During the first week of University, photos of criminals clung prominently to the walls of the security stands. Their faces, devoid of colour, creased and haggard, were hung against the typical mugshot backdrop for all new students and staff to see.
Having studied crime and its causes, this struck me as odd. The snapshots reminded me of Wild West ‘wanted, dead or alive’ posters, and seemed almost archaic. I was curious, and a little concerned, as to why security chose to do this.
Reasons offered by the security officers focused primarily on prevention. New personnel could familiarize themselves with the criminal faces and observe, on video even, their bike-theft and other such crimes. If we were to see any of them, we ought to report it immediately. One can also imagine there is retributive intent. It is part of an individual’s punishment to be publicly shamed for their actions; the ensuing stigmatization is lasting and tangible. The individual now becomes framed as an evil-doer.
This is not uncommon. Publicly displaying the profile of a social deviant is a technique long employed by law enforcement. Displays of torture and execution in public have a long history for the way they sent an authoritarian message to the community. Huge debates surface around each instance of mass-shootings and whether or not to publish the perpetrator’s name, or footage of the attack.
“The snapshots reminded me of Wild West ‘wanted, dead or alive’ posters, and seemed almost archaic”
Furthermore, the benefits created for the University would exceed any loss experienced by the bike-thief. The campus is considered safer, property is protected, students and staff are more willing to engage in University-based activities. A statement is made about the kind of behaviour the University is not willing to tolerate. This all seems positive. I wouldn’t deny that it can be.
However, two elements of this approach should be highlighted as problematic.
First, without considering any personal story, any philanthropic deeds done, or other trait of the individual, we label him a criminal. Broadly speaking, this criminological theory suggests we categorise individuals who commit crimes as ‘others’. Not part of our own society, they are untreatable – not to be helped. It is a brilliant technique to politically mobilize groups, and often appears in right-wing rhetoric. Expressions such as: evil terrorists, floods of migrants, and external threats to security, appear currently in discourses used by America, Britain, and Turkey respectively.
“Broadly speaking, this criminological theory suggests we categorise individuals who commit crimes as ‘others’. Not part of our own society, they are untreatable – not to be helped”
When this occurs, we make it near impossible to reintegrate individuals into society. Their characterisation will follow them, serving a similar purpose to the branding one might have received in 17th century Europe. Victim-inclusive rehabilitation becomes significantly more difficult. How can the offender experience the pain or suffering caused by his actions, without the opportunity to have meaningful engagement with those he’s wronged?
In our example, and even with the best of intentions, the University has made these individuals ‘others’. Interactions with wronged students will not occur, and any possibility of working for or with the University is no longer an option. Therefore, we see adverse effects for the individual.
Second, displaying these mugshots is worrisome for society as a whole. Not only do these pictures send a message to the offenders, they send a message to all staff and students too. “Do not break the rules here, or your face will be here too. You too will be an ‘other’ to the university, not one of us – and you will not belong”.
Access to education or employment would be forfeit, and the individual would not be welcome. This may be justified, and I doubt the University would act without due process and consideration for all concerned. If individuals act in ways so contrary to the public good, there ought to be action taken to decrease harm and effect positive change.
“In our example, and even with the best of intentions, the University has made these individuals ‘others’”
However, it is how the audiences of these pictures internalise and discuss the circumstances around those offenders shown that is troubling to me. “Why did they do what they did? Why do they look like that? They are not like me. What punishment will they get when caught?” etc.
This process of internalising criminal acts and their consequences is mirrored in organizational theories that aim to manage behaviour. Professor Chris Grey asserts that such “… cultur[al] management deserves to be criticized because it is indeed an attempt to gain an insidious form of control.”
Accordingly, it is the use of this unseen socialization technique at the University’s opening week that is difficult to stomach. Whilst this argument may seem over the top in the context of bike thieves, think of other examples of behaviours considered socially deviant.
In 2013 the Hausa Leadership newspaper in Nigeria publically published a list of homosexual men’s names. This led to self-enforcing witch-hunts that shocked the international community. Think also of a mother’s face pinned to the noticeboard of a local supermarket, marked a shoplifter. She may have wanted to inflict losses upon the retailer, or perhaps she could think of no other recourse to feed her children, than to steal bread and cheese.
“We feed that law, keep it alive and enforce it ourselves – often without having seriously considered why we have that law, and what utility it serves for us”
The important point I wish to make here is that social norms will vary throughout time and place, and some actions we may consider morally justified and others not. Where society is encouraged through a sort-of Foucauldian didactic narrative creation, to ostracize those individuals who do not conform to laws, we are ourselves tools subtly used by law makers. We feed that law, keep it alive and enforce it ourselves – often without having seriously considered why we have that law, and what utility it serves for us.
Without a doubt, do not start stealing bikes from the University campus, but be critical of the prevailing rationales for why it is we ought or ought not act in a certain way.
Image: Kevin Dooley via Flickr