It seems that from as far back as ancient antiquity there were few things rulers feared more than the loss of their own ability to control the governed. To rule Rome meant to dominate the ‘mob’. It seems to me that there are two aspects to this relationship. On the one hand the ‘ruler’ needs to have the authority to rule as well as the capacity to control the governed or those ruled. That capacity will come from force of one of two kinds. In one instance it will be from power, the ruler exercises a control which is vested in their ability to force the ruled to obey, to follow out of fear of consequence. The other is the force of authority, vested in the ruler from moral purpose or by the will of the people. Julius crossed the Rubicon on his road to Rome with this in mind and every successful Caesar thereafter realised that this relationship was a tenuous one and needed careful balancing. Recent events at home and abroad bring this relationship and the relationship we have with each other into sharp relief.
Civil disobedience has long precedent. From the food riots and social difficulty attendant on the decline of the Roman republic and the road to ruin, to the fin de siècle disruption of 19th century Europe. The latter a product in no small part of the 18th century philosophes. The Enlightenment of pre-revolutionary France began and sustained a campaign of ideas that suggested the notion captured in the motto of the subsequent revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. The Marseilles’ captures some of the degree to which such notions can be hijacked in a blood lust for change. That enlightenment notion of equality was exported and picked up by colonies on the western fringes of the British Empire and issued forth in the Declaration of Independence before the Europeans caught up. The opening caveat for all that followed was that we are all created equal.
Events today suggest that the lived reality of this is not so noble nor real. But it is important to guard against any sense of self-righteous judgement, few nations can cast the first stone on this issue and most national greenhouses caution against throwing them. After so much time and with the sense that we live in a modern age, why reader, does such inequality persist? Black lives matter, so too do the lives of the poor, the lives of the displaced, the religiously oppressed, women, minorities, genders and orientations.
What is it that allows an individual to regard another with the judgement that they are less worthy? In the playground we see some of those value judgements played out. Moments of exclusion where children turn their back on others or say things that are hurtful. This comes from the emerging sense of self; from a lack of understanding or awareness of the impact the words or actions have on others. It is true of the adolescent as much as it is of the child in Nursery. This is part of growing and the attendant socialisation of children. How many times have you asked a sibling to play nicely with their sister/brother? Have you ever invited your child to share with others?
Those conversations are the gentle scaffolding of values that see each of us as intrinsically valuable with entitlements to be treated and to expectations on our behaviour that create authentic, purposeful, confident individuals who go on to make the world a better place. So what’s gone wrong? Educationally it is not that children or grown-ups have forgotten everything they learned at school. The architects gathered at Wannsee were skilled, knowledgeable and cultured individuals. They were architects, engineers and scientists, they knew Goethe and enjoyed Wagner but still went on to oversee the greatest act of mass genocide the world has known. Did they forget the most important lessons not necessarily directly taught in their schools? They were too old to claim to be victims of the paraphernalia of propaganda institutionalised in pre-war German education.
What lesson was missed, or forgotten? What lesson from school was conveniently side-lined in favour of a more sinister agenda? It might be that we celebrate difference, we neither fear nor judge it. That children are unique and special in and of themselves with no regard for their background, culture or context. That in being unlike others we enjoy the exquisite beauty of being ourselves and that this need not, in fact should not, breed fear or worry but a sense of joy. It is the direct opposite of the narrowing closed mindedness that sees others as a threat. The disposition that sees difference as defiance and lays siege to whatever cosy contentment we have surrounded ourselves with. It results in the mindless flag waving of rebels without a clue, opposing imagined enemies at self-deluded gates.
Far from making us feel threatened our experience allows us to open up with a degree of wonder at the stories others have to tell. The difference that the individual experiences in meeting others is the exoticism that fuels enquiry and opens up a road to wonder. Caesar’s decisive moment to take control was in crossing the Rubicon, it marked his decision to take the road to Rome and create an empire. Every day we have the opportunity to cross smaller rubicons, but the decisions we take in our interactions with others create empires none the less; they celebrate the commonality of the human experience e pluribus unum, and opportunity for adventure, it opens up our road to roam.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead)