So he signed the letter alongside the current lightning rod of Twitter abuse that is J K Rowling. Does that make him anti-trans? Well, no. Chomsky is, as far as I can tell, a fairly disciplined and unhypocritical thinker, with one key corollary to that lack of hypocrisy being that you can't advocate freedom of speech for people you agree with and then shut down and censor people you don't agree with.
As in, Holocaust deniers. As in, racists. Homophobes. Xenophobes. Sexists. Whatever the view, the view itself cannot be such that it must be censored. It's a level of consistency rarely seen in anything more mainstream: things that get on the news each day, such as politics, cannot afford to have so much principle attached to them because someone would be bound by their principles to say something unpalatable, and as far as I can tell, that is anathema to modern politics. Do I agree? This is a tricky one, because freedom of speech and thought is one of those areas where introducing any kind of restriction is a slippery slope, both in reality and in arguments about it. Prevent people airing racist views by criminalising it? It's not that this is a bad thing in itself, but the argument is that once a government has the power to limit the ability of someone to say something, it's a simple matter to extend that to, for example, criticising the government being made illegal. As it happens, I neither support full freedom of speech or full freedom of the press, for a number of reasons that really centre around the way that the power of those who possess it can be used to influence people who do not possess power. But I suppose, at the core, that reveals me to be a kind of left-biased liberal who thinks that by-and-large it is the right, the moneyed, the haves, who then use that very freedom to deny a certain level of freedom, not so much of speech but of choice, to those who are the have nots.
The UK government finds itself in a bind. It has to take a position on whether or not trans women are women. It has to come down on some side of the debate, because whatever the legislation ends up being, it will make a difference to people's lives. Today, I saw the hashtag onlyfemalesgetcervicalcancer trending on Twitter. The adversarial nature of the debate is now such that no reconciliation seems in sight, whether that be a recognition that biological womanhood is not the same as gender femininity, or that there is a way for the word 'woman' to encompass trans women, or that trans women are welcome to join the community of women but in doing so they do not instantly become all that women are and have experienced. As is so often the case with a delicate and nuanced set of considerations that run deeply in individuals' lives, the slogans and the name-calling have reduced any discussion to a slanging match. It's what happened with Brexit, certainly. Jeremy Corbyn gave a balanced view on the EU, saying he was seven-out-of-ten in favour of remaining, and he got torn a new one for equivocating. Oddly, this was not deemed an appropriate line to take with Boris Johnson, who in fact did hedge his bets, preparing to pick a side that was the most advantageous to him at the time. When the bloke in Pirates asks if he plans it all out, or just makes it up as he goes along, that would be a great question for Boris.
So, what? I don't have a dog in the fight when it comes to the trans / TERF debate. I don't think seeing two sides as lining up against each other does either side any good. Being kind - loving - is a good guiding principle, but it doesn't always make it clear what the best thing to do is. I did have a fascinating exchange with a colleague who praised another colleague by saying 'he thinks like a grown-up; he's not woke.' Which is an odd thing to praise, in itself, and I suspect a two-fold misreading of the situation. A deep sympathy with the children he cares for, together with a very clear guiding principle of love, the first a personal and the second an institutional quality, strike me as both entirely grown-up and woke.
Here's a question for you: if you read Peepo by the Ahlbergs, do you notice the baby, the sisters, the park? or do you notice the military uniform, the barrage balloon, the fighter aircraft? Are the smiles on the faces of the parents pure happiness at the baby they have brought into the world, or are they of the kind of desperate sadness caused by fear on behalf of something - someone - else innocent and beautiful? Do you read about Bear Hunts and find yourself lamenting the lost innocence that can imagine a bear in a cave, and the entertainment that can bring to a whole family? Or is it just a good adventure? I watched the animation of it today with the little man, and that's got that same bitter-sweet sadness thing to it. The girl who makes friends with the bear can't find him in the end, but that doesn't diminish the time she spent with him. Our lockdown may be the strangest thing that will happen to most of us over the course of our lives, the moment when the world was different. But the things that happened to us in lockdown were probably not, for the most part, the ones we would have otherwise remembered. I doubt many people have experienced falling in love with someone over the course of lockdown, for example. A large number of people will have experienced the grief of the loss of a loved one, but that large number is still quite a small proportion of all the people out there.
