The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: Mock outrage causes outrage

I am outraged. I'm fuming. How can people be so insensitive? They should be ashamed of themselves.

In fact, I'm so outraged, I think I might be able to wring a decent article out of it. The source of today's horror is the news, reported in the Telegraph, and no doubt coming soon to a media outlet near you, is the news that in the recent AQA Religious Studies exam, they had the temerity to ask this question:

'Why are some people prejudiced against Jews?'

The Jewish Chronicle led with this; Michael Gove jumped in with his size 12s. Lou Mensch hit Twitter like it was being rationed by Francis Maude.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, branded the move “insensitive”.
He told The Jewish Chronicle: “To suggest that anti-Semitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre. AQA needs to explain how and why this question was included in an exam paper.” 
From this link

I had to rub my eyes a few times to make sure I was reading that right. We can't question why prejudice occurs? We can't try to understand the frankly obnoxious reasons that people might discriminate against any segment of the population? We can't try to unpick the stitches in racism, anti-Semitism, or hate-thought?

How utterly, utterly, endlessly, bottomlessly appalling. Prejudice needs to be challenged; it needs to be understood; its brittle bones broken. The fog of discrimination grows darker in the shadows. It doesn't emerge, like a miasma, from nothing. It is a primordial soup of ignorance, half-truths, fear, cruelty and imagined injustice. Suggesting that the only appropriate reaction is to condemn it, does the reverse; it condemns us. I have been to Auschwitz several times; after the abysmal anti-life that this place represents, many were inspired to say, 'Never again.'

Well nothing is dispelled by treating it as something transcendent, mystical and unintelligible. You analyse and confront; you do not retreat into dogma and simplifications. The German people are not inherently evil, nor were the people of Rwanda, Serbia, or any other ghastly gardens of genocide and intolerance. Hate is not defeated by ignoring it, or pretending it arises ex nihilo, like a genie. Understanding it takes us a step towards dispelling it. Refusing to even question its origins is a step towards ensuring that it perpetuates like gangrene in the wounds of the world.

This was a valid question, and always will be. I teach RS, and I have always- and will always- expect my students to understand why humans can hate each other. AQA understood this when they set the question; good RS teachers understand it when they teach and discuss it. Rentagobs, manufacturing outrage are the enemies of wisdom. This question was well-worded, and anyone free from a fetish for headlines and populism can understand that this question, in this context, wasn't just permissible, but vital; urgent.

Sometimes I feel that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. Sometimes, as someone who tries to help students understand why reason sometimes dislocates in favour of race-hate, I feel so weak in the face of the cyclical nature of ignorance and ugly sentiment. The faux, proxy offended play to the sentiments of the bigoted when they classify all explorations of racism as racist.

Humanity deserves better than this. Our children deserve better than this.


  1. So brilliant, your post. Ironic, isn't it, that RS, a subject that should properly be used as an opportunity for discussion, exploration and debate can also be used by morons to stifle the same?

    I was always told as a child to ignore racist bullies to make them go away. They didn't. Ignoring issues NEVER makes them go away.

    1. I was told to confront bullies by grassing on them. Worked, too.



  2. I take the point that the issue should not be ignored, but can't help wondering if it suitable to be addressed by teenagers taking exams.

    I can't imagine what a "good" answer would be, or how anybody could go about marking it.

  3. Fair point, as ever, Old Man. What most commentators have ignored in the popular penny papers is that the syllabus is geared up for exactly THIS question (and others related to it); there's a specific lesson sequence where kids discuss (and let's be honest, are told)reasons why prejudiced opinions are held. In that respect, it's no different from prepping a kid for the causes of WWII or the dramatic devices used in The Tempest. I wouldn't expect most kids to be able to lucidly unpick the stitches of prejudice (although some might, and many could go half-way with assistance)entirely by themselves. That's where bounders like me step in.
    You mark it by comparing it to the answers you expect from lessons PLUS a hunk of judgement about a good reason versus a bad one.

  4. Sorry Tom, I disagree with you.

    'Why are some people prejudiced against minorities?' is the question that should have been asked.

    What does referring to a specific minority add to the question?

    1. That question is a valid one too. But using concrete examples helps to reinforce understanding of a topic. There are reasons for anti-Semitism that are generic to most forms of misunderstanding and hatred, and some that are specific: historical contexts,etc. In A level we discuss The Protocols of Zion, etc, which gives shape and form to a very abstract discussion.

