‘Have courage to use your own reason!’

 

Vive La France!

Vive La France!

One of my favourite English historians is the late Roy Porter, an exceptionally gifted writer who had the priceless ability to express complex historical and philosophical ideas in plain language. As with many other historians of his ilk, he challenged his readers to throw off the shackles of narrow thought and to think more deeply and question every aspect of the societies that we have created, and their impact upon the people living within them.  My thoughts turned to Roy Porter, and in particular to his excellent book on “The Enlightenment,” yesterday as I listened to the appalling news coming from France of yet another mindless terrorist attack on Paris.

Whilst it is generally believed that the “age of Reason” as the enlightenment is sometimes known, began in England, it is often said that the French adopted its philosophies and innovations and took them to a new level. An argument that is well justified when one examines the scientific, literary and philosophical advances emanating from this beautiful country during what has become known as the “long 18th century” (1685-1815). John Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, written in England in 1689 provided a sound foundation for new and radical thinking, but it was the French “Philosophes”, and in particular Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Diderot who encouraged freedom of thought and expression. So why, you may well ask, did yesterday’s atrocities make me think about Roy Porter and this particular period of history?

Put simply, those key individuals who were the driving force behind the enlightenment believed that humanity and civilization could be improved through rational change. This could only be achieved through the encouragement of open minds and unrestricted thinking, accompanied by respect for ideas which should be openly debated. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant is credited with the expression “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!” Such a bold statement is clearly anathema to those pathetic and cowardly individuals who murdered innocent people in Paris, and those faceless individuals who support them and who are clearly frightened by any notion of rational and free thinking.

The emblem of the French Republic is often depicted above three words which clearly alarm those who attempt to inflict terror on the streets of Paris and elsewhere around the world. These three words –  liberté, égalité, fraternité are a source of pride in a nation that through its emphasis on the creation of a secular society for its diverse and multi-ethnic population, has often stood against both tyranny and the restriction of free speech. Each of these words represents a challenge to the narrow minded individuals and organisations responsible for acts of terror. Liberté with its call for freedom of expression, movement and thought is the direct opposite of the efforts to control young minds and impose a warped propaganda to create hatred and intolerance. Without  liberté to engage in creative and critical thought, philosophical and scientific development ceases and we would soon revert to the dark ages.

Égalité recognises the concept of respect which is required to give everyone the opportunity to thrive and contribute to society, regardless of their sex, age, ability, colour or religion. This is an idea that creates anxiety in  the terrorist, who through some deluded notion sees himself as superior to others and regards tolerance as a weakness. Yet it is through the sustained efforts of individuals and organisations within our societies that the contributions of individuals that were denied in previous centuries have been recognised and enabled progress to be made in all facets of life.

Fraternité asserts that we are all brothers (and sisters) and have a duty to care for and respect each other. Fine examples of this have been seen in France over the past hours as individuals have put themselves in the path of danger to assist those strangers who have become the latest victims of an act of evil.

The people of Paris, along with all lovers of freedom and democracy have been terribly shaken by the violence inflicted upon its citizens and visitors over the past forty eight hours, but their courage and determination has not been diminished. Neither will those of us who love Paris and its commitment to freedom and culture be deterred from visiting. The French national anthem La Marseillaise is as stirring a song as one could ever hear. Yesterday I was greatly moved, though not surprised, to hear defiant Parisians singing this anthem at the site where so many had lost their lives. As a symbol of freedom and progress Paris has proven to be a source of inspiration to many in recent centuries. I am sure it will continue to set a fine example for the future.

Vive La France!

 

The words from the second verse of La Marseillaise seem particularly apt at present:-

Que veut cette horde d’esclaves,

De traîtres, de rois conjurés ?

Pour qui ces ignobles entraves,

Ces fers dès longtemps préparés 

Français, pour nous, ah ! quel outrage

Quels transports il doit exciter!

C’est nous qu’on ose méditer

De rendre à l’antique esclavage !

Teachers – at the forefront of challenging ignorance and bigotry.

Diversity and difference is a cause for celebration and an opportunity for learning - for those who are prepared to open their minds and leave their prejudices behind.

