It's an interesting question. When it comes to driving, for example, almost no one I know will intentionally drive through a red light to save time. But almost everyone - being honest - drives just a couple of mph above the speed limit, presumably to save time. Driving is one of those activities, like queuing in the supermarket, where our judgements of right and wrong get very condemnatory very quickly. It's easy to assume that the person who has just barged in front is doing it with a sort of cantankerous smile and taking great pleasure in it, but it's equally likely that they just didn't know. Except for that woman who queue-jumped at Waitrose early on in the pandemic, who knew exactly what she was doing and just relied on the fact that everyone was too polite to call her out on it. Which is ironic, really, because once you're inside Waitrose any sense you may have had that the shoppers there had any sense of decorum or grace or fellow-feeling is very rapidly gone.
I had this argument with students in my care before. They were normally compliant, very rarely disruptive or challenging; but they would engage in the lunch-queue-jumping behaviour that I can remember from my own school days a painful number of years ago. Their defence was that everyone else was doing it, and because of the lawlessness of that particular bit of the school experience, it didn't do anyone any good to comply in that context. Another student pointed out that the only thing really holding school together was the threat of punishment, and that punishment being worse - much worse - than any short-term entertainment gained from the misbehaviour in question. And yet, that student among others gave off a sense of moral worth, of valuing other people, their thoughts and experiences, of choosing right even if right is more ball ache than wrong.
And now, a while after I started noting down this chain of thought, it comes round to how those rules are enforced. That the police in London took the hard line with the women gathered on Clapham Common was disappointing and surprising. But there was none of the disruption, none of the inconvenience or intimidation that might go along with protests in some cases. And those women were let down by the judgement of at least some people within the chain. Calling for resignations of specific people in charge is probably not the right solution in itself, although there might be convincing arguments in individual cases. But it shows that there needs to be a much more clear line of what the police are there to do, and I'm going to stick my neck out and say that what matters in policing this sort of event is safety and de-escalation, not strict enforcement of rules, even if those rules take the form of (current) laws.
There is, of course, room for disagreement about what constitutes a legitimate protest. Should an organisation that exists to promote anti-immigration and isolationist policy get the same treatment as one that tries to look after an oppressed group's rights? What's challenging about this question is that I know what my answer is (namely, 'no, the first group should be silenced on the basis that what they are doing is rabble-rousing, playing on people's fears and insecurities, and selling them a wholesale lie about the impact of immigration that just doesn't stand up to scrutiny') but it's exceptionally difficult to set yourself against freedom of speech, largely because of the slippery slope that might be pointing in the other direction. With seemingly no sense of shame or irony, the BBC has not renewed the Mash Report, silencing a strong set of voices of criticism of the current government, the opposition, and generally folk trying to get away with being selfish or corrupt.
I realise, looking back at some of my choices, particularly those in my youth, that I would not have been described as 'woke' by the kids today. But I have had the extraordinary privilege to spend a great deal of my time with young people, some of whom have left a very powerful and deep lasting impression on me, and they have improved me greatly. I would not claim to be the perfect ally to women, or to the LGBT community, or to black people. But I have been challenged to improve what I choose and who I am throughout my career as a teacher. Sometimes I have been able to have a good influence on a young person's development, which is its own reward. And sometimes I wish I could replay some of those moments, keeping the good ones as they were and changing the bad ones for the better. But that's not how it works. History doesn't change, no matter how much you dwell on it. There is now, and there is the future. So let's hope that the fallout from Sarah Everard's death does improve things.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought