Criminological Thinking

    In recent weeks, a grainy video has been circulating on YouTube. It shows one of NZ’s Professors, a well-known Criminologist, in action. I watched it a few days ago. It’s just over twenty minutes long and contains clips from a series of lectures given over the entirety of a course.

    I sat down to watch with some trepidation. We have all messed up in lectures. I thought of my worst scenarios, and began to imagine them beamed around the world. All teachers go off on tangents, we are not textbooks. I’m sure some of my students would attest that I sometimes get distracted, waylaid, and I probably make a few too many bad jokes.

    I don’t always get ideas across in the best ways possible. I’m northern English, and while I’ve lived in NZ for over 15 years, my ability to properly engage with Māori and Pasifika communities is admittedly a work in progress. Still, I want everyone to come to lectures or seminars and to see them as nourishing, safe, interesting and research-loaded experiences.

    I thought about the student who had uploaded the clip. I worried for them – it’s one thing to record something for personal study, but another to distribute it so widely. I wondered about the ethics of doing this.

    I have struggled too with the politics of writing this short piece. I am mindful that the video excerpts are just that….short snips amid the hours of lecturing. We are missing the context. But, I am also aware of the responsibility that comes with our position, to challenge injustice where we see it, to be a ‘critic and conscience’.

    I have also bothered about my discipline – that viewers might watch this video and get the wrong impression. NZ Criminology is generally very well-regarded for its rigorous nature. The Institute of Criminology, where I work, is continually praised by international and national peers for its high quality teaching, excellent research, professionalism and educational standards. These Youtube portrayals are not the norm for my discipline.

    And, this video does contain problematic content, enough to have deeply affected students and others – from around the country. They have highlighted concerns about course pedagogy, assessment, the dated nature of materials, sweeping statements and the erroneous historical depictions on show. Many have been distressed by gruesome images or narratives of the most violent crimes.

    Within Criminology, it is difficult to run courses that do not – in some way – deal with the most horrific harms that humans experience. I teach courses on state crimes and my students research around topics of torture, sexual assaults, state abuse, genocide…the most extreme brutalities. Yet, one aspect of the Criminological agenda is to research and analyse this violence, and to stand above the emotional pulls that are often prevalent in media, political commentaries or across social media. Our job as academics is to more coolly unpack the evidence, develop our understanding, and hopefully propel new laws, policies, actions or ways of being.

    Perhaps, though, the most significant feedback from the clip is that it features narratives that perpetuate racist and sexist thinking. Such concerns have been previously raised about the Professor’s publications (see, for example, the 2017 reviews by Antje Deckert or Ron Kramer). In response, the Professor has charged them with being ‘unbalanced’, ‘short on empirical evidence’ and ‘ideologically loaded’. He argues that the reviews focus on the negatives, while dismissing positive features of his productions.

    Still, the Professor does not seem to have received the memo about the changed thinking around gender or sexuality over the last half-century, let alone the #metoo movement. In a week of intense sadness about the murder of Grace Millane, and the debates on the continuum of victimizations and controls faced by women, the excerpts are hard to watch. There is a ‘joke’ about an assault, a clarification on a sex worker’s attractiveness, grisly accounts of a woman’s murder, images of ‘sluts’, and a focus on false rape complaints. About the latter, Criminologist Jan Jordan has relentlessly exposed the myth of false complaints – most women do not report sexual assault and false complaints are minimal. Following the bravery of Louise Nicholas, the NZ Police have begun to engage with sexual assaults in ways that are much more reflective of believing women.

    A further theme that the Professor communicates is one of Māori as violent warriors. His argument goes that Māori dominate as violent perpetrators (and are imprisoned as a result), so case closed. Those opposing him argue that he is racist. After all, racism sometimes occurs through outright lies but, more often, it ‘works by being really selective with what facts it presents, and how it presents them’ (Catherine Trundle).

    Thus, there is no multiplicity of Māori histories, experiences and abilities. ‘Once were warriors’ is the theme he projects. But, to draw from Irihapeti Ramsden, ‘Once were gardeners, once were astronomers, once were philosophers, once were lovers’ too! Criminological thinkers have to engage with the realities of multiple identities and to move beyond essentialism and stereotype. Extreme cases cannot be represented as typical or the norm – Māori who engage in violence are, after all, a minority among Māori.

    Besides, to understand violence in NZ society, we do need to invoke other factors. For example, my recent work has shown how state-led violence and abuse against thousands of Māori children in care directly led to ‘good’ children becoming isolated, disaffected, lost, traumatised and violent. We can track a direct line from state abuse to imprisonment. The evidence is such that the government has recently established a Royal Commission, part of its role is to assess the intergenerational impacts of abuse in state (and religious) care.

    If many of the children who were in state care had been residing in families when their victimisation was undertaken, we would all know their names. Their faces would have filled the front pages of our newspapers for weeks. Yet, those dishing out vicious sexual assaults and strappings (or ignoring children’s complaints and requests for help in care) were often regarded as upstanding members of our (Pākehā) society. They found legitimacy in technocratic and professionalised languages.

    The subsequent legacies of missed education, mental health problems, and breakdowns from state interventions can never be over-estimated. There are too many children who have not lived to tell their stories. And, more broadly, the colonial relations of power that ensure Māori have faced discrimination, marginalisation and inequality over generations cannot be disregarded. The loss of land, resources, opportunities, cultural ties…all lead to stress, poverty and certain forms of violence.

    We have made some progress – there have, after all, been Treaty settlements. But, let us be clear, structural racism and bias is alive, and it flows through our criminal justice system. Moreover, as Julia Whaipooti has made plain, the NZ government has almost spent more in two years on prisons than all the Treaty of Waitangi settlements put together. There is a ready normalisation that Māori will offend, re-offend and be prisoners. We know the consequences for prisoners’ children – such that they will be more likely to also go to prison – but we continue the cycle.

    We need better ways of responding to violence and harms in New Zealand. Criminology is largely attentive to the diverse histories, perspectives and experiences of ‘crime’, despite this video example. We understand the complicated realities that underpin victimisation and offending behaviours.  We acknowledge that most heinous harms emerge from states, corporations and powerful actors. We know that many ‘benign’ or seemingly correct state interventions make matters worse.

    And, in response, we need new imaginations. For this we must continue to undertake high-quality research and teaching that exposes the hidden narratives of crime and victimisation, that contextualises events and problems, and works against discriminatory attitudes and practices. And we need to build open, safe and reflective spaces for refreshing ideas and new leaders. For it is how we teach the students of today that determines who will be the leaders tomorrow.

    Elizabeth Stanley works at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington.

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