Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Weirdening

Not more than a few miles from where I'm sitting the body of teacher Ann Maguire is still warm, but the focus is turning to the pupil accused of her murder; a 15-year old boy. I expect that media coverage of the tragedy will quickly shift away from the victim as they run out of interesting things to mention, as they always do. With killers and alleged killers though, you can get away with anything even if they are still a child and somehow it's even worse when the child is possible vulnerable. 

You can not excuse crimes like this, but that does not absolve us of our responsibility to try understanding them. It's a responsibility some sections of the press loath, so they make it as problematic as possible for others even to try. They make it so any expression of empathy or simply academic interest beyond harsh punishment is no different from making excuses. Only then will the victim go back to receiving attention, to be used as an ideological weapon regardless of what their views were on these issues when they were alive. Argument will be personalised with the trope of 'a liberal is a conservative who hasn't been mugged yet' adapted for the situation- the unprovable counter-factual that a victim would agree with their view had they survived. 

It's all familiar but there are aspects of it that are seldom discussed, aspects which seem to crop up mostly when the alleged perp is a young person: their weirdness. 

A loner, awkward, bright, odd or intense hobbies, immaturity, irritability, depressed, identifies as an outsider. Have I just describe every teenage killer ever or most teens given a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome? Given this coincidence I would expect to find substantial literature linking the diagnosis and Autism in general with violence, but I can't find it and the National Autistic Society says there isn't any. We're left with the equally disappointing conclusion then that the weirdo teen killer is a media-made stereotype, fitted to a wide number of diverse cases with just a few tangential similarities. There are some arguments that people just don't want to accept that most violent crimes are committed by 'normal folk' and that people at the margins of human experience and behaviour are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators. Yet the Mail today is lending credence to it's coverage by specifically citing that this is what the alleged killer's fellow students are saying about him. 

For me, both these opposite views have problems. Let's start with the first, or a common response to the first- "Of course there is something wrong with them- they're criminals". The mere refutation of this tautology isn't enough to support the claim being made that 'normal people' are mainly responsible for violence on a number of points: 1- we don't know what 'normal' is, 2- research may one day yield a sufficient comprehensive explanation for violence that requires the use of diagnoses and once you have a diagnosis of something you are usually considered 'not normal', 3- some people are far more prone to violence than others(men as a whole are more violent than women, young people fight more than mature adults, etc). The Mail point of view is more simple- you will always find what you are looking for and the Mail of course gets the juicy gossip from the students; there's no equivalent statement about the alleged killer from any teacher or staff member. The only point of reference other students have is what they hear about killers their age and that is that they are always weird.

The Mail is as always, a parody of itself. We are told on the MailOnline in bullet-points no less that he played violent video games like Dark Souls and Grand Theft Auto. That sounds perfectly normal, I bet he's not the only one in his class who has played either of them, including those who have provided the gutterpress with material for weirdening him. A drawing of the Grim Reaper on his Facebook page is supposed to be a 'chilling insight' into his background, like Death is not a regular mascot for many metal bands and fans who haven't killed anyone. Oh and also "Last night friends told of their shock at his arrest", but the Mail said he was a loner? Maybe he was friends with other loners, in which case: he's not a loner then. In fact the Mail provides ample evidence of frequent social interaction with a range of people he knew both locally and around the world, who he positively engaged with. It seems the only people that actually speak a word against him hardly even know him. 

The Mail has to print what limited stuff they can get out of the bottom of the barrel, but the focus and sign-posting is clear and they don't even care that it contradicts. Rather than presenting it as a case of a typical teen with currently unknown motives, which are not at all revealed by anything reported, the need to weirden him comes ahead of the truth. If they won't accept a moral responsibility to be fair to the accused, then they should at least consider the wider impact on the innocent oddballs constantly associated with violence.


  1. On Sunday 11th May there will be a short middle aged man who has paid to run/crawl around 13.1 miles of the City of Leeds as he has done annually for some years ;further this is how he chooses to use his respite time.What is normal indeed.

  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/esa-outcomes-of-work-capability-assessments-january-2014

    "Processing error identified"

  3. As you probably aware I am not a supporter of the present Government.A few weeks ago we received a letter from Number 10,signed by the PM.It concerned the Employment Allowance .I have expressed my concerns to the Number 10 press office.
    1.The letter was unsolicited
    2.It was political "long term economic plan"
    3.It was on a HMRC technical change.
    4.It was sent to the sick/disabled it didn't even apply to.
    Now much as it is,a pleasant change to be described as "hardworking",given the relentless propagandisation of the exact opposite,and you may think my reaction is over the top,but it has made me rather sick to the stomach.I have asked them to ensure for it never to happen again.