At the end of Shane Meadows’ critically acclaimed film ‘This Is England’ – a powerful account of working class life, community and racism in the de-industrialising North of England – a confrontation ensues between two of the film’s main characters. The confrontation descends into a brutal and sustained assault that leaves one of them, ‘Milky’, a young Black male portrayed by Andrew Shim, lying on the floor unconscious and bloodied. While earlier in the film tensions between the two characters were evident, the prelude to the assault is somewhat benign, almost jovial. The scene evolves in a dour, minimally furnished flat, with several of the other characters sat around smoking Marijuana, laughing and joking with one another. Amid the laughter, a conversation unfolds between Milky and one of the film’s main protagonists ‘Combo’ – a violent, racist skinhead portrayed by Stephen Graham. They talk enthusiastically about the music and clothing associated with skinheads, musing nostalgically upon the unity between White and Black members during the movement’s early incarnations. Later, the conversation between the two shifts, as Combo begins quizzing Milky on his childhood and familial life. Milky describes his large extended family: his grandmother’s cooking, past Christmases, and a reliable father who always “put food on the table”. As Milky relays these anecdotes, Combo’s demeanour begins to visibly change. He initially appears overcome by sadness as his eyes begin to swell with tears. His initial curiosity and inquisitiveness begins to morph into thinly veiled sarcasm – “isn’t that nice” and “lucky you aren’t you” he utters as Milky reminisces. Combo gets up from the bed he has been sitting on and begins to menacingly pace around the flat, stretching his arms behind his back as if he is preparing his body for physical action. He proceeds to ask Milky what he believes makes a bad father. Slightly bemused, Milky returns the question to Combo who abandons his subtleties and replies “n*****s”, proceeding to then aim this racist insult at Milky himself. Milky is taken aback by Combo’s sudden transformation. He does not verbally engage with Combo, but simply smiles smugly back at him. “Don’t smile, don’t you f*****g smile at me” demands Combo before attacking Milky and leaving him unconscious on the floor. After the assault, Combo gazes over Milky’s bloodied face and limp body; a whimper seeps from behind his lips before he breaks down into tears, apologising profusely.
For a criminologist interested in what motivates seriously violent behaviour, like myself, the scene described above from This Is England, despite it being a largely fictional one (the director Shane Meadows has disclosed that aspects of the film were inspired by his experiences growing up), captures very well both the aetiology of serious violence and its interactional character. Seriously violent men, like Combo, will often engage in violence over what might appear to observers to be a fairly trivial matter. They will often search carefully their interactions and encounters with others for some sign or evidence that they have been disrespected, ‘mugged off’, or made to look foolish. They will seize upon eye-contact, a particular term or phrase used by someone, and from there begin to quickly assemble a case against the other person that ultimately, for them, means the other deserves to be physically punished. As is presented in the scene, a seemingly friendly conversation suddenly transforms into a violent encounter that leaves Milky seriously injured with minimal clues, other than Combo’s racism, as to why this has happened.
The question of why some humans commit acts that cause serious harm and misery to other humans is arguably criminology’s most pressing and fascinating question. And yet it is also one that the discipline has, so far at least, struggled to provide adequate answers for (see Gadd and Jefferson, 2007; Hall and Winlow, 2012). The reasons for this are complex and bound up with a series of troubling historical events that had quite profound effects upon the discipline’s intellectual development (see Hall, 2012). The horrifying behaviour of several aggressive Fascist states during the 20th Century that often drew upon discourses of ‘difference’ and ‘degeneracy’ to justify their activities, resulted in the deaths of millions. Consequently, sections of mainstream criminology have been, and understandably so, intensely uncomfortable with the idea that there might be something ‘different’ about those who commit serious crimes, particularly violent ones. Instead, the discipline has often prioritised an examination of the manner in which certain individuals and groups involved in criminality become entangled in processes of labelling or how they are stigmatised by powerful state agents and the media; reluctant to investigate seriously and in a sophisticated way the subjective factors that may underlie destructive behaviour. As a result, concepts that originate from psychoanalysis, continental philosophy and psychology that might help us understand better the individual human subject and what it is that leads them to gravitate towards harmful activities tend to be utilised more at the fringes of criminological thought (Hall and Winlow, 2015; Jones, 2012).
