Some readers of this blog will know that I penned the Open Letter, which initiated the Defence of Youth Work campaign in early 2009. For a decade I coordinated the campaign and maintained its website. It took up a big chunk of my life but I was privileged that it did so. By a twist of fate, I had the time and space to do so. I stepped down from my leading role in 2019 but no one was able to fill the gap. No one had the time and space. I cannot escape from the fact that my withdrawal in part sapped the energy and slowed the momentum of the campaign. As it was the restrictions on social existence imposed in the name of COVID brought things almost to a standstill. Thus on Friday, October 7 the Steering Group agreed to bring IDYW’s life to a close. Below is the Steering Group’s statement, first published on the IDYW website. More thoughts to follow.
IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK CLOSES ITS BOOKS IN SADNESS BUT WITH MUCH PRIDE
In Defence of Youth Work as a campaign and critical forum is no more. At an Open Steering Group meeting held in Manchester on Friday, October 7th, amidst smiles, frowns and tears, it was agreed that IDYW had run its course, having lost its impetus and energy. In exploring why this was so and where we were up to, it became plain we had much of which to be proud. The evidence for this assertion is to be found on this website with its 1500+ posts recording our collective activity since our appearance in early 2009. We are committed to preserving the website as a historical archive and as a testament to the impact of our small ‘unauthorised’ and independent group, ‘punching above its weight’, upon the national and indeed international youth work scene.
Whilst IDYW will cease to be an organised presence in the youth work arena, it is vital to recognise that its existence was always of its time. It was no more and no less than a particular expression over the last thirteen years of a centuries-old struggle for a truly democratic and ‘popular’ education. Without questioning, democratically inclined citizens, young and old, there can be no democracy. In this context, the humanist philosophy and practice of a secular and religious disposition that inspired IDYW’s resistance to the behavioural and instrumental neoliberal agenda remain a universal treasury of hope. The ideas live on. In the face of an increasingly technocratic and authoritarian capitalism, we hope that our endeavour will be taken up afresh and reimagined by a new wave of workers and activists. We hope too that the archive of our efforts will provide a moment or two of inspiration.
For now, we will take a deep breath, tinged with sadness, bursting with pride. In the coming months, from time to time, we will highlight anew memories worth remembering. Tony Taylor at email@example.com has agreed to be a Keeper of the Records, to use an old-fashioned title, and will welcome approaches from students, academics, researchers and practitioners seeking to explore our ‘books’.
A Pragmatic Postscript
Over the years our Facebook page has taken on a life of its own. At this moment it boasts 6,800 members. It has become the go-to place for sharing information and ideas about youth work in general. In many ways, the page has lost touch with its original purpose of encouraging debate focused on IDYW’s cornerstones. Nevertheless, it is clearly an important resource and a marketplace for youth workers and projects. Respecting this our moderators will continue to keep watch on its contents and are considering ways of perhaps filtering the daily waterfall of varied material.
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES LA LUTTA CONTINUA Ο Αγώνας Συνεχίζεται
I can’t believe it’s six years since my dear friend and comrade, Steve Waterhouse died so tragically. By chance, a week or so ago, sifting through old boxes, I came across this photo of Steve and I demonstrating in Chesterfield against the privatisation of the NHS. Taken in the late 1980s we were marching particularly in support of the striking Scarsdale Hospital cleaners. Ironically, the government of the time was not calling on us to save the NHS, its policies being to the contrary.
Then I realised that although this blog is dedicated to Steve, along with Malcolm Ball, the obituary I penned at the time for IDYW has never appeared here. Hence I’m taking this opportunity to put the record straight. I think the piece still resonates.
RIP Steve Waterhouse : A youth worker’s youth worker
I first met Steve Waterhouse in late 1984, drawn together by both youth work and the Miners’ Strike. He was a part-time youth worker in Shirebrook, a pit village at the heart of community resistance to Thatcherite violence. I was the newly appointed District Community Education Officer, ostensibly his boss. Steve was a young, fresh-faced, passionate anarchist with a marvellous gift for relating to people, already a significant figure in the local music scene and co-founder in 1983 of a jobless youngsters’ Open Shop. I was a more wrinkled, yet passionate socialist, not keen on management’s right to manage. We hit it off right away. Indeed we got closer on our train journey to the Department of Education and Science, where I had to convince a panel that Steve was a diamond, despite having a trivial conviction for cannabis possession. They were suitably impressed, which thankfully meant that later Steve could pursue a full-time qualification.
