“I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society”.
Spite is a damaging emotion, burning both sides of its sour equation. Spite creates division. And god knows, division is not in short supply at this time. Johnson’s government are acting spitefully both to play to the fear and anger of a set of voters* and to measure out their own spite; there is a long list of people our government doesn’t like.
For some, this hi-viz shaming will signify strength. I think for a subset of those voters, callous disregard for others is an appalling kind of strength, born from a sense of superiority. Johnson himself seems the type. People with this entirely unlikeable entitlement to the good of the world are impervious to their own shame and fully at ease with hoarding that good unto themselves. It is for them a kind of mission statement.
Spite for lesser mortals is more often caused by a combination of fear and failure: a fear and /or dislike of others; the sense of one’s relative status as being inadequate; experiencing failure when success is necessary to assuage the anxiety of uncertainty. They probably would not perceive the reanimated Victorian corpse of Tory crime policy as spiteful, they would see shaming criminals with hi-viz-ability as justifiable revenge.
There’s no doubt that to be the victim of crime is frightening, awful, unfair. And to fear being the victim of crime can be nearly as bad. It is a fearful business, being on this planet. But though fear is the cause, it is in some ways not the problem. Fear turned to pre-emptive hate and suspicion is. Fear that acts in and of itself is.
Fear that privileges personal feelings over efficacy and decency is the problem.
Because if we ask what works to keep people safe from crime, high-viz jackets and other tools of shame don’t get near the top of the charts. If they did work we would not have needed to move on from stocks, symbolically cast in bronze in each crime-less town as a dread reminder of what happens if you stray. However much people feel in their angry hearts that it is right and just to shame criminals, experience and research shows that it does not work. Rehabilitation is a system that aims to lessen crime, not simply give lefty social workers (probably from North London if you want to go full gammon) a warm, fuzzy glow. Shaming people, unsurprisingly, rarely sends them back into the arms of their shamers, shedding touching tears of regret and the determination to be good from now on.
It’s ironic, that a government so devoid of the means to feel shame for its own actions can be so swift and sure in doling it out to others. (No doubt some Tory donor is rolling out a plan to franchise the sale of rotten vegetables to throw at the easy-to-spot gangs of litter-picking crims as we speak. Better add some prison arrows to the hi-viz jackets so the veg doesn’t accidentally get launched at some well-meaning community clear-up organised by the local church – oops!)
In Salt Lick, I used a pandemic (before we had a pandemic – cue swift additions to the finished text that more closely reflect a newly understood reality…) to create a time of uncertainty in which a right-wing government subtly but eventually, extremely, exerts control over the populace. I don’t doubt that given the chance, our current government is of the same brand; they would restrict, prune and shape our freedoms in any way that best served them. They are so filled with contempt for the people that they don’t even know it is contempt they feel. They are so shameless they don’t recognise the danger in these casual liberties that may well destroy the careful balance of the system that elevated them.
I have included two relevant extracts from Salt Lick below. It is both infuriating and grimly gratifying to see reality sloppily heading the same way as a book I invented. But by all means, let us stop it before it goes too far. (And by the way, it is still a hopeful book!)
If anyone deserves to go in the stocks it is (and if it were up to me I’d be glad to make an exception) the current prime minister. There’s no point in rehabilitation someone with so little to offer. Lord Ashcroft, how much for a pound of your best mouldy turnip?
Excerpt from Salt Lick
The Restorations of Justice Act twisted into law out of the remains of two outmoded concepts – justice being seen to be done and the restorative power of connection between criminal and victim. Now, judges ruled behind closed doors; victims of crime, no longer able to take part in trials were instead given the right to observe the perpetrator imprisoned. As the statute book phrased it, they had the right not to participate in the dispensation of justice, but to observe the delivery of justice, by the state, on their behalf. The restorative qualities of the act had regressed, thuggish, to ancient and one-sided precedent – the spiteful power of being able to throw rotten vegetables at a criminal in the stocks.
People are not allowed to throw vegetables. But they are invited to observe the punishment, revel in it, if they wish. To take satisfaction, or a sense of justice, or pleasure from it.
Prisoners no longer merit the consideration of rehabilitation – so many of them will be incarcerated too long to consider them future citizens. The vast, automated prison complexes are geared to feeding a thirst for revenge; the infantilising bond between citizen and state strengthened by sharp doses of enemy-sharing.
That the death penalty had been once more abolished was down only to a lack of taste for further deaths after the annihilations of the pandemics a few decades previously. Combined with the frighteningly low birth rate even the most ruthless authoritarians had become squeamish about state execution. Criminal lives could be lived, until they died in prisons.
After the ravages of the October Night Flu there is a blurry hiatus. Individual miseries remain tattooed on the hearts of those left behind, but society is fed up with dread and worry. The state discovers a useful libertarian strand and the populace take as though born to the ways of the libertine. Why think about the declining birth rates? The deaths we still all feel? The tightening of control? The snip snip snipping away of freedom? Let’s cavort, cabaret, and let’s toast the we that remain. The state, a wily schemer, learns quickly that certain freedoms can stand in for others. Sure, party, take drugs, get high, who are we to stop you? The concessions are offered with insincere man of the world smiles: we share your appetites, who are we to judge? But slowly, quietly, stealthily, control is exerted. The internet is pruned. Soon it takes an espalier shape, dropping tight little fruits of uniform size and shape. The voices of those who notice, who rail, who warn, soon are only heard on street corners. The rest come to in the months and years after the second pandemic with a hangover, to find everything, once more has changed.
Salt Lick is available to pre-order from:
- Bookshop.org (supporting independent bookshops with online sales)
- All good independent bookshops
If you do pre-order, you can enter a pretty awesome prize draw. Find out more here!