Keep calm amid the carry-on

In this ‘Age of Rage’ spawned by social media, David James makes a plea for teachers to act as beacons of rationality

David James picture

David James

Social media perils

This is the Age of Rage. The insult du jour is “gammon”, which describes the particular hue middle-aged white men turn when they are appalled by something particularly progressive and Remain-ey.

Those virtue-signalling, absolutist boys on Twitter take great delight in taunting such centrist dads, these “melts” (wimps), feeling empowered through that incendiary combination of anonymity and self-righteousness to denigrate (or “salt”) the views others hold by choice, and abuse them for the complexions they inherited.

We are no longer surprised if doctors trying their best to alleviate the pain of a child’s suffering receive death threats for simply doing their very difficult jobs. This is the new normal, a tinnitus of hysteria that, over time, we acclimatise to.


We tut and turn the page of the newspaper if we read of paramedics responding to an emergency having abusive notes left on their windshields for parking in the wrong place.

We barely blink if song lyrics are described as “hurtful”, and our breakfasts are uninterrupted as we read that statues that gave form to a complex past are seen as personally offensive to some, who say they should be torn down.

Fearful of endless consequences

Outrage, hurt, pain, victimhood – such positions are the default for a growing number of vocal individuals who now think they are qualified to strike out, whatever the provocation. For some, offence adds definition to an otherwise uneventful existence.

Even sad, middle-aged virgins who would, in the past, have been those loners, the dweebs, nursing their pints of mild in the pub, are now animated with resentment: “incels” (involuntary celibates), infuriated by the mere existence of Staceys and Chads, seek revenge on a world that has selfishly, insultingly, not agreed in advance to their personal demands for fulfilment.

Even once innocuous pronouns have been weaponised, considered capable of violence if they result in “misgendering”. Books come with trigger warnings. Words, apparently, can kill: they are the new sticks and stones. Anger feels like the dominant cultural force.

Where does this leave schools? In their usual place, of course, whenever they are confronted with change: sadly exposed, underprepared, fearful of endless consequences, and with the majority of staff untrained to deal with the known unknowns, let alone the unknown unknowns.

Some media-savvy schools jump on the nearest passing bandwagon, hurriedly scribbling out “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” from their toilet doors, flushing away the old cut-out figures; one laughably – archaically – still wearing a skirt. How soon the present seems ancient, embarrassing, shameful.

Meanwhile, single-sex schools look nervously at each student application, counting out the cost of adaptation, of going further than designing a gender-neutral school uniform. What price now, some think, the very concept of single-sex schools? How quickly old certainties dissolve, replaced with nothing more than further atomisation. We are a tweet away from damnation.

Everyone agrees we are in a tempest of change, a brave new world, a land populated with angry, resentful, self-entitled Calibans proclaiming that every island, every claim, every right is theirs, not by Sycorax their mother, but purely and only and absolutely because this is what they believe, this is them. And that is proof enough.

Perhaps those of us in the West who are roughly liberal, secular, well-educated and middle class should accept that we’ve had a good run but now it is coming to an end.

Mankind is resorting to type. After an abnormally long period of rationalism and the Enlightenment, we have the return of the irrational, the subjective, “the endarkenment”, the tribal. Prospero, once that figure of wisdom, is himself now a gammon, a patriarch, going pink at the world he sees around him. Worse, he is an imperialist, a misogynist.

How soon before we witness not a drowning but a burning of books that offend? If words really can kill, then their greatest palaces – plays, poems, novels – will be seen by those who want to martyr themselves on the crosses of their own emotions as harbingers of oppression and death; arcane reminders of an insulting past that had the temerity to not envisage the future concerns of each individual it is now at the mercy of appeasing.

It doesn’t matter whether the hand that holds the match is that of a fascist or a socialist, a child or an adult, the books still burn, inversely extinguishing understanding the brighter they blaze.

But, of course, teachers have been dealing with this sort of nihilistic, short-termist, look-at-me-ist behaviour forever. It’s there in that Year 10 class, period 8 on a Friday. Social media has allowed disruptive behaviour in the classroom to turn adult. Through platforming, it has been normalised.

When you see the shadow foreign secretary chewing gum and shouting “bollocks” across the despatch boxes in the House of Commons, any teacher will recognise that for what it is: a detention in waiting. But in this upside-down world, it is no doubt considered “speaking truth to power”, telling it as it is.

Either way, standards fall, anger is legitimised. To not abuse someone risks not getting your point across. Why would you allow that to happen?

Like a diminishing crew on a sinking ship, teachers are trying to hold on to old certainties of retaining control, keeping that noise level down. They increasingly want evidence-informed education not, perhaps, because they will ever use it (although they would like to) but because it sounds like a sandbag of rationalism in the tidal wave of subjectivity and intolerance that threatens to sweep away much of what they teach and passionately believe in.

Teachers seek order; they know, because they count out their lives in bells and coffee spoons, that time is always limited and that, for sense to prevail, the fewer people who shout, the more understanding can take place. But now the noisy kids in the classroom are taking over, shouting “me, me”.

The biscuits are terrible

I’ve organised educational events for 10 years, and they are more popular than ever. Why? Surely all those involved in these events know what they’re going to hear when they go there. Plus, the biscuits are terrible, the coffee even worse.

True, you get out of teaching Year 9 on that Wednesday afternoon, which can be a bonus, but the proliferation of educational events, which now seem to happen every week, articulates something deeper than learning more about differentiation and assessment for learning. Such events are an attempt to reinstate the rational, the logical, the proven, the calm, the ordered; they are a grown-up version of public discourse.

Events such as these that we now see dotted through the calendar year fulfil a deeper purpose than simply imparting good practice: they remind us that the core values of the profession – tolerance, understanding, listening and learning – are more valuable now than ever before precisely because they seem so counter-cultural and fully mature. The more face-to-face events flourish, the less likely the new infantilism is to prevail.

And so if you, as a teacher, want to do something about this new Age of Rage, I would recommend listening, engaging and understanding. And when you tweet or blog, do so with the same voice of reason you would use in the classroom, and which we hope our students will seek to emulate in their finest moments of aspiration.

The world we want our young people to inherit – and to improve – should be one characterised by mutual respect and tolerance; of understanding others rather than, always and forever, insisting on the primacy of their own identities. There are, after all, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our own personal philosophies or, for that matter, than are found on Twitter.

David James is deputy head of Bryanston School in Dorset

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David James picture

David James

David James is deputy head (academic) at a leading UK independent school

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