“Sleep teaching was actually prohibited in England. There was something called liberalism.”

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There was an article in the Daily Mail this week about a bright young teacher lamenting left-wing bias in education; he worried that teachers were using their influence to brainwash the young people in their care, promoting ‘lefty ideals’ and anti-Tory messages. This is a serious allegation, and one that warrants unpicking.

First of all, education has long been viewed as wielding great ideological power, and its potential to be a cultural mouthpiece for the state is something that Althusser discussed when he talked about ideological state apparatuses and repressive state apparatuses. When you have a charismatic speaker and a rapt audience, there is certainly potential for this. But this may well be overstating a teacher’s charisma and influence, as well as over-estimating a young person’s willingness to be fed propaganda without an argument… But there are rules about political bias in the classroom for a reason.

Teaching does attract a fair amount of ‘lefties’, obviously. But I’m curious to know exactly what Calvin Robinson means when he thinks students are being brainwashed to support Labour rather than Conservative. Is it that overt? If so, let’s not pretend for a second that teachers have any reason to love the Conservatives at the moment. Rushed and poorly planned curricular changes: check. Selling schools off to private firms: check. Dismantling terms and conditions: check. Mucking about with pensions: check. Cutting funding, so that jobs have to be cut: check. Enforcing a pay freeze: check. Maybe the solution to teachers being apparently anti-Tory is for Tories to stop being anti-teacher.

Do young people have any reason to love the Conservatives? They are the ones facing tougher and more ‘rigorous’ testing. They are the ones who lose access to subjects that aren’t deemed necessary. They are the ones who face massive tuition fees if they want to go to university. They are the ones who seem, to use one of their words, the most ‘woke’ in years. Could it be that students are just engaging more in politics and seeking spaces to air their views?

I think there’s something more to this as well, and it’s to do with the current obsession with polarising every single damn issue into ‘left’ and ‘right’. Either can be used in a derogatory way. And this obsession ensures that we only stay divided. If political discussion in classrooms is more covert than overt, we are looking at the promotion of certain principles, rather than citations from a manifesto.

There is official guidance on the sort of principles that teachers must promote in classrooms: these are called British Values. It’s not a phrase I like, because when you look at the values, there is nothing particularly British about them; we don’t own them. We should just call them Decent Human Being Values. They are as follows:

  • democracy
  • rule of law
  • individual liberty
  • mutual tolerance and respect

See what I mean? There’s nothing specifically British about these; it’s not like there’s a reference to Queen and Country, Proper Queuing Etiquette, or Making Tea.

Do these sound inherently right or left wing? Should they?

Pair these with the need to ensure that Equality and Diversity issues are addressed sensitively and appropriately, and you might start to think that this is where a more ‘left wing’ bias starts to come in. If I told you that these came into effect under a Labour government, while British Values became a requirement a few years ago, would that make a difference? Does the phrase ‘British Values’ start to sound a bit like something from a UKIP manifesto? Or are we just projecting a political bias where maybe there isn’t one at all?

BV and E&D show that there is a definite ideological push in education, but it’s one that few would argue with. It’s fine to use that opportunity to teach kindness, tolerance and respect, right? Because if that’s what Robinson thinks is left wing, he’s really not saying great things about the opposite view.

Is he wishing that we teach two sides of every debate? Because, sweetie, there isn’t time, and it’s not always appropriate to do so. I talked a lot about politics this year during lessons on The Handmaid’s Tale; I taught these classes from an unabashed feminist perspective. Should I have stopped and given equal weight to the far right view espoused by the founders of Gilead? Because to do so would have fundamentally misunderstood the novel.

An E&D fail lesson went viral this week. In this lesson, students were asked to consider the slave trade from the point of view of a trader; they were asked to weigh up the value for money offered by the different slaves and take part in an auction. At a stretch, they can have some points for including numeracy skills, I guess, but this clearly hit the wrong note. Funnily enough, encouraging young people to treat human beings like commodities isn’t really the sort of thing that a Decent Human Being should do. Would Robinson approve of this lesson for its promotion of capitalist values? I suspect not. I really hope not.

Because it’s not really about left and right. It’s about right and wrong. It’s about Decent Human Being Values. If certain political parties champion those more than others, then of course there will be political bias. Rather than fighting the symptom, maybe those in power should address the cause. If you don’t want people to think you’re nasty, how about you stop being nasty?

And let’s be realistic. When you have attacked the education system for years, don’t be surprised when it’s not a fan.

