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“You cannot trust the British Police” (Or, should we try?)

In Ava DuVerney’s fantastic Martin Luther King biopic, Selma, we follow the great man from shortly after receiving his Nobel Peace Prize for the work of the Civil Rights Movement, through the 1965 demonstrations for equal voting rights, which focused largely around the town of Selma, Alabama. The film reaches key climactic moments which focus around the crossing of a bridge, where King (played here in an incredible turn by David Oyelowo) plans to begin a march to the state capital to demand equal voting rights for African American citizens. Repeatedly, on this bridge and elsewhere in Selma, the demonstrators face off with the local police force – a sneering, sweating, hulking brute force of almost cartoonish racism; but, it’s not hard to imagine that in the deep south at this time, the police force was occupied by such meatheaded individuals. Perhaps some artistic license is used to make them appear as vile as they do in the film, but the clashes between Police and Protesters are verified fact – and their race-based roots impossible to ignore. Ultimately, King and his fellow Civil Rights Protesters were successful in garnering nationwide support for their cause, leading to one of King’s most famous speeches on the steps of the Montgomery Capitol Hall. In the film, King signs off by suggesting that he believes equality for African Americans is approaching.

Leaving the cinema, I was sadly struck by the shocking similarity between the footage within the film and that seen on television in the last year concerning inter-group relations between US Police Forces, and African American Citizens. It’s pretty damning that barring the costumes, the riot scenes on the bridge in Selma could have quite easily been transposed to a 2014 news report from Ferguson or New York, and very little difference would be obvious. This is not to say that all police officers are racist bigots – such a two-dimensional view is obviously counter-productive; rather, very little has changed in the ensuing half-century with regards to power relationships between Black communities and predominantly White police departments – not just in America, but around the world.

A while back I touched on the benefits of inter-group contact in both physical and para-social manners – how we ought to be harbouring cross-group friendships in classrooms from an early age in order to form meaningful, equal relationships between groups that may have historically shared a power imbalance. Could something similar offer benefits between minority communities and majority-member police forces in the US/UK? Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that Black people report less positive experiences with the Police, and as a result, less voluntary contact with the Police force than those of other ethnic groups (see Clancy et al., 2001 for more on that issue). Given the benefits of contact, it should really be in the interests of the Police to attempt to engender a more balanced power dynamic with minority groups – to meet on the terms of Black communities, without uniforms or police cars or any of the symbolic tokens of power, and to attempt to reach a common goal – that is, positive inter-group relations. Some interesting work by Eller et al. (2007) directly examined how inter-group contact between participants of different races would act to mediate Public-Police relations. Predictably, Black participants were shown to have lower quality contact with Police, perceived higher police racism and were less willing to cooperate if they witnessed a crime. Importantly, and in line with the Contact Hypothesis, Black participants had higher-quantity, but lower-quality contact. The quality of contact also mediated perceived police racism, and cooperation – so, individuals from minority groups who experience greater quality contact (not quantity) perceive less police racism and are more willing to cooperate.

The crucial take away message here is that young, Black people in particular face incredible levels of scrutiny from Police officers – ongoing stop-and-search initiatives largely target this group. Unfortunately, this high level of contact does not in any way meet the basic rules of Allport’s Contact Hypothesis. Can much be done to tackle this issue? Fortunately, evidence suggests that this is a picture that can be improved; by taking these high levels of contact and encouraging the police to take the reigns to improve the quality of these interactions, we could perhaps take positive steps towards the society that MLK dreamt of on the steps of the Montgomery Capitol Hall some 50 years ago. Ultimately, the real challenge here will be in terms of asking the Police forces who perpetrated violence in Ferguson, or New York, or London, against minority groups, to recognise the power they hold in such scenarios, and to take the first steps to reach out to communities where they will almost certainly face considerable barriers to entry. These barriers are, however, worth overcoming – a world where stop-and-search practices are less discriminatory, where minority group members feel safe enough to speak with a police officer; this should truly be the goal of any individual who has taken an oath to “serve and protect”.

Luke McGuire

19th February 2015

Cyberbully (Channel 4, 15th January)

In their one-off special “Cyberbully”, Channel Four have tapped in to an issue that is prevalent, widespread and troubling – statistics from the i-SAFE foundation suggest that over half the adolescent population have been victims of cyberbullying at least once, and around the same number again have acted as the bullies. This is important to recognise – it is not a minority of individuals acting as the bully, as might have been the case with the traditional school bully trope, rather, online disinhibition has led to widespread and accepted standards for how adolescents treat each other online. Given the pervasive nature of cyberbullying, it is remarkable that it has received so little attention within pop culture (barring some pretty atrocious looking films). Cue Maisie Williams (of appearing as the perpetual bad-ass Arya Stark in HBO’s Game Of Thrones) then, to take on the gauntlet of capturing the experience of both the bully and the bullied in this taut 65 minute tumble through the online world.

