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Zombie knives: a metaphor for Britain Young people are lost in a violent virtual world

(Credit: Getty)


April 25, 2024   5 mins

Another day, another report of a child stabbing another child. On this occasion, it was in the comprehensive school in the former mining valley of Ammanford in Wales, where a teenage girl has been arrested after three were left injured, one a fellow pupil. But these stories have become so common that they’ve almost lost their power to shock. Instead of examining these crimes, we have allowed them to become an ambient menace: a rolling cycle of arrests, trials and ever-growing violence. And this is an abdication: we are all partially guilty for pushing the cold steel blade.

Explanations for this escalation in violence are framed in two distinct ways. The first sees it as a question of individual responsibility and free will. The perpetrator must assume sole culpability. If there are other factors at play, they are thought to be immediate ones: from bad parenting to the grooming cultures of gangs. There is no doubt some truth to this, especially the way gang culture promotes and glorifies violence, which is also inseparable from that of the drug economy. But most would also agree that when it comes to youth violence, given the age of the assailants, the account needs to factor in a wider question of blame. After all, can a child be held fully responsible for their actions?

The second approach focuses on those broader social conditions, or what sociologists would identify as embedded “structural factors”, which include various measures for deprivation. In this reading, insight is less concerned with dangerous individuals than with society more generally. This is the approach associated with Henry Giroux, whose focus on what he terms “the war on youth” addresses adolescent rage within a framework that considers social neglect and criminalisation. If we choose to emphasise not agency but social ecologies, if there is blood on our streets, it’s not just the perpetrators that should concern us.

To have a full sense of the problem, though, we must also factor in the conditions of austerity and the major cuts to youth services which once provided children with educated alternatives to gang lives. There is a clear correlation between cuts in funding after 2008 and the exponential rise in knife violence. Before the pandemic, an official Parliamentary report specifically highlighted the link. And since this hollowing-out of civil society began, there have been clear warning signs that something was being neglected, and was allowing violence to brew.

Particularly instructive were the inner-city riots of 2011. Driven largely by youths in cities across the UK, these mindlessly destructive events demonstrated what the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall pointed to as revealing of nihilistic tendencies born of a real sense of alienation and a dispossessed future. The eminent sociological theorist Zygmunt Bauman concurred, referring to them as protests without aim, a causeless revolt for a post-political generation who no longer believe their future can collectively be steered in a different direction. As Hall wrote:

“Some kids at the bottom of the ladder are deeply alienated, they’ve taken the message of Thatcherism and Blairism and the coalition: what you have to do is hustle. Because nobody’s going to help you. And they’ve got no organised political voice, no organised black voice and no sympathetic voice on the left. That kind of anger, coupled with no political expression, leads to riots. It always has.”

Since then, some would claim that social alienation has found more genteel avenues to march along: there has been an exponential rise in youth protest, from concerns with ecology to the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet any close study reveals how the impetus and main participation of such movements remains a largely middle-class preoccupation. And too often, the lauding of this newly awakened generation affirms the wonders of digital activism, which has been a catalyst for a new kind of political community building. But digital technology isn’t solely a progressive catalyst — the same is directly responsible for compounding the violence we are seeing on the streets.

For middle-class youths, the internet allows them to advertise themselves as the new vanguard of digital activism, which from time to time sees them taking to the streets or damaging works of art without any real risk to their personal safety. For children from poor backgrounds, however, what social media exposes them to are glamorous lifestyles that will probably remain beyond all reach, while ensuring the visual records of their impoverished lives will continue to follow them around. Given their conditions of acute poverty, many young people prefer to live virtually, playing violent video games and scheming an escape from their surroundings. And when hit with the rub of the real world, these forces of brutality and social aspiration only merge and warp.

That the digital revolution has diminished the wellbeing of children is now well-established. The addictive effects of technology and its impact on anxiety, mental health, attention spans, and general ability to navigate the world in a more tolerant and open way points to a generational problem which many would readily accept. And yet for too long we have treated the outlying social issues of our time as immune from this diagnosis.