Yes, balance is best. But sometimes it’s not going to work. If you had to choose between a ‘lefty’ lesson and a ‘righty’ one, though, ask yourself: would one do more harm than the other? Would we be more worried about one than the other? Is it more or less worrying when the politics of a classroom oppose those of the government?

I’m going to leave you with some quotations from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, on the subject of brainwashing. Huxley presents ‘sleep teaching’ in the novel – the very opposite of being ‘woke’.

“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny.”

“Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too – all his life long. The mind that judges and desire and decides – made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions… Suggestions from the State.”

The purpose of this ‘sleep teaching’ was to ensure hierarchical social stability – to keep everyone in their place and happy about it.

“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”

When the State’s ideas are beamed straight into people’s brains, dystopia ensues. Maybe those ‘lefty’ teachers are just ensuring that young people grow up to be questioning and discerning individuals, rather than those who parrot propaganda. Now that doesn’t sound so bad.

Huxley, again, puts it better than I can:

“…most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.”

I want young people to dream of something bigger and better. I want young people to have high expectations. I want young people to question injustice. I want them to discover and embrace their agency, rather than sucucmb to their servitude. I think that just makes me a Decent Human Being. If it makes me a ‘lefty revolutionary’, then maybe our society really is in poor shape.

Robinson has since published a follow up, which you can read here.

Is texting trouble? IDK, is this even an issue?

This post is by Shannon-Rose Clack, A Level English Language student at East Norfolk Sixth Form College. Shannon took part in a competition to create a blog post about Language and Technology, and her piece was selected as the winner. As part of her prize, she gets her first Guest Writer credit. Well done Shannon!

Texters have created what has evolved into a new sub-language, with mixed reviews.

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‘Mom’ seems to be a little confused by text talk (Textese). Misunderstandings with your mother? Best to avoid imo 😉

Textese is gushing out of the virtual world it has flooded, and is seeping into our irl chats. However, is the artful distortion of our language actually causing harm to it?

Well, depending on who you ask you’ll get a very different yet similarly certain response. A news article written by John Humphrey thinks texters are “vandals” of the language – that they “pillage” and “savage”… I wonder if the same was said of Shakespeare.

I’m in no way saying an overzealous use of “lmao” puts us on that revolutionist podium with Sir William, but, really, we are doing the same stuff: changing up what is and creating something new.

Young people are rather revolutionary, so no brows raise when they are automatically blamed for Textese spreading like a yawn. Even though 80% of texters are adults. And would you agree that adults can spell even though they are constantly seeing incorrect spellings on phones? So why worry that the 20% of young texters will fall short here?

Linguistics professor David Crystal found that worrying wearisome, so decided to slap on a cap and get investigating. Crystal learned that, in fact, young texters had more advanced literacy AND numeracy skills. Literacy improved because texting is essentially practice in reading and writing, no matter how much the words have deviated from their original form. Plus, a greater understanding of phonetics (sounds in words) is developed to be able to shorten words, omitting the least important letters. Maths skills heighten thanks to the code breaking skills required to translate some of the more confusing acronyms, (‘icymi’, I’m looking at you).

As the phone pictured above shows, occasionally people misinterpret the messages. This is one problem anti-text-talkers have with the language. It can lead to confusion where, with modern keyboard-adorned mobiles, there is little need. Although, regardless of it’s close links to English, like any language Textese needs to be learnt. In this argument, however, because the language is independent of English, its existence can’t take away from traditional talk.

Social media may be involved in the ubiquity of txt tlk. I mean, if Twitter will only give you 140 characters, ur not gna waste ltrs or expand on every little point. Is there a problem with being concise? And besides; abbreviations, acronyms, emojis… they are all identifiers of different writers’ styles. Surely anything that enhances expression through language is enhancing language itself instead of deteriorating it?

Text talk isn’t so new-fangled anyway. Emojis are reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Abbreviations like ‘c u l8r’ can be tracked back 100 years according to Crystal. Traces of Textese in a postcard from 1907, found by Caroline Tagg (journalist) is proof of this.

Does that not make the fear of language devolution more than 110 years after the phrases were coined redundant? Ridiculous, like an unshaven sheep in a blue woolly jumper?

No matter how people feel, it looks as if Textese has been here a while and isn’t leaving the building any time soon. Personally, I’m glad; I love a good ‘lmao’.

Shannon’s original post can be found here

Who needs some good news?

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It’s been a while since my last post, as it’s been my really busy season in terms of work. So busy, in fact, that I’ve barely left the house over the last few weeks. (Apart from finally getting to see Take That live, of course. But those of you who remember my Mark Owen poster shrine from the 90s will appreciate how much of a Big Deal that was…)

Rather a lot has happened since my WLGH post; Manchester, London Bridge, Grenfell Tower… Oh, and that General Election. The news has been pretty depressing all round. And it’s been harder and harder to focus on looking for the helpers, or the reasons to be cheerful.

