One of the ambitions of this Blog is to encourage more considered reflection about how we talk about punishment – in politics, in classrooms, in homes, with friends. How we talk about punishment, the language that we use and the metaphors we devise or borrow shape the way in which we think about punishment. Language does more than express our attitudes.

There are parallels with debates about immigration. The turbulence in the middle east and in parts of Africa, the movement of people across the continent of Europe, present any number of social and economic difficulties, as well as opportunities for host countries to benefit from the arrival of many industrious and gifted people. But politically we do not really know how to talk about it. The left in particular has struggled, with the result that much of the most discourse, familiar from the newspapers and from right wing parties, is at least exclusionary and often offensive in its tone. And we don’t know how to talk about punishment either.

Indeed the parallel between speaking about immigration and crime goes further. Consider this:

‘The facts are these. It is acknowledged that a whole sale immigration from the eastern part of Europe has been going on for some time, and is taking place now. Many of these immigrants are quite destitute and without any trade by which they can earn a living. …  they lower the standard of living among our own working classes. …   This country is rapidly becoming the sink of the most undesirable class of aliens on the Continent.’

This has a flavour of racism that most political parties would want to disavow, but the substance and even much of the tone are immediately recognisable.  Who said it and when? Lord Belpek in the House of Lords in July 1905. (HL Deb 28 July 1905 vol. 150 cc749-75)

There is a long tradition of blaming foreigners for crime problems in England and Wales, as if crime represents an alien intrusion upon the ordered tranquillity of British domestic life. But what these topics share is the ugly language of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which sounds its echoes through much political debate and makes it far easier for people to withhold understanding and empathy – and so putting us at risk of slipping into cruelty or callousness.

Punishment: Us and Them

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