Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Getting the ship confused

A man dies and goes to hell. Satan, after filling in the paperwork, leads him to his cell. It resembles a single room at a Holiday Inn. There is a small bookshelf, consisting of nothing but Barbara Cartland romance novels and Observer Guides to British Birds; an infinite quantity of pot-noodle in the fridge; and a TV which is showing nothing but repeats of One Man and His Dog. "Oh please, no, I'll do anything, show me some mercy" screams the sinner. "Think yourself lucky" says the Devil "This could be heaven for some poor bastard."
                                                             Very Old Joke[1] 

In my last dissertation from the riot-zone, I misquoted Call-Me-Dave as having said:

Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Sentences without verbs.

The first bit he really said. The bit at the end was, of course,  my little joke.

Sam asked: "Am I alone in thinking that 70% of that would be a blueprint for utopia?" I think that this is a really interesting question." I apologize in advance for failing to provide a really interesting answer.

I take it that Sam does not think that it would be a Good Thing if all schools were full of vandalism, drug abuse and bullying. I take it that he doesn't even think that it would be a good thing if schools were the kind of environment in which it was impossible for the teacher to actually teach anything or the pupils to actually learn anything.

There have, I suppose, been revolutionaries who think that the whole idea of Literature and History and Science were dreamed up by the Patriarchy in order to keep the workers in their places: that Grammar and Maths are intrinsically Hierarchical and Structured and therefore Repressive. Get rid of schools and books, let the kids go and listen to impulses from vernal woods, and everything will be fine. I don't think that Sam is one of them.

Similarly, I assume that he doesn't think that in the New Jerusalem, there will be widespread murder, rape and child abuse, and that the perpetrators will all get away scott free. Again, there have been those who think that it's the whole idea of "punishment" that creates "crime" and that if we stopped telling people that if they talked in the dinner queue they'd get slapped then they'd mysteriously lose all desire to talk in the dinner queue. Oscar Wilde thought this was the case: so did St Paul, sort of. I don't think this is Sam's point.

And while there have been very, very extreme feminists who are so sure that it's all the fault of men that they've wanted to take men out of the reproductive process altogether (I understand that sisters are doing it in test tubes nowadays) and that even if you absolutely need a man to make a baby you still shouldn't let him anywhere near an actual child, I don't think that Sam or Germain Greer or anyone else thinks that way nowadays.

I imagine that what Sam has in mind is that in Utopia, schools will be nice and interesting and child centred, so teacher will happy to teach and children will be happy to learn and there will be no need to impose learning friendly behaviour by means of rules and sanctions; and that in Utopia, criminals will be well-treated, educated, helped -- isolated from the rest of society as a last resort -- but always for their own and society's good, never with a thought of saying "you did it to us so we'll do it back to you". I think that abolishing fathers is probably one of the 30% of Dave's propositions which he doesn't agree with -- but it might be that he thinks that the idea of fatherhood is bound up with a toxic notion of force and power ("just wait till your father gets home") and that in Utopia, that kind of fatherly role will not exist. Children will have two mothers, one of whom will probably be a male mother.

Sam can tell us if this is the sort of thing he had in mind. But it wasn't the sort of thing which David Cameron had in mind.

At least, I assume it wasn't.

Regular readers [insert joke here] will recall that before the coup, I expressed concern about Mr Cameron's ludicrous poster which asked "Why Not Restore Discipline To Schools". It seemed, I said, to take it for granted that there was a thing called "discipline" which used to exist, which doesn't exist any longer, but which it would be possible to bring back into existence.

Now, that word, "discipline" carries a sliding scale of meanings, along the lines of:

1: Learning in general ("fine art is an academic discipline")

2: Some task which you have set yourself because you think it will do you good ("the discipline of fasting")

3: An orderly environment

4: A highly structured regime in which everyone has to be in a particular place at a particular time and in which clothes, modes of address and bladders are strictly regulated.

5: Punishment

6: Corporal punishment

7: A euphemism used by prostitutes who provide sadomasochistic services.