Do we all need some good news? OK. Here goes. I’ll see what I can do.

Evil Laugh News

It’s been a year since Michael Gove put his name into the goblet of fire that was the Tory leadership battle. A year since he was thoroughly trounced. Does that raise an evil laugh? Yeah, he’s back now and that’s not great, but it does ensure we have a pantomime villain to boo. And an excuse for us to keep watching this:

Follow Forest Friends on Twitter. Trust me. Providers of risky belly laughs on a regular basis.

Yasssssss News

Game of Thrones is back this month!

Summer Time News

Exams are over for another year, and for the teachers among us, we’re nearly at the summer holidays! The sun is occasionally getting his hat on, too. Huzzah!

Beautiful News

Having been introduced to Pajiba 10 at my other writing home, I have to pass it on. It’s an annual celebration of the most gorgeous celebs – inside and out – where you pick your top 5 male and female ‘freebies’. Voting is still open if you want to weigh in! Oh, and you also get to settle the Best Chris argument once and for all. Go on, have a go. Or just have a scroll through the comments and bask in everyone’s lustful joy. Vote here!

Heart-Warming News

This is what happens when desperation is recognised for what it is, and law enforcement reaches for compassion rather than a gun.

Cute, Pure and Lovely News

Follow We Rate Dogs on Twitter. Trust me. Providers of warm fuzzies on a regular basis.

Puppy pictures on Instagram are my medicine of choice when it comes to chicken soup for the soul, but this video is particularly gorgeous. Who knew a chimp hugging a dog (and then pretending to play the bongos on the dog’s back, apparently) could be so therapeutic?

How can I follow that? Have a beautiful week, folks xx

Beware the WLGHs

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Watching The Handmaid’s Tale is truly messing with my brain.

Over the last few days, I realised I was doing something. I didn’t realise I was doing it at first, but once I did, I got addicted. Behold my new game: the silent categorisation of the people around you into two groups, ‘would let Gilead happen’ and ‘safe’.

Maybe the ‘let’ part of ‘would let Gilead happen’ is a bit mean, but I include people who I think might try to explain (or mansplain, as a lot of people in the WLGH category are male) why it wouldn’t be that bad really. This distinction makes little difference in my categorisation process. And it is of no comfort.

For WLGHs are all around us.

One was a taxi driver who ranted about women drivers. He’d probably be quite pleased if women were banned from driving. So would the aggressive male drivers who seem to think that driving like a douchebag is a sign of male superiority. One of those tailgated me for a while today. He wanted me to overtake a bit faster, and then got annoyed as I tried to pull in because he had just decided to undertake me. He roared off, about 20mph over the speed limit, trying to prove a point. The point he proved is that he belongs in my WLGH group.

Another taxi driver bemoaned the lack of jobs for working class men. Surely the employment crisis would be solved in a heartbeat, if women were no longer allowed to work.

I overheard snippets of conversations between shoppers in the supermarket; one husband barking orders at his wife about what to make him for dinner, while pushing his trolley in an aggressive manner. Another customer was talking about how a woman she knew needed to just focus on running her home rather than trying to ‘have it all’. WLGHs, both.

The people you hear talking about how feminism has gone too far because women want to be better than men now- WLGH. The people who get upset when women’s issues are discussed because ‘what about the men?’- WLGH. The politicians who use the word ‘traditional’ when they mean ‘get thee in thy place, upstart’- WLGH.

The companies that ask for a woman’s marital status even though it’s totally unnecessary and irrelevant- WLGH. The workmen who assume that my not being able to fix something is somehow a result of my XX chromosomes, rather than just a gap in knowledge and skills- WLGH.

The small child on my street, who can’t be more than 5, and was playing in my parking spot outside my house. When I stopped the car to wait for him to move, rather than flatten him, he assumed I wanted to be guided in. It’s pretty infuriating, being patronised by a literal child. He nearly got yelled at. Fortunately, I was able to suppress the urge to swear, but it was a close call. There’s still hope for this kid, what with him being about 5 and all. But that assumption? Clear sign of a WLGH.

Anyone who says, ‘calm down, dear’- WLGH.

These are just the everyday WLGHs. Read the news, and you see far more of them wielding political power, making decisions about the direction of the nation. These WLGHs are far more dangerous. That form that rape survivors need to fill in if they have borne a child? This proves a woman’s word is not reliable enough, clearly. This isn’t a legal accusation; it’s a form for child support. The people who came up with this- WLGH.

