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This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.
Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.
Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.
I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.
When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.
The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.
- Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
- Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
- Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
- Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
- Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?
I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.
Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.
*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records
Every year millions of people will visit a number of countries for their summer vocations. European, American and Asian, mainly tourists will pack their bags and seek sea, sun and long beaches to relax, in a number of countries. In Greece for example, tourism is big business. The country’s history, natural beauty, large unspoiled countryside and of course, climate make it an ideal destination for those who wish to put some distance between the worries of work and their annual leave. There is something for everyone, for the culture seeker, to the sun lounger, to the all-inclusive resident. For the next however long you are on Greek time.
Last year the country was visited by approximately 30 million tourists, 3 million of whom come from the UK. This is not simply a pleasure trip; it is a multi-billion dollar industry, involving tour operators, airlines, hotels, catering, tour-guides, car rentals and so many more industries. They all try to acquire the tourist dollar in the pursuit of happiness; in Greece alone the tourist contributions last year came somewhere near to 14 billion euros and provide 17% of the country’s jobs.
In this context, tourism is a wonderful social activity that allows people from different cultures to come together, try new things and perspectives. Most importantly to get some tan, so people in the office know we were away, get some tacky t-shirts and a bottle of suspiciously strong local drink which tasted like ambrosia whilst on holiday. Some of us will learn to pronounce (badly) places we have never heard of, while others will
be reading questionable novels about romance, mystery or drama. Others will bag a romance, maybe a venereal disease, heartbreak (especially if the previous is confirmed) or even the love of their life. All these and many more will happen this summer and every summer since the wave of mass tourism began.
During this season and every season, countless people will prepare meals, clean rooms, and serve cold drinks on the sinking sand, paid minimum wage and rely heavily on the few tips left behind. The work hours are excruciatingly long, over 8 hours in the baking sun in some cases, without a hat, protection or even a break. If this was a mine it would have been the one I read about in Herodotus, where the Athenians were sent to as slaves. In the back of the house an army of trainee cooks, warehouse staff and cleaners will slave away without tips or recognition. In their ranks, there is a number of unrecorded migrants that work under exploitative conditions out of fear of deportation or worst.
In the midst of the worker’s exploitation we have the odd cultural clashes between tourists as to who gets the sun lounger closest to the pool and who can push pass the queue to get first to the place of interest you were told by someone in the office you must go to. Of course there are those who have famously complained before, because on their way to their exclusive resort were confronted by sad looking refugees. Not a real advertisement on tolerance and co-existence, quite the opposite. Of course, in this blog I have left completely out the carbon footprint we leave whenever we do these summer escapes, but that shall be the subject for another post.
Tourism is a great thing but when Eurostat claims that one in two Greeks cannot afford a weeks’ vacation in Greece, then something maybe wrong with the world. Holidays are great and we want the places to be clean, we want to travel in comfort and we want quality in what we will consume. I wonder if we have the same concerns about those people who enter Europe in shaky boats, the back of lorries or on foot, crossing borders without shoes.
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!
In a previous blog I wrote about the importance of going through HE as a life changing process. The hard skills of learning about a discipline and the issues, debates around it, is merely part of the fun. The soft skills of being a member of a community of people educated at tertiary level, in some cases, outweigh the others, especially for those who never in their lives expected to walk through the gates of HE. For many who do not have a history in higher education it is an incredibly difficult act, to move from differentiating between meritocracy to elitism, especially for those who have been disadvantaged all their lives; they find the academic community exclusive, arrogant, class-minded and most damning, not for them.
The history of higher education in the UK is very interesting and connected with social aspiration and mobility. Our University, along with dozens of others, is marked as a new institution that was created in a moment of realisation that universities should not be exclusive and for the few. In conversation with our students I mentioned how as a department and an institution we train the people who move the wheels of everyday life. The nurses in A&E, the teachers in primary education, the probation officers, the paramedics, the police officers and all those professionals who matter, because they facilitate social functioning. It is rather important that all our students understand that our mission statement will become their employment identity and their professional conduct will be reflective of our ability to move our society forward, engaging with difficult issues, challenging stereotypes and promoting an ethos of tolerance, so important in a society where violence is rising.
This week we had our second celebration of our prison taught module. For the last time the “class of 2019” got together and as I saw them, I was reminded of the very first session we had. In that session we explored if criminology is a science or an art. The discussion was long, and quite unexpected. In the first instance, the majority seem to agree that it is a social science, but somehow the more questions were asked, the more difficult it became to give an answer. What fascinates me in such a class, is the expectation that there is a clear fixed answer that should settle any debate. It is little by little that the realisation dawns; there are different answers and instead of worrying about information, we become concerned with knowledge. This is the long and sometimes rocky road of higher education.
Our cohort completed their studies demonstrating a level of dedication and interest for education that was inspiring. For half of them this is their first step into the world of HE whilst the other half are close to heading out of the University’s door. It is a great accomplishment for both groups but for the first who may feel they have a long way to go, I will offer the words of a greater teacher and an inspiring voice in my psyche, Cavafy’s ‘The First Step’
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it is a hard, unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
Its councils are full of Legislators
no charlatan can fool.
To have come this far is no small achievement:
what you have done already is a glorious thing
Thank you for entering this world. You earn it and from now on do not let others doubt you. You can do it if you want to. Education is there for those who desire it.
C.P. Cavafy, (1992) Collected Poems, Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, Edited by George Savidis, Revised Edition, Princeton University Press, Princeton.