians or pairs, I’m approaching groups of people or pairs who are refusing to walk in single file despite the fact they can clearly see me approaching (I wear high vis for a reason)! I have to stop and jog on the spot in front of them just for them to pass without me slipping in the mud, or take a risk with the traffic which is not fun or safe! I’m breathing heavily, puffing away clearly not wearing a mask: why the hell won’t you step away and give me space? I’m literally breathing on you: this is not ok! We are in a pandemic!
On top of this is the even more alarming experience of visiting the post office only a few days into lockdown 2.0. I have my face covering, I have sanitised upon entering, and I go and join the queue and stand on the nice red stickers that have been laid out for us. But wait! What is this? I turn around and literally jump forwards as a person is on my shoulder! They are not standing on the red stickers which mark out where it is safe to stand, they are so close! Not ok! So I step forward, cautious of approaching the person in front and not keeping a safe distance with them. Phew, this is ok. I turn around and BAM: there they are again. SO rather than ask them to step back (they have headphones in and are staring at their phone), I construct a text message to my partner that read:
Made it to the po fine: bit of a que so might be a little while. There is a woman who is literally stood on my shoulder and keeps moving forward with me. So close she can probably read this text message. Hi, STEP BACK PLEASE! ….
I left the message up for a minute or two as I continued constructing the rest of the text. I hear a gruff grunt, I turn and the person behind me takes a HUGE step back and shoots me daggers. I smile appreciatively. Surely if you can read my message you are WAY too close! Why did you not stick to the red stickers in the first place? Lockdown 2.0 still requires us to maintain social distancing when visiting the essential shops or when out getting fresh air, yet some seem to have forgotten this. Eugh!!!
Have you noticed how the news is reported these days in respect of Covid-19? Gone are the individualised and personalised stories of the casualties of this awful virus. Gone are the stories of individual and collective heroism of ordinary, actually extraordinary, people. Gone is the mention of the R rate and the discussion around it. Gone are those pictures of the people that died. No longer the headline, Covid- 19 is reduced to the middle order and consists predominately of the number of cases and the number of deaths. We watch these figures rise on a daily basis and we hear discussion about local lockdowns and areas with high incidents. We hear confusing stories about lockdown and then no lock down and then lockdown or is it partial lockdown and where exactly does it apply? We hear about areas that have high incidents where no action is being taken, well not yet anyway. And companies that remain open despite outbreaks only to be forced to close, let’s be honest, because of media scrutiny. We hear more from Nicola Sturgeon the first minister of Scotland than we do from our own prime minister.
We are sucked into a world of tourism, safe corridors and safe countries, lists and the plight of the aviation industry. We hear tourists moaning about self-isolation (I constantly scream at the tv you made that choice you ****). We are sucked into the debacle around schools and qualifications and returning to school. And we are told by Boris that we should all go back to work, back to the office. We hear of tourists returning on flights having contracted Covid-19 and passengers not wearing masks on flights. At the same time, we are told by bosses in the aviation industry that the industry is doomed unless something is done about it, this self-isolation malarkey really isn’t good for business. Once again, I shout at the tv (I don’t suppose you’ll be getting on one of those cattle trucks in a hurry you ***). Do I sound angry, I guess I am?
When the virus first struck, whenever that was, we all probably didn’t take it that seriously, serious but you know, not that serious. Then there was the lockdown, now that was serious, and it hit home how serious it was. Then we watched the tv and that reinforced how serious it was and if you weren’t a little concerned for yourself, your friends and your loved ones then you really weren’t in touch with reality. And then the economic costs started to rack up and that became really serious. And then, the government decided that since the NHS hadn’t been overwhelmed it was now permissible to open things up. And then, the government decided that it would pass the responsibility for the management of Covid to local authorities. And somewhere along the line, the responsibility for ensuring my safety, and yours became that of business. As long as businesses could assure us that they were Covid safe then we could go back to work and go shopping and eat out. In fact, you could eat out for 50% less in some places aided by a government scheme. A scheme to get businesses back on their feet which of course involved packing people in. Just how Covid secure are these places, well you take your chance, but you can feel assured.
I decided to venture out with my wife to get ourselves a new mattress. The old one has had its day, we meet in the middle of the bed every night, whether we want to or not, the only solution, to try to sleep as close to the edge as you can and if possible somehow cling on. Time for a new mattress. I’m not sure about these new-fangled mattresses (you know, the ones that come in a box and then pop out never to be returned to the box) and so rather than shopping on line we went to a store. We entered the store, masked up as is required, to be greeted by an assistant who pointed to the hand sanitiser. “oh, that bottle doesn’t work”, she says, “try the other but you’ll have to hit it quite hard”. Oh well, at least she’s wearing a face shield and I notice the other assistants are doing the same, except that theirs are up, a bit like a visor really, as they hang about talking to each other. One saunters over to us and after a brief conversation leaves us to look at and try the mattresses. Now that sounds alright doesn’t it, except that not only was his face shield not down, he’d taken it off altogether and thrown it onto the bed. We kept our distance. So, the markings on the floor suggesting 2 metre distance and the hand sanitiser at the entrance and the issue of face shields to staff are all Covid compliant but in operation, not really. Still we had a grand day out and felt quite assured.
As we hear the clamour to get schools back up and running, we hear about the plight of the school children and as a consequence, the voices and concerns of the teachers are drowned out. As we hear the concerns of lecturers from their union, the lecturers themselves and even the medical profession, their voices are drowned out. The only thing that seems to matter now is the economy and business. Those that run it are not on the coal face and will not be putting themselves at risk, but they tell us how we must all do our bit and return to work. If you wonder how getting children back to school fits in, well parents caring for children at home are not in the office working.
I selected some passages from the government guidelines regarding Covid 19.
“The more people you have interactions with, the more chance the virus has to spread. Therefore, try to limit the number of people you see – especially over short periods of time”
“limit the number of different activities which you partake in succession to reduce the potential chain of transmission”
“group size should be limited to the minimum which allows the activity to take place”
Now isn’t that confusing. We must all get back to work and back to the offices and, yet the government’s own guidelines seem to suggest this should not happen unless absolutely necessary. How exactly does this fit with teaching and class sizes and the number of students that teachers interact with? The same applies to lecturers at university, of course they have the added problem that the students will have come from all over the country and then come together in a Covid -19 cauldron. Pack them all in but you can feel assured that schools and campuses are Covid safe (a bit like those planes returning from foreign climes).
I feel like I am in a socio-economic experiment. An experiment where I see the disadvantaged and weak in our society put at risk for the sake of business. Where the older generation are made to feel dispensable and unimportant. Where figures are manipulated to downplay the seriousness of the problem. Die on day 29 after infection and you won’t be included in the Covid statistics. I see an experiment where facts are bent, ignored, and a narrative that subjugates the truth to management and business ideals. It looks like I’m going to be shouting at the tv for a very long time and I must be honest I really don’t feel very assured.
A Spoken Word poem for young people everywhere, esp Youth in Asia, who may never know WE LIVED before smartphones…and live to tell about it.
Walk down the street.
Find my way.
Go someplace I had previously been.
Go someplace I had previously not been.
Meet friends at a specific time and place.
Meet new people.
Meet new people without suspicion.
Strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Make myself known to a previously unknown person.
Now, everything and everyone unknown is literally described as ‘weird’.
Eat in a restaurant by myself.
Pay attention to the waiter.
Wait for my order to arrive.
Sit with others.
Listen to the sound of silence.
Listen to music.
Listen to a whole album.
Listen to the cityscape.
Overhear others’ conversations in public.
Watch kids play.
See the same picture in the same spot.
Read a book.
Read a long article.
Read liner notes.
I used to be able to stand at a urinal and focus on what I was doing,
Not feeling bored,
Not feeling the need to respond to anything that urgently.
Nothing could be so urgent that I could not, as the Brits say, ‘take a wee’.
Wait at a traffic light.
Wait for a friend at a pre-determined place and time.
Wait for my turn.
Wait for a meal I ordered to arrive.
Wait in an office for my appointment.
Wait in line.
Wait for anything!
I used to appreciate the downtime of waiting.
Now waiting fuels FOMO.
I used to enjoy people watching…
Now I just watch people on their phones.
It’s genuine anxiety.
Walk from point A to B.
I used to could walk between two known points without having to mark the moment with a post.
Now I can’t walk down the hall,
Or through the house or even to the toilet without checking my phone.
I avoid eye contact with strangers.
Anyone I don’t already know is strange.
I used to could muscle through this awkwardness.
Have a conversation.
A friend and I recently lamented about how you used to could have a conversation and
Even figure out a specific thing that you couldn’t immediately recall…
Just by talking.
I also appreciate the examples we discussed.
