What makes a monster?

In his presentation last month for a recent Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice (CYCJ) associates seminar co-sponsored by SCCJR, Dr Fernando Fernandes of the University of Dundee reflected on stigma, prejudice and professional attitudes towards young offenders.

He began by discussing the process of monsterisation or “how we learn to hate” – how social disgust, indifference, hate and social fear can serve to dehumanise individuals or entire social groups (such as young people) via stigmatisation.

Stigmatised people are not passive recipients of stigma

He went on to describe how the exercise of power is used to oppress stigmatised groups, leading to social isolation, psychological and behavioural responses and the reinforcement of inequalities and disenfranchisement.

However, Dr Fernandes emphasised that stigmatised people are not passive recipients of stigma, but also agents who respond to it in different ways – and their reactions can either reinforce the stigma, or challenge it. He showed pictures of young people enjoying themselves – some wearing T-shifts and drinking pints from plastic cups, others wearing caps and tracksuit tops and drinking Buckfast from bottles.

If staff see service users as “clients”, what effect does that have?

Describing how a move away stigmatization towards coexistence involves challenging perceptions of difference – and a move towards seeing the “same” rather than the “other” – he argued that a paradigm shift was required in order to effect change at both an individual and institutional level. If staff see service users as “clients”, what effect does that have? If institutional responses are standardised rather than person-specific, are they likely to be effective?

A series of provocative thoughts concluded the presentation. Dr Fernandes argued first that a language of charity and helping the vulnerable can be as stigmatising as a discourse of “monstering” and demonisation of those involved in criminal justice. Both lenses see particular groups as fundamentally different than “us”. Further to this, he suggested the approach we might seek is to develop common ground and a shared path towards equal engagement. How can we develop spaces that empower and include all in democratic dialogue? He argued that service sites should also be political sites: a soup kitchen should not just be a place of providing free meals but also of supporting political debate and dialogue about structural inequalities.

Service sites should also be political sites: a soup kitchen should not just be a place of providing free meals

Dr Fernandes emphasised the importance of challenging pre-conceived values and attitudes of staff, not merely providing additional training. He said policy needs to be challenged at a local level, and adapted through process that are both participatory and creative.

Shona Craven, SCCJR Communications and Knowledge Exchange Assistant

Listen to podcasts and view slides of the presentations at The price of prejudice – when attitudes shape policy.

 

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