Monday, 3 November 2008

A very public death

The murder of Sophie Lancaster and its effects

This is a Guest Post by James Rattue.

As with other criminal cases which catch media attention, the murder of Sophie Lancaster has resurfaced several times after the original event – the beginning of the trial, the convictions of her teenage killers, their sentencing, and, on Wednesday 29th October, the result of their appeals: a reduction in the case of one by nine months, and the dismissal of the remainder. Each instance provides an occasion to retrace the tragic events of August 2007, when Ms Lancaster and her boyfriend Robert Maltby were attacked in the small hours of a Sunday morning in a park in Bacup, and beaten unconscious, resulting in her death a fortnight later.

Every aspect of the case was full of melodrama. Mr Maltby was actually attacked first, and Sophie was assaulted when trying to protect him. They were a harmless young couple, a clear contrast to their attackers, some of whom had records of violence and who the trial judge described as ‘feral thugs’. The victim was a pretty young woman who could almost have been designed to fit the ideal of a bright, attractive, socially-aware and artistically-sensitive young person. She was everybody’s daughter, sister, or friend. When he’d recovered enough, Robert Maltby talked about the crime and his loss in terms which made him, too, seem a latter-day Victorian romantic.

The couple were something else as well: they were Goths. The news went round the country, and in fact the world, of the girl murdered because she was a Goth; or rather, as many media outlets intriguingly put it, because she was dressing as a Goth. The response was huge beyond the media too. Local sports clubs in and around Bacup held fundraising events to support memorials and the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, established by Sophie’s mother Sylvia, and bands played benefit concerts. Walkers organised a ‘pilgrimage’ to the top of Scafell. Naturally enough, however, the response was strongest within the Goth scene itself, which continues to raise funds for the Foundation and co-ordinates memorial websites. Goths turned up to support Mrs Lancaster at the killers’ appeal last week. Even more than this, Goths had long complained at their excessively negative image in the media, and the murder powerfully spurred them into doing something about it. There is now a Gothic Liberation Front with local branches across this country and the US; marches in memory of Sophie Lancaster took place in Plymouth on August 11th (the anniversary of the attack), and in Newcastle and Sheffield a couple of weeks later.

More to the point for readers of Heresy Corner, the Goth community (forgive me; an objectionable but intelligible shorthand) began campaigning for legislation covering hate crime to be broadened to include ‘alternative subcultures’. This idea seems to have originated with the San Diego-based group Goth Help Us, which had been established in 2006 after a thankfully less fatal attack on Goths there. In Britain, it’s fairly safe to say, attitudes towards Goths, when negative, are typically condescending. There’s the notorious review of a Goth-themed TV comedy which appeared in The Guardian a couple of years ago:


The problem is that it is virtually impossible to sum up just how daft goth is in half an hour. No amount of jokes about the undead will be enough to capture the middle-brow suburban myopia of the movement. Goths may hate straights (that's you and me, folks) but they are as po-facedly conservative as any Daily Mail-reading denizen of Purley. What makes them such perfect targets for satire is that they are utterly, blissfully unaware of this. They may look like clowns, albeit the crying-on-the-outside sort, but they take themselves deadly seriously.


The author of this diatribe had clearly never met any of the Goths I have, but never mind. In the States – at least until August 11th, 2007 – the stakes have always appeared a bit higher. There, anyone who has a penchant for black clothing and an apparent aversion to sunlight runs the risk of being deemed to undermine the entire order of the Sunny Delight Republic. Goth Help Us set out to co-ordinate communitarian activism among San Diegan Goths and thus counter the negative impression their preferences tend to arouse. In their context, extending ‘hate crime’ to cover the subculture was an understandable reaction.

An understandable reaction, but not an uncontested one. Notwithstanding the monolithic impression that observers tend to have of Goths, take away the music and dress and there’s very little to unite them: they differ vastly in age, background, politics and religion, and young and not-so-young Goths could quickly be found raising all the ambiguities of and objections to the proposed legislative change that we might expect. In fact, the debate fractured Goth Help Us itself, one faction continuing with locally-based community activism, the other concentrating on the political campaign on behalf of Gothdom generally.

Although Goth Help Us International, which took the latter course, no longer seems to be functioning if internet presence is anything to go by, it’s the political campaign which has captured more imagination. The Sophie Lancaster Foundation has turned the murdered girl’s name into an resonant acronym (Stamp Out Prejudice, Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere) and Alicia Thompson, who organised the Sheffield Goth march this year, managed to devise a noun for what the campaign is opposing – alterophobia, fear of the different (http://alterophobia.blogspot.com/ - although that blog has also been inactive for some months).