Say you wanted to mention a world leader but couldn’t immediately remember their name. What would you do before?
Rattle off the few facts you could recall and in so doing you’d jog your memory.
Who was the 43rd US president?
If you didn’t immediately recall his name,
You might have recalled that the current one is often called “45” since
Many folks avoid calling his name.
You know Obama was before him, therefore he must’ve been number “44.”
You know Obama inherited a crap economy and several unjust wars,
Including the cultural war against Islam. And
That this was even one of the coded racial slurs used against him: “A Muslim.”
Putting these facts together,
You’d quickly arrive at Dubya! And
His whole warmongering cabinet. And
Condi Rice. And
That whole process might have taken a full minute,
But so would pulling up 43’s name on the Google.
This way, however, you haven’t lost the flow of conversation nor the productive energy produced between two people when they talk.
(It’s called ‘limbic resonance’, BTW).
Yeah, I used to be able to recall things…
Many more things about the world without my mobile phone.
Allow my mind to wander.
Entertain myself with my own thoughts.
Think new things.
Think differently just by thinking through a topic.
I used to know things.
Know answers that weren’t presented to me as search results.
I used to trust my own knowledge.
I used to be able to be present, enjoying my own company,
Appreciating the wisdom that comes with the mental downtime.
Never the fear of missing out,
Allowing myself time to reflect.
It is in reflection that wisdom is born.
Now, most of us just spend our time simply doing:
Surfing, scrolling, liking, dissing, posting, sharing and the like.
Even on a wondrous occasion, many of us would rather be on our phones.
Not just sharing the wonderful occasion –
Watching an insanely beautiful landscape through our tiny screens,
Phubbing the people we’re actually with,
Reducing a wondrous experience to a well-crafted selfie –
But just making sure we’re not missing out on something rather mundane happening back home.
I used to could be in the world.
Now, I’m just in cyberspace.
I used to be wiser.
Some time ago, I wrote ‘A Love Letter: in praise of poetry‘, making the case as to why this literary form is important to understanding the lived experience. This time, I intend to do similar in relation to visual art.
Tomorrow, I’m plan to make my annual visit to the Koestler Arts’ Exhibition on show at London’s Southbank Centre. This year’s exhibition is entitled Another Me and is curated by the musician, Soweto Kinch. Previous exhibitions have been curated by Benjamin Zephaniah, Antony Gormley and prisoners’ families. Each of the exhibitions contain a diverse range of unique pieces, displaying the sheer range of artistic endeavours from sculpture, to pastels and from music to embroidery. This annual exhibition has an obvious link to criminology, all submissions are from incarcerated people. However, art, regardless of medium, has lots of interest to criminologists and many other scholars.
I have never formally studied art, my reactions and interpretations are entirely personal. I reason that the skills inherent in criminological critique and analysis are applicable, whatever the context or medium. The picture above shows 4 of my favourite pieces of art (there are many others). Each of these, in their own unique way, allow me to explore the world in which we all live. For me, each illustrate aspects of social (in)justice, social harms, institutional violence and the fight for human rights. You may dislike my choices. arguing that graffiti (Banksy) and photography (Mona Hatoum) have no place within art proper. You may disagree with my interpretation of these pieces, dismissing them as pure ephemera, forgotten as quickly as they are seen and that is the beauty of discourse.
Nonetheless, for me they capture the quintessential essence of criminology. It is a positive discipline, focused on what “ought” to be, rather than what is. To stand small, in front of Picasso’s (1937) enormous canvas Guernica allows for consideration of the sheer scale of destruction, inherent in mechanised warfare. Likewise, Banksy’s (2005) The Kissing Coppers provides an interesting juxtaposition of the upholders of the law behaving in such a way that their predecessors would have persecuted them. Each of the art pieces I have selected show that over time and space, the behaviours remain the same, the only change, the level of approbation applied from without.
Art galleries and museums can appear terrifying places, open only to a select few. Those that understand the rules of art, those who make the right noises, those that have the language to describe what they see. This is a fallacy, art belongs to all of us. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the Southbank Centre very soon. It’s not scary, nobody will ask you questions, everyone is just there to see the art. Who knows you might just find something that calls out to you and helps to spark your criminological imagination. You’ll have to hurry though…closes 3 November, don’t miss out!