Spoilers (perhaps) to follow; in this drama, Williams appears as Casey, an apparently typical teenager – planning a trip to Barcelona for the summer holidays, bemoaning boys and the fact that her mum just got a snapchat account. Unfortunately for Casey, an apparently normal night is ruined when her ex-boyfriend’s twitter account posts compromising information about her use of anti-depressants. In her state of shock, Casey accepts an offer from a classmate to hack her ex’s twitter and post a retaliatory tweet. Within the first 10 minutes then, the writers have done well to showcase the fact that cyberbullying is not isolated to one or two individuals – given the opportunity, many of us may find it hard to resist turning the tables on the aggressor, and becoming the bully ourselves. Given the disassociation between our virtual and real life selves, and the fact that the consequences of our actions are much harder to gauge in the online world, this is perhaps unsurprising. The plot takes another turn when the classmate Casey thinks she has been talking to, is revealed to be an anonymous cyber-vigilante, out to defend victims of cyberbullying. What follows is a classic cat and mouse exchange, (although rather than taking place in a face-to-face environment, it is here uploaded to instagram and run through a series of filters), where Williams is in fact the only on-screen character for the better part of an hour.

I won’t get too much further in to the plot, as there are a couple of twists and turns that act to challenge the nature of who the bully is in the scenarios that unfold, but I will briefly talk on what this show did well, both dramatically and psychologically. With regards to the former, the isolation of the plot to one character, in one room, with the details of Casey’s relationships both on- and off-line emerging in realtime was a risky move; it demands a pretty nuanced performance from its lead. Thankfully, for the most part, Williams rises to this challenge with impressive skill. There are a few moments of less subtle dialogue, but I’m not sure whether that’s the fault of the scriptwriter, or whether that is in fact how adolescents now talk online – given the ever-changing, fluid nature of online life, the latter is perfectly likely. I might also have liked to see a little more focus on the repercussions of Casey’s own bullying – but I recognise that having a negative resolution to a one-off drama may not have pleased the executives at Channel Four who were handing out the money for this project. In terms of the Psychology behind the work, there’s plenty here to be lauded. In particular, I thought the focus on the “everyone is doing it” normative aspect of cyberbullying was an important one. Casey’s shout of – “Of course it’s not OK, it’s fucking nasty, but it’s normal, it happens” acts to perfectly summarise why cyberbullying is such a dangerous and widespread activity. When negative, exclusionary behaviours become normalised, there appears much less incentive to challenge those perpetrating the behaviour, or even to act as a positive bystander for your friends. One might hope that shows such as Cyberbully provide a positive reminder to adolescents and adults alike that such behaviours are not acceptable; their repercussions and consequences are widespread beyond the immediate victim, and those involved should be treated in the same way one might tackle a playground bully.

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/cyberbully/videos/all/maisie-williams-talks-cyberbully

Luke McGuire

February 2nd, 2015

Contact.

The end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 have provided enough news-worthy material to fill out the introductory credits of cheap dystopian sci-fi films for the next ten years at least. Footage of rampant police shootings in America bookended 2014, leading swiftly in to Australian hostage takings under the guise of IS, shootings on the streets of Paris (not to mention the under reported attacks on French mosques following the initial outburst of violence) and on home turf we are faced with the rise of soft fascism in the form of a leering middle-aged man from Kent and his fellow (similarly middle-aged, similarly leering) UKIP-ers. Arguably, bubbling under the surface of each and every one of these issues is the creeping tendril of inter-group hostility; an issue which I don’t claim to have the answers to in any way (intergroup dynamics have been a steady feature of human existence for thousands of years, and debatably serve important evolutionary purpose) – but one that is interesting yet to explore.

If we touch briefly upon the examples mentioned above, it’s easy to see why intergroup conflict certainly plays a large role in the genesis of each issue. Historically, America is founded upon hostile relations between a White majority and Black servitude – an issue which, despite having been tackled initially by the abolishment of slavery, and in the 20th Century by the Civil Rights Movement – still has massive ground to cover. It’s immediately obvious in the news reporting of contemporary issues; whilst media outlets press the violent riot aspect of the response of the Black communities whose members have been killed in cold blood by police officers, White teenagers who commit actual felonies are playfully compared to Bonnie and Clyde. Is it any surprise, given this status inequality, that people who have been historically oppressed want to have their voices heard?

