Flicking through a newspaper last week, it was perturbing to read of a fifteen year old schoolboy who was “questioned by detectives” after his teachers called the police because of “safeguarding concerns.” Police questioned Joe Taylor, who attends Wildern school in Hampshire in the UK, because he browsed the UK Independence Party (Ukip) website and watched an English Defence League video at his school after having “a lesson about terrorism.”
Such thought policing is deeply disturbing, harmful to developing young minds and a betrayal of the student-teacher relationship. Worse still, this episode cannot be classed as unusual or put down to the fact that there is always a few bad eggs in any profession.
On the contrary, what happened to this teenager is dutiful behaviour driven by new government counter-terrorism legislation, which is allowing the brute force of the law to seep into the classroom. What happened to this teenager is not a bug, it is a new feature of the UK’s state education system.
Teenagers aren’t the problem
Three things about this incident are more troubling than young Joe’s actions. Far more. The first is that his teachers chose to call the police, thus revealing that either they believed doing so was a reasonable response to his actions or that they value obeying illiberal laws over treating their students like people with rights to respect.
The second is that the police detained Joe (and his father) for questioning even though it seems neither were formerly charged with any crime. More alarming still is what the police detectives did. According to Joe’s father, they asked Joe “what are your views…”
Note that this line of questioning isn’t attempting to determine something potentially knowable and provable, such as whether Joe is guilty of committing a specific criminal act that has already occurred, but instead at determining something impossible to know or prove – i.e. how likely Joe is to commit a crime (engage in terrorism) at some point in the future based on his current political views.
Apparently, Joe was obliging and told the detectives that he thought “too many people are coming into the country.” Curiously, evidence shows this isn’t a minority view. According to the most recent report by the Migration Observatory at the Oxford University, which collects data from polls and surveys conducted by professional polling firms, about three-quarters of the UK population favour reducing immigration.
Anyway, as a result of his questioning, Joe’s communications and online activity will probably be under government surveillance for the rest of his life (if they weren’t already). If he continues to engage with ‘extremists’ like EDL and Ukip, then he could be considered a candidate for Channel, which is the name given to the government’s de-radicalisation program.
The program involves multiple agencies, but the government believes the police the “most appropriate agency” to assess an individual’s risk of involvement with terrorism and “the risk posed by the individual to themselves and society through their potential active involvement in criminality associated with terrorism.” Hence why the detectives asked Joe about his political views.
Government says of the program: “Channel may be appropriate for anyone who is vulnerable to being drawn into any form of terrorism. Channel is about ensuring that vulnerable children and adults of any faith, ethnicity or background receive support before their vulnerabilities are exploited by those that would want them to embrace terrorism, and before they become involved in criminal terrorist activity.”
Participation is supposedly voluntary. However, where parental consent cannot be obtained, the coercive powers of social services will be used to force anyone under eighteen to participate – if they’re considered “at risk of significant harm” as defined by the Children Act 1989. In the current political climate of widespread fear of terrorism, it will not be difficult for any government agency to convince itself or another that every child is such.
The third aspect of the incident which is far more concerning than Joe’s political opinions is that some or all state schools have classes on terrorism. What are children being told in these lessons about terrorism? I suspect the word ‘extremism’ and the phrases ‘war on terror’ and “fundamental British values” is used and heard often in these classes.
I also suspect that students are spoon fed the narrative that Islāmic State just decided to hate us because they are evil, and aren’t told the truth that IS is an unintended consequence of our own government’s foreign military aggressions and political interventions in the Middle East.
I’m quite certain they aren’t told that, decades before IS emerged, the UK government killed many hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the Middle East, and destroyed untold lives – all in the name of spreading freedom and democracy. One cannot help but wonder how reluctantly or eagerly teachers go about conducting these political propaganda sessions. “We interrupt your education for these messages from government.”
Extremism: not in schools but by schools
I’m sure (at least I hope) there’s some teachers who don’t report to the police harmless student activity like Joe’s, even though school staff must now have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. But it is none the less troubling that Joe’s teachers, instead of calmly encouraging him to think critically about the ideas he was engaging with, called the police – as if he was running around stabbing people or setting fire to things.
One might conclude, and the teachers themselves may believe, that getting the police involved shows how much they care about the well-being of Joe and his fellow students. I’ve no doubt that they believe they have their students’ best interests at heart, but in reality their response to Joe’s actions show how little regard they have for him as a human being with the right to freedom of thought.