In our society consumerism seems to rain supreme. We can buy stuff to make us feel better and we can buy more stuff to express our feeling to others and mark almost most events around us. Retail and especially all the shops have long been aware of this and so they have developed their seasonal material. These seasonal promotions may have become consumer events now although they do signify something incredibly important to culture and our collective consciousness. There is time for Christmas decorations and festive foods, Easter time and chocolate eggs, mother’s day and nauseating cards father’s day for equally grinchworthy cards. There is valentine’s day to say I love you in full fat chocolates, Halloween to give little kids rotten teeth and a red poppy to remember some of our dead. To those add the summer season with the disposable BBQs and of course the back to school season!
The back to school is one of the interesting ones. Geared to prepare pupils and parents for going back to school and plan ahead. From ordering the uniforms to getting all the stationery and books required. I remember this time of the year with some rather mixed emotions. It was the end of my summer holidays, but it was also the time to get back to school. Until one day I finished school and I went to university. Education is seen as part of a continuous process that we are actively involved from the first day at school to the last day in high school and more recently for more people also involve the first day of going to university. Every year is more challenging than the next, but we move up and continue. For those of us who enjoy education we continue the journey further to further or high education.
There is something to said about the preparation process coming to University; it is interesting seeing advertisements on education this time of the year on the tv and social media promoting stuff for this transition; from the got to have smartphone to the best laptop, the fastest printer scanner all in one thingy to the greatest sound system and many more stuff that would get you ready for the year ahead. Do they really help us out and if not, what do we got to do to prepare for coming to university?
Unfortunately, there is no standard formula here but there is a reason for that. Higher education is adult education. This is the first time in our educational journey that we are sitting firmly on the driving seat. We choose to study (or ought to) what we wish to study. It is an incredibly liberating process to have choice. This however is only the beginning. We make plans of our time. In higher education the bulk of the time required is independent study, and as such we got to negotiate how we will plan our time. We got to decide which reading we are going to do first which notes to read what seminar we shall prepare and what assignment we will make a draft of.
There will be days spent in the library looking for a book, days in a coffee shop talking to fellow students about the seminar reading, days in the learning hub working on an assignment. There are highs, lows and everything in between. But regardless of the emotion at every stage thee will be a sense of ownership of knowledge.
In the first couple of sessions, the bulk of the students keep quiet expecting the correct answer to be given. One interpretation or one truth that describes all. It takes a few times before the realisation emerges that the way we analyse, and project knowledge can be different provided we go through the same processes of scrutiny and analysis. Then conversation emerges and the more reading the better the quality of the ideas that shall emerge.
The first year at University is definitely a declaration of independence and the realisation that we all have a voice. Getting on to the road on empowerment. This is a long journey, and on occasions arduous but incredibly rewarding because it leads to an insight greater than before that removes ignorance and lifts the veil of the unfamiliar.
To our newest students – Welcome to the University and to our returning 2 and 3 years – Welcome back!
The other week, I went for a meal with a friend. The food was lovely, the staff and environment welcoming and friendly and company, fabulous. A couple of days later I was thinking about that evening and I wondered why I had not felt the need to write some positive feedback on google, or similar. The answer was because I felt that I and my dining companion, had expressed our pleasure both in word and deed (the plates were clean!). Thus, the relationship between diners and restaurant staff had been overwhelmingly positive and this had been expressed by both.
However, wherever we go nowadays, we are regularly confronted by requests for feedback; “how is my driving?”, “did you enjoy your meal?” “would you recommend our services to others”? Often these questions are accompanied by Likert scales, so we can record our opinion on almost everything. Sometimes we might take some time to consider the options, other times we might just tick random boxes, more usually (if I’m anything to go by) I just don’t engage with such requests. Despite their often-jolly appearance, these questions are not harmless, they have an impact, most usually to measure individuals’ performances.
Whether we engage with such requests or not, we do not question whether we are well-placed to judge. So, for instance, as a driver of probably one of the smallest cars on the market (that’s me!), I’m expected to be able to mark the driver of a lorry. Or someone, who has the cooking know-how of a small child (I speak for myself again!) is expected to form an opinion on a dish prepared by a trained chef, these questions are hardly fair. More importantly, my answers are meaningless; whilst I might respond “the lorry appeared to take the corner a bit wide”, I have neither knowledge or understanding of the turning circle of a 32-tonne lorry. Similarly, my thoughts about the heat of a Bangladeshi biryani or the sweetness of a mille-feuille is neither here nor there. Given I can neither drive a lorry nor cook these wonderful dishes, who am I to voice an opinion?