The speedy way Goths have reached for the agenda of community and identity politics on their own behalf shows how deeply it’s affected public discourse. Yet there are ambiguities which are not lost on many within the scene itself. Much of that discourse of community identity was originally generated by minority groups whose members have no choice about being identified as part of a group – blacks, Jews, homosexuals (arguably) – resisting the definitions imposed on them by the majority, and the practical hostilities that arise from those definitions. Could Goths really claim the same for what amounted to dressing up, even if they very often perceive the desire to do so as flowing from something very deep and difficult to resist, almost un-chosen?

Occasionally I get caught out: I spot a black-clad figure in the distance and, assuming it’s a Goth girl (or even a chap, given the way some Goths dress), experience a welcome flush of fellow-feeling. Closer examination leads to disappointment as the Goth is revealed instead to be a veiled-up Muslim woman. Both represent, not fixed identities determined by genetics, but choices. The reactionary Muslim’s sartorial selections of course signify something more ideological than the Goth’s; if Goth style says anything, it’s nothing more than ‘Life’s a drama: let’s cope by dressing up’. But the connection between the two is self-identification. Anyone who decides to distinguish themselves from the fleeced-and-trainered urban herds in some sense wants to be noticed. The Goth may think ‘I look good in this’, as opposed to the Muslim’s ‘I look right in this’ – a declaration of aesthetics rather than ideology – but they’re still both inviting the gaze of others, and, ideally, their approval.

Ultimately, what the Muslim wants is the majority’s approval of her moral choices; what the Goth wants is general applause for her artistic sense. The strange description of Sophie Lancaster that the media so commonly adopted – that she ‘dressed as a Goth’ rather than that she was one – may represent a hypersensitivity about using the dreaded G-word to define a person’s identity, but in a way it also recognised that dress was the point. Both the Goth girl and the Muslim lady might expect not to suffer physically for choosing to dress a certain way, although we can think of extremes of both styles which could cause public outrage, one by revealing too much, the other by antisocial concealment. But it’s difficult to see how either can expect approval, which is the implicit demand of going so defiantly against the grain.

Is ‘hate’ really the right way of describing how British people, at any rate, view Goths? The Gothic Liberation Front quotes figures from ‘a recent poll among subcultures’ that over the previous year 96% of respondents had suffered verbal abuse and 43% physical assault based on their appearance. If ‘verbal abuse’ covers a goon who thinks they’re a comedian shouting ‘Oi Dracula!’, that seems a reliable statistic; but physical assault? Of course the GLF provides no details of who was polled, or how, and as it is a US-based group the relevance to the British situation is questionable.

The hostility directed towards Goths in Britain seems to arise from bemusement at their willingness to put on veils and corsets to go on a Saturday afternoon visit to the shops, and irritation at the perceived sense of self-importance that goes with doing so. Over here, even the casual assumption that all Goths are Satanists functions not to identify a threat to society, but as another form of belittling and ridicule: look at these people, it says, they think they’re agents of darkness when in fact they’re Keith and Trisha Smith from Croydon (Goths regularly adopt dramatic and umbrageous pseudonyms, but even in clubs often call one another by their birth-names anyway).

Even official discrimination, where it exists, doesn’t seem to fit the standard. Goths and other alternative subculture participants got very aerated in the summer over the legislation proposed in the Russian Duma to control ‘Emo’ expression among the nation’s young people, which went under the glorious title of the “Government Strategy in the Sphere of Spiritual and Ethical Education”; the document was leaked to the St Petersburg Times and the Moscow Times, was reported on by British alternative music magazine Kerrang!, and from there found its way onto the Goth and alternative websites, to general rage and condemnation. A little while later, however, one of the main proponents of the legislation, deputy Yevgeny Yuryev, could be found helping to draft a far wider set of proposals aiming to curb the observance of a whole range of ‘un-Russian’ cultural expressions, including St Valentine’s Day, of which the anti-subculture measures were only one aspect. It was part of the Russian establishment’s campaign to reduce the perceived cultural influence of the West within its borders as well its political influence. Gloomstruck subcultures were objectionable not so much for their own sake, but because they were Western; this wasn’t ‘alterophobia’, but ‘occidophobia’.