Do I mean by this that I advocate coming out of lockdown as soon as we can? No, definitely not. I don't think the people making the decisions take remotely enough care over those decisions to be trusted, and I think erring on the side of caution would have been the better approach. I also think that the high-handed manner of those decisions, taking very little account of the scientific advice and, seemingly, none whatsoever of the advice of professionals from within sectors that are affected by the easing of lockdown, the way that these decisions are presented to the public and the professionals at the same time at press briefings, all rolled together these factors suggest that the people in charge don't really know what they're doing.
And in a way, that's fair enough. If they came out and said 'well, we're not quite sure whether to open up pubs, so we'll do it slowly, on a Tuesday, and then for a couple of hours only', you'd think they were serious about figuring it out, particularly if they added 'and then we'll survey a bunch of publicans and patrons to see what it was like, and make some subsequent decisions on that basis.' But they don't. Heaven only knows what the Northern General will be like at midnight. If it even takes that long...
Anyway, I digress. I have always been susceptible to sentimentality, I suppose. I wrote some time ago about how Christmas adverts, which at one stage of my development would have washed over me without me engaging in the slightest, had gripped me and made me feel that happy-crying thing that's so unhelpful when you're trying to navigate the world with a stiff upper lip. The sad-smiling thing is of a piece with it, I think. I'm not old enough (yet) that all my choices are behind me, but sometimes life just brings up one of those things where I felt it right in the core of my being, whether that be loss, or making a terrible decision, or making the right decision but at great cost. Those things - which I understand young people have taken to referring to as 'the feels' - can be absolutely crippling at the wrong time. But the flutter, as George Ezra describes it, the shine whenever I remember your sweet smile... I wouldn't choose to lose the bad bits at the expense of the good.
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths."
If only that were possible. My training in looking after my own mental health is all about finding the same peace mentioned in the bit of Philippians just before my favourite quote of all:
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
The argument I had with the therapist was precisely that it - peace - surpasses all understanding, and my inclination is to seek understanding in everything I undertake, including my own mind. The armour that I had worn for 30-odd years of my life up to that point was that I could seek a deeper understanding and, usually, find it. And if understanding didn't bring comfort, at least it brought a type of knowledge of the world that could lead away from disappointment, frustration and anger. To be stripped of that armour by a mental illness that I didn't understand and couldn't conceive of a way of countering was as devastating as any grief I have experienced. It might be better to say that it encapsulated all the grief I have experienced, or that it - the illness - was a kind of conduit to the front of my thoughts for all that grief.
I have been in danger, since being trained to be mindful, of feeling something approaching peace. Aided occasionally (and indeed currently) by the softening, cushioning effect of anti-depressant medication, I have been able to hold off some of the introspective dwelling on negatives that is so destructive in my personal experience. I have learned to accept that the things in the past cannot be altered, and that those things that have happened - including the ones where I did wrong, or failed to be kind, or otherwise let myself or someone else down - bring me to the point I am at today. Some of those reflections have the odd character of bringing on a smile, followed by emptiness or sadness. The best way I can characterise it is the excitement and promise of something great about to happen - that is real enough, and it is enjoyable when it is happening - then the disappointment of that promise remaining unfulfilled. Some people seem to be able to accept the disappointment without it tarnishing the enjoyment that came before, but not me. But the point is that at times I have felt able to distance myself from those reflections, able - as the therapy trains - to step back from the thoughts, to disengage, to let them go without grasping on to them. To hand them over to God, I suppose. And that is the great promise of Christianity, the idea that it will bring salvation to those who truly believe in it. I don't disagree with the moral teachings of Jesus himself - because they amount, as I have stated before, to not much more than 'be nice to everyone as much as you can' - but the promise that this will be rewarded with an eternity of peace does not ring true, because I can't swallow the metaphysical commitment that it needs.