The three other news stories I briefly alluded to above – the Australian hostage taking, Charlie Hebdo shootings and rise of UKIP in the UK, all rely on one crucial conflict, which news organisations would be keen to boil down to “Western World vs. Islamic State”. Obviously, the minority members of the organisation which refers to itself as the IS are not representative of the broader Muslim community, but that disassociation is hard for many people to grasp; particularly when the emphasis always falls upon the religious leanings of those involved. Similarly to the US race relation issue, this particular intergroup conflict can be dated – in this case, most recently to the second Gulf War and invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. With broad societal groups come norms, cultural practices, and in the most abstract sense, a “homeland”. With the 2003 invasion of these nations by the US and UK, differences in cultural practices and normative behaviours were only emphasised by the Western media in attempts to justify the invasion. By turning the spotlight on practitioners of Sharia Law, reporters acted to demonise an entire sub-continent – and perhaps in a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy – the most hardline believers in these particular aspects of Islam have, obviously, attempted to defend their beliefs. This brief paragraph cannot begin to do justice to the complexities of the interweaving issues here – but I hope serve to make the point that, again, status disparity and in-group biased news reporting can both only act to aggravate both sides in an ongoing conflict.

What then, can be done to tackle such inter-group friction at a base level? If we accept that status inequality and biased media are two crucial aspects in the etymology of these issues then we can turn to the intergroup (developmental) literature for possible solutions. Most famously, Gordon Allport’s Intergroup Contact Hypothesis proposed that the best way to overcome intergroup hostility was to bring members of the opposing groups together, to breed understanding and common ground – but most importantly, argued that any such meeting must be upon equal footing. This is crucial – in the case of Ferguson and other police shootings, attempts have been made to bring together police officers and members of the Black community, but with disparate power relationships and historical status inequalities, contact on these grounds cannot act to benefit either party. Rather, policy makers and educators should seek to approach this issue from the bottom up. In schools, children should be encouraged to meet others from different ethnic, religious and broader cultural backgrounds. By forging cross-ethnic friendships, children begin to rely less upon stereotypes of out-group members, and focus more on the similarities they share with their friends. Not to mention, the other benefits that research has shown (see here, here and here for more on this issue).

Unfortunately, not all school contexts allow for such friendships and interactions. In large parts of the UK, for example, children attend predominantly ethnically homogenous schools. When not afforded the opportunity to form positive relationships with out-group members, is there an alternative? This goes hand in hand with biased media coverage – when children are not afforded the opportunity to meet people outside their immediate cultural group, and their only exposure is to images of terror and violence, it’s no surprise that we breed a culture where far-right leaning politicians can garner public respect. Instead then, can the media be used to present a more positive image of those out-group members so often scapegoated? Edward Schiappa and colleagues certainly posit so in their Parasocial Contact Hypothesis. Rather than the direct contact crucial to Allport’s work, Schiappa argues that the positive benefits of intergroup contact are achievable through parasocial means – that is, through film, television etc. In their work, the authors parasocially expose participants to gay male characters (Six Feet Under & Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) and find that prejudice is lowered amongst these participants compared with a control group. Importantly, for such parasocial contact to be successful, exposure to a broad range of characters from a minority group is essential. Reliance on stereotyped caricatures is not enough – rather, there should be some onus upon media outlets to present a fair and representative portrait of minority cultures in order for majority in-group members to reap the parasocial benefits.

Intergroup dynamics and conflict are, and will remain to be, an enormous point of contention for society. As much as we would like to believe we live in a free and equal world, on a monthly basis we are presented with a news item that begs to differ. By acting to recognise status inequalities of minority groups, encouraging inter-group contact and friendships amongst children, and tackling fair representation in the media, we can perhaps begin to instil in young people the sense that intergroup boundaries should not be so readily used as a basis for conflict.

Luke McGuire

January 21st 2015

p.s. See here for an interesting study on how intergroup contact can moderate anti-Muslim attitudes

The implicit dangers of (dapper) laughing for adolescent boys

In the last few weeks, the internet has seen a furore erupt over the “comedy” of one man – Daniel O’Reilly, more widely known by his alter-ego/pseudonym, DAPPER LAUGHS. Rising to infamy in the last year or so, primarily thanks to the ever-reducing attention span of the 16-25 year old population, and the publicising powers of the terrifyingly drab “LAD Bible”, O’Reilly’s particular brand of numbskull comedy had long escaped the sort of criticism usually reserved for pop music videos. That is, until a petition popped up over at Cardiff University (my alma mater, no less) asking that O’Reilly not be allowed to perform his live stand-up show on Union property, due to his having made some particularly abhorrent jokes regarding rape. Within days, this petition had amassed some 700 signatories, enough for the Union to pull O’Reilly’s booking. Days later, O’Reilly’s ITV2 show “Dapper Laughs: On The Pull” wherein the Dapper character coaches young men in the art of seduction (please assume that that sentence is dripping with irony), was the next target. An immediate cancellation followed growing public pressure. The final blow came when O’Reilly appeared on Newsnight to be given the sort of grilling that Emily Maitlis presumably usually reserves for war criminals. In the clip (below), O’Reilly argues (with all the spirit of a newborn puppy) that his work had been high-level social commentary all along, he’d just been joking, presumably wanting the viewer to believe he was following in the line of Kubrick (Dr Strangelove), Mel Brooks, and Alan Bennett as a master of satire.