We became fellow Bolsover Bucket Bangers, the name our diverse Community Education team adopted in the face of criticism that we took the progressive policies of the Derbyshire County Council too seriously. Steve was not interested in pretence. He was committed to what in those days we called a radical youth work praxis, opposed to exploitation and oppression in all its forms.
Crucially, though, and this is reflected across his whole career, he never sought to convert a young person to his way of seeing the world. He wanted simply, but not so simply, to be in a questioning, always respectful conversation with young people, which was lightened at every turn by his quick-witted sense of humour. That this was so is reflected in the outpouring of grief and love from hundreds of those he touched across thirty years of work with young people. Time and time again we read messages on Facebook that say, “Steve and I hardly ever agreed with one another, but he meant so much to me”.
He was deeply involved in the Community and Youth Workers Union and in our Socialist Caucus through the late ’80s, into the ’90s. I remember us arguing the toss about the nature of the capitalist state in the back garden of the Exeter Community Centre. Reluctantly I confessed to him that I thought he was much closer to the truth than my dogmatic assertions allowed. He didn’t hold it against me. As I left Derbyshire under a cloud, pursued by leading figures of the Council, he was my supportive case-worker as Audit sought to find transgressions within my travel claims. His faith in my integrity saw me through.
His move to Liverpool saw him become the key youth worker at what was to become the highly regarded Interchill Project. A comment from one of the original members says a great deal.
A guy walks into the interview room at Interchill and sits down confidently although slightly nervous. His name was Steve Waterhouse. Being Interviewed by a group of teenagers wasn’t what he was expecting. But we wanted to pick the right person ourselves to manage our youth facility. Needless to say, regardless of his dodgy socks 😂 Steve was our man. And the service and inspiration he went on to provide for the young people of Speke & Garston over the years will never be forgotten. It is with great sadness and disbelief to hear of his recent passing. A true peoples person and a father figure and advisor to so many. Steve you will be sadly missed.
With Interchill falling foul of cuts, he moved over into the Liverpool Youth Service, where his outstanding endeavours were rewarded with an award for his dedication. As you might expect Steve was embarrassed by the attention.
In the early days of the In Defence of Youth Work campaign, Steve and I were reunited in the struggle to defend a young person-centred, process-led youth work. In retrospect, though it’s clear that the assault on open youth work, on his beliefs and values, was taking its toll on this remarkable bloke. It’s easy to say, but I don’t think he realised how much he had influenced young people’s lives.
Listen to just a few of the moving comments made:
I can’t believe this news. He was an important person to me. He changed how I felt about so much. Inspirational is just a word, but he changed my life and so many people around him. He loved people and wanted the best for them. The world has lost a fantastic human and I will miss him so much. Xx
I remember first meeting him at Interchill when I was 16 and being amazed at the set up. How he inspired young people to take control of their own services and supported them while maintaining excellent relationships. He was always warm, engaging and funny and such an integral part of my early youth work experience.
A few years ago Steve stayed with me on holiday and we had a surreal discussion on the terrace at the back of our house. In the teeth of all his own practice, Steve was arguing that youth work was just a job. Hardly able to believe my ears I responded that he didn’t really believe this, that the youth work, we believed in, was closer to something we might dub a calling. Given our atheism, this was not a calling from a deity, but a calling from all those past and present, who have sought in concert control over their own lives. It seemed to me that Steve’s denial that night of his own commitment was an expression of the mental and physical exhaustion that can accompany always giving of yourself, expecting little back in return.
To return to Facebook with all its contradictions this is where young and old have returned their love and gratitude, however belatedly, to a very special bloke. And, I don’t think Steve would think me opportunistic in saying to politicians and management alike, ‘if you want to grasp the significance of youth work, bin your manufactured outcomes and read the reactions of people to Steve’s passing. Take a breath and have the vision to see beyond tomorrow’s soulless data’.