But peace is short-lived, fragile, easy to upset. Peace that is based on faith and hope in people is prone to disappointment when those people, inevitably perhaps, don't live up to the faith that is placed in them. I would love to be one of those people who can build a sort of castle of immunity around themselves, a set of mental (and physical) barriers that prevent harm by stopping you opening yourself up to it in the first place. But for whatever reason I seem to not be able to. Sometimes that is what I like about myself, although it causes me problems as well. It allows the connection I make to be deep and fulfilling, immune to the effects of distance, time, prolonged and even enforced silence. But it makes you vulnerable. 'So human', perhaps, as my departed colleague and friend once described me.
So - and this is an undertaking, a wishlist rather than a promise, let me finally decouple myself from the desperate struggle I have had with faith, with the idea of a personal God judging me in the world, with the sense that good and bad done are answerable to some higher power or that those things done might be the route into heaven (or the barrier to it). Let me instead have faith in the life I have, in the people I have shared a few moments with, whatever the circumstances. Let me find peace when things around me go wrong, whether they be mundane or significant, let me be free of anger and guilt and judgement.
Life is long, and there is time for things that are wrong to be righted. "Live, then, and be happy, beloved of my heart, and never forget, that until the day God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words, 'Wait and Hope'."
It's probably the case that everyone carries some prejudices with them. What marks out people who have made progress in the art (or is it a science?) of being a good person is that when they detect a prejudice working in them, they examine it, challenge it, and perhaps dismantle it so that next time they can encounter a new situation featuring familiar types without the assumptions that might make them get it wrong. People further down this line of development seem to be able to challenge instances of prejudice when they encounter it. 'Challenging' should be very carefully handled here, because it does not - and I stress that in using this language I am both representing the reality of the situation on some social media platforms and intentionally trying to achieve shock value - involve calling someone a cunt, or threatening to rape them, or telling them to go suck a dick. Challenging anything on Twitter is impossible to do effectively, because you basically don't have the room to call out something like an instance of racial or homophobic prejudice without getting into a corollary argument about freedom of speech - more of which later - or sounding like Donald Trump, sarcastic, mean-spirited and lacking intelligence. A tweet that starts 'are you aware that you seem to be showing an outmoded racial prejudice...' can't help but sound, well, patronising. That's why a lot of this is better done in person. You can use tone, body language and all the other non-verbal cues and clues that help someone to see that you're on their side, just trying to adjust their attitude to the world. Adversarial exchanges on Twitter (in particular) do nothing to move a debate forward.
In fact, I'll set a challenge. If anyone can provide me with a documented case of someone saying something on Twitter, getting a reply challenging the opinion, and then admitting that the original statement was wrong and thanking the intervener for their help, I'll send you a prize. As yet to be determined, mind, but a prize nevertheless.
What's harder to challenge is where prejudices are built in to institutions, whether that be the difficulty of women building their career at the same rate as men due to the effects of maternity leave and the fact that mothers tend to be the ones doing the part-time work after that leave ends, or the collection of factors which make it harder for black British students to get into Oxford and Cambridge. On a personal level, you can identify these prejudices in some cases, you might even be able to point them out to a suitable authority figure, maybe a manager or master of a college, or an MP. But the shift required in attitudes across a vast range of people to level playing fields in both of these regards is huge. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be done, but it does mean that doing it is difficult.
