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Politics of Vandalism (1968)

Politics of Vandalism (1968)


by Stanley Cohen


Deviant behavior is not a static category: an act must be so labeled by others. This means that the sociologist should be on guard when society (or powerful groups in society) designates certain behavior problematic or deviant. In regard to some forms of mental illness, for example, R. D. Laing has suggested that the labeling can be seen to involve a political decision: somebody (who has power, influence or status) acts in such a way that somebody else is defined as mad. In discussing vandalism, I want to use this term political in the very broad sense that Laing adopts. In a narrower sense, it is apparent that the label one attaches to certain forms of behavior is affected by one’s political position: to some, members of an African nationalist group who sabotage a power station in Rhodesia are freedom fighters; to others, they are terrorists.


The term has its origin in the practices of the Vandals, an East Germanic tribe that invaded Western Europe in the fourth ‘and fifth centuries, and eventually sacked Rome in 455. They were regarded as the great destroyers of Roman art, civilization and literature and the term vandal was broadened in the 17th century to refer to anyone who recklessly destroyed property, particularly works of art. Vandalism is currently defined by dictionaries as ruthless destruction or spoiling of anything beautiful or venerable. The vandalism that criminologists study (for example, a group of youths smashing the furniture of a classroom) or the vandalism defined more as political than criminal and which conveys evident ideological overtones (for example, burning shop interiors during racial disturbances, or stoning embassy windows during a demonstration) seems far removed from the etymological origins of the term. Nevertheless, these origins continue to make an effect: the adjectives which the behavior of the original Vandals conjure up-barbarous, willful, ignorant, cruel-remain part of the stereotype of contemporary vandalism. They are used in a political context in order to justify ‘action against the deviant.


In many cases, of course, the deviant does not accept this description. To him, his acts are not reckless and witless but eminently sensible. As with the Luddites of the early 18th century, property destruction (in their case, machine breaking) may be a deliberate act of protest. Economic historians have done much to dispel the stereotype of Luddism as being pointless and frenzied or a mere overflow of high spirits.


Eric Hobsbawm’s distinction between two types of machine breaking-collective bargaining by riot, which under some conditions was a normal way of putting pressure on employers, and the destruction which expressed working-class anger against the new machines of the Industrial Revolution-has more relevance to contemporary forms of vandalism than at first appears. Newspaper accounts and reports by the two commissions on racial disturbances in American cities over the past few years seem to make it evident that most of the property destruction was patterned and, in a sense, rational. The targets chosen were not arbitrary. For instance, the 1968 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders states: In at least nine of the cities studied, the damage seems to have been, at least in part, the result of deliberate attacks on white-owned businesses, characterized in the Negro community as unfair or disrespectful toward Negroes. Even if the targets were arbitrary, there is no denying that, in a society dominated by consumption, those who are denied access to the goodies operate by a kind of logic when they destroy whatever they can get their hands on. As one analysis of the 1965 Watts riots expressed it:
The man who destroys commodities shows his human superiority over commodities.


When society defines certain people as outsiders, it needs to emphasize the ways in which such people are different from the insiders, who are normal. Thus criminals are not just people who have broken the law; they are also generally dangerous and not to be trusted. Narcotics addicts don’t just take drugs; they are dope fiends, vicious, degenerate and dirty. To stress the discontinuity between deviance and normality gives a feeling of security; the difference becomes clear-cut between good and bad (or, to be more up to date, between healthy and sick). It is more disturbing to entertain such a view as that advanced by David Matza that much adolescent behavior-and vandalism would seem a good example-is a caricature rather than an inversion or repudiation of middle-class conformist culture. There is an interchange between the conventional and deviant traditions of society as shown, for example, in the ambivalence of most adults (in private) to many forms of youthful misconduct. It needs no subtle Freudian interpretation to suggest that much adult denunciation of teen-age sexual permissiveness is accompanied by a degree of envy.


Similarly, the values associated with juvenile vandalism and thought to be peculiar to delinquents, such as the search for excitement and kicks, the high regard for toughness and aggression, might reflect values running through the whole society. The adolescent is easily stigmatized as a violent hoodlum or an irresponsible hedonist and, as Edgar Friedenberg has pointed out, many adults use the terms adolescent and delinquent almost interchangeably.
But there is, ‘after all, nothing peculiarly adolescent in the violence and vandalism of James Bond movies, or for that matter, of real life.


I have not tried here to explain vandalism. This does not mean that I consider attempts at such explanations irrelevant: rather that one must first be sure of what one is explaining. The usual terms used to describe various forms of vandalism obscure and discredit what may be the real explanations: if a boy breaks into his school and smashes up the classrooms because he has a grievance against the teachers, it is no help to call his behavior wanton and pointless. The only end such labels serve is the teacher’s need to hold himself blameless. Most research into school vandalism indicates, in fact, that there is something wrong with the school that is damaged. The highest rates of school vandalism tend to occur in schools with obsolete facilities and equipment, low staff morale and high dissatisfaction and boredom among the pupils.


Source: Nation 11/11/68

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