Let me finish by saying that Steve’s way of being with young people was rooted in his anarchism, in his rejection of imposed authority and his belief in the creativity of those written off by the system. If Steve had faith, dented though it might have been, it was in our ability to create a more just and equal world. Together we could never accept that the present state of play is the best that humanity can come up with. I can but shed a tear at realising that we will never chat critically again; that we will never link arms again in the struggle against injustice; that we will never again laugh together at our pretensions. He was a dear friend and comrade or as one message defined him, ‘a youth worker’s youth worker’. Like so many others I loved him and I regret not conveying this enough in recent years.
Our best tribute to Steve’s memory is to continue defending the tradition of improvisatory and empathetic youth work he symbolised – a way of being with young people that is ‘volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees’. But a way of being, as many have testified, that brings enormous rewards; that truly has an authentic impact on young people’s lives.
“We are engaged in a war against the virus”- Boris Johnson
” In this fake war children are set to be vaccine fodder” – A concerned parent
From the very beginning, March 2020, of the utterly undemocratic imposition of COVID-inspired sweeping restrictions on social existence I feared for children and young people. Perhaps this was a knee-jerk response. After all, I have spent the last 50 years conversing with and about them – as a teacher, youth worker, lecturer and, latterly, a commentator-cum-spectator on the sidelines. Indeed in late 2008, I penned an Open Letter, arguing that youth work should side with young people and not the State; that it should not assume it knows what’s best for young people; that it should be in a critical conversation with them about how together we see the world; and that it should aspire to be ‘volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees’.In short it ought, first and foremost, to be a democratic practice. On the back of this missive, a campaign, In Defence of Youth Work [IDYW], emerged.
Against this history, given these commitments, I was perplexed from the outset at what has seemed to be the absence of debate and the utter lack of opposition to the demanded closures of children’s and young people’s provision – from playgrounds through schools and youth facilities to universities. I am being diplomatic. I was pissed off and angry. It was plain that such draconian, disproportionate action would be deeply damaging. The belated acknowledgement in the summer of 2021 that the lockdown was creating serious mental health issues for the younger generation, crocodile tears, merely confirmed my angst. Then, a humble breath taken, I recognised it was easy for me to be so moved. If I was still a practising youth worker. teacher or lecturer what would I have done during the last two years?
I find it difficult to imagine that, as a youth worker I would have caved in without protest as the youth centre was boarded up or that on the streets I would insist the young people be masked or else. I find it difficult, as a former primary school teacher, to believe I could cope with imposing upon children, I knew well with all their idiosyncrasies, the general requirement to don face coverings and keep their distance from each other and me. I find it difficult to accept that as a lecturer teaching upon a course committed to vibrant argument I would have meekly capitulated to the assault on critical thought, the depiction of the campus as a theatre of contagion and the arrival of on-line learning. As far back as Spring 2019, a modicum of independent research would have shown that masking was about obedience rather than transmission and that children/young people were in little danger from COVID and little danger to anyone else.
Of course, I’m probably deluding myself, thinking I would have swum against the conformist tide. The calculated campaign of fear disseminated without demur by the mainstream media has known no moral or ethical bounds. Management and trade unions in the public sector, along with the caring professions, armed with the ideology of ‘safetyism’, which in a trice provides both explanation and justification, have all embraced the dominant narrative with at times a nauseating pomposity. If you want to follow the unfolding of this smug self-righteousness delve into the archives of the Guardian.
Hence, where would I have found support in desiring to resist – certainly not in the trade union. little chance in the staff team and, to my chagrin, not through In Defence of Youth Work? In this context, speaking up might well have meant losing my job. However, deep in my decaying bones, I want to believe that there has been guerilla activity, which by its nature is underground. In my pretentiousness, I want to believe that with others I would have sought somehow to bring these guerillas together in some supportive form of solidarity – see the history of the Socialist Caucus and Critically Chatting Collective. You might well say, ‘dream on,Tony, dream on’.
Certainly in the coming weeks, as the pandemic narrative unravels, it would be revealing to hear the thoughts of UK youth workers, teachers and lecturers about their sense of the impact upon children and young people, upon themselves of the two years lost.
