The Home Office’s latest initiative to brandish chicken boxes with #KnifeFree stories has been criticised for being crude, offensive and racist. But it’s worse than that, it’s positively dangerous.
Following a ‘successful’ trial in March, Policing Minister Kit Malthouse announced that a further 321,000 #KnifeFree boxes will be distributed across 210 chicken shops in England and Wales. The black boxes detail the campaign hashtag on the outside and stories of young people who pursued sport or music, as opposed to carrying a knife, on the inside.
This insulting and dangerous gimmick sits alongside a slew of bad policy announcements, including the turbo-charging of discriminatory stop and searches and thousands of more prison cells.
The big problem with this, of course, is that it infers that these stories are somehow exceptional to young people eating fried chicken. I don’t need to conduct a poll to know that the young kids that join me in chicken shops in South East London are already far more likely to be pursuing boxing than carrying a knife.
And this is where it gets dangerous. Research from behavioural science demonstrates that conveying a practice as widespread, in an effort to educate the public about its bad effects, can actually increase the negative behaviour the campaign seeks to address. This is known as “Reverse Norming” and is related to the powerful effects of social norms more broadly.
We’re all familiar with the popular parental proverb of “If so and so told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?”. It’s meant to mock the excessive influence of our peer groups, but we underestimate its importance at our peril. Studies show that we all instinctively observe social norms within our groups keenly, it helps to direct our behavior in a way that’s orderly and predictable. However, if we’re not careful about what we’re promoting as normal within a group, it can have severe unintended consequences.
In an area of policy where failure results in the loss of life, useless stunts are an intolerable waste of time and money.
Take this anti-smoking campaign for instance. The message of “Talk: They’ll listen” aimed at parents of teenagers essentially pitted the two groups against each other. This meant the teenagers saw that the socially normal thing to do within their group was to smoke. The net effect? More cigarettes were smoked by teenagers.
Or there’s the infamous Drug Awareness Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) “Just Say No” campaign in the US that is widely derided for being an absolute failure. Its focus on peer pressure being around every corner made drugs seem more prevalent, or normal. Not only was the programme deemed ineffectual but it was the opinion of leading psychologists that it was likely to push more anxious kids in to trying drugs to fit in.
Now, think about a young person who is under the impression that everybody around them carries a knife these days. This fear is a well-known driver towards carrying as young people consider it necessary in order to stay safe. Then this chicken box campaign comes along and reinforces the sense that knife carrying is mainstream.
My deep fear is that this type of mainstreaming, along with other initiatives that intensify this perception, will ultimately increase the number of young people carrying knives.
It wasn’t long ago that my borough of Lewisham was named the least peaceful in England and Wales, with a murder rate that’s twice the national average. It now feels like barely a month can pass by without another tragic death related to knives in my area. This is why failed initiatives like this are not just frustrating, but positively fatal.
Perhaps if this was one failed initiative of many better ones, it would be more tolerable. Instead, this insulting and dangerous gimmick sits alongside a slew of bad policy announcements, including the turbo-charging of discriminatory stop and searches and thousands of more prison cells. It all feels designed to appease the Tory right, rather than fix the problem we have on our streets. We have to demand better.
Better means taking a deeper, more multi-disciplinary approach to tackling some of the root causes of knife crime. Like this plan suggested by former deputy assistant commissioner of the London Metropolitan police Brian Paddick. He recognises that we need to first tackle in-work poverty, restore youth services, address childhood traumas, stop unnecessary exclusions and restore genuine, sensitive community policing.
I would go further still and suggest that we need to wake up to the role the drug industry plays too. If we had a sensible, evidence-driven policy on drugs then we may be able to undermine a crucial element that allows gangs to thrive in the first place.
Whatever the combination of solutions, we can all agree that the policy package required is complex. In an area of policy where failure results in the loss of life, useless stunts are an intolerable waste of time and money. But with the potential for this particular stunt to cause further harm, I just hope that it remains at just that.
Bobby Dean is Director of Speak Change and Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Lewisham Deptford.