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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Panoramic views

Last week's Radio FiveLive film review had Mark Kermode praising the Belgian horror film as a sub-genre in its own right. By coincidence, last week saw the first happy slapping attack in Belgium (apparently). This led to some questions from the Belgian magazine Panorama; my replies are reproduced below, although the finished article could be very different (and in Flemish):

Q: The main question I have is this: are we really talking about a phenomena or is it something else?
GB: It is a phenomena, insofar as the trend exists and has become a point of debate, primarily in the UK but picked up by sections of the international press. It is not statistically significant. For instance, if we take a mobile telephony supplier such as O2, a customer primary service apart from phone calls is messaging. Of these the vast majority are text-based, with video counting as a far smaller percentage. If we then consider that a large proportion of video clips are music related, it leaves little room for any significant number of happy slaps to feature in the remaining volume of footage being transmitted. So happy slapping is too rare to count as a phenomenon in its own right, but it is significant in that a few incidents have caught the national mood.
Q. If it is, what is it about? Is there really a difference between the old battle on the schoolyard where everybody was standing around and watched the fight between some boys, and showing your deeds on the internet?
GB: You are quite right to compare schoolyard fights, which in the past might have been dismissed as part of growing up, to the current trend. The widespread presence of video cameraphones in everyday life and the user-friendly technology means that some of this material will get recorded in ways it was not done in the past. The more difficult issue is whether this willingness to use images of misery and suffering as a form of entertainment constitutes a new development.
Q. Is it, like some people like to think, a typical phenomena of this society: individualistic, cold and full of violence?
GB: Yes and no. The cruelty and gratuitous voyeurism involved is consistent with developments elsewhere in society - reality TV, internet exhibitionism and the compilation and circulation of violent images from Iraq, for example. In Britain at the moment two public health/safety campaigns use video of a mother dying of cancer and (staged) footage of a teenager being killed by a car (the latter was apparently texted to school children as a warning). It's hardly surprising when such intrusive images become normal and legitimate that kids would generate their own equivalent-looking materials. It would take a very misanthropic view to see people as necessarily "individualistic, cold and full of violence", but society at the moment does little to discourage this traits. Happy slapping is not typical, but the fact that it's seen as typical is typical.
Q. Do you think this will blow over in some years or will it increase?
GB: The amount of happy slapping taking place will probably stay the same, while losing its 'street credibility' and becoming uncool over time. The debate so far has shown that you don't really need the behaviour to have the widespread concern and unease about it. It seems immune to a reasoned analysis at times (e.g. there are already plenty of categories in criminal law under which the state could prosecute offenders, but all the emphasis is on new laws.
Q. And is the media to blame or is that just an easy excuse?
GB: At one level it makes sense to blame the individuals for their actions - in a court of law one wouldn't want 'the media made me do it' to be used as an alibi. But the mainstream media, and the erosion of the differences between public and private life, coupled with the breakdown of some basic solidarities between people: all these things form the wider backdrop to this trend. Indeed, the media has gone some way to creating the problem, by linking up what could be a collection of isolated local assault cases and packaging them as an (inter)national epidemic of random violence.


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