Of course, there are times when it is necessary to voice an opinion, the lorry driver is behaving in a dangerous manner liable to cause an accident, or the restaurant is serving rancid or rotten food; both scenarios likely to involve serious harm. However, these concerns would need to be raised immediately, either by alerting the police (in the case of the lorry) or the management of the restaurant. In the case of the latter, you may also feel it necessary to contact environmental health if you felt that your complaint had not been addressed or you had concerns about the hygiene of the restaurant in general. However, these types of problems are largely outside the feedback requested.
In many of the scenarios/environments we are asked to comment on, we are in a relationship with the other party. Take the restaurant; if I am friendly and polite to the staff, I can expect a reciprocal relationship. If I am rude and aggressive, is it any wonder staff behave in a different way. They are constrained by their professions to focus on customer service, but this should not lay them open to abuse. Whilst the old adage “the customer is always right” might be an excellent baseline, it is not possible for this always to be the case. As someone who has spent a previous lifetime working in retail, sometimes the customer can be obtuse, rude or even downright, ignorant and abusive. Adherence to such an adage, at all costs, can only open the way for abuse.
But what about those feedback forms? On a bad day, in a rash moment, or because I’m bored, I decide to complete one of these forms. The waiter kept me waiting, the food was too spicy, I didn’t like the feedback I was given on my job application, my essay was critiqued, my teeth haven’t been flossed regularly, I didn’t like the book recommended to me by the librarian or the book seller, I can’t believe my line manager has turned down my application for annual leave. I can easily demonstrate my unhappiness with the situation with a few judiciously placed ticks, circles or smiley/sad faces. Can I say the waiter, the chef, the HR professional, the lecturer, the dentist, the librarian, the book seller and my line manager are performing poorly? Can I say they are unprofessional, unprepared, untrained, lacking in knowledge or skills or just plain wrong? And if I do, is that fair or just? Furthermore, am I happy to be subject to the same judgement from people who do not share my experiences; professional or otherwise? Remember too much of this bad feedback, however flippant and lacking in evidence it may be, may lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal.
There is an oft-cited, albeit crude, truth: “Opinions are like arseholes; everyone has one”! Ultimately, whether we choose to share (either) in public is up to us! Think carefully before ticking those boxes and encourage others to do the same. Who knows, someone may well be ticking boxes about you!
Gillian is an Academic Librarian at the University of Northampton, supporting the students and staff in the Faculty of Health and Society.
I was inspired to write this blog post by an article from the BBC news website that my friend sent me (BBC, 2019). A reading list was used as a punishment for teenagers who were convicted of daubing graffiti across a historically significant building in the state of Virginia, USA. Normally such an offence would earn a community service order. In this case, due to the nature of the crime – using racially charged symbols and words, the Prosecutor and Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda decided education may be the cure. She provided the five teenagers with a reading list that they had to read, and write assignments on, over the course of their 12-month sentence.
“Ignorance is not an excuse” is a principle expressed regularly throughout society, yet are we doing anything to address or dispel this ignorance? Rueda realised that books may help these teenagers to understand the impact of what they’d done and the symbols and language they had used in the graffiti. She chose books that would help educate them about racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid and slavery, to name just a few of the topics covered in the reading list. These were the books that helped her understand the wider world, as she grew up. Rueda’s approach indicated that punishment without an understanding of the impact of their crime, would not help these teenagers to engage with the world around them. These books would take them to worlds far outside their own and introduce them to experiences that were barely covered in their High School history lessons.
It’s not the only time an ignorance of history has been highlighted in the news recently. A premiere league football player was investigated for apparently making a Nazi salute. Although he was found not guilty, the FA investigation found him to be appallingly ignorant of Fascism and Hitler’s impact on millions of people across the globe (Church, 2019). Whilst the FA lamented his ignorance, I’m unsure they have done anything to help him address it. Would he be willing to read about the Holocaust and impact of Fascism in Europe? Would being forced to read about the lives of people over 70 years ago, help him understand how a chance photograph can affect people?
Should reading be a punishment, would it help people understand the impact of their actions? As a Librarian, people often assume that all I do all day is read. For me, reading is a luxury I indulge in daily, when I’m at home. I find a distinct difference between reading by choice, for escapism, and reading because you have to. I remember studying English Literature at school and finding any books I was forced to read, quickly lost their charm and became a chore rather than a pleasure. I’m not sure reading should be a punishment; it could disengage people from the joy and escapism of a good book. However, I understand the value of reading in helping people to explore topics and ideas that may be well outside their own world.