Alternatively, the police involvement suggests that Joe’s teachers lack the critical thinking skills to expose the irrationality and immorality of the political ideologies of domestic right-wing organisations like EDL or European Islāmic fundamentalist terrorist groups, and thus lack the ability and/or confidence to teach their students how to do the same.
If this is the case, then it being legally permissible, and thus seemingly morally acceptable, to resort to calling the police probably comes as a relief to teachers. State law enforcers, through their very presence, declare in a low and threatening tone: “stay away from these ideas or else.”
Whether it’s their borderline hysterical fear of children becoming suicide bombers or their lack of critical thinking skills that is driving it, this is extremist and disproportionate behaviour towards students by teachers and law enforcers, intended to protect children from extremism.
It’s like a parent threatening to lock his son in the basement or to severely beat him because he read a book he wasn’t allowed to read (for his own good). Though rare these days, such brutality in private family life is terrible enough, but the thought of it becoming institutionalised at public schools and thus made widespread is horrifying.
The question is no longer who will protect children from extremism. It is who will protect children from the unavoidable Authorities in their lives whose legal duty it is to use extreme means against them to ‘protect’ them?
The moral responsibility of teachers
Perhaps I’m expecting a little too much of teachers. After all, I suspect that a school might lose funding or at least be publicly chastised by inspectors for Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education), who find that staff aren’t complying with legislation – especially laws which the government declare are necessary to prevent our children from becoming adults who want to blow us all up.
Teachers themselves probably run the risk of disciplinary action by their schools and even prosecution by police if they fail to ‘safeguard’ their students from or, worse still, assist a student’s descent into ‘extremism’. There’s no doubt that the incentive structure faced by teachers in state schools is becoming increasingly perverse. But they still have some freedom to think for themselves, to choose how they treat their students and even to exit a corrupt system. And so teachers are, whether they realise it or not, to some degree morally responsible for the harm done to children in schools today.
Neither does the incentive structure in the State education system absolve teachers who aren’t willing or able to think for themselves and who unquestioningly accept the government’s definition of ‘extremism’. Only teachers who do would consider calling the police a morally and intellectually appropriate response to students engaging with ideas. Teachers that didn’t would do their best to get the student to think critically about the ideas they are engaging with. To do the former is to fail or betray one’s students. Whereas to do the latter is to fulfil your duty as a teacher by making every effort to teach your students how to think.
Teachers + police = thought policing
When police arrive at school to interrogate students who view web content from political organisations, it is a particularly authoritarian way of telling students what to think; it is censorship in the one place where it is most harmful. It’s saying political ideology X is ‘true’ and ‘moral’ and political ideology Y is ‘false’ and ‘immoral’, not because it is or isn’t supported by superior reason and evidence, but simply because believing Y will lead to punishment by the State.
Parents surely expect schools to teach children how to think for themselves. I’m sure they don’t send their children to school to be frightened and coerced into accepting as true the same political ideologies as teachers, and ultimately as those in government who make laws that control those teachers.
Now that teachers are as much tools in the hands of authoritarian governments as they are educators, State education is now seen as a means to maintaining national security as well as to achieving a certain standard of education. And schools are morphing into mini police states as a result.
Until now, state education as a government institution caused limited harm to society. But now that politicians and the public believe the State should have the power to use the police to censor the thought of children, because they believe this is the only way to keep their children from becoming terrorists, it becomes a far bigger threat to free society (and the freedom of their children in the future) than any ‘external’ evil in the form of a violent minority ever could be.
Trying to eradicate political and religious ‘extremism’ by introducing the brute force of the State into the classroom will almost certainly have perverse consequences. When children and teenagers see authority, both educational and governmental, acting as if certain political ideologies are so powerful that they must never be allowed to engage with them, it runs the serious risk of lending those ideas an intellectual weight they don’t deserve, and thus making them more compelling to the average teenage mind inclined to rebel against authority.
Furthermore, when authorities act this way, it signals to teenagers that society sees them not as reasoning human beings capable of making moral choices and worthy of freedom to act according to their own will, but as powerless puppets ready to be made to do evil by anyone who grabs their strings. Which is tantamount to telling them that it doesn’t matter what they do because they are powerless to stop evil winning.
Anyone who knows what it is like being controlled and treated as if you are incapable of doing anything by someone convinced it is for your own good, will know the burning desire this creates to do the opposite of what you’re being told to do – even when you know it isn’t the best course of action or believe it morally wrong.
Doing exactly that which the person controlling you says you aren’t allowed to becomes in your mind the most gainful course of action, because you want nothing more than to disobey them. Disobeying authority becomes its own cause and becomes more important to you than refraining from doing that which violates your own moral principles.