Is it telling that I named the other group ‘safe’? There is a definite threat posed by WLGHs. En masse, they have voting power. Recent political shifts have made previously unspeakable ideas crawl out from their hiding places under the rocks. There is a backlash in progress, and that could lead us down a dark path. We might dodge it; we might not be so lucky. So for now, those who I deem ‘safe’ are my allies in the coming war.

I hope and pray that the Safes outnumber the WLGHs in the end. Otherwise, we are perilously close to Gilead. And the people who are most likely to sneer at that idea, rolling their eyes and saying ‘of course that will never happen’ are usually the most WLGH of all.

Please don’t let it happen.

What is the value of a life?

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I’ve seen two types of reaction to Trump’s proposed replacement for ‘Obamacare’ this week. The first is a mixture of horror, anger, fear and disgust, and covered all the Americans in my completely unscientific sample, as well as many of the Brits. What made the British reaction slightly different was the confusion and the disbelief. I don’t claim to speak for an entire nation, but certainly prevalent within my echo chamber was the perpetual bafflement at how healthcare works in the US. We just don’t get it. And we’re not alone.

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What is it about universal health care that makes it so unthinkable for so many Americans? Why was there such a vicious hatred of ‘Obamacare’? And how on earth can Republicans justify replacing it with something far worse, that many admitted they hadn’t even read? One way to get to those answers is via the question in my title: what is the value of a life?

To try and get my head round it, I’ve been pondering a few analogies. The cultural difference between the UK and the US is so huge when it comes to health care, that some of these analogies are a little bit ‘out there’. They might be a bit upsetting or offensive. Bear with me.

There are only a few times when British people need to think about the cost of health, if they don’t have (optional) private health insurance. Most of the time we pay nothing at all, other than our national insurance contributions of course. Dental treatment is heavily subsidised, as are prescriptions. We might weigh up the value of a life when we take out travel insurance, or life insurance. But probably the closest we get to seeing the American way is when we look at pet insurance.

If our pets become ill, we can choose which veterinarian surgery to take them to. We are given the costs in advance. If we are lucky, we can afford treatement, or we can claim it back via our insurance company. Premiums go up as the pets get older, and pre-existing conditions might not be covered. Long-term illnesses or conditions can become increasingly expensive. There may come a horrible time when treatment is no longer affordable- or when it is no longer cost-effective. There are some tough choices ahead when that happens. Is that where the similarities end? Perhaps. For now. But when health care is corporate, there will always be some treatments that are not seen as cost-effective. What do human patients do then? Do they suffer without the treatment they need? Are they gently ‘put down’ to avoid suffering? Are they abandoned to shelters, to become someone else’s problem?

If a pet dies, the value of their life is determined by how much you paid for them. Some pets are cheaper than others, of course. A pedigree animal would cost more than a mutt. Is a pedigree animal’s life worth more? If people die when covered by insurance policies, compensation might be paid. Does that amount represent what that person was worth? Or just how much they could pay for a premium? Does compensation measure the impact that person might have had on those around them? How much they are missed by their loved ones? What sort of role they played in their society?

Maybe our value is just the sum of our component parts. What is our scrap value, I wonder? If we took into account the going rates for organs and hair, factored in some creative butchering and tanning, we could probably arrive at a figure. Is that what we are? Is that how we value a life?

I suppose we could consider our value in terms of our contributions to society- either in terms of the service we provide in our job, or the tax that we pay from our income. The purpose of health care then becomes an investment in a healthy tax-paying workforce. Keep ’em healthy, keep ’em working. But what about those who don’t work yet, or who are currently unemployed, or who have retired? Are they no longer worthy of investment? Do they not contribute to society?

These are all pretty grotesque, right? Because the only acceptable answer to the question isn’t a number. Value isn’t accurately determined by the inherent qualities of an object; value is bestowed by others. The best indicator of our value is in how well we are loved. You cannot put a price on that, and you shouldn’t. What our wonderful, beautiful NHS was designed for is to only value human beings in this way. Health care is a cost, not an investment. It is not a capitalist opportunity. What is the value of a life, for a doctor or a nurse? It doesn’t matter. They will help you no matter who you are, no matter how wealthy you might be, no matter how you may have suffered in the past.

There are reforms that are needed in the NHS, but applying corporate notions of value to human life is disgusting. Human beings are not pets, they cannot be sold for scrap, and we should never determine the quality of someone’s care by their bank balance. What sort of person would do that? Oh, right.

