As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Being More Neville (March 2021)

“What are you doing?” said a voice from the corner of the room. Neville appeared from behind an armchair clutching Trevor the toad, who looked as though he’d been making another bid for freedom.

“Nothing, Neville, Nothing,” said Harry, hurriedly putting the cloak behind his back. Neville stared at their guilty faces.

“You’re going out again,” he said. “You can’t go out, you’ll be caught again. Gryffindor will be in even more trouble.” Neville was clearly steeling himself to do something desperate. “I won’t let you do it. I’ll – I’ll fight you!”

“Neville,” Ron exploded “get away from the portrait hole and don’t be an idiot – “

“don’t you call me an idiot!” said Neville. “I don’t think you should be breaking any more rules! And you were the one who told me to stand up to people!”

“Yes, but not us!” said Ron in exasperation.

It has long been my view that the central character of the Hogwarts chronicles is not the eponymous Potter, but Neville Longbottom. Neville is the one whose character develops most during the seven years, Neville who starts, hapless and helpless losing his toad, having his Remembrall stolen by the bullies, Neville whose shy courtesy and assiduous dance practice take him to the ball in delightful company – “Even Neville” cry the lesser heroes, Neville who at the vital moment draws the sword of Gryffindor from the hat and beheads Nagini and Neville who in the passage I just read shows us the kind of friend we should be and provokes Dumbledore to say “”It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

As scholars, we hold scrupulous thinking to be one of our ideals and recent events have revealed a social situation in which scrupulous thinking is of great value. Being scrupulous means holding yourself to the same high standard that you expect of others – being socially scrupulous means standing up to your friends when they behave in a way you’d rail against from your enemies.

Caitlin Moran writes for the Saturday Times. She often, but not always, writes about the ways in which she thinks her experience is shaped by being a woman, and she is almost always wise, and witty, and kind. The weekend before last she wrote a piece that contained the following story – I’ll arrange to have the full article put up in the library so you can read it.

“There is a man with a long history of being physically and emotionally abusive to women. He’s left scars on skin; the police have been called out. On social media, I see many of my male friends are still friends with him. Men who regularly post about feminism, and believing women, and abhorring violent men. A friend of mine contacts one of them, politely: do you know about his history? Do you know the women – women you know – who have been hurt and terrified by this man? Perhaps you might want to do the very mildest thing, and unfollow him. Unfriend him. Make one tiny, starting gesture, that indicates good men will not be friends with bad men. The reply is long and rambling and disconcertingly comfortable: yes, he has heard about this man’s reputation. Should he shun him? Maybe. Will he? No. He will not unfriend him. Things will remain the same. I’m going to say something terribly simple and terribly true: women alone can’t stop men raping, hurting, scaring and killing other women. We need men – these #notallmen, these good men – to help us. Help us. YOU KNOW THESE MEN. Men don’t go from “good” to “abusive” overnight – they will have spent years giving off warning signs, saying weird things, making women sad in front of you.”

We need to stand up to our friends. We need to call them out. We need to say that there are some behaviours that are incompatible with our friendship. We need to step away from the Death Eaters.

I’ve had uncomfortable conversations with a lot of you over the last week, trying to think about what is wrong with our community, how it is that we’ve allowed harassment, assault, unpleasantness to take place. And then thinking about what can make it better. How can we make it clear that touching each other’s thighs without clear invitation is the action of a jerk; how can we have the courage to tell a friend that what they just said was inappropriate and out of line; how can we make sure that when somebody does that they’re supported by those around and not dismissed; how can we enable those who are attacked to tell someone and feel sure they’ll be taken seriously?

Being socially scrupulous is part of that – having the courage to stand up to your friends – having the strength of character to support those who do. Maybe this will lead to there being less touching in general, maybe there will be fewer off-colour jokes in our community, and do you know what? I’m fine with that: one of my favourite targets to write on the reports that naughty Year 7s would carry from lesson to lesson was always “keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself”. To you I say “keep hands, feet, and sexual references to yourself” – if you wouldn’t say or do it to me then don’t say or do it in Steel House.

Another part of this is keeping these conversations going. They’re uncomfortable now, but talking about avoiding assault is a whole lot less uncomfortable than being assaulted so let’s get used to it – let’s normalise our interrogation of what’s ok. Let’s allow each other to question us – “Is what you just did ok? Is touching someone like that ok? Is talking to someone in that kind of way ok? Or are we objectifying and mistreating our classmates?” These conversations are not a debate where we try to score points of each other, nor are they a mere discussion that goes round and round and round: they are part of a discourse – an ongoing conversation to resolve difficulties.

My wife’s a doctor and sometimes she does medico-legal work where somebody is suing somebody else and both sides have called in doctors as expert witnesses. The courts can’t properly interrogate expert witnesses: unless you’re a consultant neuro-otologist yourself you won’t know where to start, but the two expert witnesses often disagree (they are chosen by the lawyers for each side). This conundrum is resolved through a rather wonderful (though trying) process called a “joint statement”. To start this, each doctor writes a statement of their view and then they go through pulling out the things they agree on and getting clarity on the items of dispute. In the end what goes to court is a paragraph of matters of agreement and then a list of points of disagreement with the two opposing views set out clearly.

This is a great example of how talking can resolve intractable problems, but we’re not in a medico-legal world, we’re a community of scholars, we’re a school. So what should our scrupulous discourse look like? I think that one thing is to remember that nobody can read your mind: we need to be brave to say the things we’re thinking and feeling. Some of you will be regretting that you kept silent – let’s not be in that position again. Similarly you can’t read anyone else’s mind, don’t make assumptions about what they think or feel, ask them. You are all, boys and girls, young people; you are all vulnerable; you are all prone to making mistakes – let’s keep talking and learning how to be better adults. Let’s be ready to apologise and do things better next time. Let’s be ready to accept apologies from our enemies but to hold our friends to their promises of repentance. There’s a big difference between Draco at 17 – full of bluster, doing things he feels are wrong to prove he’s a man – and Lucius, scheming, conniving, malevolent, manipulative. We can stop one growing into the other, but we have to stand up for what’s right: don’t be Crabbe or Goyle. Another thing to remember is that you might be wrong. You might think a thing and it might not be right – we should be ready to have our views and deductions challenged (although this is not an invitation to deny somebody else’s experience). Contrariwise the person you’re talking to might be wrong, don’t assume they have got absolute knowledge of the world either - although, again, if something happened to them they will know about it, and you, you probably won’t. Listen scrupulously to each other, learn from each other, have courage to say when things are wrong, courage to make a stand when your friends are wrong. Be more Neville – and never be the Ron who says “You weren’t meant to stand up against us!”

Finally, if you walk out of this hall and say that we’re taking this too seriously, or that some people are over-reacting, or if you go into your first lesson and make a joke about consent then you are part of the problem – you are one of the jerks. I am committed to making this community one where everybody feels safe. I am committed to making Steel House a sanctuary from the wicked winds of the world. If you’re not with me in this enterprise then let me give you fair warning that I will not tolerate opposition: what has happened here is not as bad as what has been reported in other schools but this is not the point – we have an opportunity here and now to reflect and to respond, and like all good scholars I intend that we should do so scrupulously.