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28 April 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Happy Slaps: fact and fiction
Rumours of an epidemic of videophone violence have been greatly exaggerated.

by Graham Barnfield

A 'happy slaps' panic is brewing. Readers over 18 may need a definition of the trend: It involves young people slapping, punching and sometimes kicking strangers. Footage of the incident is captured on videophone, and then sent out to friends and acquaintances. Some of the 'short films' find their way on to the web.

Under the headline 'Concern over rise of "happy slapping" craze', the UK Guardian this week reported that, according to police and bullying organisations, happy slapping has become a 'nationwide phenomenon'.

It invites the question 'where will it end?', as teenagers search for the ultimate slap. Some compare the practice to making snuff movies, that elusive genre of videotape that was widely discussed in the 1980s without actually turning up.

In some estimates the trend has been around for 18 months (1). Several schools have sought to tackle happy slapping by banning videophones or all mobiles from their premises. London Transport Police kickstarted an anti-happy slapping campaign in January this year, saying that 'the assaults on London's Tube and bus networks were serious incidents and would not be tolerated' (2).

Participants in internet chatrooms based in the North-East of England grumble that they invented the craze and should be credited accordingly. At present, Google runs up only around 400 hits for 'happy slaps', but the number is rising.

Online, the trend divides its detractors by age: adults appear generally shocked by it (probably forgetting a few youthful indiscretions of their own in the process), while youths are split between those who brag about how they would defend themselves and those who debate the merits of particular 'slaps'.

Much of the discussion is closely linked to the urban dance 'underground' and to south London, putting a trendy spin on fake ebonics and gangsta fantasies. At times, those who complain about the trend indulge in coded racism; others get straight on to the preferred national sport of chav-baiting.

Some of the more thoughtful, usually blogging or writing for style magazines, try to link the trend to changes in society. For Ayaan Bulale, 'As the trend spreads like wildfire from school playgrounds to cities across the country, adults are now forced to rethink the way children are raised on a virtually unfiltered diet of video games, films, reality TV and lyrics about pimps, hoes and ghetto bravado'. Asking what happy slaps tell us about the modern world is a new way of saying that violence has become entertainment.

There is a broader social proclivity for capturing humiliation on film
Except that the rarity of such slaps makes it hard to work out whether or not it's a major problem. Tracking down footage on the web yields less than one might expect: the relatively low number of hits translates into even fewer videos. Online, at least, happy slaps are swamped by morgue scenes and homemade porn.

So the first thing to be said about this 'craze sweeping the nation' is that no one can tell even whether it's a craze. At least not without a system of intercepting and quantifying video clips - and it's doubtful whether such a system would be practical, let alone desirable. Still, some seem to accept the fact that kids in chatrooms are talking about happy slapping as evidence of a 'craze'. (Older readers may spot parallels with the banning of a slap-themed TV advert for the soft drink Tango, over fears of imitation rather than actual imitation.)

Then there's the clips themselves. Taken collectively (based on what's on the web) they hardly amount to an epidemic of violence. It would make more sense to see a spectrum of violent acts, differing in both the magnitude of the violence and - most importantly - the level of consent. A lot of happy slapping footage involves pre-arranged violence by consenting amateur stuntmen, rather than random attacks on strangers. Some of the videos are clearly staged: it's not often a stranger is waiting in your bedroom to give you a two-footed drop kick. These videos resemble the approach taken by Dom Joly, minus the dog costumes, or backyard wrestling (3).

It seems that proponents of the panic have a leg to stand only when looking at the most violent acts. Claims of a 'Sick, Cruel British Craze - Happy Slapz' (4) point to serious assaults based on the same narrow range of clips. (Incidentally, the claim that it's a black-on-white thing is often refuted with reference to the clip where a teenager is decked with a traffic cone.) But the more violent and 'authentic' the clips, the weaker is the argument for regulation. After all, there are already plenty of laws based on legal categories of harm: assault, actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm and wounding. To those pursuing - perhaps unwisely - a prosecution, there are also a few seconds of electronic evidence to back up their allegations.

Only when we isolate these rare assaults from the adult hot air and the teenage boasting does it become clear what is at stake. The indications are not of sick teenage minds but of broader social proclivities for capturing humiliation on film and video. Thus, a brief moment of notoriety - 15 seconds of fame - involves dumping common sense in order to record and distribute the evidence of one's crimes. Today's preoccupation with manufacturing images for self-affirmation alone supplies the incentive to act in this self-destructive way.

Perceptions of a happy slaps epidemic make sense because they are plausible in the present context. The panic mixes chav-baiting, fears about black youth crime and new technology, and celebrity culture. Their actual rarity is overshadowed by the broader culture of combining self-expression with degradation. Pundits and web-posters may complain of youthful, Dogme-style violent videocasts, but the blame lies with an increasingly voyeuristic media culture. Truly the fish rots from the head first.

Graham Barnfield lectures at the University of East London and blogs at The Loneliest Jukebox.

(1) See Ayaan Bulale, Happy slaps - watch out, you could be next, 020 London, March '05



(2) Police targeting 'slap' attackers, BBC News, 18 January 2005

(3) British Backyard Wrestling Federation

(4) eBaum's World Forum

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