Of Dangerous Nexuses and How to Survive in a Post-truth World

Giulia Zampini from the University of Greenwich presents thoughts on the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative conference


The Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC) at the Open University organised a launch event on 9th November, 2016. The one day conference was free to attend, opening its doors to scholars across disciplines, students, third sector and campaigning organisations. As the name suggests, the aim of this collaborative is to establish cross disciplinary and cross field networks to investigate the harm and evidence nexus in relation to various aspects of the criminal justice system and beyond. Following the zemiology turn in criminology, replacing crime with harm is regarded as a useful way to shift the focus away from narrow definitions of crime and criminal justice towards broader engagement with the notion of harm in pursuit of social justice. In their own words,

HERC’s research can be summarised as “evidencing harm and harmful evidence” which encompasses a range of areas such as the use of evidence in the criminal justice system and the harmful practices of public and private institutions. The notion of harm is increasingly central to new initiatives in policy and practice. However, policy-makers and practitioners fail to regard their own institutional practices as harmful to health and wellbeing and fail to recognise that institutional neglect can severely impact on people’s life chances.[1]

Scholars and campaigning organisations alike hope that by ‘evidencing harm and exposing harmful evidence’ change should follow. In other words, there is an assumption that producing and exposing evidence of harmful institutionalised practices – ‘speaking truth to power’ – will eventually result in change for the better. In an ideal world, public institutions should be responsive, accountable and open to change. However, in reality, institutions are perceived as stubborn, neglectful, and blind to their own failings. Thus, state institutions are regarded as harmful, and not evidence-informed.

For someone who spent a great deal of time thinking about evidence, what it means to people, how it is constructed and how it is used, I am painfully aware of the manners in which it can be at once emancipatory and treacherous. If evidence is always granted an emancipatory role – if evidence is assumed to provide better, fairer, more neutral grounds for justifying claims in seeking change – then there is a risk that it becomes misleading. Though evidence is often portrayed in the evidence/policy nexus as the thing that will make policy fair and just, the reality is that there is a complex interplay between evidence and policy, and that evidence is neither neutral nor apolitical. Similarly, the relationship between evidence and harm should not be conceived as a linear one, but as a complex interplay; we must critically engage with both sides. A key aspect of my own work has been to understand the ways in which evidence is (mis)understood and (mis)used by institutions whose putative role is the prevention of harm. More important, I question what can and should be done when we realise, as we increasingly are, that these institutions are responsible for causing the most harm?

Professor David Nutt, keynote speaker for the day, is a classic example of a scientist who has taken on the task of producing and using evidence as political ammunition to question an institutionalised truth that has caused immense harm, namely that ‘drugs are bad, therefore they should be criminalised’. His solution to address this simplistic logic was to compare harms, not only across a variety of legal and illegal substances, but also by comparing activities as mundane as horse-riding with illegal activities such as ecstasy consumption. When confronted about this comparative choice by a politician – for whom the thought of comparing a legal activity with an illegal one was unacceptable – a painful truth became clear: the idea that harm is not tied to the legal status of an activity is simply unthinkable. Indeed, the illegal-because-harmful nexus has been sustained for decades despite being misleading and dangerous. Harm must be understood as a much more complex, multifaceted and non-linear process. The intricate design and comprehensive nature of the harm index developed by David Nutt in collaboration with other scholars – motivated by his persistent efforts to shift the debate from criminality to harm – has gone somewhere to addressing this. This work has also gained Nutt the reputation of a maverick in political circles. And yet, he has attracted the attention of portions of the public, contributing to bring this debate outside policy and science.

The modern state and its institutions have continuously positioned themselves as protectors of their people from harm, so any evidence to the contrary (of which there is plenty; i.e. that the state and its institutions cause a great deal of harm) is seldom well received. It is often when people and communities are personally affected by harms perpetrated by institutions, as the case of justice4paps made clear, that they mobilise to attempt to change the culture and practices within them. And yet, as in the case of this campaign seeking justice by exposing police brutality, communities are routinely silenced and discouraged from pursuing change. In the end, the most harm is suffered by those who are institutionally and positionally weaker in society; the marginalised, the homeless, sex workers, LGBT communities, ethnic minorities, refugees and asylum seekers. These groups were at the very heart of the discussions throughout the day, as they embody the very contradictions that exist within a democratic state. That is, a state moved by the values of inclusion and universal rights but governed through social, economic and cultural hierarchies. This discrepancy lies at the very essence of our contemporary politics; something that was felt even more acutely on the particular day of the conference as we absorbed the news that the US had elected Donald Trump as its leader.

Narrative after narrative, paper after paper, it was clear that both institutions and majorities in the nation-state go through a process of ‘explaining away’ and re-legitimising every time they are questioned and critiqued. Focusing on symptoms rather than causes, never engaging with the systemic nature of the problem, and routinely shifting the burden of responsibility away from the system and toward the individual: these are favourite tactics, which also lie at the very foundation of the modern criminal justice system. Jo Phoenix’s contribution, highlighting the struggles of legitimation involving sexual deviants, was a timely reminder of the limitations of the sociology of deviance in accounting for what happened after decades of moral and political struggles: only those who could adapt to hetero/mononormativity were mainstreamed and welcomed into the licit and moral economy, leaving the ‘sluts’ and the ‘paedos’ stuck in the landscape of immorality and criminalisation.

During the panel on gendered and racialized harms, I was reminded once again that evidence is a double-edged sword. One of the panellists noted that the World Value Survey was used to evidence British tolerance in a radio debate, which reminded me of Trevor Phillips’ argument that Britain is the least racist country in Europe (because the levels of integration – measured by mixed parenting as main indicator – are higher than anywhere else). To use evidence in this way is extremely dangerous; it panders to the belief that we are on an exponentially growing curve of progress, and that things can only get better. The World Value Survey is an invaluable tool, but it remains a data set that needs to be carefully interpreted. It is paramount that we make clear the difference between data and evidence. Data never speaks for itself. Evidence is a construct; it is built from our interpretation of data. It is our responsibility to be open and honest about this process of interpretation and construction.

In an age where every statement from policy maker and pundit alike needs to be justified as evidence-based, or at least notionally evidence-informed, our transformative efforts need to be rooted in openness and engagement; we must not fall into the trap of hiding behind the false neutrality of evidence, or else we risk further polarising debates. If both we and our political opponents are making supposedly evidence-based claims, then how can anyone judge the validity of those claims with any level of confidence (particularly considering many people do not know how evidence is constructed in science)? Perhaps, it is not incidental that we are increasingly living in this ‘post-truth’ regime. The public is saturated with contradictory truth claims. The world of science is often too complex, pessimistic, and full of caveats and uncertainty to provide people with that (false sense of) protection the state offers.

Safety and security are among the cornerstones of the modern state. They served to justify its creation and its expansionary aims, and continue to be used to justify its existence, running concurrently and in opposition with democratic liberal values of inclusion and universal rights. This paradoxical state of inclusion/exclusion is what we currently find ourselves in at every level of political engagement, and with every group that challenges our sense of stability, security, and identity. Going further in our struggle for inclusion and universal rights, we must find strategies to address the divisiveness of current politics. Else, we run the risk of alienating and excluding people who will likely turn to the state and its rising populist leaders in search of protection and the very inclusion and rights we seek to obtain.


[1] http://www.open.ac.uk/researchcentres/herc/events/exploring-harm-and-evidence

This post was originally published on the University of Greenwich Law and Criminology Research blog at http://blogs.gre.ac.uk/lawandcrim/2016/11/22/88/

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own, and are not necessarily representative of the University of Greenwich or any of the organisations mentioned in this post.


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