“Gang warfare has to stop” is not, perhaps, a headline which will provoke much dissent. On the press side, we must all be familiar by now with these unfashionable youths, each a snarling simulacrum of the last, wielding some make-do bludgeon with a spare shank tucked down his stained white trainers. The ned, the bam, the disaffected youth. Hatchet faced, unappealing, he is typically presented without context and without an explicable personal life. His motives are unguessable, sometimes inhuman. This isn’t the jazz-hands gangsterism of West Side Story, but a blood and tear stained scroll of torments, griefs and punishments. Our archetypical gang youth marches onto our simplifying stage both as perpetrator and victim, a symbol of intense contradiction.
In the Herald society pages today can be found an interesting account of a Community Initiative to Reduce Violence - Cirv, apparently pronounced ‘serve’. I’d strongly suggest those interested in these questions to read about it here. It is presented as an attempt to “confront people with the consequences of gang violence for themselves and for others.” Held at the Sheriff Court, involved in Cirv’s initial project were self-identified folk who are involved in such groups, police officers, a sheriff, facial surgeons replete with ghastly pictures of the torn flesh which knives have left behind, a man who was convicted of murder in his late teens and the mother of a boy, attacked with a machete.
One anonymous doubter is quoted in the piece, wondering what the good is of “getting teenagers in a room and shouting at them for an hour”. I have sympathy with this sort of hesitation. In school, we were subjected to a similar sort of thing, but about drugs. Hideous, harrowing images – the worst of all stories – short, sharp shocks. This was presented as “the reality” of drug use by a stout copper, with a paternal air of certainty and lack of hesitation. In point of fact, I have never ever entertained the sense that I haven’t tried this drug or that because of pictures we were presented with. Indeed, for me, much of the authority of the speaker was diminished by the dreary, fictionalising insistence that all drugs, wherever, whatever, once, twice or eighty times a year were bad. This is clearly total rubbish, daftly to overstate the case, and treated us like children to be haunted rather than reasonably intelligent people who would recognise the fact that some substances presented very real perils, and one should have that in one’s mind when one is making choices about how to include intoxicants in one’s life.
I wonder if the Cirv project may provoke similar reactions. Indeed, I was particularly interested by the characterisation of Assistant Chief Constable John Neilson in the piece, and the roaring overtones of masculine performance, domination and rhetorical violence he used. “Carry on fighting? I’ll give you the jail. I’m in charge of the gangs task force and I’ve got 5000 street cops in Glasgow. It’s a far bigger gang than you’ll ever have.”
On one level, one can see the point of this. Its even mildly amusing and potentially gently subversive. However, it reeks of testosterone. While undoubtedly many factors induce violence, clannishness, territoriality – looming large in that calculation must be ideas of masculinity and masculine performances in groups. The Assistant Chief Constable seems basically “outmanning” these youths, both literally in numbers and in terms of his macho, thumping rhetoric. Is this the way to improve men’s behaviour, to encourage them to think, to relinquish the more odious, oppressive and violent norms of their frail and reactive masculinities? To me, and with my feminist membership card in my top pocket, this seems like a father’s solution, and its instruments are the strap, a brass voice and its admonition of violent authority. Concerningly, it may well reinforce precisely the ideas which provoke the slashings over the wrong person straying into the wrong groups “territory” - rather than combating and transforming them. To say that ideas are the mainspring of much of social life isn’t to be tower-bound and abstrusely theoretical. Each of us is a social theorist and a lay philosopher when we talk about ideas and make decisions and choices based on concepts which mean something to us.
To put the alternative case, one may well say – stand back, lets see if it works, if violence is reduced and the book of the dead and the injured has fewer red names written in its pages, the initiative will have succeeded. Its impossible to deny that this would be a good thing. However, I will not stand down from my lingering doubts about the approach in terms of wider public attitudes. How persuasive one finds these little doubting thoughts will, I suspect, depend in part on how convinced one is that one can affirmatively and deliberately change people’s minds about central ideas which seem meaningful and harmless and given in their own life. For those who see development and evolution on this score as only meaningfully achieved by “organic” growth, the breath would be wasted.
To my mind, however, strong identification with hostile and aggressive masculinities are a crucial part of the problem, generating the walls of knives - and 'find a dog to kill a dog' is a silly aphorism. Are these hesitations making the best the enemy of the good? I don’t think so. If we want to excise brutality and irrational violence from our society, we must excise it exhaustively, and tear up the roots. Not appoint our own, stronger, rougher bullies.