While children, like the rest of us, have become forced witnesses to spectacles of violence and voyeurs to daily sufferings, they are also mirroring the brutalism and loneliness that fills digital landscapes. We live in an age defined by what I would call “hyper-primitivism”, occupying digital nervous systems of hyper-arousal, where everything is tethered to emotional reactions and responses in an excessively sensitised way. It smothers our genuine respect for others. And instead of bringing humans together, it propagates tribalism and division as creeds of hatred and intolerance. Individualism and rampant disregard becomes the norm. And emotion is liberated from responsibility.

The consequences are all too shocking. Online battles and disagreements that take place in virtual bubbles are finding their way into the material world: slashed bodies on digital screens make their way into the real world as bloodied corpses on our streets. And in a deeply tragic and symbolic way, one item has come to stand out as the symbol for this new reality. The weapon of choice, and perhaps the only kind of leveller on city streets: the zombie knife. Garishly coloured, unrealistically huge, they represent the merging of the artificial and the alienated.

“The zombie knife brings this utter hopelessness into reality”

The rise of the zombie genre in the violent virtual world is instructive. Born out of the Sixties concern with consumerist culture and the soul-destroying landscapes of the American shopping mall, it has also become one of the leading products defining the digital age for youth. Yet the zombie also evokes a particularly nihilistic sense of the world, where the only strategy is one of pure survival. As depicted in the “Men Against Fire” episode of Black Mirror, seeing humans as zombies facilitates dehumanisation, which makes the violence easier to afflict. We only need to look at popular games children are playing, from the Resident Evil franchise, The Last of Us, and Dead Island, onto other popular series like Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto, to note the prevalence of slasher killings. The zombie knife brings this utter hopelessness into reality, a weapon for a place where children place no value on the lives of others.

Mindful of this, it’s hard not to see the current problem of youthful killings as a novel kind of nihilism, executed by children who no longer have any belief in the future. We know that the more we weaponise the world, the more we are likely to usher in its obliteration. That same logic should be applied to the streets. The fact that children carry knives is the surest indication that their means of navigating space is by being prepared for a violent ending, and taking another life should that eventuality arise.

So what can be done about this? It’s not enough to say we just need better regulation, and societies shouldn’t expect parents to carry the responsibility. When the young die, we only see the body lying in the street or on the hospital bed. But there are other forces putting them there. Knives have become more than a weapon. They cut open the illusions of a digital world.

Faced with this situation, it’s time that our society started taking seriously the desire for such violence. Hyper-primitivism is all about desire, creating emotional states on virtual spaces, which then leave us feeling helpless once we enter back into the real world. For young people who spend most of their lives feeling powerless, violence is attractive because it has real-world effects. Violence fills the void.


Professor Brad Evans holds a Chair in Political Violence & Aesthetics at the University of Bath. His book, How Black Was My Valley: Poverty and Abandonment in a Post-Industrial Heartland, is out in April.


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Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
21 days ago

FFS – I may have had a glass or two of wine this evening but this article is drivel!

A teen knifes a number of other teens (and a teacher) at a school and the corollary is that “it’s time that our society started taking seriously the desire for such violence.”

Actually NO, it’s NOT. What it is time for is for society to recognise that it is actually parents responsibility to raise their children to adulthood with a set of values and morals that say “stabbing people is not OK”. And that in order to do this they have proper authority over their children. This means they are not going to be prosecuted for smacking them, or disciplining them, or failing to “recognise” their “pronouns”, or accept their “new gender”, or punishing them for bad behaviour, or impinging upon their “rights”, or having the police rock up and arrest them for “not affirming their gender identity”. And that Schools, when the precious progeny are therein, also have a responsibility to carry that baton on the parents behalf, and not sneak around the back undermining parental input at every turn.