Which leads us back to Stubbylee Park in August last year, and to a final question: was Sophie Lancaster killed ‘for being a Goth’? She and Robert Maltby came across the gang of thugs who assaulted them at the entrance to the park; they went past them, one asked ‘Shall we batter him?’ and the attack began. That was the only process of identification and victimisation that took place. Basically, the couple found themselves, early on a Sunday morning, in the same space as a group of deracinated young people with records of aggression and tanked up on drink. I think it’s very questionable whether, had they been dressed in any other way, they would have simply passed on their way unharmed. There doesn’t seem to be any particular record of assaults on ‘alternative’ people in the area, by the gang concerned or others.

None of this is to play down the horror of the killing, which was especially vicious as the trial judge emphasised; to dissent from international Gothdom seeing Ms Lancaster as its martyr; or to denigrate the dignity and courage of Sylvia Lancaster and her campaign in her daughter’s memory (I have my S.O.P.H.I.E. bracelet and am glad to). It is to say that, if the incident tells us anything, it is that human beings are dangerous, and social breakdown, group dynamics and alcohol form a particularly hazardous combination. The prosecution drew attention to the victims’ appearance in the trial, but the killers apparently didn’t until after the fact, identifying them to others as ‘moshers’ – which they were. Until they tell us honestly what, if anything, was on their minds, we don’t know whether the way the victims looked actually played any part in their decision to attack them; still less whether those thoughts lie anywhere on the same continuum as the attitudes of newspaper entertainment critics or Russian legislators. It is to say that perhaps Sophie Lancaster was less a young girl murdered for being a Goth, than simply a young Goth girl who was murdered. Hate crime? Well, all violence arises from hate of some sort or other.

It was understandable that the events in Bacup eclipsed other murderous attacks around the same time against those who were perceived as weak or different: the death of Brent Martin in Sunderland, for instance, or the appalling abuse of the dying Christine Laslinski in Hartlepool. The Independent was recently able to garner a very impressive list of vulnerable and disabled people killed in a variety of ways over the last two years. Heard of many? I doubt it. But you’ve heard of Sophie Lancaster. Cruelly speaking, she made better copy than her fellow dead, victims together of a bestial faultline in the human heart which goes far beyond dislike of Goths.

However. Part of the reason the death of Sophie Lancaster captured the public imagination was that her killers seemed savagely to have traduced Britain’s self-image as a tolerant, liberal culture. Legislation based on group identities, whether couched in the language of ‘hate crime’ or anti-discrimination laws, is aspirational. It displays the way a society, or its legislators to the extent that they represent it, wants to think about itself – as more or less tolerant, as more or less accepting and welcoming. Over time, a generation perhaps, once-commonplace linguistic forms and habits of thought wither and become unacceptable; look at the way racial jokes have changed in Britain over the last thirty years. To that extent, the laws succeed.

Goths quite rightly think of themselves as part of an international fellowship, and it is not impossible that what happens legislatively here in the UK could have some gradual, slow effect not only for British Goths, but for our brothers and sisters in the USA, Russia, or elsewhere. To that degree, the campaign in Sophie Lancaster’s name makes sense; even if it doesn’t succeed in extending the range of hate-crime to include alternative subcultures, it will still have brought society’s definition of Goths closer to the way they view themselves. Her murder may be the occasion of a beneficial change, no matter why it was she really died.

7 comments:

valdemar said...

An excellent post - thank you. It's precisely because Goths are gentle souls that that Guardian reviewer can sneer down his (no doubt proletarian and not at all middle-class) nose at them. But anyone who stands out and looks as if they can't fight back is liable to abuse and quite possibly violence.

I'd be interested to know if the growing number of Chinese students in many of our grimmer towns are getting grief. Perhaps some vague, semi-rational fear of kung-fu and Triads keeps the ferals in check on that one?

passer by said...

This whole "group rights" meme is a self fulling prophecy.

Do you want to see this a a murder of a fellow human being or the murder of member of a group of human beings? thus establishing a group rights movement and maybe legislation, which brings the issue of the "group" to the public attention and by consequence drives up the attacks on the new "rights group" thru the publicity and anger of other "groups" who have less or more recognition in the group rights marketplace of ideas?

how about we get back to our default position of "equality before the law" where the bench sees every case as problem between people and not groups?

Anonymous said...