Diversity and difference is a cause for celebration and an opportunity for learning – for those who are prepared to open their minds and leave their prejudices behind.

Last evening I had a very sad and disturbing conversation with a friend who teaches in a school in a city not very far from here. Angela (not her real name) has worked in the same primary school for the past fourteen years and is totally committed to her pupils and their families. Angela is a good musician and she is involved in a wide range of after school activities for children including organising a school choir, a recorder group and a drumming class. In addition, she helps to run a parent and child activity group for a couple of weeks during each school summer holiday. Angela’s husband is similarly involved in a number of initiatives to support children and families, in what is one of the poorest parts of the city in which they live.

Angela tells me that at the end of the school day yesterday an unusually large number of parents, mostly mothers, who had come to collect their children, came to see her to have a brief conversation. Most, she tells me, had the same message that they wished to convey. “Please”, they said, “make sure everyone knows that we are good people, and we are disgusted by the events that have taken place today in France, these people do not represent our community.”

As the parents were conveying this message, Angela was completely ignorant of the murder of journalists and cartoonists that had taken place earlier in the day at the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in Paris. She tells me that she was at first confused, but as the significance of what had happened became apparent she then felt angry and slightly nauseous. Being largely unaware of the events, after all she had been in class all day, she was at a loss as to what she could say.

Angela teaches in a school where more than fifty percent of the children come from Moslem families. Her school is located in a part of the city where Moslem’s make up a majority of the local neighbourhood. It is a peaceful and well respected community that contributes greatly to the socio-economic and cultural well-being of the area and the city as a whole. Of late however, many who live in this district have become increasingly afraid of anti-Islamic sentiments that have been intensified both by terrorist activities in various parts of the world, and by the fanning of flames by a number of xenophobic individuals and organisations.

Today, as on every school day, Angela will continue to give her best for the children in the school. She will, as always be available for families, and will demonstrate the same enthusiasm for the musical after school activities that she runs. The saddest part of Angela’s situation, she tells me, is that good, caring and dedicated parents feel the need to apologise to her, and reassure her that they do not subscribe to the hatred shown by a tiny minority who are prepared to murder, maim and terrorise those who do not share their warped view of the world. Angela tells me that over her years of working in this school she has come to appreciate the warmth and affection shown towards her by parents of children attending this school. She and her colleagues have been thankful for the support given to the school by members of the local community, and regard those of the Moslem faith as kind, considerate and caring. Of course, she tells me, there are a few parents who are not supportive and do not want to participate in the life and activities of the school, but isn’t this true of schools everywhere? This is not a factor dependent upon religious belief.

Listening to Angela’s recounting of her after school conversations, it was impossible not to empathise and to appreciate her concerns and those of the families with whom she works. It was equally difficult not share in her sadness and anger that a small minority can have the effect of demonising the  peaceful majority who espouse a religious belief. Though anger will have only a negative impact and is part of what the terrorist tries to achieve. Today Angela and her colleagues will try to reassure parents and children as they arrive at the school gates. It should not be necessary, but today, possibly more than on others, they will be vigilant in listening for any unkind or inappropriate comment that might be made towards a child in school. She does not anticipate that there will be any real need to behave differently from the ways that she might on any other day, but she is none the less concerned that there may be difficult moments.

Good teachers like Angela care about their children and do their best for them regardless of their background, culture or religion. They look for the good that exists in all children and do their best to support them in their learning and social development. This is the way that all professionals who are committed to children act, and will continue to behave, despite the provocation of a few misguided bullies and thugs who through a misrepresentation of faith attempt to terrorise the populace. Education should be free of fear, must promote the exchange of ideas, celebrate difference and diversity and aim to create a more inclusive and respectful society. If this is achieved the perpetrators of atrocities such as those committed in Paris yesterday will be seen for what they are – acts of cowardice and totally unrepresentative of anyone other than a bigoted minority.

The actions that will be taken by Angela and her colleagues, and by teachers in classrooms and on playgrounds across the world today will have far greater impact than ignorant men armed with guns could ever have.

Nous sommes Charlie!