And so we come to an interesting discussion that is going on at the moment about how to argue with someone whose opinions are very far removed from your own. Although I have never attempted to engage her on any subject, it is a fairly succinct explanation that if Katie Hopkins has an opinion on a subject that I know nothing about, I will probably take the opposite side of the argument. Whatever she thinks, I can be pretty confident I will think the opposite. Although that used to be the case with Piers Morgan, and, yes, I do feel a quiver of revulsion saying it, but Morgan-as-mouthpiece for criticism of the current government has been surprisingly effective. So how do you begin to argue with such a person? It's a mark of the sort of person you are that you take up the argument against people who spout hateful stuff, but it's much more of a mark that the argument happens in the calm, clear way. Hence Twitter being such a poor debating platform. It goes directly from blunt assertion to flat denial to personal abuse. There's no subtlety. To the extent that on the few occasions that I have taken people up on something, they are generally surprised to see an actual criticism of the argument and sometimes even attempt to address it. They were expecting, to repeat a phrase, to be called a cunt. Katie Hopkins, apparently, has been banned from Twitter altogether. It's not the loss of her opinions that I find to be an issue, it's the fact that she is such a draw. She had over a million followers. And she is dragging them to another platform, supposedly. Shutting her up on that platform - where there are enough people getting after her and trying to argue with her - might be a news story, but the real news ought to be that loads of people hear what she has to say and think it's worthwhile. I had always assumed that both her and Morgan were much more intelligent than their expressed opinions, and that both of them just said what they thought a particular section of the public wanted to hear. Now, I'm not so sure, but I'm still considering it. I wonder what I would do if I had a book or a painting that was particularly beautiful, a spectacular piece of art, complete in both conceptualisation and realisation, and I found ought that Katie Hopkins was the artist. I'm not sure I wouldn't suffer from the sort of prejudice that says bad people can't do good art. Or at least I can't like art by bad people. It'll be interesting to see how the JK Rowling fiasco continues, because some have pegged her as a bad person, denying the essential woman-ness of a trans woman. The sense of the argument I have is that whatever a trans woman is, being a woman isn't just a state of affairs, it's a kind of process, and so it can't just be decided on. I don't know whether that is the right way to look at it, and I certainly don't know whether it should shape the law or the moral landscape, but I certainly don't think she should be shouted down for having that opinion. Whatever the challenges - and that might mean moving the argument off Twitter - the disagreement needs to be firm but gentle, rather than threatening and insulting. A criticism needs to be of the idea and the argument, not of the person.
In the same way, one might read a book that someone essentially good has written, where the book isn't up to much. You have to be firm but gentle. 'It's horrific, and not in a good way,' is perhaps to be avoided. 'It's some way short of being ready for publication' carries with it the optimistic but probably ultimately wrong thought that any book can be brought up to that standard. My issue is a different one, and that's the fact that this book is creepy. And it doesn't acknowledge it. I'm finding it hard to shape a sentence that can get the point across. And to level the accusation that hero is in fact just as bad as the baddies because of his choices... Not sure how to deal with it. The real world is full of moral ambiguity and the need for a guiding principle is great, because so few of the people who manage to achieve things like power, wealth and influence do so with a clear guiding principle in place, except perhaps for 'get me more power, wealth and influence'. It's never been clearer than it is now, with the government desperately trying to find something to say that people will like, but not having the balls to say the difficult stuff or to ask people who might say that what people like is also a terrible idea. We might all be back in schools in September (we might not, I hasten to add) but it won't be because government has consulted with schools, headteachers, unions and scientists and found out that it is doable, however difficult. It's because government has decided it needs to say that, and they're quite happy to stitch up schools (etc) later when it turns out not to be a very good idea. If only it were the case that these politicians actually had a principle to work to, but I don't think many of them do. So I'll leave a couple here:
Be excellent to each other...
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Although given the current progress of things, perhaps this one would be better:
Do us a favor... I know it's difficult for you... but please, stay here, and try not to do anything... stupid.
"You know, for having such a bleak outlook on pirates you are well on your way to becoming one: sprung a man from jail, commandeered a ship of the fleet, sailed with a buccaneer crew out of Tortuga, and you're completely obsessed with treasure."