Unwittingly becoming the evil we fight
If schools continue to haul students before police for merely engaging with ideas and assimilate schools into an authoritarian state that polices thought, then we run the risk of gifting the hateful and violent minority in society an unlikely victory.
A voting majority, who mistakenly believe expanding State power is the solution, will unwittingly manifest the unfree world of fear and Authority which a minority, consisting of every kind of divisive hate from European right-wing extremism to Islāmic fundamentalism, desires to create.
And the coercive apparatus of the State combined with majority rule will be the enabler. Before enough of us realise that the State, which we saw as a protective shield to keep evil out, is actually a cage preventing us from escaping it, it could be too late.
Twenty or so years ago, I’m sure police would have told teachers that behaviour such as Joe’s wasn’t a police matter and to stop wasting their time – if the thought of calling the police had even entered the mind of a teacher in the first place. Nowadays, teachers call the police and they in turn interrogate students about ideas they are engaging with. Such is the extent to which the police’s mission has crept due to the continued expansion of State power by both liberal and conservative governments in the vain hope of winning an unwinnable ‘war on terror’.
I wonder how many of the police officers today who interrogate school children and their parents do so, not reluctantly and with conscious pricking doubt, but proudly and feeling content that they are making the world a better place. I dread to think. I hope it’s far fewer than I suspect it is.
The role of the police officer in society was once rightly confined to protecting person and property, but now one of his duties is being a weapon in the hands of teachers. The progress made by taking the cane out of a teacher’s hands is being undone and then some by bringing in a police officer and his gun. Who would have imagined that our society would take such a sharp and regressive turn for the worse.
How bad could things get for children in schools? That will depend upon the likelihood of a future government repealing the counter-terrorism legislation. In the age of the ‘war on terror’, it’s hard to see any future government, liberal or conservative, doing that. In my view there is almost no hope there.
Our best hope lies in the hearts and minds of teachers. They need to think deeply about what inspired them to become teachers and what being one means each time they’re faced with the choice of doing their legal duty or their moral duty to their students. For expanding State power has torn a chasm between the two.
Currently, it seems as if incidents of police questioning school children about their political views is still uncommon enough to make the news, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that the number of children the government is forcing to take part in its de-radicalisation program is relatively few at this time.
But these, currently and thankfully, under-used State powers are an undiagnosed cancer in the heart of free society, posing as its immune system. A cancer created by a government attempting to prevent children from being “drawn into” terrorism by drawing teachers and the police into censoring and coercing them. These powers, created by a democratically elected government, are what will destroy people’s liberty and the rule of law in Britain – not Islamic fundamentalists or any other violent minority.
Take a look at the criteria the government uses to decide who is a candidate for its de-radicalisation program.
“Factors that may have a bearing on someone becoming vulnerable [to being drawn into terrorism] may include: peer pressure, influence from other people or via the internet, bullying, crime against them or their involvement in crime, anti social behaviour, family tensions, race/hate crime, lack of self esteem or identity and personal or political grievances.”
This is so broad that it could describe anyone and everyone. Every child and adult is vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism according to this, and thus anyone is a candidate for Channel. Now consider the government’s definition of extremism: “…vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty…”
According to this, I am an extremist and thus a candidate to be ‘corrected’ by government because I vocally oppose democracy. And note the impossibility of preserving individual liberty through authoritarianism. Clearly the government’s definition of individual liberty is virtually the opposite of a rational one.
In counter-terrorism legislation and the government’s coercive de-radicalisation program, there is almost unlimited potential for future tyranny. This is the death of free speech and thought in the UK just waiting to happen. All it requires is a future generation who are even more fearful of terrorism and even more inclined to unthinkingly obey Authority, and an even more illiberal government. State education is unwittingly priming children to become that future generation.
The belief that expanding State power is the best or only means to preserving free and peaceful society is the most dangerous evil infiltrating people’s minds, young and old; not the belief that killing innocent people will get you into heaven or belief in a supreme race and the like. It’s almost universal acceptance among the public, intellectuals and the political class means the former is a far better disguised evil than the latter.
Epicurus said “no evil lasts forever nor indeed for very long.” But I would argue that this only applies to evil that we see. Unseen evil can last forever, like Orwell’s imagined boot stamping on a human face forever. We must open our eyes to the self-destructive evil of expanding State power, for only then can we take comfort in Epicurus’ wisdom, and look to a bright future for humanity beyond statism.