As a stimulus to reflection, I’m reposting this moving and stimulating article by a Canadian teacher, which appeared on Common Sense, one of many alternative news sites that have sprung up during the pandemic. This outlet seeks to situate its politics as rejecting both the hard Left and the hard Right. Classically it seeks to find the middle ground with all the contradictions therein. To my mind, the very categories of Left, Centre and Right are in such a state of meltdown that the vital thing is to be aware of one’s own prejudices and history, to explore expansively, be open to critical dialogue and committed at every turn to the democratic process in the struggle against authoritarianism.
I am proud to be a teacher. I’ve worked in the Canadian public school system for the past 15 years, mostly at the high school level, teaching morals and ethics.
I don’t claim to be a doctor or an expert in virology. There is a lot I don’t know. But I spend my days with our youth and they tell me a lot about their lives. And I want to tell you what I’m hearing and what I’m seeing.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, when our school went fully remote, it was evident to me that the loss of human connection would be detrimental to our students’ development. It also became increasingly clear that the response to the pandemic would have immense consequences for students who were already on the path to long-term disengagement, potentially altering their lives permanently.
The data about learning loss and the mental health crisis is devastating. Overlooked has been the deep shame young people feel: Our students were taught to think of their schools as hubs for infection and themselves as vectors of disease. This has fundamentally altered their understanding of themselves.
When we finally got back into the classroom in September 2020, I was optimistic, even as we would go remote for weeks, sometimes months, whenever case numbers would rise. But things never returned to normal.
When we were physically in school, it felt like there was no longer life in the building. Maybe it was the masks that made it so no one wanted to engage in lessons, or even talk about how they spent their weekend. But it felt cold and soulless. My students weren’t allowed to gather in the halls or chat between classes. They still aren’t. Sporting events, clubs and graduation were all cancelled. These may sound like small things, but these losses were a huge deal to the students. These are rites of passages that can’t be made up.
In my classroom, the learning loss is noticeable. My students can’t concentrate and they aren’t doing the work that I assign to them. They have way less motivation compared to before the pandemic began. Some of my students chose not to come back at all, either because of fear of the virus, or because they are debilitated by social anxiety. And now they have the option to do virtual schooling from home.
One of my favorite projects that I assign each year is to my 10th grade students, who do in-depth research on any culture of their choosing. It culminates in a day of presentations. I encourage them to bring in music, props, food—whatever they need to immerse their classmates in their specific culture. A lot of my students give presentations on their own heritage. A few years back, a student of mine, a Syrian refugee, told her story about how she ended up in Canada. She brought in traditional Syrian foods, delicacies that her dad had stayed up all night cooking. It was one of the best days that I can remember. She was proud to share her story—she had struggled with homesickness—and her classmates got a lesson in empathy. Now, my students simply prepare a slideshow and email it to me individually.
My older students (grades 11 and 12) aren’t even allowed a lunch break, and are expected to come to school, go to class for five and a half hours and then go home. Children in 9th and 10th grades have to face the front of the classroom while they eat lunch during their second period class. My students used to be able to eat in the halls or the cafeteria; now that’s forbidden. Younger children are expected to follow the “mask off, voices off” rule, and are made to wear their masks outside, where they can only play with other kids in their class. Of course, outside of school, kids are going to restaurants with their families and to each other’s houses, making the rules at school feel punitive and nonsensical.
They are anxious and depressed. Previously outgoing students are now terrified at the prospect of being singled out to stand in front of the class and speak. And many of my students seem to have found comfort behind their masks. They feel exposed when their peers can see their whole face.
Around this time of year, we start planning for the prom, which is held in June. Usually, my students would already be chatting constantly about who’s asking who, what they’re planning on wearing, and how excited they are. This year, they’ve barely discussed it at all. When they do, they tell me that they don’t want to get their hopes up, since they’re assuming it will get cancelled like it has for the past couple of years.
It’s the same deal with universities. My students say, “If university is going to be just like this then what’s the point?” I have my own children, a nine-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son, who have spent almost a third of their lives in lockdown. They’ve become so used to cancellations that they don’t even feel disappointed anymore.