Continuing the theme that I began over five years ago which is that the title is a phrase spoken by one of the characters, I've finally got it.
Curiously apposite at the moment, and I can't help but feel that might have helped me reach a decision.
So here we go:
Truth to Power.
Watch for more updates as I put the 'finishing' 'touches' (that is, write the fifteen or twenty thousand words it still needs) to book IV of These Matters, Truth to Power.
So I have been taking my 8-year-old daughter on the road to cycle quite a bit just recently. She is possessed of a determination, a wilfulness of spirit, that I almost entirely lack, and her progress from struggling up the smallest hill to making her way up to Fox House or Owler Bar from our house, a full five miles and a really big hill for each, has been quite gratifying. She is not, though, a road user in the most robust sense. She can cross a road, but really wants an adult there to help. So I fulfil roughly that same function - being the road user - when we're out cycling. And I am consistently disappointed with the decision-making of some of the drivers who use those same roads, going for tiny gaps that they shouldn't have, overtaking when there's something coming the other way, and generally not accepting the small delay in their journey that we present. Here's a thought for anyone who is a driver and not a cyclist: your insurance won't be happy that you wrecked your car and the one coming the other way because you were too impatient to wait for a decent gap and a straight bit of road. That's if you choose to do the right thing and drive into the other car. If you choose wrong and knock me off to avoid hitting the other car, then you might just have to deal with the hysterical 8-year-old as you scrape me off the road, and a lifetime's guilt (and a prison sentence) for ending a life just to save 15 seconds. And that's the least worst outcome. Cars seem to armour people against consequence, whether that be using weapons-grade swearing to describe someone who slowed you down or came out of a junction when they shouldn't, right up to failing to consider the potential effect of splattering through a couple of cyclists to overtake when there wasn't room. It doesn't seem to occur to people that they are, in all honesty, endangering the lives of more-or-less innocent people, particularly small ones who perhaps don't need to be intimidated off the road. Even if the sole purpose of our journey was to slow down a bunch of cars - even if we set out with that specific intent - it wouldn't make smashing a little girl off the road morally acceptable. And, of course, all we were actually doing was a bit of exercise. So there you go. Be nice on the roads, even if the other person is a thunder----. I have a bit to learn from my own rant here, I'll own. When your child asks you, "Daddy, what's 'fuxache'?", you know you've gone a bit far. Children are often instructive in this regard, and very rarely anywhere near as judgemental as adults.
On the subject of flowers, I have been bemoaning the fact that I am old and decrepit for some time, occasionally even forcing kind people into saying something to the contrary. I wonder whether the fact that I now not only stop to look at flowers when I see them, but that I am actively trying to grow my own in the back garden, is a symbol of my growing old. There's something almost spooky about flowers. Why has nature evolved this extravagance of beauty? What evolutionary purpose does it serve? Are bees connoisseurs of aesthetic magnificence? On a side note, the fella next door 'keeps' bees, so we do have plenty roaming around our back garden. I say 'keeps', but what I really mean is 'facilitates the occasional mass escape on a hot day'. I think, like some people's cats, the bees are in charge, and the notional human owner is no more than an unintentional slave to their world-domination plans. Flowers seem, in a way that would be unimaginable to my teenage self, to have a calming effect. I've mentioned before the way my brain sometimes overdrives, thinking in bizarrely expanding circles to encompass every bad thing that I have ever experienced, either as the victim or the perpetrator. Flowers seem to allow me a moment of calm, although what is interesting about that is that they trigger happy memories of times past without the associated guilt or sadness that those times have gone, or that I might not have made all the right choices. As a teenager, the notion of going to a garden - Rosemoor is the one that I was dragged to by my parents - just to look at flowers all day did in fact send me into the mother of all face-on mards. No more, and I don't know what's changed.
