Dying For Respect: The Terrible Toll Of Inequality On Our Streets

Last night there were two more deaths on the streets of London in what has been a terrible week (and a terrible year so far) for violent deaths in the capital.

Discussion in the media has centred around gangs, drugs, social media and levels of policing. All of these have a part to play in what we are witnessing but we need a much deeper understanding of what is driving this awful violence. There are lots of people, understandably, asking what can be done but maybe we first need to ask, why is this happening?  Why are young people joining gangs? Why are they so afraid in their home city to the extent that they choose to carry a weapon? Why are so many of them being drawn into the drugs trade? Why does a minor slight or threat on social media escalate very quickly to deadly consequences?

In December, Maia Szalavitz wrote an article in the Guardian that strove to reach that deeper understanding. The article was from a mostly US perspective but the drivers are the same in the UK, namely: inequality, status anxiety, machismo, (violent crime is an overwhelmingly male pursuit) shame and, crucially, shame aversion through extreme violence. It is worth pondering the following quotes from the article in particular:

When inequality is high and strips large numbers of men of the usual markers of status – like a good job and the ability to support a family – matters of respect and disrespect loom disproportionately. [Maia Szalavitz]

Inequality predicts homicide rates “better than any other variable”, says Martin Daly, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McMaster University in Ontario and author of Killing the Competition: Economic Inequality and Homicide. … “If your social reputation in that milieu is all you’ve got, you’ve got to defend it [says Daly] Inequality makes these confrontations more fraught because there’s much more at stake when there are winners and losers and you can see that you are on track to be one of the losers.”

Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, agrees. “If you foreclose [mainstream] opportunities for respect, status and personal advancement, people will find other ways to pursue those things.”

“About 60 [academic] papers show that a very common result of greater inequality is more violence, usually measured by homicide rates,” says Richard Wilkinson*, author of The Spirit Level and co-founder of the Equality Trust.

It is these sorts of insights that are needed to inform the debates and shape policy-making. The violence is rooted in inequality, deprivation and massive status anxiety, and that’s where the solutions have to start. Progress has been made in other places in recent times. In Glasgow they have achieved a huge reduction in their knife crime problem by treating it as a public health issue rather than just a crime issue. In Manchester, the city adopted a multi-agency approach towards gangs that has seen its reputation as “Gunchester” fade. 

But even these more enlightened approaches are still, essentially, remedial. We need to be bigger and bolder in our thinking. We need to admit that every CCTV camera, police officer and security guard, every prison officer and trauma surgeon with a specialism in treating knife or gunshot wounds is, at root, a measure of our failure as a society – as is every no-go area and every short cab ride home that is taken to avoid going through a certain park or part of town. Although way too many people – especially young people – are paying a physical or even ultimate price for this failure, we are all paying a huge emotional, psychological and financial price for the way our unequal society fails to work.

We’ve had the war on drugs, we’ve had the war on gangs. They haven’t been won and they won’t be won as they are merely symptoms of a much greater underlying problem. We need a vision of a better society, a vision of where we want to get to and the major part of getting there will be a massive and sustained reduction in inequality that allows us to live together as equals and without fear.

Bill Kerry – Supporters & Local Groups Manager

* Profs Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s new book The Inner Level will be published on 7th June.