I'm not a Goth: I am however sartorially challenged, so I dress in black and shades of grey; and I'm also ginger and thus pale of complexion. For these reasons I'm often mistaken for a Batcaver, and I can vouch for the verbal abuse our photo-phobic friends are subject to. Which is a shame because in my experience members of this sub-culture are a welcoming and open-minded bunch.

lost causes said...

Well done James for a very sensitive essay.

Does this case not suggest that perhaps the whole idea of a hate crime is inherently unfair? Why privilege one group or individual over another when it comes to a serious crime? Does it really matter if something is racially motivated, religiously motivated or "alternatively" motivated, or just motivated by alcohol or by a violent personality?

On an unrelated note, as someone who has recently dramatically reduced the amount of alcohol I drink, I am starting to notice more starkly the damage which it does to the British psyche. Stop identifying with drinking culture and you see a darker side to "getting pissed", one that leads to many sorrows, not least this murder.

The Heresiarch said...

Much of interest here, thanks.

On the comparison with veiled Muslim women, you say "Anyone who decides to distinguish themselves from the fleeced-and-trainered urban herds in some sense wants to be noticed. The Goth may think ‘I look good in this’, as opposed to the Muslim’s ‘I look right in this’ – a declaration of aesthetics rather than ideology – but they’re still both inviting the gaze of others, and, ideally, their approval."

This is striking, given that it goes against what the veiled women themselves often claim, which is "I want to be judged for who I am, not how I look". I think you're right, however: in a predominantly Muslim society, the hijab serves to differentiate women from men, reinforcing the segregation of the sexes, whereas in the West it serves, rather, to distinguish Muslim women from other women, which may be why it is so often seen as an implied threat or insult, or at least a renunciation.

Another difference is the element of social pressure that is sometimes (not always) applied. To wear the hijab is to conform to one's birth or ethnic community, whereas to dress in goth clothing is to rebel: no-one comes under family pressure to be a goth. Or are there children of goth parents who upset mum and dad by going "straight"? Are they heartbroken if their daughter brings home a non-goth boyfriend?

Leaving aside that largely theoretical case, gothdom is an indentity of choice, whereas Islamic dress might be that, or it might be family and community, or it might be "imposed".

On the broader point, I second Passer-by's suspicion of "group rights" - and, as you yourself say, all violent crimes are hate crimes (certainly this one was). What troubles me most about the current legal set-up is that the government privileges certain forms of identity - race, religion, sexual orientation - as being more protected than others. And other identities might be equally as unchosen as race, and more so than religion. Red hair, for example: violent crimes have been committed against people on the basis of their hair colour, but I remember an edition of Any Questions on which politicians on both sides used red-hair as an example of something it would be absurd to have anti-discrimination legislation. They found it funny. Is that because most red-haired people are white?

We have in New Labour, moreover, a government that has a track-record of subtly encouraging hatred against various groups: fox-hunters, smokers, those with particular sexual tastes, increasingly now the overweight, arguably even children, given that so much of what was formerly tolerated as adolescent exuberance has been criminalised and pathologised. So their choice of groups to protect seem arbitrary - or, worse, motivated by political expediency (the desire to retain Muslim votes) or their view of what is acceptable or even fashionable.

Another possibility is that the existence of laws - and political correctness, often the handmaiden of law - against certain forms of "hatred" serves to displace hatred onto groups which aren't covered. Especially since the law is now looked to far more than it used to be as a moral arbiter, so that where a group isn't explicitly protected by anti-hate-laws that very fact makes discrimination seem more acceptable than it otherwise would do. If the government don't see a group as being worthy of protection, they must be fair game.

Edwin said...

Fascinating piece James, thanks. There is a flourishing Goth scene in Glasgow and all the ones I know are nice, intelligent kids. Dunno what happens top Goths as they get older though !

The Tin Drummer said...

lost causes wrote:

On an unrelated note, as someone who has recently dramatically reduced the amount of alcohol I drink, I am starting to notice more starkly the damage which it does to the British psyche. Stop identifying with drinking culture and you see a darker side to "getting pissed", one that leads to many sorrows, not least this murder.



I completely agree. I'm in a similar position and the change in general mood, general energy and overall sense of well-being I've experienced has been marked.
"Getting pissed" does, at its extremes, contribute to violent crimes (though I tend to think you have to be fairly aggressive anyway) but in its shady middles, it affects your worldview and your life in more subtle ways than you might think.