The last instalment of this blog (June 2021) aired the continuing significance of using mathematical modelling to illuminate the way ahead. It stated the self-evident case for this reason-based way of pathfinding the future, and hence of adding to the commongood. But much of the latest news remains dismal, and highlights just how far we have drifted away from reason-based discourse in public affairs. Amanda Spielman has said recently that the latest research shows that sexual harassment of girls in schools has become very common, and that it is now, in effect, the new norm. A group of graduate students at an Oxford College (Magdalen) have voted to take down a photo of The Queen from their commonroom on the grounds that it carries an implicit reference to colonialism (!). A Survey reports that swearing has become more common among 18-25 year olds.
Each of these three news items reveals an absence of positive moral sensibility. Each should be treated as an Urgent Wake-Up Call… because they indicate a situation which shouldn’t happen, and which is contrary to secure sustainability.
If this female harassment is “the norm” in today’s secondary schools, they are unfit for purpose. They are supposed to be places where youth is prepared mentally for a satisfying adulthood. But the first, most elementary, requirement for a satisfying adult life, is a recognition of the primacy of the feelings of others. The evidence to which Ms Spielman draws our attention shows that the there is virtually no presence of this insight or this culture in today’s secondary schools. Of course there isn’t. They are predicated instead on getting their students better at manipulating things, and adding power to their elbows (“Empowering them”). These are not aims which require, or foster, moral sensibility. Any opportunist mindset will do.
If the students at today’s colleges are so ready publicly to propound contentious nonsense —which they know is contentious and is going to upset their teachers and elders— what has become of the ‘collegiality’ they are supposed to represent? ‘Collegiality’ means that genuine, deep in-house conversations are happening between generations, conversations in which there is a presence of shared social and moral values. Evidently these conversations are no longer generating anything which could be properly called ‘collegial solidarity’. They have evidently become superficial.
If the 18-25 generation is doing more swearing than their older counterparts, as it appears they are, this is a telling sign that the education they are supposed to have received hasn’t prepared them for living a satisfying life. Swearing is an applecart-overturning expression of disgust, inexpressible within ordinary verbal norms. It can only be construed as the shriek of a person at the end of their tether.
So each of these newsstories —which incidentally broke on a single day— offers a clear sign that education has failed… abjectly. What the so-called “education system” is doing is not sustainable. It is leading us towards a dystopian state in which any hope of achieving a ‘satisfying lifetime’ becomes vain. Which means that it is having an effect directly opposite to that which a genuinely educational system should be having.
Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of the word ‘colonial’ and the effects the UK colonies had.
The first thing to say is that today this word carries a range of associations: of genocide, slavery, abuse, brutal repression and exploitation. It is full of references these obscenities, and stands as a prime example of something to be avoided. Every fairminded person knows that it represents a horrible, indefensible state of affairs.
However, it has become so well established as a name for everything horrible, that it is now being bandied about quite casually as a way of tarring places previously called ‘colonies’ —whether they were actually as despicable as this or not. A clear example of the harm which can be created by casual misuse of words is that there have been cases where ‘paediatricians’ houses have been vandalised as a result of irate mobs confusing ‘paediatrician’ with ‘paedophile’. It should be said quite distinctly at this point that to use language so casually is itself a despicable syndrome… because it generates new, totally unnecessary, invalid outrage stemming from woozy thinking.
A better approach would be to speak of ‘inhabited administered territories overseas’ (‘iatoses’) which can hardly deserve any of the automatic approbrium normally associated with ‘colony’, if, for example, they were previously uninhabited. The Falkland Islands and South Georgia were in this case —previously uninhabited iatoses— but when the Argentine Junta invaded them in 1983 the event was billed by media around much of the world as a conflict between <<plucky Argentina and the “colonial power, the UK”>>. Actually the inhabitants of these islands had just as much right to live in the Southern Atlantic as the inhabitants of Argentina, who were mostly descended from original Spanish and Italian colonists (and later immigrants). The Argentinian Junta was able to gain this totally invalid propaganda advantage, because of the laziness of HMG in not renaming the islands as ‘iatoses-with-local-democracy’.
There is a point beyond which —in today’s linguistically slapdash world— a word such as ‘colonial’ or ‘paedophile’ becomes a linguistic black hole. The fierce intensity of hate it generates means that its continued reasoned, qualified, use in polite conversation becomes impossible. We need a register of such un-usable words.
In the case of the iatoses which the UK acquired in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were brutal, outrageous episodes: and there were equally brutal, outrageous episodes here in the UK, like the massacre at Glencoe. (Some of them, such as New Zealand, had, ironically, previously been invaded by entryists, who had obliterated the original natives.) There were undoubtedly obscene, indefensible events like the Black Hole of Calcutta. But from a broader point of view these territories did manage to maintain their iatos status for many decades, which can’t be said of the Spanish colonies in South America. (These colonies booted their European overlords out early in the 19th century.) In many ways the UK iatoses were a kind of franchise, because the number of soldiers, administrators and missionaries involved was quite small. (In India some states hardly even qualified as ‘franchises’, they were administered mainly by Indians who had decided to cooperate with The Raj.) Such relatively small presences could only successfully maintain order for many decades because there was a genuine element of consent in the population. Being a UK iatos meant that obscure, backward corners of Africa could, and did, gradually catch up with the norms of Western Rationality. This is not a benefit to be dismissed lightly: the Chief of Basutoland wrote to Queen Victoria in 1868 asking if his country could join the British Empire. One has to remember that UK Exceptionalism was a powerful, culturally luminous force to reckon with until the 1900s. Many civilised appurtenances were introduced which had previously been absent, like tea, coffee, knives and forks, hygiene, legal rights, rational medicine, railways, newspapers, schools… There are, incidentally, far more Chinese entryists (engineers and organisers) in Africa today than there were Britons in the same countries 150 years ago.
CHRISTOPHER ORMELL 1st July 2021