You want to lay the blame for this somewhere? How about the rights culture in western society, which has gone mad. Blame that. If you look at any pack animals in nature, from elephants to wolves, the young are disciplined and socialised by their parents and the herd and the pack. If they step out of line they get a whack on the backside with a trunk or a cuff across the ears with a paw. What is it that makes young humans so special that they should be exempted from this?

Virtual worlds . . . digital dystopias . . . zombie genres . . .

How about some straight forward plain and simple teaching of rights and wrongs by parents to children in the REAL world . . . Want to fix this? Then empower parents to BE parents once more and not just the sidelined caretakers of a tottering museum of useless social ideologies.

Bed.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
20 days ago

A much bigger problem of simply importing myriad troubled families from overseas who inculcate such cultures on Britain’s streets.

Buck Rodgers
Buck Rodgers
18 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

That does seem to be the elephant in this particular room

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
20 days ago

At the beginning of my high school year, I had to teach the kids manners for several months. Raised by wolves.

Amelia Melkinthorpe
Amelia Melkinthorpe
20 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Insulting to wolves.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
21 days ago

I’m impressed. This is probably one of the stupidest articles I have ever read. Look, I’m from the US and I have heard all this useless crap before. I remember homeboys in the inner cities trying to settle scores with bullets back when videogames were still 16 bit. I grew up around in a place with arsenals that would cause a Brit’s eyes to bulge and almost no violence. I have heard all the “economics” arguments before. Guess what? There are plenty of falling apart places filled with drugs and despair and somehow no drivebys. You can blame gangs but somehow these things also happen between dumbasses who have never worn colors. Don’t even get me started on the whole “social services” garbage. Also, for the record, the zombie genre is like a decade out of its zeitgeist. Oh, and before you start your “but yer gunz!” stuff, I want you to understand that the sharp-edged solution, the blunt force bludgeoning, and the good old fashioned curb stomp are still extremely popular problem-solving methods in America’s inner cities. I guarantee you take away all the guns and your brand of hoodlum would still not last a week. You should see what people get up to in other parts of our hemisphere!
It’s popular to talk about “culture” in vague terms but do you want to know the common factor in all of this petty violence? It’s an attitude. I’m not talking about anything like a, “you have insulted me. We will settle this with fists and move on with our lives.” If our inner cities had that attitude half this crap would end in a week. It is hard to describe in simple terms because it is basically an entire unwritten code of behavior. You are either strong or weak, predator or prey. Even if you want to be left alone, you have to respond to threats or even minor disrespect with serious violence otherwise you have let it be known that you are an easy target. That is why stupid, petty social media spats can end with chalk outlines. This is what you are going to have to deal with and no attempts at banning sharpened bits of metal or installing more cameras is going to help.
Want to know another thing that is absolutely going to make things worse? It’s called stopping innocent people from defending themselves in reasonable circumstances. I don’t care if you think you are oh so advanced and “civilized”. If you think that defending yourself and your family with a baseball bat in your own home from a violent thug or stabbing a murderous assailant with his own knife you wrestled from him is “scandalous”, then you are part of the problem. That’s not acting like a violent criminal. It is acting like a man and doing what needs to be done because you are left with no other choice. If you punish someone for that, you are only reinforcing this predator/prey mindset and taking away potential consequences for antisocial violent behavior. If these young men see their only choice as being some messed up binary between a dangerous thug that people fear or some disrespected weakling they will pick the thug every time. Oh, and one last thing! Some violent jackasses just need to be put in a cage away from society at large. The only way to deal with them is to get them off the streets.