There is a growing body of literature that reflects on bibliotherapy and how reading can help people in varying stages of their life (Hilhorst et al., 2018; Brewster et al., 2013). A recent report by Hilhorst et al., (2018) advocates reading to transform British society, address isolation and improve social mobility. I believe reading can help improve our quality of life, helping us improve literacy, understand complex social issues and offer escapism from the everyday. However, I hesitate to view reading as a magical solution to society’s problems. Some people advocate the literary classics, the numerous lists you can find online that extort the virtues of reading the finest of the literary canon – but how much of it is just to conform to the social snobbery around reading ‘good literature’, a tick list? We should encourage reading, not force it upon people (McCrum, 2003; Penguin Books Ltd, 2019; Sherman, 2019).
Reading can help expand horizons and can have a tremendous impact on your world view, but it shouldn’t be a punishment. What Rueda did in Virginia, is illustrate how an education can help us address the ignorance in our society. We should encourage people to explore beyond their community to understand the world around us. Reading books can offer an insight and allow us to explore these ideas, hopefully helping us to avoid repeating or perpetuating the mistakes of the past.
BBC (2019) Graffiti punished by reading – ‘It worked!’ says prosecutor, BBC News [Online]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-47936071 [Accessed 18/04/19].
Brewster, L., Sen, B. and Cox, A. (2013) ‘Mind the Gap: Do Librarians Understand Service User Perspectives on Bibliotherapy?’, Library Trends, 61(3), pp. 569–586. doi: 10.1353/lib.2013.0001.
Church, B. (2019) Wayne Hennessey: EPL player showed ‘lamentable’ ignorance of Fascism, CNN [Online]. Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/16/football/wayne-hennessey-fa-nazi-salute-english-premier-league-crystal-palace-spt-intl/index.html [Accessed 18/04/19].
Hilhorst, S., Lockey, A. and Speight, T. (2018) “It’s no exaggeration to say that reading can transform British society…”: A Society of Readers, DEMOS [online] Available from: http://giveabook.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/A_Society_of_Readers_-_Formatted__3_.pdf [Accessed 15/04/19]
McCrum, R. (2003) The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list, The Guardian [Online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/oct/12/features.fiction [Accessed 18/04/19].
Penguin Books Ltd (2019) 100 must-read classic books, as chosen by our readers, Penguin [Online]. Available from: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2018/100-must-read-classic-books/ [Accessed 18/04/19].
Sherman, S. (2019) The Greatest Books, The Greatest Books [Online]. Available from: https://thegreatestbooks.org/ [Accessed 18/04/19].
Christmas was a rather sombre time in our household this year, my step dad died a few days before. It wasn’t a surprise, he had been ill for some time, but it still felt like a huge shock. Unlike the time when my dad died, some 12 years ago now, I didn’t have to deal with the all of the aftermath, my step brother did that and as a consequence, I was left with time to think and reflect. The death of someone, particularly as we get older, reminds us of our own mortality. Phrases such as ‘time marches on’ simply remind us of the inevitable fact that our time is finite, unlike time itself, I’m not sure Stephen Hawking would agree with this (see below). The hard part about someone dying is that they cannot give you any more of their time, just as you cannot give them any of yours. It is this use of time that I want to reflect on using an eclectic mix of what may seem random ideas.
Coincidentally, I was given a book at Christmas authored by Stephen Hawking. Most of you will be aware that he wrote A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Hawking, 1995) and his latest book Brief Answers to the Big Questions (Hawking 2018) revisits some of the ideas. I confess, I do not really understand some of the things he discusses although I do get the general idea. While reading, I started to think about how I would gain a better understanding of some of his key concepts. I decided two things were needed, time and effort. So, the question for me was, simply this, do I want to spend time and effort in gaining this understanding? On reflection, it became rapidly apparent that to understand quantum physics, for example, I would need to start with some basics around mathematics and physics. I think, given enough time and effort, I would be able to crack it. But I must acknowledge that given other priorities, I simply do not have enough time to embark on this endeavour. Consequently, I have to read, somewhat uncritically, Stephen’s ideas and accept them on face value. This is not something that sits comfortably with me because I have always been a ‘I get it, but… person’. I still want to know what was before the ‘big bang’, although Hawking (2018) says this is a pointless question.