I think all of my students are angry to some degree, but I hear it most from the kids who are athletes. They were told that if they got the vaccine, everything would go back to normal, and they could go back to the rink or the court. Some sports were back for a while but, as of Christmas, because of the recent wave of Covid-19 cases, club and varsity sports are all cancelled once again. A lot of the athletes are missing chances to get seen by coaches and get scholarships.
I try to take time at the beginning of class to ask my kids how they’re doing. Recently, one of my 11th grade students raised his hand and said that he wasn’t doing well, that he doesn’t want to keep living like this, but that he knows that no one is coming to save them. The other kids all nodded in agreement. They feel lied to—and I can’t blame them.
What’s most worrisome to me is that they feel deep worry and shame over the prospect of breaking the rules.
Teenage girls are notoriously empathetic. I see that many of my students, but especially the female ones, feel a heavy burden of responsibility. Right before Christmas, one of my brightest 12th graders confided in me that she was terrified of taking her mask off. She told me that she didn’t want to get anyone sick or kill anybody. She was worried she would be held responsible for someone dying.
What am I supposed to say? That 23 children have died from Covid in Canada during the whole of the pandemic and she is much more likely to kill someone driving a car? That kids in Scandinavia, Sweden, and the Netherlands largely haven’t had to wear masks at school and haven’t seen outbreaks because of it? That masks are not a magic shield against the virus, and that even if she were to pass it along to a classmate, the risk of them getting seriously sick is minuscule?
I want to tell her that she can remove her mask, and socialize with her friends without being worried.
But I am expected to enforce the rules.
At the beginning of the pandemic, adults shamed kids for wanting to play at the park or hang out with their friends. We kept hearing, “They’ll be fine. They’re resilient.” It’s true that humans, by nature, are very resilient. But they also break. And my students are breaking. Some have already broken.
When we look at the Covid-19 pandemic through the lens of history, I believe it will be clear that we betrayed our children. The risks of this pandemic were never to them, but they were forced to carry the burden of it. It’s enough. It’s time for a return to normal life and put an end to the bureaucratic policies that aren’t making society safer, but are sacrificing our children’s mental, emotional, and physical health.
Our children need life on the highest volume. And they need it now.
Anyone who has followed my scribblings knows that I approach behavioural psychology with extreme caution. This concern predates COVID by decades – see Outcomes, outcomes, outcomes for something written in the last decade. In previous posts, I have voiced my concern at the explicit and conscious stoking of fear fuelled by the SAGE Behavioural Group in the UK. At the heart of its cynical propaganda has been the mask. A month or so ago I ended a section on masks as follows:
In essence, the mask seeks to muzzle us into obedience. It confirms that we are in dire danger. Itdemands that we police one another into compliance. It is the visible expression of the desire to divide us from one another, to undermine our humanity. It is about social and political control. It serves no other purpose.
The Mitsotakis government in Greece is determined to keep us in our place – at least until the tourist season starts. Thus, as I write, we are under mandatory manners to wear face coverings inside [preferably duplex] and in the great outdoors. There are heavy fines to pay if we are disobedient. Pragmatic contempt is to be seen. No masks in the villages, masks worn or in readiness in the big towns. And, as for out in the olive groves, foothills and mountains we are at one with nature and humanity, looking each other in the eye.
Nevertheless, I was thinking of rehearsing the arguments once more but I’ve been saved the trouble by a challenging piece, composed by Gary Sidley, a retired NHS consultant clinical psychologist and a founder member of the Smile Free campaign to remove all mask mandates. It poses disturbing questions for the trade unions, the bureaucrats and the members, together with educators on the ground, be they, lecturers, teachers or youth workers.
Let’s face it -Governments use masking to force compliance, not fight viruses
Searching for Understanding in the face of Power and Propaganda: The Impossible Dream
I had a dream last night. Hardly newsworthy but personally troubling. In truth my sleep is often disturbed by nocturnal neurosis. I’m forever anxious in the scenarios summoned up by my unconscious, forever forgetting, forever failing to fulfil tasks or promises, forever letting myself down. Now and again the tales are so real I awake suffused with dread about my comeuppance, thankfully followed by a huge sigh of relief as reality sets in. This feeling of release is almost worth the worrying somnolent journey.