A relatively sane person might, in fact, believe and be prepared to defend the belief that in order for learning (1) to take place, you absolutely need an orderly environment (3) that order can only be achieved through timetables and ritual courtesies (4) and that such structured regimes can only be brought about with the threat of punishment (5) and that painful punishments are the only kind of punishments that anyone is bothered by (6).

But if you aren't careful, you will find people engaging in the most shameful flip flopping between the different levels of meaning. Some reactionary old soldier who thinks that neat ties, shiny shoes, army cadets and a decent haircut would solve all the worlds problems will defend his belief in discipline (sense 3) on the ground that you can't possibly be against discipline (sense 1). Anyone who has moved in evangelical circles will be familiar with the argument that "hitting children is a good idea because the word discipline comes from the same root as disciple". In fairness, quite a lot of liberals say that people only support discipline (sense 3) because they enjoy discipline (sense 7).

Now, it falls upon Michael Gove, Dave ridiculous education minister, to implement the long-awaited "restoration" of "discipline". This has become very politically topical because Dave thinks that one of the reasons for Teh Riotz was that children and young people nowadays are undisciplined. I wish it was true that there was an ancient Babylonian text which complains that young people do not respect their elders any more. It is certainly true that Chaucer complains about ill-disciplined apprentices. 

As we saw during the election, the measures that are being proposed (by Tony-Lite, I mean, not Chaucer) are laughably trivial. Some schools like to give parents 24 hours notice before keeping their naughty offspring in after school: Her Majesty's Minister For Education thinks that this shouldn't be necessary. (So far as I can tell, this is a policy of particular schools, or possibly a rule laid down by particular education authorities, so it isn't quite clear what the education minister is going to do about it -- is there going to be primary legislation that says that giving 24 hours notice of detentions will henceforward be unconstitutional? Will parliament also make a meta-rule forbidding teachers to permit boys to take their ties off on hot days, or that cutting across on the field on your way back from P.E isn't allowed even if you ask the gym teacher first?) Gove thinks that it ought to be permissible for a teacher to use physical force, say to separate two boys who are having a fight...what, you mean it already is permissible?....er....it ought to be permissible for a teacher to physically separate two boys who are having a fight without having to fill a form in afterwards. In Daily Mail speak, Gove's moderate list of minor rule changes came out as "Tories pledge to end classroom chaos". And of course, the neanderthals who post comment on the Mail's website immediately translated this to and I quote "Bring back the cane. Discipline went out the window when the cane was banned."

It seems to me that use of the term "discipline" is deliberately being used to create a fug in people's minds. It is absolutely true that no teacher has been allowed to strike a child for 30 years. It is possible that a very stupid person might think "Since good behaviour only follows from the threat of punishment; and since physical punishment is the only possible kind of punishment; I know, without needing to look, that there has been only bad behaviour in all schools for the last 30 years." But I don't think the neanderthals have articulated their point of view in so many words. They probably don't actually know so many words. I think that the very fact that we use the same word, "discipline", to refer to "hitting" and "orderly classrooms" means that when someone tells them that  "hitting" (=discipline) has been abolished they hear that "order"(=discipline) and "learning (=discipline) have been abolished as well. Hence Gove's modest suggestions about making the process of expelling a child from school less bureaucratic becomes  "Gove puts an end to classroom chaos". Doubtless there are difficult schools and difficult classes and teachers at their wits end: their always have been. But the generalized, solvable "classroom chaos" is a myth. In fact, it is very nearly a pun.

It is this kind of verbal ambiguity which Cameron seems to be playing on, and which Sam picks up. The suggestion that, as a general rule, we have "crime without punishment" is quite obviously absurd. We currently have about 85,000 people in prison in this country: some of them, at least, must have committed crimes. In the course of his speech, Cameron claimed that young-people-nowadays aren't scared of committing crimes because they think that if if they are caught, they will only get an ASBO, which they don't mind too much. (The whole point of anti-social behaviour orders -- and the reason they were controversial -- was that they were applied to behaviour that was not, in itself, criminal: you could get an ASBO prohibiting you from buying spray paint even though you hadn't actually been caught painting graffiti on walls yet. It might be true that teenagers who'd been looting shops thought that they would only get an ASBO: it's not at all the case that that was really all they'd get.) [2]

When Cameron said "crime without punishment" he could plausibly deny that he meant anything other than "I think that courts are much too lenient with first time offenders". But a lot of his extreme right wing fanboys will hear either: "No-one gets punished nowadays. If you are found guilty of a mass murder or a war crime, you just get a few hours of community service" (people who write to Metro and the Daily Mail really believe that this is true.) Or they will hear "Prison doesn't count as a punishment, because all prisons are like holiday camps. The only real punishment would be execution, torture or hard-labour, and when we secede from Europe and opt out of the Human Rights Act, that's exactly what they will get."