Universal health care is expensive for governments, requires funding via taxation, and it is not perfect. But not having it at all speaks volumes about a nation. Just as the speed of the pack is determined by the speed of the slowest member, the values of a nation are shown in how they treat their most vulnerable. What ‘Trumpcare’ proposes to do is punish the most vulnerable in order to give a tax break for the super wealthy. How are Republicans valuing human life?

Something that really stings is the hypocrisy of this behaviour from those who claim to be Christians, selectively quoting from the Bible to justify their homophobia, or to claim power based on alleged moral superiority. But in the stories of Jesus healing people, he didn’t charge for the privilege. Nor did he decline to heal those with pre-existing conditions.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said that the meek were blessed, and would inherit the earth. I am not a religious person, but I appreciate good ideas in stories, and this seems like a decent philosophy. But let’s expand it and turn it around. How leaders treat the meek shows whether they deserve to have power in this world.

Our NHS is under attack by those who want to privatise its services, and who look admiringly at the American model, thinking of the savings that could be made. This should be a wake up call for all Brits. If we want to save our beautiful NHS, we need to be prepared to defend its principles. Because we need only look across the Atlantic to see what the alternative could be.

This week in the world of news…

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It was tough to choose a topic today, so I’ve gone for something a bit different. Here are my picks for this week’s top stories.

It has been 10 years since Maddy McCann disappeared. It is perhaps uncomfortable that this case captured the public imagination more than others, but the story itself is still desperately sad. The McCanns still have hope.

It has been 100 days since Trump became President, but it feels like 10 years. To commemorate the occasion, here’s a compilation of 100 lies that he has told in his first 100 days.

Trump and his administration boycotted the White House Correspondents’ dinner as promised/threatened, but they seem to have had fun in his absence. Hasan Minhaj’s speech was brilliant; you can read a review and see highlights as well as the whole thing here. Confession: I’ve got a bit of a crush on Minhaj now…

It took the EU leaders about 4 minutes to agree on their negotiating position for Brexit, so those among you who were hoping for nuanced and generous positions from the EU might want to adjust your expectations accordingly. Here’s how I think it went: “So… shall we make an example of them? Yeah? Good. Motion passed.”

500 head teachers signed a letter to Theresa May begging her to reconsider the way that schools are funded, warning that a 4 1/2 day week might be the only way to deliver education within the constraints of their budgets.

Is it a guilty pleasure to watch a racist D-bag get punched in the face? The makers of Doctor Who weighed in last night. We really shouldn’t condone violence…. but no, screw it, that guy had it coming.

Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale started on Wednesday in the US, and starts today in Canada, which means that a significant number of people will be having Gilead-themed nightmares again. Responses are split between two camps: ‘this is going to happen’, and ‘of course this is not going to happen’. I’m with the former. The flashbacks to the early rise of Gilead are far, far too close for comfort. There is a reason why many people fear Mike Pence; Trump might make WW3 happen, but Pence could make Gilead happen… There are loads of great reviews of the series that you can read- but I’m going to shamelessly plug my own. For those of you who have read the book but not seen the show, here’s the first, and if you have seen it or you don’t mind a ton of spoilers, here’s my recap of the first three episodes.

The French election race will be between the independent centrist Macron and the National Front’s Marine le Pen. Macron should win, but when did anything predictable happen in politics recently? If Le Pen wins, there will be a ‘Frexit’ referendum. Anyone else got deja vu?

Speaking of terrible fascists, UKIP released their new manifesto- being as they technically have no reason to exist any more, I was intrigued. Their position on FGM caught my eye. I should, I suppose, offer them some credit for addressing the issue, but unfortunately their way to address it is so monstrously insensitive that I can’t and I won’t. Who thought mandatory, annual checks on little girls’ private parts AT SCHOOL was a good idea? Do UKIP really want to replace the nit nurse with the clit nurse? (Thanks to Emily for this particular pun.)

That’s the round up for this week, folks, but I’ll leave you with this: I was watching a Game of Thrones repeat last night, and this little beauty of a line has stayed with me. Of course it did- it’s from the guy who drinks wine and knows things:

“It is easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked in your favour.”

“Truth never damages a cause that is just.”

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As parties and candidates start their campaigns for June’s general election, there are many things that I could beg for, but top of my list is that they tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The Brexit bus is an example of what happens when these principles are not upheld. This broke all of those truth rules. It was an inaccurate figure, to start with. It was also presented without context. And it was tied to a statement that turned out to be a lie. Whether this was idealism or wilful manipulation is the subject of much debate, and this specific case is not really something that concerns me right now; that ship has sailed. But the principles behind it are still pertinent.

