by Lorraine Gillies, CEO of the The SCSN

Originally published in 1919 Magazine

I’m the Chef Executive Officer of the Scottish Community Safety Network (SCSN). Ours is a vital organisation, working in the background to support Community Safety Partnerships (CSPs) and others tasked with keeping you, me, and our communities safe. 

We need your help to change the common parlances that reinforce the imagery and ideas we hold about what makes us safe. I believe we have an opportunity to change how we talk about justice in Scotland.

In this piece, I share my thoughts about what we HEAR, what we REMEMBER, and the influence of NARRATORS in community safety.

I think the language we use, the tone and context, influences behaviours and shapes society. What we say we are, we sometimes become.


We are familiar with the depressingly dehumanising language used to describe desperate people crossing the English Channel. “A swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean” (David Cameron, 2015), “a hurricane of migrants” that will be “uncontrolled and unimaginable” (Suella Braverman, 2023). We’ve been warned of “invasion” by the “illegals” and the need to “process” them – like packets of peas in a factory – with greater efficiency. These are corrosive, populist labels, deliberately used to simplify complexity, to ‘other’ and stigmatise, and distance the humanity of the issue in favour of economics and politics. But we hear the same rhetoric inland – away from the deadly shorelines – closer to home.

“…this isn’t about educating people, this is about badness. It is about bad people.” (The Courier, 2023). “Savages”, “scroats”, “scumbags” and “druggies” (Jonathan Gullis MP, 2023). “Feral teenagers” (Daily Record, 2022). Dramatic headlines – real punchy, straight-shooting, tell-it-how-it-really-is hot takes – but they are irresponsible and disingenuous, and perpetuate division and cultural disassociation. Language like this creates a wedge – of fear, anger and superficiality – between people and communities.

Tell someone often enough they’re “work-shy” or “an unproductive citizen” or “a benefit scrounger”, they may believe it. Keep saying it – in the papers or at the podium – the danger is that it gives others the green light to say it too. Critically, this approach ignores any nuance concerning trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that might help explain or lend empathy. Instead, it can be just about finger pointing, blame, and the justice of revenge. It can diminish people, their sense of self and self-worth, and make redemption – although I’d prefer ‘restoration’ or ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘renewal’ – far more difficult.


Most of us try to keep life simple. Easy social circles. The same routes and rituals. It’s a self-preserving instinct. And the knowledge we collect along the way can fade, subjective and edited, altered by time and bias:

A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event – it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it. Your memory of an event can grow less precise, even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.” (Donna Bridge, postdoctoral fellow, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine from the Journal of Neuroscience.)

There are exceptions of course. Physical and psychological trauma is often seared on the mind with painful precision. But generally, experiences are narrow, and memory is disloyal. Yet, we often hear rose-tinted recollections of past days when things were simpler. Less complicated. Better. People could leave their doors unlocked. Punishment was harsher but more effective, we’re told. Is this really true?

The same distortions of memory can influence the present. Community safety is not immune. Every one of us is vulnerable to the reactive and emotional response to events. And it is seductive to relay a story – like in the telephone game – with greater descriptive flourish at each telling; more shocking; more definitive; more absolute. When, in fact what we need – particularly in the telling of justice – is restraint. Consideration for the consequences. Compassion for the abused, forgiveness. Not judgement.


Despite what we might tell ourselves, we don’t know the world. We can’t possibly. It’s mostly hidden and out of reach, so we rely on others to observe and translate for us; journalists; authors; public servants; politicians; judges; poets; musicians. Our sense of things – how we feel and the conclusions we reach – is influenced by strangers. Their perspectives drip feed our sense of reality. Stories – books, articles, memes on social media, opinions on the telly, headlines, political pamphlets slipped under the door, and the anecdotes we share across the garden wall – are absorbed by degrees. They’re baked into our consciousness through osmosis. Repeated often enough and they can become woven into common language, or even become undisputed fact. Language shapes us; how we see; how we forgive; how we punish; how we behave. Words have power. (revisit THINGS WE HEAR above)


‘Benefit scrounger’ or:

Many who experience trauma and neglect will differ from more emotionally regulated people in how they interpret reality and respond to social cues. They will live under a cloud of psychosocial stress, impairing basic cognitive functions like problems solving, decision making, risk assessment, negotiation and collaboration. They will live in anticipation that bad things are about to happen. Then we wonder why so many people can’t even bring themselves to open the threatening DWP letters, which are formatted and worded to baffle, humiliate and intimidate them.” (Darren McGarvey, 2018)

I don’t believe anyone should be reduced to a one-dimensional label – “junkie”, “migrant”, “victim”, “bad apple”, “deviant”, “thug” – an inescapable trope. It’s degrading. It reduces lives to a comic strip of villains and heroes, goodies and baddies. People are complicated, there is colour. And the reasons why people are the way they are, and why they do what they do needs to be visited, and revisited and understood.

Some people have more influence and followers than others, command more attention – perhaps because of situation, position, or character – and they can convince and persuade. Those that do should take care and acknowledge the power and responsibility they hold.

How do you want people to feel after they hear your voice? Angry, embittered, and hostile; or empathetic, knowledgeable, and motivated? It’s a choice. We are all authors of lives – our own and others’ – and experience, yours, and theirs. But why does all this matter? Why does the Scottish Community Safety Network care?

Because they could be you – your friend or your loved one. They come from our community. Their transgressions represent our collective failures, so we need to use responsible language – thoughtful and considerate and measured – and recognise the power we have, to influence others and the prevailing, or emerging public attitudes. What you say is heard and it matters.