So. Her Majesty's Ministers makes very specific and only mildly controversial statements: "I think that teachers should be able restrain children without having to fill out a form"; "I think that people who commit even moderately bad criminal offences should be sent to jail even if they haven't been in trouble before." But they couch them in very general terms which play into the fantasy world of those who believe in the Broken Britain mythos.They say "I think that it should be easier for teachers to put children in detention" and the Common Sense brigade hears "All schools in England are in a state of primal chaos."

But liberals like Sam hear the very same words and think that what is being described is a socialist Utopia: a world without coercion or violence or arbitrary authority.

Well, doubtless this is coincidence. Clearly, Cameron didn't intend to describe Sam's ideal society. He just described what he saw going on in the country, and happened to couch it in terms which Sam could willfully and amusingly misread as describing a liberal or anarchist Utopia.


If my reasoning up to this point has been correct, then the lunatic right now operates primarily in a fictitious world in which a fictitious organisation called the Political Correctness Brigade has already taken control (or very nearly) of England. And the fictitious Political Correctness Brigade is simply a front for the Extreme Left. If Cameron believes that the Cultural Marxists are already running the country, is it any wonder that he describes his made-up Broken Britain precisely in terms of an anarchist Utopia?

[1] I also like the one about the man who, as a warning to mend his ways is allowed to see the torments being meted out to history's greatest sinners. Jack the Ripper is being eternally flayed alive by his victims; Henry VIII is having his head cut off over and over again; Hitler is acting as a domestic slave to thousands of Jewish people; and Richard Nixon is making love to Marilyn Monroe. "Nixon seems to have got off pretty lightly" says the man "Idiot" says Satan "That's Marilyn Monroe's punishment." But it wouldn't actually have been relevant to the essay.

[2] This seem to be the kind of thing that @Nick has experienced: because people think -- because Call-Me-David and the Daily Mail has told them so -- that Health and Safety now controls every aspects of their lives, then a petty official has only to say "ooo, it's against Health and Safety" and people are inclined to believe him. In the Olden Days, that same official would have said that the petty inconvenience he wanted to inflict on you as down to union regulation, or merely that it was more than his jobs' worth to do anything else. People's beliefs about health and safety and asbos seem to count for more than any actual law. There is no point in being saying the Birmingham city council never did ban Christmas (they didn't, by the way): the story is what matters.


  1. It seems a very good idea that schools should no longer need to warn parents that their children will be late home because they've been naughty.
    If a parent is unable to get to work because their childcare plans have been disrupted then they can become destitute, which we all know is the one sure way of improving poor people's behaviour.

  2. As I said, a couple of comments later in the same thread:

    There is no crime in utopia, but there are verbs.

    But "no crime in utopia" is a cop-out, so all I'll take your suggested reading instead. I'm still in favour of verbs, though, if at all possible.

    In my utopia "families without fathers" would imply families with parents, where "parent" describes a relationship and says nothing about sex, gender, or genetics. (And any number of parents, too, from one to the proverbial village - although that's not implicit in the "blueprint".)

    Clearly, Cameron didn't intend to describe Sam's ideal society. He just described what he saw going on in the country, and happened to couch it in terms which Sam could wilfully and amusingly misread as describing a liberal or anarchist Utopia.

    As I continue to think about this (because, like you, I find it an unexpectedly interesting question) I'm finding a deeper point here. Cameron's "broken Britain" is a place where people simply follow their desires because they are deprived of proper discipline and incentives. But my Utopia (and many other liberal or anarchist Utopias) is the realisation of those same desires. So it seems we agree on what it is that people desire - which is to say that we agree on what Utopia should be like.


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