Talking and Listening: Vital in Resolving Violence

In writing this column I frequently return to the subject of crime and my concerns about the criminalisation of much of young people’s anti-social behaviour. As I always stress, this view is not presented to minimise criminal behaviour nor excuse anti-social behaviour. What I strongly believe, however, is that merely punishing a young person does not help address the ‘causes’ of crime. I was reminded again of these observations when watching the news.


The one word that dominates much of our news today is ‘violence’. The ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as continuing conflicts in Israel and Palestine continually appear on the night time news. Violence in areas like the Middle East we perhaps see as less important because it ‘is over there’; we can also rationalise and justify our troops involvement as a part of the so called ‘war on terror’. Yet, the violence in the Middle East and other areas cannot be dismissed merely by reasons of geography because what happens ‘over there’ appears to be affecting and radicalising some people in the U.K.

Violence is all round us; it permeates all aspects of the media not only in the news but also in the cinema and in computer games. Huge amounts of money are now spent on promoting violent games which are praised for their graphics and level of realism. Given the level of violence that appears to permeate all aspects of our lives is it not surprising that young people are ‘interested’ in guns and knives.

How the media influence our view of violence is complex and multi-faceted. This influence, however, is not merely restricted to the criminal elements in our society. The ‘Hollywood factor’ has also been shown to affect United States Police[i], and can lead to possible misconceptions, for instance, about the nature and seriousness of injuries caused by shootings.

Much of our behaviour is influenced by ‘perception’, something that in turn is made up of a complex mix of our values, beliefs and fears. These views may not be based on reality but a perception of risk. In actual fact, as a society, as we have become richer, our anxieties about crime have increased. This has been highlighted in recent months by the number of stabbings of young people that have occurred in inner city areas. The latter have been given a huge amount of media attention, a factor that isn’t surprising given the horror that we all feel, driven by feeling for the victims and wondering why young people carry knives.

A recent report focused on the reasons why young people find it acceptable to carry knives. The crucial message of this report is that merely punishing people for possession of knives will not solve the problem. The reasons people give for carrying knives are very complex, influenced by wider societal issues. In this report the authors showed that young people are making rational choices as to why they carry knives, a decision that appears to be unconnected to membership of gangs.

Young people have no confidence in politicians, the police or schools to protect them. This report showed that unless children and young people can be made to feel safer, they are unlikely to stop carrying knives. Don Slater, a sociologist at the London School of Economics stated, “There is a picture of young people completely taking it for granted that guns and knives and violence are a kind of everyday part of their landscape”. [ii]

Options for the Police

In a recent interview with the BBC the Children’s Commissioner for England expressed concern about the imposition of increased Police powers to stop and search in order to try and address the concerns about knife crime. Sir Al Aynsley-Green said on BBC Breakfast, “There is a balance here. On the one hand for young people to feel safer by having the presence of the Police – but on the other hand making sure the new powers don’t create further antagonism by increased stopping and searching”[iii]. He went on to ask for more research to be undertaken in this area particularly looking at the effects of these policies on young people.

The Police, on the other hand, argue that what they are trying to do is not “…aimed at victimising young people; it’s aimed at keeping them safe.” In the same article Camila Batmanghelidjh, of Kids Company, eloquently put the counter argument, “Violence is a bit like a virus,” she said. “It’s spreading amongst children, and children are feeling really unsafe, and the reason is the failure of adults to create structures that protect children”. She went on to say, “So what’s the point of just searching the children and not solving the core problems? The kids are carrying knives because they don’t feel safe.”[iv]

The Police may be right when they say that the aim of their policy is not to victimise children and young people but keep them safe. However, if the very people whom the policy is trying to help see it just as another form of punishment that does not address the issues, then the policy is at best doomed to failure and at worse will ratchet up an already difficult situation with some groups feeling as though they are being picked upon. There is nothing wrong with having clear structures and boundaries in place, but at the same time more substantial efforts need to be implemented, including talking and listening to children and young people and responding to their fears.

[i] Johnson J. L. (2007) Use of Force and The Hollywood Factor (4) AELE Mo. L. J. 501 Special Articles Section – April, (accessed 22/5/2008)

[ii] Hinsliff, G (2008) One in three back carrying knives (accessed 24/5/2008)

[iii]Warning on new anti-knife powers (accessed 24/5/2008)

[iv]Warning on new anti-knife powers (accessed 24/5/2008) (accessed 24/5/2008)

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