There has been enough said on this topic in the last few weeks to last any reader a lifetime – and there remains more to be said on the nature of censorship, scapegoating of broader societal issues on to one man’s shoulders (no matter how abhorrent his work might be), and the fact that someone much more insidious obviously exists higher up the publishing chain in order to have green-lit O’Reilly’s projects in the first place. However, here, I want to consider the potential dangers of this sort of comedy upon the behaviour of one particular population. It is hard to imagine that the producers of Dapper Laughs: On the Pull envisaged such humour would play well with most of the adult male population – the over-the-top characterisation and reliance on “Vine”-type segments (a video app popular amongst teenagers) scream adolescent marketing. What is particularly dangerous about such targeting is not the desire to sell products, but rather the implicit message such a program is loaded with. It is notably not obvious to the viewer that Dapper Laughs is a character – it took until the above Newsnight appearance for it to become abundantly clear that O’Reilly and Dapper were not one and the same. Having said that, I’m not even entirely sure O’Reilly was aware of the distinction until he was scolded like a petulant school boy. Given this, it seems obvious to suggest that some viewers, particularly young teenage boys, will be susceptible to the belief that this is how adult males should, and indeed do, go about talking to women. Given that we already live in a country where 43% of women aged 18 – 34 report having been sexually harassed in a public space (YouGov Survey commissioned by End Violence Against Women Coalition: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/may/25/four-10-women-sexually-harassed), it seems that O’Reilly and ITV displayed a terrifying lack of foresight during the production of this show. Normalising the behaviours Dapper and his cronies advocate can only lead to these same norms being perpetuated amongst adolescent peer groups.

Importantly, O’Reilly’s ‘satire’ fails where those he presumably admires had done their best work – by transposing his act in to the real world, and forcing women in public spaces to become a part of the performance, he has further ignored pre-existing norms regarding how one ought to behave in the public sphere. Even previous satirical television that includes members of the public – as Sacha Baron-Cohen has successfully done for years – makes it incredibly obvious that the joke is on the character from the get go. Never does the viewer side with Ali G, lauding him as a hero of the people. In O’Reilly’s work however, the punchline is always “this woman has been made to feel uncomfortable by me exerting my power over her”. If O’Reilly himself had become so blurred with the character of Dapper Laughs, are we to believe that adolescent boys are (for the most part) capable of recognising this distinction? Or is it in fact more likely that they will have taken his ideas on board as merely ‘banter’ to be thrown around at their female classmates? There is plenty of work to suggest that the latter is more likely. Through middle childhood and in to adolescence, children are inherently susceptible to the influence of in-group norms, particularly when they belong to a high-status in-group, and are motivated to enact normative behaviours to maintain membership of the group. Again, it is not hard to imagine that the sort of peer group targeted by Dapper Laughs/ITV are the very groups who carry high status/popularity and as such, will not only influence their own members, but perhaps those from lower status groups who aspire to reach the heights of these peers.

Ultimately, there is much work to be done from a top-down and bottom-up perspective with regards to cat-calling and public harassment of women. As I mentioned briefly above, it is more worrying to me that someone, presumably with a degree and many years experience in the field, at ITV, had given O’Reilly’s work the go-ahead in the first place. It is also not enough to enact a ban on one show and expect positive change at the adolescent level discussed here, when so many others perpetuate (albeit in a more subtle manner) the same power relationships that Dapper Laughs On The Pull (can’t wait to stop writing that phrase) did. There is also a vast field of research opportunity here from a developmental intergroup perspective; when are young people most susceptible to the influence of inter-group norms regarding appropriate gender relation behaviours? Can an active intervention do anything in the long-term to change these norms? Given extant research in the field of prejudice and discrimination, it seems unlikely that schools alone will be able to change peer-group norms; rather education must work in conjunction with peer groups to encourage the idea that catcalling and street harassment are unacceptable, regardless of the normative atmosphere in the general public.

See the below links for women speaking on related issues in a much more informed/eloquent manner than I ever could:

http://ldn.ihollaback.org/
http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/
http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/

Luke McGuire
17th November 2014