My case study for today is state education. On one side, education unions are telling us that schools are in crisis, due to underfunding and teacher shortages. The government’s rebuttal to the unions’ arguments is straightforward and based on facts: that more graduates are entering the profession, and that more money is being spent on education than ever before. Using these facts makes the unions appear to be lying. Facts are by definition true, after all. But it is not the complete truth.

What the government’s rebuttal fails to include is reference to teachers leaving the profession, and rising costs. If more teachers leave than enter the profession, the total goes down. It’s not rocket science. And more money might be spent on education, but that doesn’t factor in rising costs of national insurance and pension contributions, the apprentice levy, changes to teachers’ pay scales, increasing costs for technology, and most crucially, the way that the government’s pet education project, free schools, hoovers up more cash in start up costs. The people in control of schools’ budgets are telling the government, desperately, that they do not have enough money to keep going as they are. Staff are being made redundant, courses are being cut, class sizes are increasing. This is the news from the front line. And yet, the government sticks to its line: more money is being spent on education than ever before.

A fact without context has limited value. So why keep deploying it as their standard rebuttal? Is it denial? Ignorance? Or just spin? To me, it seems like just another way to dismiss unions’ and headteachers’ concerns, to paint them as liars, undermine the teaching profession, and manipulate the information to present a favourable narrative. This has to stop.

When a complex issue is reduced to a trite sound bite, it does a disservice to voters. It is an egregious dumbing down, and a patronising assumption that voters can’t handle the truth. It reeks of a weak position that cannot be defended with the complete truth.

I feel the same way about political manifestos filled with empty buzzwords, which rely on emotive appeal rather than providing anything concrete. All parties should tell the complete truth in their promotional materials. If they don’t – well, they either seem ignorant and naive, or as if they are assuming that people wouldn’t vote for them if they knew the truth. So which is it? If you think no-one would vote for you if you told them what you were planning to do, either change your policies to make them more appealing, or give voters the chance to make decisions honestly. But covering them up with spin is a trick, an attempt to dupe voters into taking your side. It is a perversion of democracy. We should be above this.

Let’s make this an honest election. Give the electorate some credit and present material that allows us all to make informed choices. The old party lines have blurred; there is less of a tendency to vote for one’s ‘tribe’ any more. Traditional demographics can’t just be relied on any more. But we do not need to be duped. Besides, after the last few years, I’d wager that we are all a fairly cynical bunch, so it might not work any more…

So, current and prospective MPs: earn your votes with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or it will be a hollow victory for whoever happens to win, and the divisions of this nation will continue to fester. If you don’t trust me on this, perhaps you’ll trust Gandhi: “Truth never damages a cause that is just”.

War, huh? What is it good for?

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To say it’s all kicking off seems a bit of an understatement. At the time of writing, America looks like it could be on the verge of war with North Korea, and by extension China. It’s not clear whether a Russia is a secret bestie or an arch-nemesis. The US military dropped the ‘mother of all bombs’ on an ISIS camp in Afghanistan a week after launching an air strike on Homs airfield in Syria, and has moved a fleet into the Korean Peninsula. America’s MOAB has caused Putin to brag about the ‘father of all bombs’ in his arsenal. And Kim Jong-Un is showing off his arsenal in the DPRK’s Day of the Sun parade, and is testing another nuclear weapon today.

Guys: pack it in. There are millions of lives at stake, and you are competing to see who has the biggest phallic missiles. You aren’t fooling anyone. You are trying to look like big tough leaders, but you are just making yourself look like fools.

The blasé nature of Trump’s military responses – blow some s**t up then play some golf – is irresponsible. And it shines a light on aspects of modern warfare that I find hard to stomach.

Despite my fondness for quoting Shelley, I’m not a pacifist. I think that, regrettably, war can be necessary, and I have the greatest respect for the men and women of our armed forces. But let’s go back a few centuries and map out how warfare has changed.

A medieval king often led a military charge. If he (and it was pretty much always a he) called for war, he was usually there, front and centre. He was not prepared to ask others to do something he would not do himself. This would make him look weak, and would undermine his authority. As a result, medieval kings needed to be tough, alpha males. There were plenty of issues with this, obviously. Muscles and brains don’t always go hand in hand.

Renaissance kings and queens were often present in battle, but tended to hang back a bit more. Brain power was more useful and valuable; diplomacy, languages, strategies- these were the tools of the era. But they still turned up- even Elizabeth I turned up in armour to inspire the troops and to make a show of solidarity.

What do our leaders do now? They phone it in, and then play golf.

Modern warfare seems to rely on this concept of damage from a distance. And I can see the logic behind this: why risk the lives of your own people, when you can destroy from afar? If you can have results without the risk, surely that’s sensible? Yeah, OK.

But is it ethical?

War is terrible. And it should be. It should never be taken lightly. And if there are technological means to make it easier, to make it less risky, then it can be taken more lightly. Leaders should wrestle with their conscience before waging war. They should weigh up the benefits with the risks. If you take the risks to the armed forces out of the equation, then what is to stop you?

If you make warfare seem like a computer game, you divorce the actions from their reality. If you are operating a drone from a bunker, and watching it on a screen, you are removed from the consequences of pressing that big red button. If you are prepared to use the weapons, you should have the courage and the decency to witness the devastation. If you can’t stomach that- and I am talking about leaders here, not military personnel who are just following orders- then you should not be making that decision.

Modern warfare does not only threaten professional armies. Another development of the 20th Century is this movement away from battlefields and assaults on military strongholds to inflicting as much damage on civilian populations as possible. It is about making life unbearable to encourage your opponent to surrender. It is about threatening mass annihilation and hoping that you are not called out on it.

That is why I find this week’s military posturing ridiculous. What is needed now is either diplomacy or the biggest high stakes poker game ever. Looking at the players at the table, I’m worried. Putin is a psychopath. Trump is a desperate buffoon. Kim Jong-Un is a dangerously unhinged narcissist. Assad is a monster. It looks like President Xi is going to have to be the grown up here, and his country’s human rights records aren’t exactly clean.

It’s probably not time to panic yet. Those italics aren’t particularly reassuring, I know.  We shall know more in the next few days… Until then, enjoy your Easter weekend, and eat far more chocolate than you should. That’s an order. Peace and love x

He’s making a list; he’s checking it twice…

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One of the great philosophical voices of this generation once said: “There’s only two types of people in the world.” Yep, that was Britney Spears. She went on to split humanity into two factions: “the ones that entertain, and the ones that observe.” I am in full agreement with the principle she proposes here, but I’d split the human race in a different way.

One of my favourite crime writers, Sophie Hannah, wrote about a caste system developed by children in her book Kind of Cruel, where the three castes are Kind, Cruel and Kind of Cruel. The children in this book (read it, it’s great) categorise their classmates according to their behaviour, and choose their friends accordingly. This is a process that takes place in secret, and is a response to the children learning about real social castes. They perceive their own caste system as fairer than any other that has existed, because one’s behaviour is under one’s own control, and is the product of individual choices.

My two categories, Nice and Not So Nice are, admittedly, simpler. But I would argue that they sum up precisely what you need to know about people.

I know that the word nice has got a bit of a reputation as a lukewarm word of praise. I’m sure many of us have used it in the following way: “well, they are very nice….” We know that tailing off at the end reveals an unspoken ‘but’ that really undermines the sentiment. Nice can mean “blandly inoffensive”, “very dull indeed”, or even “there’s something weird or odd that I haven’t quite figured out yet, but I’m pretty sure I’m not imagining it”. Nice can be an affirmation, or show approval: “You won? Nice!” Nice can also mean hideous, awful, rude: “She hung up on me!” “Nice.” It’s a great word for being sarcastic: “Nice trousers.” For the sake of my caste system, I don’t mean nice in any of these ways.

My definition of nice involves compassion, kindness and empathy. It also means being fun, entertaining, supportive, warm, and jolly. A nice person is someone you want to spend time with. Nice people are not necessarily saints- some of the nicest people I know have a pretty sharp edge, but that makes them perhaps even more fun to be around. I know some lovely people who might be thinking that they aren’t nice by my definition. I can assure you now: you are. I know some people who scored pretty highly on the psychopath tests that were going round not that long ago; hey, you are still nice. You might be grumpy and even borderline murderous from time to time, but you can’t hide your inner niceness from me. So there.

Not So Nice people are unpleasant, cruel and mean-spirited. They might be bullies, snobs, or trolls. They might just show a complete lack of sensitivity or awareness of other people’s feelings. They might be cruel to animals, or rude to waitresses. They are probably aggressive drivers, and patronising tourists. They think that rules don’t apply to them. They jump queues, and reek of entitlement. No matter who you are or where you come from, if you behave like this, you will end up on the Not So Nice list.

Whether I like you or not depends entirely on whether you are Nice or Not So Nice. It’s not that I don’t care about other ‘distinguishing’ facets of your identity: your race, your religion, your sexuality, your gender, your political affiliation, your social status… Those things might be important to you, and I’m not going to dismiss them. It’s just that they won’t have a bearing on whether I like you or not. Are you nice? That’s the important question.

