Stan Cohen

Stan Cohen

This post is actually much-delayed, and the event I’m writing about actually took place during the last week of Michaelmas Term. It seemed rather perverse to post about anything remotely academia-related once the holidays arrived, but it was definitely worth writing about, so here it is at last!

Anyway, on Tuesday 10th December, the LSE Centre for the Study of Human Rights hosted ‘From Moral Panics to States of Denial’, an evening celebrating the life and work of Professor Stanley Cohen. Stan Cohen (1942-2013) was a renowned sociologist, criminologist and social activist, as well as an Emeritus Professor at the LSE. The event was one I had been looking forward to ever since its announcement, and the public lectures at LSE are much famed. Our department had organised an end-of-term Christmas party that very evening, so after a quick pop-in to the party, I left for the lecture, with a wistful gaze at the mulled wine and nibbles I was leaving behind.

My eagerness to attend this particular lecture goes a long way back. When I was a high school, student (ah, those days of youth gone by!) newly studying sociology, one of the topics we covered was crime and deviance, and that was where I first encountered the name of Stanley Cohen. I read about his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, and was greatly intrigued by the two concepts. When I took sociology as a minor in undergrad, I once again came across the works of Professor Cohen. This time, they seemed even more engaging than they had at first, so I was determined to learn more about this celebrated scholar, and the man behind the books.

There were six speakers, each a highly distinguished scholar and a close colleague of Professor Cohen, including his brother, Robin Cohen. It was so inspiring to hear them talk about ‘Stan’ and to see the kind of love, respect and regard that he had commanded. Indeed, Daphna Golan, one of the speakers, delivered a highly emotional address as she recalled the days they spent actually demonstrating against human rights violations and demanding peace in Israel and Palestine.

From what was spoken, everyone seemed to agree that Stan was a man of great principle, of strong action and was prepared to stand up for what he believed in. He did not just write or talk, but actually went into the field, joined movements and demonstrations, and was active in driving change. He was quoted as saying:

We do what we can – at least we bear witness. To know is an obligation to act, to act is to acknowledge that we have understood.

Several very interesting points were made during the lecture, which stayed with me, and which I thought to share. One particularly fascinating point that Stan’s brother Robin Cohen made was that identities are made on the move. I found this to be so true in today’s world where we flit from one role to another, one job to another, one country to another – we are always on the go, so it seems only fitting that our identities are carved on the move.

Another thought-provoking statement was this: society might be much better off if we focused on the direct doing of good as opposed to the prevention of bad. For instance, we should put up playgrounds not because we want to prevent juvenile delinquency, but because children like to play!

Perhaps the point which resonated most strongly with me was made by Prof Harvey Molotch of the USA. In paying tribute to Stan Cohen, he said that he couldn’t actually remember reading many of Stan’s works, until he looked them up days ago and realised that he had read, re-read and even made notes on each work of Stan’s. So much had he come to identify with Stan’s work, he said, that it had become part of him! It was no longer “external knowledge” because he had internalised the ideas and principles of Stan Cohen. As a young writer, this is the kind of influence and power I can only aspire to – that my ideas or thoughts would be so powerful that people do not just read them, they internalise them, even subconsciously.

A very distinctive feature of this event was that it was not so much a lecture as it was a chance for people to come together and share their memories of this great scholar. This meant a lot of anecdotes from colleagues and former students came up. Almost everyone agreed that Professor Cohen was a great lover of Jewish jokes and pessimism, and that he hated the phrase cutting-edge! More frighteningly, his master’s thesis was 699 pages and 150,000 words long!  Another unique feature of this evening was that the talk was followed by a short musical performance: a brief vocal and piano rendition of one of Stan’s favourite operas.

But the best part is yet to come: a special reception was organised for the guests who attended the lecture at the Shaw Library! At first, I thought I would not be allowed to attend because I thought it might be restricted to the VIPs, but to my surprise, I was welcomed in, and got to interact with the speakers first-hand, including Robin Cohen himself. It was indeed humbling and inspiring and though I rued that I would never get the chance to meet him, I felt like I somehow knew the great Stanley Cohen. The beautiful Shaw Library provided the perfect setting, and for an hour or so, I was part of an exclusive group of sorts, a group of people who had come together to celebrate the works of the great sociologist Stan Cohen.

All said and done, this was really one of those days when you think back to five years ago and realise just how much things can change, and how things that seemed like a distant dream can one day become a part of reality. Who would have thought that a name in a high school textbook in Kenya would one day become so real?