      In class, the students sitting this paper very likely studied answers that referred to that category of prejudice, so it makes sense to ask them to show comprehension by giving those examples. It could have been Islamic anti-Semitism, or any other cultural/ faith discrimination. And I would argue that prejudice against Jews is something that re-emerges throughout history, and we would be well-served by analysing it in order to gird ourselves to its malignant menastases.

    2. Definitely. Speaking as a history teacher, you've got to teach the Holocaust in a way that links it back to early developments - we connect it to the medieval pogrom against the Jews of York.

      The alternative risks giving the impression that Hitler put on a blindfold, stuck a pin in a list of minorities and thought 'Oh well, I'll persecute them.'

    3. I agree that anti-semitism is historically different and it is valid to ask about it.

      But the Jewish community has been offended and it is right to think about whether the question could be asked in a less offensive way.

      Your outraged complete dismissal of these genuine feelings I find rather cavalier.

      I defend the right to offend a community if needed, but if it is possible to ask the same question and achieve the same effect without offending should not we at least consider whether this is possible? Is the important part the asking of the question or the causing of the offence?

      In this case I think there are two problems:

      1) The question picks out the Jewish community in the present tense, whereas your reference to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion clearly had far more importance in the past than it does now.

      2) The question is asked in a way that does seem to ask for a justification of anti-semitism, rather than a historical sketch of various false blood libels of the past, which is what you suggest for an answer.

      Is there some way of putting the question in an historical context that would be less offensive?

    4. PEZ. Really? I've spoken to many citizens of the Middle East who believe it's a real document.

      It doesn't ask the student to justify their anti-semitism; it ask them to provide an insight into the mind of someone who holds opinions which (hopefully) they don't hold. That's an essential skill in a liberal democracy; the ability to understand why others think the way they do.

      The question is fine; as with any words, offence exists as a relational property between the reader and the sentence. The sentence 'Let's have a good look at your balls' carries no intrinsic offence, depending on whether you are the lottery adjudicator, a groundman, a genito-urinary specialist, or the man on the Clapham Omnibus. And in this context, in the context of the lessons, in the context of what has been studied,the question is perfectly reasonable. Most people throwing their hands up at this don't know anything about the course, so perhaps understandably just see the surface meaning.

      Also, who's offended? Everyone? A few?

  5. Okay, now I am not wondering about kids' ability to answer it, but teachers' ability to teach it. How on earth does a sequence of lessons on this work? It just seems such a difficult issue.

  6. Yeah, welcome to RS, blud.

    You could ask kids to list reasons for prejudices, and get them/ tell them the factual inaccuracies underpinning most discriminatory sentiments. Frankly, at GCSE level, many 'reasons why' type answers are as much recall as anything else, assessed against a list of given 'causes' that will have been dispensed in some form in class. I guess in some ways that's what comprehension is really; the ability to connect one fact with another in a significant way. 'I remember that Hitler invaded Poland in 1939'- FACT. 'I remember that reason 1 for this was it had fewer ground troops and defensive capability.'- FACT.

    I don't know, I don't like to play these games, so popular amongst many in education, that they know exactly what learning is, and what thinking is. I just do what I do.


  7. This is my concern with the question. It just seems impossible that any list of answers to that question could be compiled that was actually of any educational benefit whatsoever.

    I'm not too bothered about kids learning facts off by heart, but learning opinions off by heart seems absurd and that's the problem I have with that question. I realise this is perhaps inevitable given the often incoherent nature of RE as a subject, but I think the outrage is because people didn't realise this. They actually thought RE involved learning about religions not how to express opinions about issues, particularly issues which are incredibly complex, sensitive and requiring a huge amount of background knowledge from subjects other than RE.

  8. True; I wouldn't want opinions learned off by heart- imp to see them in context etc. But there def is a value for kids treating opinions as objects worthy of dissection and comparison. Especially when its so easy to derive different value and meaning from the same set of facts. They need to see that their opinions are one set of opinions amongst many, and try to discern some kind of understanding of why people differ, what makes a good argument, why are some justifications stronger than others etc.

    RE taught badly can end up as a lot of 'I think....' but taught well it gets kids to say 'They think x,' 'They think y', 'I think z because...because...and because. X is wrong/ right because.....' It's fiendish tricky to teach well though.

    And yes to the background knowledge thing.

  9. I have nothing to add on the debate, but I did like the way the sign-off sentences (could) imply that 'humanity' and 'our children' are two separate entities. I certainly feel that way sometimes.


Post a Comment