Last night’s dream was a warning. Indeed it was stuffed full of shots across my bow. Friends, comrades and acquaintances, old and new, offered their advice in a variety of styles from a concerned Rogerian whisper to an insistent authoritative instruction. Their recommendations were mouthed in a diversity of settings – a staff meeting, a conference, a trade union demo, the pub or indeed the living room. The message went along the lines of ‘keep your counsel’, ‘best to let all this go’, ‘would be wiser to keep a back seat’ and ‘just shut up about it’. ‘It’ was questioning the COVID narrative.
Unravelling why I was thus reprimanded hardly needed a psychoanalyst. Yesterday I was messing around with a couple of interrelated bits of writing focused on the benefits and deficits of pandemic-led social policy. In particular I was looking at the impact upon children and young people of the closure of schools and youth provision. All the more so as UNISON had underlined in its call for the return of face masks in secondary school classrooms and the reintroduction of “bubbles” the deeply problematic character of the regimes being imposed even when schools are open. As I scribbled, a long-standing trade union activist I was very conscious of treading on thin ice. The more I mused the more critical I became of the stance of both UNISON and the National Education Union [NEU], which seemed to be profoundly at odds with a commitment to pupils and students. I was feeling nervous about how I was going to explain my disagreement.
Then, despite my effort to ignore the news, my Chromebook threw up a notification of the latest SAGE doom-mongering modelling. Reluctantly I visited the Guardian web site to read.
The scale of the threat posed by the Omicron variant was laid bare by government scientists last night as they warned that there are now hundreds of thousands of infections every day. That daily number could reach between 600,000 and 2 million by the end of the month if new restrictions are not brought in immediately. broad
The government’s SPI-M-O group of scientists, which reports to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), also warned that, based on their modelling, hospitalisations could peak between 3,000 and 10,000 a day and deaths at between 600 and 6,000 a day.
I bridled at their stupefying arrogance in claiming that a speculation of ‘between 600 and 6,000 deaths a day’ was somehow scientific. A soothsayer could hardly do worse. I felt anxious and hopeless. The spectre of authoritarianism was returning to haunt both the present and the future.
The advisers suggested reintroducing measures “equivalent to those in place after step 2 or step 1 of the roadmap in England”. Rules at that time included the “rule of six” and just two households meeting; they also barred holidays abroad, while care-home residents were allowed only one regular visitor.
Reviving its role as the Ministry of Fear SAGE marketed a return to a Stage 1 clampdown by suggesting that ‘infections could be limited to between 200,000 and a million a day. Hospitalisations could run at between 1,500 and 5,000 admissions a day and daily deaths would be 200 to 2,000′.
The size and scope of this propaganda stopped me in my tracks. As ever the tame media obeyed the whip, trotting out the cliches – tidal waves and avalanches of cases. Is it any wonder there are a lot? This last week 9,390,590 tests were carried out. Of these 513,574 tested positive, which as we know doesn’t tell us a great deal in terms of the severity of the symptoms. An alternative headline could be ‘almost 9 million people didn’t have COVID’ but that’s hardly the issue. More to the point is that on the back of very limited early data on the OMICRON variant we rush to impose restrictions that have still not been tested for their effectiveness.
Now and again I wake from a dream gasping for breath, believing I am being smothered. I felt something similar, a tightening chest, as I took in the long queues for the all but mandatory booster, reflecting that they were less than likely to be consulted before being jabbed. Wondering too, on what basis have so many embraced apparently the oft confused and inconsistent hegemonic narrative? Matthias Desmet, the Belgian Professor of Psychology at Ghent University advances the notion that those supportive of the dominant version of events are in a state of collective hypnosis. My intuition is to resist such a sweeping generalisation about why people think and act in the ways they do. I am more sympathetic to his view that in an individualistic society bereft of a vision for the future even the imposition from above of a sense of solidarity has furnished a collective purpose, a reason for existence. As of now this an important discussion for another day.
Back to last night I found myself in the wake of the media storm, embarrassed to be thinking, “perhaps I’ll leave posting these thoughts till after Xmas, to when things die down a little.” ‘Why,” I asked myself guiltily? “What on earth are you bothered about?” Weary I retreated to my bed, to be beset therein by the troubling dreams.
