The sleep of reason produces monsters: Oslo, 7/7, and the battle for cultural literacy in schools
There are, I think, two appropriate reactions to the tragedy in Norway filling our media tight now:
1. The compassionate reflex: acknowledging the loss, expressing condolences, and bowing our heads and removing our hats before the awfulness of death and cruelty.
2. The rational interpretation: what can this teach us? What does it mean? How do we prevent it happening in future? What good can come of this?
The first reaction is simply a product of humanity; Aristotle claimed we had a natural sympathy for our fellow humans that extended our personal sensitivities to the community. This compassion could be dulled or made keen through practice. Blessed are those who mourn, the Beatitudes tell us, correctly. The correct reaction to tragedy is sadness, not sarcasm. The second reaction is far more fluid, and just as revealing in its production.
Anyone who read the Headlines that screamed ‘Al-Qaeda!’ and ‘Muslim Extremists!’ will know the quiet irony of discovering that the perpetrator- or the apparent perpetrator- seems to be a white Nazi extremist with a vendetta against immigrants. As I say, this is still conjecture. But the speed with which media outlets, talking head rentagobs and armchair commentators raced to accuse the obvious target, was revolting, and telling.
It reminded me of the morning of July the 7th, 2005, the day after London scored the Olympics. In the middle of the morning, word reached us that bombs were going off all over- it seemed- London, with the Aldgate East explosion particularly close. Of course, the word spread through the school faster than broadband, and classes were untameable with nerves, fear and excitement. Some pupils, instructed by their parents, climbed over the fence and went home; the word we got from the police and LEA was to keep all pupils in school until further notice. Behaviour fractured and frayed everywhere, and with mobiles down and the BBC crashing, we moved in a siege atmosphere.
Most disturbingly, imaginations leapt to match everyone’s’ anxieties. Where my generation would have mouthed ‘The Republicans’ at the mention of a terrorist lock-down, these children belonged to a different age. ‘It’s the Muslims, sir’ one excitable boy shouted in class. ‘They’re finally starting.’ I assured him that nothing was starting. ‘My Dad says it was just a matter of time.’ And something inside me shrivelled up into a ball. Others agreed with him.
Other theories abounded; the most unusual was that it was ‘The French’ because they lost the Olympic bid, and amidst all the chaff against Islam, I even heard a lone voice asking if it was ‘The Jews’- at least his grasp of conspiracy and racism showed evidence of independent learning and scholarship. More and more, rumours were repeated as fact by credulous correspondents, until they were relayed as fact to third parties. I watched as conjecture reified into conclusions, and a crypto-history took shape. It was then I understood how myths take root, and transplant themselves into new soil. I saw the invention of cults and conspiracies in microcosm. In the absence of information, the human curiosity cannot bear the privation, and creates a scenario that satisfies its questions.
This is at once the human power and weakness, vice and virtue rolled into one: we abhor, like nature, a vacuum of explanation; we intuitively demand causes and explanations; our empiricist lust has propelled us to the top of the tree, and commits us to seeing patterns where sometimes, none exist.
I determined to fill that vacuum. You cannot teach tolerance, not in two fifty minute sessions a week, but you can dispel the darkness of ignorance and hold a candle to illuminate. I threw all my lesson plans out for that day (that was easy- I never used them anyway), and decided that for the next four lessons I would teach the same theme: Jihad, and the difference between fundamentalism and mainstream Islamic faith, tailored to the different age capacities of reasoning and comprehension.
|7/7 Memorial, Hyde Park|
For the rest of the day, I hammered home the difference between Lesser Jihad (when a Muslim can legitimately wage war on an enemy; often foolishly and carelessly called ‘Holy War’) and Greater Jihad, the constant, daily struggle that a Muslim wages against temptation and moral weakness. We debated, and argued, I lectured and questioned; I got the few, sheepish looking Muslims in class to explain their perspectives on the matter...anything I could think of to have my classes leave school that day understanding a little bit more than they did before they came. What they did with that understanding was up to them. The curriculum went out the window, but I can live with that; so did everything else.
When something as horrific as the Norwegian massacre occurs, it offers us at least one, tiny crumb of opportunity: to react with dignity and integrity. The Prime Minister of Norway said that he would retaliate with ‘More democracy.’ That moving and powerful statement reminded me of Martin Luther King’s famous quote:
‘Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies.’
Hate multiplies. And so does love.
Dedicated with respect to the victims and families of Norway.