Interesting point of comparison is the fact that I've started to develop a desire to do some of the things that I did as a late teenager, at least partly in response to having a lot of time in lockdown to think, reminisce, and play guitar. I will - and I don't yet know how - get started with a band that plays my music, by which I mean all the stuff I used to dance to at Corporation 20-odd years ago. It'll be heavy, it'll be immature, it'll be great. Once I've managed to find a bunch of other people who are willing to do the same. I bet it'll be just a touch easier when lockdown comes to an end and everyone just wants to do stuff rather than sit at home playing on Facebook/Twitter/Insert your preferred web-based mechanism of wasting shitloads of time.
And the magpies? You see a lot of them when you're out riding a bike around SW Sheffield. And for some reason, as a broadly not-superstitious person, seeing one on its own makes me think something is wrong with the world. And seeing two together can lift my day. In particular, I find myself wanting to write just that bit more often when I see a pair than when I see one alone. Perhaps the effect is the cause of the superstition... It's as though there is a warmth filtering through nothing, that I am in the thoughts of some unseen power a long way distant, but that nevertheless makes me happy. For whatever reason, I think this is Edward Strelley's only concession to superstition as well. He is a sort of intellectual magpie, as I suppose I am, collecting little trinkets and treasuring them. It feels just right to me that he, an atheist in a much more religious time, should have a little superstition. For him, it is Elizabeth's thoughts that he wants to be in, and yet as he says himself, he wishes to free her of him so that rather than think of him and be sad, she should forget him and smile.
A lot is going on. The world, it seems, is splitting ever more along party lines, and the sides are taking lumps out of each other. It's hard to even choose a side, because anything approaching a principle seems to be absent in so many of the arguments. Having said that, it's easy enough to believe in the rightness of a cause. One pertinent at the moment might be the end of racism. But it's hard to choose how to do the best in support of that cause. My approach, as I was trying to detail to a neighbour a few days ago, has been to try to win the argument in favour of kindness, of a sort of love that accepts different choices and if a disagreement arises, tries to show the right way. But - and this is the thing I am wrestling with at the moment - sometimes it seems as though that soft approach, that attempt to be the still, small voice of calm amongst the anger and the hate, is not enough.
Should one protest in solidarity? I don't know. I can certainly feel anger on behalf of the oppressed, the downtrodden, the institutionally impoverished, whilst also acknowledging that I am not among their number. The act of protest, whether violent or not, is both very easy to twist in covering it so as to make it appear to be something else, and - for me in my position in the community - forbidden by contract. Even with a seemingly straightforward cause, such as feminism, I have found myself having to take in new arguments about how what I had previously thought was an easy enough position to endorse might not capture the whole picture. I am not the right person to smooth out differences between those who say trans women are women, and those who say trans women aren't women, but my eyes are open to both sides. If I had an observation to add, perhaps it is simply that kindness ought to be the guiding principle. And that might not come up with the same answer in all situations, which could make me appear - ironically - to be unprincipled.
I am not a Christian in the metaphysical sense, as I have written on this very blog before. But I think if there is anything in the Bible that is worth repeating, it is that call to be loving:
But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Christians might argue about the relative value of faith and acts of love, but the goal, as far as I can tell, is to be loving regardless of any future reward. It should be enough that being righteous is right, and not that being righteous is the path to heaven.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal…
So, my call: be good. In fact, be excellent to each other. And just wait for now until this whole Covid-19 business is at an end before partying on, dude.
The BBC was wrong to censure NewsNight and Emily Maitlis for her opening remarks on last night's programme.
She was not expressing an individual view by speaking in terms of Dominic Cummings breaking the rules or that the country could see that.
She was voicing a view that is held by many, and which - for reasons that perhaps ought to be the subject of a further and much more searching complaint - is not expressed through the BBC remotely often enough: that the current government have consistently lied to the British people, that they have lowered the standard of those lies to such an extent that the lies would shame a child who told them, and that they have come to expect those lies to be reported without challenge by the BBC.