If we return briefly to the scene described above, how can we begin to make some sense of it? Why is Combo so willing to use violence? And how does he shift so quickly between benignity to extremity? The main clue we have, beyond his racism, is the difficulty he experiences when conversing on the subject of childhood, family and upbringing. Milky, with his smug smile in the face of Combo’s anger and racist slurs, certainly seems to sense why Combo changed his demeanour so quickly: Combo actually envies him and detests that someone he considers to be ‘inferior’ grew up in a supportive and loving atmosphere. This is something we can surmise Combo was denied; he actually hints at this earlier in the film when he confesses that he was ‘let down’ during his childhood. In my own ethnographic research with violent men (see Ellis, 2016) the issue of troublesome upbringings and pasts re-surfaced regularly. Many of them had experienced quite brutal treatment at times while growing up, which had penetrated to the core of their beliefs and perceptions about the worlds they occupied. While problematic expressions of what is often termed hyper-masculinity that reflect to some extent the ways in which maleness is constructed within society were evident amongst these men, there was something underneath these behavioural ‘performances’ that drove their occasionally destructive behaviour – an obsessive concern with self-preservation and the avoidance of humiliation that seemed to be partially rooted in personal traumatic encounters during which they had been dominated by others. These painful, terrifying experiences had been etched into their memories and were symbolised as possessing transformative potential.
So, is a serious analysis of individual subjective experience, psychic drives and motivations against a background of often troubling and damaging socio-economic contexts needed? Let’s not forget that the vast majority of individuals who use physical violence persistently and destructively in contemporary society have emerged from social locations that have had their local labour markets and communities devastated by socio-economic transformation. This compelling issue is something that I will be addressing in a panel of papers to be delivered at the forthcoming British Society of Criminology annual conference this summer. It was also the focus of an article I recently co-authored and published with Simon Winlow and Steve Hall (2017). In the article, we sought to utilise our extensive qualitative data gathered over prolonged periods of time researching violent and criminal men in de-industrialised communities in Northern England as a platform to explore the influences of traumatic experiences upon their identities and behaviour. The often-painstaking work of talking in-depth with these men and observing them in their ‘natural’ settings, where they would occasionally engage in aggressive violent behaviour, led us to conclude that the criminology and sociology of violence must overcome its reluctance to address the psychosocial roots of causality in order to advance from its present position. As much as real violent behaviour, like that enacted by the fictional character Combo in This Is England, may be driven in part by the return of troubling feelings and experiences that have been psychically repressed, so too, a focus upon subjective motivation as drivers for violent behaviour represents a return to issues that have been repressed within the discipline of criminology. Nevertheless, these are issues that require some careful and sophisticated analysis if we are to begin to develop more compelling explanations for seriously harmful behaviour.
Dr Anthony Ellis – Lecturer in Sociology & Criminology
You can access my latest co-authored article addressing this issue here
Ellis, A (2016) Men, Masculinities and Violence: A Ethnographic Study. London: Routledge
Ellis, A Winlow, S and Hall, S (2017) ‘Throughout my life I’ve had people walk all over me’: Trauma in the lives of violent men. Sociological Review
Gadd, D and Jefferson, T (2007) Psychosocial Criminology: An Introduction. London: Sage
Hall, S (2012) Theorizing Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective. London: Sage
Hall, S and Winlow, S (2012) Introduction: the need for new directions in criminological theory. In Hall, S and Winlow, S (eds) New Directions in Criminological Theory. London: Routledge p.1-13
Hall, S and Winlow, S (2015) Revitalising Criminological Theory: Towards a New Ultra-Realism. London: Routledge
Jones, D W (2012) Psychosocial perspectives: men, madness and violence. In Hall, S and Winlow, S (eds) New Directions in Criminological Theory. London: Routledge p.183-198