Some time ago a colleague complimented another colleague’s writing. It cannot be coincidence that the author of the eloquent piece has over many years, spent an inordinate amount of time reading academic literature. So, time and effort spent doing something seems to produce rewards.
Whilst talking to another colleague, I described how I was renovating a house, much of the work I was doing myself. How did I know how to do all of this, he asked? On reflection, it is through experience which, equates to time and effort put into finding out how to do things and then doing them. That’s not to say that I can plumb a bathroom as quickly as a plumber or do the tiling in the same time as a professional tiler, or lay a floor as quick as someone that does it every day. I have to spend more time thinking about what I want to do and thinking about how I’m going to do it. I have to read and reread the instructions and research how to do certain things. The more I practice, the better I get, the less effort required and perhaps the less time needed. My dad always told me that a half a job is a double job, in other words, do it properly in the first place. The example of my colleague being able to write eloquently, suggests that time spent doing something might also produce better results as well as saving time and effort in the long run.
And so, I reflect on my time, which is finite, and marches on. My time is valuable, just as your time is valuable. I need to use my time wisely, so too should you. Giving people my time requires effort but as recent experience has demonstrated those that are close will not always be around to share time. Time and effort are required to achieve our goals, the more time we spend on something, accompanied by the requisite effort, the more likely we are to achieve what we want. Some things will take more time and effort but there is little that cannot be achieved. ‘Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done’ (Hawking, 2018: 22).
Hawking, S. (1995) A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, London: Bantam Books.
Hawking, S. (2018) Brief Answers to the Big Questions, London: John Murray.
On Tuesday 12 December 2018, I was asked in court if I had been radicalised. From the witness box I proudly answered in the affirmative. This was not the first time I had made such a public admission, but admittedly the first time in a courtroom. Sounds dramatic, but the setting was the Sessions House in Northampton and the context was a Crime and Punishment lecture. Nevertheless, such is the media and political furore around the terms radicalisation and radicalism, that to make such a statement, seems an inherently radical gesture.
So why when radicalism has such a bad press, would anyone admit to being radicalised? The answer lies in your interpretation, whether positive or negative, of what radicalisation means. The Oxford Dictionary (2018) defines radicalisation as ‘[t]he action or process of causing someone to adopt radical positions on political or social issues’. For me, such a definition is inherently positive, how else can we begin to tackle longstanding social issues, than with new and radical ways of thinking? What better place to enable radicalisation than the University? An environment where ideas can be discussed freely and openly, where there is no requirement to have “an elephant in the room”, where everything and anything can be brought to the table.
My understanding of radicalisation encompasses individuals as diverse as Edith Abbott, Margaret Atwood, Howard S. Becker, Fenner Brockway, Nils Christie, Angela Davis, Simone de Beauvoir, Paul Gilroy, Mona Hatoum, Stephen Hobhouse, Martin Luther King Jr, John Lennon, Primo Levi, Hermann Mannheim, George Orwell, Sylvia Pankhurst, Rosa Parks, Pablo Picasso, Bertrand Russell, Rebecca Solnit, Thomas Szasz, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Benjamin Zephaniah, to name but a few. These individuals have touched my imagination because they have all challenged the status quo either through their writing, their art or their activism, thus paving the way for new ways of thinking, new ways of doing. But as I’ve argued before, in relation to civil rights leaders, these individuals are important, not because of who they are but the ideas they promulgated, the actions they took to bring to the world’s attention, injustice and inequality. Each in their own unique way has drawn attention to situations, places and people, which the vast majority have taken for granted as “normal”. But sharing their thoughts, we are all offered an opportunity to take advantage of their radical message and take it forward into our own everyday lived experience.
Without radical thought there can be no change. We just carry on, business as usual, wringing our hands whilst staring desperate social problems in the face. That’s not to suggest that all radical thoughts and actions are inherently good, instead the same rigorous critique needs to be deployed, as with every other idea. However rather than viewing radicalisation as fundamentally threatening and dangerous, each of us needs to take the time to read, listen and think about new ideas. Furthermore, we need to talk about these radical ideas with others, opening them up to scrutiny and enabling even more ideas to develop. If we want the world to change and become a fairer, more equal environment for all, we have to do things differently. If we cannot face thinking differently, we will always struggle to change the world.
For me, the philosopher Bertrand Russell sums it up best
Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man (Russell, 1916, 2010: 106).
Russell, Bertrand, (1916a/2010), Why Men Fight, (Abingdon: Routledge)