It is time that the organisation made a choice. Specifically, the BBC needs to stop hiding behind the curtain of 'impartiality', and report what is actually happening. It is disheartening to think that Emily Maitlis will not be able to do so in the future as a result of having done so last night.
Not an easy sell, this year. At least it's nice outside, although that can be the insult added to the depressive or anxious injury that pushes things over the edge. With everyone still supposed to be isolated from everyone else, an over-reliance on screens and a succession of terrible news about coronavirus and (when it can push its way to the top of the news agenda) Brexit, racism and the latest on Donald Trump's continuing struggle with reality, it's no surprise if (that?) mental health is suffering.
Oddly, despite the strangeness of the situation, mine has mostly been good throughout this lockdown. The opportunity to a bunch of things that I wouldn't otherwise have done has been great, as has the time spent with my children who I would otherwise see only briefly at the start - when in a flap to get to work - and at the end - exhausted by work - of the day. There is no doubt that my work life is easier in some ways than it was when I was in front of classes full time, largely because I'm not having to steel myself for the behavioural battle that can characterise some teaching. One relatively naive commentator I read a couple of days ago seemed to think that if we could just make sure all the students gathered around their respective screens for a few hours a day, they would learn just as much as if they were in the classroom... Well, that's not quite what she said. What she said was she couldn't understand why teachers weren't offering real-time teaching instead of setting work for students to do in their own time. Apparently that's what they do in private schools. Good for them. In that case, the parents presumably have a bit more of a dog in the fight, paying as they do some thousands of pounds a term for their children's education, and therefore they expect them to be occupied. And are, perhaps, that bit more willing to impose. What's missed in this argument is that you don't just need the kid to be sat at the computer, you need them to have switched off all the distracting crap that a computer can do and actually be focused on the lesson. And - with the best will in the world - the commentator in question did not seem to expect to have to commit to being there to facilitate this for hours at a time.
It can't be stressed highly enough that 'live' teaching online seems to be a bit of a nightmare, because trying to organise the 30-or-so kids to all be using the same software at the same time is a job beyond what most of us can achieve, but more than that, you're either depriving the students of the social aspect of the real classroom by not letting them interact (most lessons probably have no more than 20-30 minutes of 'teaching', with a decent proportion of the time spent of work of various kinds - this idea that a teacher stands at the front teaching for an hour at a time is pretty niche in modern education), or you're letting them interact, which is guaranteed chaos.
It could be done, but there are so many pitfalls that most schools don't really want to approach it that way. Nevertheless schools get hammered off right-wing commentators for not managing to achieve what private schools with an embarrassment of resources can do. Ah, well. I've done my best to do right by the kids, which is not necessarily the same as doing right by their parents. Occupying time - a goal that smells strongly of 'childcare' rather than 'education' is not the point. And here's the real existential threat to our way of life: if it turns out that remote education under the broad supervision of parents is no less effective than piling kids together in schools, it may be time to have a think about how we do school and what it's for.
So all of that was a diversion of a sort. Mental health is likely to suffer in such strange, suffocating circumstances. It is probably the single weirdest thing that most of us have ever experienced. Here's the thing, then. Reach out. It might be that reaching out is exactly what you need to do. It might be that you need to speak - or converse by text - with someone who gets you. It might be that all you need to do is read their words, offering their love and the promise that better times will come, whether that be in a month or two, or a year, or longer. It might be that you can't have that conversation, and that is as hard as it comes. But hope remains, even if it means waiting...