But here’s the thing- like the Kind of Cruel model, in mine you can move from one to the other. You can change your ways, if you want. You aren’t condemned for eternity. If you are judged only on behaviour and deeds, well, those can change. You can be promoted or demoted accordingly. I won’t hold past behaviour against you forever. Do you know why? Because that isn’t nice. (I might be a bit wary for a while, but that’s just sensible.)

Once you boil them down to their philosophical fundamentals, aren’t all religions about trying to be Nice rather than Not So Nice? Or have I just invented a religion? That’s a pretty big achievement for a Sunday afternoon…

If I have just invented a religion, go forth and spread the word. Join in with random acts of kindness. Pay a compliment to someone. Pass it on, and pay it forward. Let’s celebrate our niceness and proclaim it to the world. Let’s make positive social media feedback more powerful than trolling. Let’s do that so much that it gets a nickname- I’m going to propose the word ‘elfing’ as the opposite of trolling, so feel free to help that catch on. ‘Be an elf, not a troll’- yeah, that works. And the T shirts will be cute. As Britney says, “Don’t stand there watching me- follow me, show me what you can do”.

Here endeth today’s lesson, from the Book of Hannah. Peace and love x

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“Free your mind- and the rest will follow”

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Well, we’ve survived another April Fools Day in the world of news, and this one was harder than ever for the mainstream media, when even a fairly normal story can be accused of being Fake News. A couple of points were repeated across social media yesterday:

How can you come up with a prank when the truth is stranger than fiction?

Is April 1st the only day of the year when people question what they read?

April Fools Day news stories are good for teaching us all a lesson about how we perceive news. If we ‘get’ that it’s a joke straightaway, we are pleased. If we aren’t sure, we double check, we question, and we investigate. These are all good habits when trying to avoid media bias, or falling for Fake News. Lastly, we might be fooled; in this case, we are forced to re-evaluate our reading process, to understand where we went wrong, and to confront our perceptions of truth. In essence: we have to change our minds.

There was an interesting piece in the Observer today, which was about how difficult it can be to change other people’s minds; you can read it here if you are so inclined. This extract got me thinking:

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Lecturing turns people off, I get that. In our echo-chambers, we are nearly always preaching to the choir anyway. But listing facts and busting myths? If those stop working, and just serve to convince people of the opposite, what hope is there?

It is entirely sensible that statements presented as facts are questioned, and that statistics are investigated rather than taken at face value. We can’t just believe people blindly because they have used one of those pesky numbers in their argument. That is the sort of thinking that gave us the Brexit bus. Even if numbers are accurate, seeing them without context makes them unreliable. There is a reason why people speak of “lies, damn lies and statistics”.

But this piece from the Observer suggests that we will cling to misconceptions in the face of actual proof, because being consistent is more important that admitting that we were ‘wrong’. I suspect this is true, but it shouldn’t be. Why don’t we reframe this one? We are talking about opinions, so really it’s not about having been wrong, it’s more about having changed our minds. And that’s fine, right? There’s no judgement with a change of opinion. And deciding to change your mind is different to ‘backing down’ in an argument- by making the decision yourself, you are in control of the process. You aren’t admitting defeat; you are simply moving forward.

The real problem is when we are so sure of our opinions that we perceive them as facts. How can we shake this habit? How can we prevent a confirmation bias from taking over everything we see and hear?

Education is the obvious first step- in terms of encouraging critical thinking skills and learning about how the media works. But the biggest obstacle is in our own heads. We are a nation divided at the moment, and we cannot hope to come together again unless we are all willing to confront our perceptions and open our minds a little bit.

I’m still firmly Team Remain FYI. For what it’s worth, I still believe that Brexit is a poor choice, and that there are very difficult times coming our way. But- and here’s the crux of it- if it all works out fine, I will admit that I was wrong.

Some of the Leavers seem to think life will be like this after Brexit:

Many of my fellow Remainers think life will be like this:

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I suspect neither will be true. If/when that’s the case, will people admit that they were wrong? Will anyone else be willing to say that they have changed their minds?

I’m going to leave you with this little pearl of wisdom, from Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in the School:

“I wonder where you got that idea from? I mean, the idea that it’s feeble to change your mind once it’s made up. That’s a wrong idea, you know. Make up your mind about things, by all means – but if something happens to show that you are wrong, then it is feeble not to change your mind, Elizabeth. Only the strongest people have the pluck to change their minds, and say so, if they see they have been wrong in their ideas.”