Sunday, July 06, 2008

Knives, moral panics and distraction techniques

I'm becoming more and more concerned about the debate around knife crime. So much of it seems to be either anti-working class shrieking, get tough posturing or muddle headed liberalism. I don't find any of these satisfactory and I'm particularly concerned that there seems to be very little questioning of who's leading this debate and why.

I don't believe we should simply write the issue off as a moral panic but we do need to look at things calmly rather than start jumping through whatever hoop the media cares to hold up for us.

For example, those who carry knives are not evil but they are stupid.

The BBC managed to find the most vacuous defender of "youths" the other day when casting around for vox pops. This social worker said that the only reason that someone might carry a knife is for self defence and they are all good boys really, he explicitly rejected the idea that there were any other factors - at all. If that was true what would they be defending themselves against? Tigers?

We should not indulge in vilification but the implications of the argument that no-one intends to use a knife, but they are carried for self defence are pretty full on. We've had a number of fatal stabbings over the last few weeks in the UK, how many of them were in self defence? I'll give you a clue, it was less than one.

These young lads were murdered deliberately by people organised into gangs, who see violence as one way of validating themselves and who went out that evening armed. Bizarre plans to ban knives will not solve this problem nor will patronising young people and providing them with ready made excuses if they choose to go down a violent route.

It's a natural response to the demonisation of young people to want to leap to their defence. But trying to understand why crimes take place is not the same as making out that crimes are nothing more than accidents. Some people make silly mistakes, some takes paths in their lives that lead them towards anti-social acts and, for some, their social conditions have been brutalising.

We have a society that ritually idolises violence, wealth, image and personal satisfaction over a sense of community. We have a society where many people, both young and old, feel they are outsiders to their own communities, where no-one has a responsibility to them and they have no responsibility to anyone else. Under these circumstances it's a surprise that so many people feel a sense of social responsibility.

Once the community is stripped away we need to rely on the state to protect us. One way it justifies its existence is to tell us there is good reason to be frightened of strangers, and only the police will save us from otherwise certain victimhood. That's why even when crime statistics show a decrease you get a constant bombardment of crime-fear stories.

If anyone thinks nurses are going to be better off wearing stab vests then I'm sorry but I don't agree. The more heavily armed someone is the more likely they are to be attacked. This goes for carrying a knife but it also goes for wearing body armour. It depersonalises the wearer, it makes it harder for them to build up a human relationship with someone. It turns them into an enemy because, just by wearing it, you've put yourself at a distance from those you're trying to help.

But that aside let's look at the story. Various government agencies have put orders in for stab vests after the recent street stabbings. So, this government is holding up as proof that the country is beset by rampaging, armed yobs the fact that it ordered stab vests from itself. My, this looks more convincing by the second don't it? It's almost as convincing as those tanks parked outside Heathrow airport were.

Labour have gone into overdrive on the fear of crime angle recently - which in no way should be connected to their attempt to bring in ID cards, increase the amount of surveillance we're under and their never ending drive towards indefinite detention without trial. It should also not be connected to the fact that Labour are at an historically low ebb and are hopelessly, ruinously fucked and anything that might distract us from that would be seen as an early Christmas present by Gordon Brown.

Although it doesn't win votes (Crewe and Nantwiche was run on an anti-young people ticket for instance) the papers lap it up because it looks like a never ending supply of juicy stories. Channel Four are running a whole season of programmes on knife crime, the main purpose of which seems to be to make everyone despair of humanity and pray for an army of jack booted street wardens to come to our rescue.

Just as ASBOs became a badge of honour for some the fetishisation of carrying a knife may well lead to *more* knives on the streets, not less. The debate itself, and the manner in which it is conducted, could be part of the problem itself.

My thesis is simple. Law and order solutions can't fix social problems. We need social change towards a fairer, more equal, friendlier society where communities are sources of strength. The majority of us want it, but the *discourse* is one of hopelessness. We need to opt out of their agenda and start building from below a different kind of vision where people are no longer the problem.


Douglas Coker said...

Jim. Yes - build better communities. Of course. But it would be good to reduce the number of killings now. You do not comment on knife search arches or targetted stop and search more generally.

I'd be interested to know what you think.

Douglas Coker
Enfield Green Party

PS This blog is very good. Much thought provoking material. Thank you.

scott redding said...

I liked the part of your post about ritually idolising "violence, wealth, image and personal satisfaction over a sense of community." David Cameron (a long time ago, not recently) talked about "a revolution in social responsibility." He was on to something. It's a very specific problem. It's knife crime in certain boroughs of London, and gun crime in certain parts of the North-West, both linked by gang violence. If we had a better articulation about why people joined gangs (why gangs provided better security than the state) and why people are more willing to shoot/stab folks than 5 years ago, we'd know more about youth violence.

Lee Griffin said...


Knife arches, and stop in search in general, is just a form of legitimised discrimination. There have been annecdotal examples of the authorities setting up arches yet letting vast swathes of people even if they set off the arches. They are first and foremost a way of *appearing* to tackle knife crime, after all the ire of commuters is not worth risking by being thorough, and secondly they are a way of being able to legitimately stop a disproportionate amount of Black and Asian men.

If the measures they were using were actually being used properly, and if they actually did anything then they may be worth congratulating (people on the tube that come up against a knife arch can just pop in to a shop, browse for 5 minutes then go and get on the tube to the next station given the police don't have enough arches or resources to cover all stations in an area). The reality is that without resourcing the police to be able to track gangs and to be in more places to deal with them, you won't stop the current violence trends, they've been set in motion by years of societal neglect by the government and it won't take a few quick law changes or policy briefs to stop.

Jim Jay said...

I think this point about legitimised discrimination is crucial. Sometimes the targetting of a community can appear to have some sort of reasonable and rational basis but the long term effects can be very negative and the motivations can be more unhealthy than they first appear sometimes.

Let me take as an example a letter that appeared in the Times today (and shame on them for printing this over something, anything, else that had been submitted).

"Most violent knife crimes are being perpetrated by - and often upon - one specific subset of an underclass in British society. Isn't it time we had the courage to call a spade a spade when discussing where the risks really are?" Ben, Birmingham.

You don't have to do much of a textual analysis to see where this racist fucker is coming from.

Sorry, just read the letter and had to get that off my chest!

Aaron said...

I couldn't touch The Times as I'd probably burst in to flames - unlucky.