Well then. It's turned into a bit of a political football, with some arguing one way and some arguing the other... The Daily Mail's headline on Friday - which suggested that teachers should make themselves heroes by returning to work, and that the unions are the ones behind the slow pace of reopening schools - is a great example of the point made by the second article, although in this case it is the teaching unions that have an irremediably damaged reputation and a thoroughly warped place in the narrative, rather than teachers themselves. Unions exist to protect their members, their rights, their safety, their working conditions and so on. And, both on a historical level and on a current political level, they exist to interpose themselves between the workers they represent and - gasp - the more capitalist, free-market end of the political spectrum. Some commentators have even managed to be sensible about the challenge, whilst also maintaining that there are aspects of the government's choices that are questionable.
What's clear from the communication we have received from our own child's school, and from the discussion around reopening the one I work for, is that whatever 'reopening' means, the sad disappointment for the ones advocating it without understanding what it means will be that it doesn't do the job they might be hoping for. Specifically, an 'open' school will not do anything like the working week's worth of supervision / childcare / keeping-safe-and-off-the-streets / socialising (in all possible senses) / education that it has previously offered. Once that message starts to permeate into the discussion, perhaps some of the more emotive language (on both sides...?) may calm down. Although it must be noted that the point raised by the teaching unions - how do you do this safely? - is the same one that heads and their teams are currently trying to answer, and it is abundantly clear that the answer includes the caveat, 'with great difficulty'. I want(ed) an answer to a question I raised in one of those arguments on the internet where there are no winners: am I supposed to avoid your children in every conceivable context except the one which facilitates you going back to work? I didn't get an answer in that particular exchange, other than that the risk to the children was low. The evidence is limited at best for this, and I am not willing as a parent for my child to be part of a study which would not pass the first round of a university ethics committee's scrutiny. Equally, I'd rather not contract the virus myself, although I am supposed to be only a bit likely to die. My parents, on the other hand, who would probably end up in the position that they have been previously of being the main back-up childcare option, are fairly likely to die if they contract the virus.
The Children's Commissioner has stepped in to this argument, telling the sides to stop squabbling and reach an agreement. It can be no surprise that some papers have reported this as 'squabbling unions told to grow up and get back to work'... But it is worth noting that there is very rarely a spin on these types of stories that says 'unions protect their members by questioning politically-motivated decision to send them into unsafe working environment'. For some reason...
Anyway, here's something I found myself duty-bound to write, largely on the rather similar basis that a discussion in the national media really ought to start with facts, rather than judgement...
Schools are currently open. Key workers (and others) have had the option of sending their children in to school for the last eight weeks - in the case of my school, that includes during the Easter holiday. So we're not 'reopening schools'; we're widening the net of who can attend. Discussion (in school management, and in communication between school and parents) centres around realistically limiting the number of students returning so they can manage the ones they do get effectively. The issue with the narrative in the newspapers (lazy unions blocking reopening) is that it doesn't capture the actual question, which is how can we get more kids (not all kids - you're going to be very disappointed if you think you can go back to work full time) into schools without causing the sort of havoc that school closures were supposed to prevent. There's still an inconsistency in policy - that teachers are supposed to avoid other people's kids in all conceivable situations except school - which needs some smoothing over before any teachers will be convinced that this move is about education rather than facilitating a return to economic normality by providing 'childcare'. The next week is absolutely critical in managing this situation, because if it moves (further?) towards the government imposing its will on a country's worth of headteachers, there will be a real risk of the schools being forced to run in ways contradicting the guidance, and individual heads will have to make potentially harmful choices that they shouldn't be pushed into making.
I can add the very salient point made by another teacher blogger that it doesn't matter how much he wants to go back, we shouldn't pile in to school unless it really is safe to do so. One point missed by the papers - of all stripes -is that even if teachers are the workshy, feckless bunch of layabouts we're made out to be, that doesn't speak on whether it's safe to send your kid back to school. Even if teachers were on an extended holiday, sipping the proverbial lunchtime margherita in the sun, that wouldn't change what matters to the decisions about schools.
Let's all hope that the people in charge aren't chancing it for political gain. There are plenty of things that could happen to help us all believe that. It's time those things started to happen.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought