As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Groups and Shirts (December 2016)

This morning I propose to talk to you about groups and shirts. In particular groups of people and this shirt – which I’m sure you agree warrants explanation and possibly an apology.

I don’t know if you’ve ever considered it but people behave differently in groups. If you review your own behaviour you might well find that you behave differently when you are with one circle of friends compared with another, compared with your family, compared with strangers, compared with when you are alone and left to make your own decisions unaffected by the thoughts, fancies and agenda of others. The danger of behaving differently when you are in a group is that you begin to make decisions based on the people you are with rather than what you actually believe and at that point you begin to lose control of your ability to make good, wise, kind decisions. Before I go any further I should say that I have nothing against you having friends, even groups of friends: humans, mostly, are social animals and we like to spend time with others – more than that, we find that some of the others are more fun to spend time with, that we like some people more than others and so we do form friendship groups. This is a good thing: we need to have people to spend time with, people with whom we don’t have to pretend, people with whom we can have fun and be ourselves but there’s a key phrase: be ourselves – if the group we choose to spend time with is one where we can’t be ourselves then we should see a warning light.

But who would choose to spend time with people who didn’t allow them to be themselves? The answer to that is, sadly, almost all of us. This is explored in the first of today’s great thinkers – a middle aged Anglican man from the 1940s, CS Lewis. In a talk given in 1944 and entitled “The Inner Ring”, he presents the danger of wanting to be on the inside of a group. I’ll tell you more about one of the times I’ve been caught by that desire later but I imagine you’ve felt or at least seen it yourself – the feeling that if you can get in with the right people you’ll have a better, more enjoyable, more successful life somehow. You therefore change how you are to fit in, it might be your opinion on sports, your approach to fashion, your view on the desirability of others (and here those of you have read Emma will realise that Harriet’s rejection of Robert Martin is motivated by her desire to be in with Emma and those who Emma considers to be the right people). Before we get too cosy and at peace with the idea of the Inner Ring in the Georgian Regency I should point out that this is the same driver as causes people to join gangs and terrorist cells, making decisions that they would not make if they were not trying to impress and to move up in their world. Wanting to be part of an exclusive club is a dangerous thing and if you find yourself in this situation you should carefully review any decision you make – is it one that you, yourself, would be proud to make. Exclusivity is a divisive and unpleasant attribute of a group but even more open groups can be dangerous and can make people change their behaviour. After the second world war many ordinary Germans found that during the past six years they had made decisions of which they were ashamed: looking back we can ask “but why did they do it?” “Why did they vote for Hitler?” “Why did they support the genocide of the Jews” “How did one mad visionary send an entire nation mad?” The answer is not madness, it’s group behaviour. If everyone else is doing it it’s easy for us to assume it’s ok. The same trick, although not on the same scale, was played out a few years ago in the Houses of Parliament. The news story was that a large number of MPs and Lords had been fiddling their expenses – at one point it looked like nearly all of them had been doing it. How could these people make such decisions? Almost nobody goes into politics to line their own pockets and the vast majority of those who are bright and hard-working enough to make it into Westminster have chosen the career because they have a vision for improving the country and want to make a difference so how did these largely decent, largely intelligent, largely rational human beings end up committing fraud on an almost industrial scale? Well, the answer is group behaviour. The response of each one when asked was “everybody was doing it”.

This kind of group behaviour affects you directly. We have spoken to you before about gathering on the pavement outside school and I think that you are getting better but there are still times when I go out there and find the entire area blocked and little old ladies forced to step into the road in order to get round. I want to speak to you now about behaviour on the trains because last Tuesday a group of you was so rowdy, loud and disrespectful that one of the members of the public who shared a carriage with you wrote to the school to complain. I have spoken to some of those in the carriage but I want to say to each one of you that when you go out on a Tuesday you are ambassadors for the school – it’s not a private train and if you get over excited, shout, swear, engage in horseplay or forget to tidy up after yourselves you let us all down. Now the thing is that I know you quite well by now and I know that there is not one of you who would, when on their own, force little old ladies into the road or make life unpleasant for other train passengers and so how come both of these things have happened? The answer is group behaviour. Everyone else is doing it so it must be ok. If you only listen to one thing this morning listen to this: Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it alright. You are responsible for what you do: you have your own brain; you have your own moral code – use them.

Well, that’s enough of a lecture, it’s time for me to share some of my own folly. It may not come as a surprise to you to learn that I found it difficult to fit in when I was at school. I had the wrong hairstyle, the wrong clothes, the wrong approach to Mathematics, I was, in many ways, weird. I didn’t want to be on my own, I didn’t want to be on the outside – I wanted to be part of the gang (dangerous word) but I never got the opportunity. Everyone else (dangerous phrase) would spend the evenings hanging out – usually at the bus stop – but nobody ever asked if I wanted to come. Except once – when they knocked on the door and out I rushed, ready to be cool, with it and not weird (oh dear). It was great, I pretended to like football, I pretended not to mind the swearing and casual blasphemy, I did my best to impress and I got my chance when one boy got out a box of matches and started throwing lit ones, daring us to catch them. Now I knew that a lit match is not really something to be scared of – you can crush the flame between a finger and thumb with little more than a warm sensation and so I leaped at the opportunity, basking in the imagined praise that would come my way. That evening I discovered a very important fact that you should be aware of should you ever find yourself catching lit matches – which, by the way, I do not recommend and, in fact, advise strongly against – a lit match can be put out by crushing it between finger and thumb only once the head has burned out – in the first few seconds after lighting, when it is, in fact, tumbling through space having just been lit, the phosphorus on the head is burning hot, sticky and very very difficult to extinguish. I got away with a very painful blister that I had to conceal from everyone else for fear of being thought even weirder but I never got asked to go out to the bus-stop again and my status as a slightly miserable outsider continued for a few more years until I came across this shirt. This was the first garment I bought for myself, it cost twenty hard earned quid, it’s unlike anything else I owned at the time, it’s unlike anything anyone else owned at the time but that was the point: I didn’t fit in but trying to change myself to do so was neither successful nor helpful. I put on the shirt and decided that I would stop trying to be someone else – I’d try to be myself as luridly, as proudly, as enthusiastically as I possibly could. My friends had long since given up on expecting me to be normal and so took it in their stride and quite frankly anyone else who didn’t like the way I was was a) not worth worrying about and b) never going to accept me no matter how hard I tried. It’s a ridiculous shirt and not one I’d wear nowadays even if it hadn’t got a hole in but for two or three years it was my favourite and every Friday night would find me ironing it carefully before stepping out to face the world.

My second great thinker of the morning is young, 21st century and female. I refer, of course, to that magnificent philosopher and part-time ballet dancer – Taylor Swift. Her song “Shake it off” is a glorious rejection of feeling the need to fit in and an affirmation of the value of being herself: the players may be going to play, the haters might well hate, the heart-breakers will do their stuff whilst the fakers just get on with faking but Taylor, it seems, is just going to shake. Be careful of your behaviour in groups and keep an eye out for how outsiders perceive it but be particularly suspicious of any group that doesn’t allow you to be yourself. Remember my shirt – it’s probably the best £20 I’ve ever spent. The last words this morning come from Ms Swift “I’m dancing on my own, make the moves up as I go, and that’s what they don’t know – that’s what they don’t know. But I keep cruising, can’t stop, won’t stop grooving. It’s like I’ve got this music in my mind saying “it’s going to be alright.”