Simon James
Simon James
21 days ago

I work regularly in schools. The level of violence in primary schools – primary schools – that goes unrecorded and unreported is eye watering. Hitting, biting, kicking, chair throwing. It has become normalised in part because there is a ‘therapeutic’ culture that sees this as a legitimate expression of children’s trauma which adults, and other children, just have to suck up. We are in an almighty mess folks and good luck trying to solve it because everyone involved is just trying to live their best life, like the culture promised, so who are you to stand in their way?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
20 days ago
Reply to  Simon James

I’m a retired high school teacher, and the top reason I retired early was smart phones. The last three years were a nightmare. The students were so addicted to their phones it was a losing battle. Administration would not do anything to support teachers, unlike the other high school that banned the things and breaking the rule had serious consequences. I didn’t take away in phones, because three female teachers on campus were violently assaulted when they took a phone. I loved teaching, and I ran a tight ship. But GenZ defeated me. Many of my students were poor, but all of them are going to have dismal futures. They couldn’t read well and couldn’t write their out of a paper bag.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
20 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I tried to edit my comment, but I failed. My iPad would not cooperate.

R Wright
R Wright
20 days ago

Video games and austerity causes stabbings? Are you sure you are a professor?

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
20 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

I’d say that ticks the boxes nicely.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
20 days ago

A symbol simply of a country wantonly destroyed by limitless immigration that has brought any number of overseas warzones home to British streets.

John Tyler
John Tyler
20 days ago

To say ‘you’re pushing the philosophical and sociological boundaries’ would be an understatement. This is full of citation and assumption signifying nothing (with apologies to the Bard).

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
20 days ago

You know what these kids need? Midnight basketball.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
20 days ago

“The second approach focuses on those broader social conditions, or what sociologists would identify as embedded ‘structural factors’, which include various measures for deprivation. In this reading, insight is less concerned with dangerous individuals than with society more generally.”
Hey, the 60s called. They want their outdated, discredited “it’s really all our faults” philosophy back.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
20 days ago

Another day, another report of a child stabbing another child.
Surely, reasonable common sense knife control is the answer, right? That’s what I keep being told about my country’s ownership of guns as if it’s the objects that are at fault and never the people using them.
Perhaps we can finally recognize that there is a cultural problem afoot. Metal objects are not new; the willingness to use them indiscriminately is. Culture involves a mentality that puts the criminal over the victim, a mentality that treats the criminal as the victim in the affair. In New York, a man named Daniel Penny faces trial for the audacity of coming to the rescue of people being attacked by a crazy person on a subway. THAT is why, in the YouTubed conflicts that are so ubiquitous, people are far more likely to be recording the event than trying to stop it.
Culture involves a primal attitude of “he disrespected me,” as if no course other than attempted or achieved homicide exists. And there is a glaring lack of consequences for bad behavior, not just among criminals, but also among the allegedly respectable elites who face no repercussions for ideas that harm others.
This is not about ‘desire.’ It is about incentives. When bad behavior is coddled or otherwise rewarded, there will be more of it. The reverse is true when such behavior is sanctioned, harshly if necessary. It has always been thus.

Mister Smith
Mister Smith
20 days ago

I would think that the increase in U.K. stabbings could be easily explained by the arrival of people from cultures where knife violence is common.

Alexis Taylor
Alexis Taylor
20 days ago
Reply to  Mister Smith

In the introduction of the documentary ‘Shakespeare: Rise of a Genius’ on BBC iPlayer, it notes that in London in the 15th Century, theft & violence was so rampant that it was extremely common for people to carry knives and use them.

I’m unsure if the Mods v Rockers were what prompted the Offensive Weapons Act 1959, banning carrying flick knives and other blades/pointed articles? Knives were clearly a big problem that needed tackling legislatively.

Knife crime in the UK is not a new phenomenon.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
20 days ago
Reply to  Alexis Taylor

William Shakespeare: Rocker or Mod?
I vote Mod.

Arthur King
Arthur King
15 days ago
Reply to  Mister Smith

Middle Eastern honor cultures.

M Doors
M Doors
20 days ago

Congratulations to those who managed to read the entire article.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
18 days ago

There is a minority of people who if they can benefit from violence will use. Unless people are trained not to use violence for personal gain, are not punished for using it such that they are an others are deterred from using it, violence will flourish whether it is the school bully, organised crime or Putin.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
15 days ago

The old lame excuse for criminality: society is to blame.