As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

A World of Difference (January 2018)

For Christmas I received the official quiz book of Only Connect which is a fantastic collection of questions from a fantastic quiz. If you haven’t watched it then you should. If you have then I hope you agree with me that the best round is round 2 – the sequences round where you are given the first three terms in a sequence and have to guess the fourth.

Today’s assembly is a variation on that theme – I will give you the fourth in the sequence and ask you to guess the other three. To make it easier I’ll tell you what the sequence is. The fourth fundamental British value is mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs or those with no faith. Those of you who like a quiz can try to remember what the other three are before I get to them and those who like to rebel against bureaucratic dictats can try to improve on them as we go through. You might like to start with working on the name “British Values” so that it emphasises that these are values supported and shared by Britain rather than exclusive to it – I’ve not yet found an alternative I’m completely happy with so if you come up with something please let me know and we’ll drop the Home Office a line. I do, however, think the fourth value would be better reworked as “mutual respect and tolerance for those who are different” and as we head into the first half of Resilience term it is on this almost-but-not-quite fundamental British value that I shall be musing.

CS Lewis says that courage is the heart of every virtue at its sticking point – there is little value to your kindness or generosity or honesty, or tolerance if it evaporates the minute you get scared. I, similarly, am wont to say that perseverance is not just part of the Harris Westminster way - it is every part of the Harris Westminster way at its sticking point. Your ambition, your desire to leave a legacy, your scholarship are all worth very little if you can’t persevere, can’t keep on at them through the long dark days of Resilience term – the name isn’t merely a label but a description of the ability to be learned during this time. Finally, in our triumvirate of centrality I would say that mutual respect and tolerance is not just one of the fundamental British values, it is all of them at the sticking point.

Take Democracy, for instance - and if you’re playing along you can give yourself a mark if you put Democracy down, it’s the first on the list. Take Democracy, take an event in 1850s America called Bleeding Kansas - an object lesson in what democracy without tolerance and respect will become. A vote was to be held in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska on whether they would be slave states or free and both sides took the concept of one man, one vote very seriously, firstly packing the territories with their own supporters so that they’d win the vote and then, realising that the other side was doing the same thing, attacking, scaring, and eventually killing members of the opposition. The abolitionists, the “good guys”, won the vote, started the civil war and seriously undermined their claim to be the “good” guys. Democracy without respect is pretty horrific.

Last term I disappeared for a couple of days to attend a conference at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park. The conference was entitled “A Generation Without Hate” and was a group of educationalists, charity CEOs, academics and politicians – plus two rather amazing sixth-formers – who were talking about the different kinds of discrimination, the different characteristics that can lead to abuse and the different approaches that are being taken to creating a country where hate takes a back seat to mutual tolerance and respect. There are, under the Equalities Act of 2010, nine protected characteristics on the basis of which it is illegal to discriminate. They are Age, Disability, Gender Reassignment, Marriage and Civil Partnership, Pregnancy and Maternity, Race, Religion and Belief, Sex, and Sexual Orientation, and at the conference we considered different issues affecting all nine. My contribution to the conference was to talk about you – coming from very different backgrounds, covering a wide spectrum on many of those characteristics even though the age range represented by Harris Westminster students is rather narrow – and the immediate response was to reflect on what a challenge it is to live in such a varied and interesting society in which people can be different in so many ways.

Actually society is even more interesting and the challenge even greater because the Equality act of 2010, marvellous piece of legislation though it is, is also a representation of the limits of the second Fundamental British Value – the rule of law – because one of the most interesting speakers was talking about hatred and violence that sprang from a characteristic not on the list. Sophie Lancaster was a twenty year old student in 2007: bright, sociable, charming and a member of the Goth subculture in Greater Manchester which seems to mean she had red stripes in her hair and rather more piercings than I would be personally comfortable with. She and her boyfriend, Robert, were walking through a park at night when a group of teenagers attacked him and knocked him to the ground. Sophie tried to defend Robert but was also knocked to the ground. The attackers then repeatedly kicked her and jumped on her head, boasting that they were ridding the world of two “moshers”. Robert survived but Sophie went into a coma she never came out of. Her mother was at the conference – she now runs a charity that works to stop hate crime against members of any alternative subculture. What I learned listening to that story is that the law by itself can never make a list of all the kinds of hatred that are unacceptable because if boys will jump on the head of a young woman simply because some of her hair is bright red then there can be no enumerating the differences that will lead to hatred if we don’t have mutual tolerance and respect. Rule of law, by the way, is worth a point to those who are counting but rule of law without tolerance can only go so far.

When I lived in Australia I once went to an ancient aboriginal site where there were cave paintings predating British explorers – actually, unlike New Zealand where the Maoris only arrived a few hundred years before the westerners, Australia was settled something like 40,000 years ago and is the only place outside Africa with that length of continuous human history. For all that, the aborigines have been the subject of some of the worst oppression of any group anywhere – they have been driven from their land, forced out of traditional ways of life, children have been taken from parents to be “civilised” and populations have been massacred including the almost complete genocide of the Tasmanian aborigines. One of the interesting things about the visitor experience at this site was hearing about the Dreamtime stories – myths and legends that make up some of the aboriginal culture. One of the purposes, it seems, of these stories was to educate children, to teach them how to be, how to survive to adulthood and, in common with mythologies from other cultures, there are stories of monsters that live in the dark. These are told so that children will stay safely in villages, by the fire rather than wandering off and being prey to wild animals or, more likely, marauding members of other tribes who would come looking, especially for girls and young women to add to their harems. Even members of protected groups can be awful, those other tribes were jerks but I imagine they told the same stories to protect their children from the tribe whose village I visited. In fact it seems that this is not just a human failing, it is a universal one. Richard Dawkins’ book on evolutionary biology is called The Selfish Gene – I recommend it, by the way – and it explains that the mathematics of evolution demands not just protection of one’s own wellbeing and the protection of descendants but the elimination or marginalisation of competitors and that the more different, genetically, a competitor, the more important it is to discriminate against them. Individual liberty completes the set of fundamental British values, well done if you remembered it, but without mutual respect and tolerance it is simply a charter for the survival of the fittest. Individual liberty without respect and tolerance is appalling.

Those of us who want to be part of a generation without hate are facing an uphill battle. At the end of the conference, reflecting on this challenge, I told a story that I’ve told in assembly before. It goes like this. Two friends lie on a hillside looking up at the night sky. “It’s the oldest story, dark against light, stars against the blackness” says one, “It seems the dark has a sight more territory” responds his friend. “Yes, but you’re looking at it wrong. Once there was only dark: you ask me the light’s winning.” We live in a world of difference – a world in which jerks take advantage of the weak, in which the strong marginalise those who are different – but once there was only dark – once there was only hate and fear and protecting your own and now we live in rainbow cities of collaboration where mutual respect and tolerance is normal if not universal. You ask me the light’s winning.

We call this half term Resilience for a better tomorrow and we use it to reflect both on the successes that have brought us towards equality and on the hatred and discrimination that means there is more to do. Assemblies this half term will be reflecting on different issues of inequality, hatred and discrimination – if you would like to be involved in leading one then your head of house is the first port of call: last year we had two excellent student-led assemblies, I’d like to have more. And so I leave you with the clarion call of Resilience for a Better Tomorrow: be resilient, be courageous, be tolerant and respectful, be lights in the darkness.