Academic journal article Social Justice

The Other Side of the Street

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Other Side of the Street

Article excerpt

IN THE FOLLOWING PAGES, LAURIE TAYLOR DISCUSSES TORTURE, SOCIAL CONTROL, AND OUR extraordinary capacity to deny with sociologist Stan Cohen, who has spent his analyzing and opposing injustice and inhumanity.

The orations that accompany the awarding of an honorary degree are rarely sophisticated studies in personality. There are too many lumpy academic references to get out of the way to leave much time for character insights.

And so, when Stan Cohen was recently awarded an honorary doctorate at his old stomping ground, the University of Essex, it was not too surprising to find that his proposer, Ken Plummer, used most of the time outlining Stan's major academic achievements: his early work on Mods and Rockers, which introduced the now ubiquitous and much misused concept of "moral panic"; his Foucauldian exploration of modern systems of social control, which appeared as Visions of Social Control, and his most recent work, States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, which won the British Academy Book Prize in 2002.

But after he had done his formal duties, Plummer paused, as though he knew that none of these details captured anything of the man he had known for over 30 years. What could he say in the short time that remained that would do proper justice to Cohen's presence in the world? A film came to his aid. "In the delightful Christmas film by Frank Capra, It's a Wonderful Life, the hero, played by James Stewart, is taken back by his guardian angel to see just what life and the world would have been like if he had not lived. The angel says: "Each person's life touches so many other lives. If they were not around, it would leave an awful hole."

"So it is with Stan Cohen. It is not just through the big books he has published over the years that change has been effected; it is also in the small acts of kindness, and the little refusals to go along with the crowd's inhumanities."

It is a well-expressed sentiment even if the phrase "little refusals" hardly does sufficient justice to the times, particularly during his long stay in Israel, when Stan Cohen risked ostracism from even his most liberal colleagues and friends because of his big refusal to go along with what he saw as their fatally compromised vision.

I am anxious to talk to him about that time in his life and specifically about the manner in which the work he did there on the torture used by Israeli security agents in the Occupied Territories led to the detailed psychological analysis of denial and self-deceit in his prize-winning States of Denial.

But these days it is no longer possible to talk to Stan without first checking up on his own state of mind. The last few years have been cruel to him. Seven years ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Despite the cocktails of drugs that he consumes, he now finds it increasingly difficult to walk any distance or to sit and write for any length of time.

Matters have been further complicated by an extreme back condition, which has failed to respond to surgery. The latest blow was the death from cancer this Christmas of his beloved wife, Ruth. "You know," he jokes, after he has waved away my clumsy solicitations. "If Glen Hoddle was right, then I must have had a wonderful previous life."

I take that as a cue to turn to his present incarnation. I know that he grew up in Johannesburg, where he and Ruth were involved in the Zionist youth movement. It was there that he developed his conviction that Israel provided an opportunity to build a good and fair society. At the same time, both of them were student activists in the struggle against apartheid (Znele Dlamini, now the wife of the South African President Thabo Mbeki, was in Stan's social work class). Stan always looks back to South Africa as the real source of his political ideals. But when he left South Africa for England in 1963, he fully intended to stay for only a couple of years before going off to Israel to resume his Zionist commitment. …

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