Criminologist, sociologist and human rights campaigner Stanley Cohen has died aged 70. PETER FROST marks his passing.
“Talking ‘bout my generation” sang the Who in 1965 as Mods and Rockers fought it out on Brighton Beach.
The two groups of rival teenagers knew they were due to be battling on the beach that bank holiday weekend – they had read the announcements in the tabloid press.
It was a perfect example of what we now know as a moral panic.
The media reports a, sometimes insignificant, issue of some kind. Perhaps what is perceived as deviant or anti-social, behavior is involved.
They exaggerate and often romanticise the threat.
They seek to make the participants pariahs – the Folk Devils. They publish more and more exaggerated stories to stoke the events into a crisis.
In the case of the mods and rockers there had been some previous scuffles on seaside beaches. The press announced bigger battles were to come. They even said when and where.
The mods and rockers were post war teenagers who, for the first time, had enough disposable income to enjoy fashionable clothes and to become mobile by buying motorbikes or scooters.
In this case, as in others, the media builds the moral panic further with more and more lurid stories. This encourages the further actions and more extreme behavior. The vicious circle is complete.
Next Government and public opinion over-react, sometimes with ill thought out or hurried legislation.
Good examples of such moral panics have been teenage violence, flying pickets, dangerous dogs, ASBOs, joy-riding and a score of others.
As a young student Stanley Cohen studied the mods and rocker phenomenon, and used it as the basis of his university thesis.
That thesis became a book – many think one of the most important books on criminology and sociology ever written.
The book was called Folk Devils and Moral Panics. It gave society an interesting new concept and a now familiar phrase entered the English language.
Amazingly, for an academic tome it also inspired a rock opera by the Who and an iconic film both called Quadrophenia.
Stanley Cohen had a long and distinguished career.
He was born in South Africa and read Sociology and Social Work at the University of Witwatersrand where he was active in anti-apartheid politics.
In 1963 he could bear the obscenities of apartheid no more.
He moved to Britain where he worked a social worker and also studied for his PhD at the London School of Economics (LSE).
In 1967 Cohen lectured at the University of Durham and in 1972 he became Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex.
In the 1980’s Cohen’s Jewish background and culture drew him towards the Zionist dream.
He moved his family to Israel where he became Director of the Institute of Criminology at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
His dream did not last long. He was horrified by what he saw in Israel. Particularly the abuses the state carried out against the Palestinians.
Cohen campaigned against these abuses and published information on human rights issues.
Particularly he researched and exposed the Israeli state’s use of torture in the occupied areas.
His research and his militant campaigning did not make him popular with his university, the government or with reactionary Israelis.
He was vilified and attacked by the Zionist media. On at least one occasion he had excrement pushed through his letterbox.
The constant pressure did not silence him or stop his work but eventually it all became too much. He moved his family back to Britain in 1996.
He returned to the LSE. His health was already failing but his intellectual vitality stayed bright.
Cohen became a central figure in the founding, growth and success of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the LSE. It was a continuation of the work he had started in Jerusalem.
In his later years he collected many plaudits and awards with honorary degrees from universities in Britain and across the globe.
He died earlier this month at the age of 70.
Social scientist turned broadcaster Laurie Taylor worked with Stan Cohen and co-wrote a number of books with him.
On the Radio 4 programme Last Words he remembered him as “a man who wanted to change things, an honourable man, and a good man.”
Taylor told listeners of one of his conversations with Cohen; one that showed Stan’s humanity and humour.
Taylor suggested their joint work might improve if they both cut down on their drinking a little.
To back his argument Taylor quoted actor Richard Burton as saying when he, Burton, had stopped drinking he could see the world as it really was.
“Who the Hell” quipped Stan “wants to see the world as it really is?”
Stanley Cohen, like Karl Marx, realised the point is not just to interpret the world but to try to change it.
This obituary first appeared in the Morning Star