This morning, having walked our Glyka and, for her, made the porridge, glistening with honey, I discerned the wood for the trees. The questions asked of me by my ghostly friends were but my own to myself. One in particular leapt out, voiced in the dream by a close comrade of many years. The interlocutor began by pointing out that across fifty years in the youth work world as worker, manager, lecturer and activist I had achieved a decent reputation. Yes, I was seen as something of a radical maverick but a likeable one at that. My friend’s tone altered. Didn’t I realise that challenging the lockdowns, the vaccines will be regarded as siding with the Right, worst of all as abandoning all you have stood for? They warned, if you go any further down this path, you will be cancelled.
Knowing this was in fact what I was thinking myself when I sought sleep last night felt sobering and liberating. Reputations, intact or tattered, are the province of the beholders. Across the last 20 months men and women, high and low, have risked their careers and livelihoods to speak out against tyranny. Proof of the tyrannical nature of society today is the suppression of the ideas and the assassination of the characters of those in opposition to what’s going on. In this context my overnight self-centred anxiety is pathetic. However in its ordinariness it does reveal the obstacles we face in mounting resistance to the creeping toralitarianism, which threatens to be the new norm. There will be so many, who disagree with the present state of affairs but who fear for their jobs and families, scared to speak out.
For what it’s worth, settling my debts, at least for now with my debilitating dream means I will risk getting on the wrong side, being on the wrong side.
More than ever I think we are at a pivotal moment in history.
As I finish this quasi-confessional, Austria has rendered ‘vaccinations’ mandatory with Germany about to follow in its neighbour’s footsteps. The new German Chancellor is quoted as saying, “for my government there are no more red lines as far as doing what needs to be done.” ‘Covid passes’ have been approved in France and the UK. Here in Greece ‘unvaccinated’ pensioners will be fined directly by reducing the amount of their state-pension payments. Whilst in the Victoria State of Australia ‘unvaccinated’ teachers will not be paid during the summer holidays and will be sacked in April if they do not comply with compulsory inoculation. Perhaps I should compile a more extensive account of the heavy-handed measures being taken across the globe. The list goes on….
Democracy faces Dictatorship
Humane, emotional, spiritual and intellectual freedom faces Inhumane, cold, mechanical and behavioural slavery.
For what it’s worth I’ll keep going on about ‘IT’ – in spite of the voices in my dreams.
As a child and a young person, Remembrance Sunday was always a moment of great importance in my family. My father unfurled the Union Jack on the flag pole in our council house garden. Moustache waxed, smartly turned out, a sailor, he was the proud bearer of the White Ensign standard as we marched to the Cenotaph. Only half grasping the common bond uniting the men and women, who had in differing ways experienced the ravages of war, the ceremony touched my youthful soul. The impeccable, almost endless silence broken by the mournful, moving bugle sounding the Last Post. The profound sense of loss expressed in Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.
As I grew older I rebelled against my father’s patriotism. For quite a time I adopted the view that Remembrance Sunday had lapsed ironically into a celebration of war, into a justification for the excessive spending on Defence. I kept a somewhat pompous distance from the proceedings. I didn’t don a red poppy. My pomposity was paralleled by the ritualistic and ostentatious self-righteousness displayed by those poppy-wearers in the public eye.
My own pretence was pricked a quarter of a century ago. The occasion was a visit to the Second World War German cemetery in Maleme on the island of Crete. Row upon eternal row of simple headstones stretched into the distance remembering hundreds of dead German soldiers aged 16 to 18 years. Hardly a stone’s throw away, I stood moist-eyed once more in front of a village memorial commemorating the execution of the young and old men of the Cretan Resistance. In whose interests was this tragic, bloody loss of life?
The experience led me back to reading afresh descriptions and analyses of the World Wars. To an extent, I could get my head around the Second being the defence of Democracy against Fascism. However, no such positive rationale surfaced to soften my anger and tears at the meaningless slaughter of a generation from aristocrat to proletarian in the First. In whose possible interests could this frightening futility be imagined? For what it’s worth I understand the First as an inexorable consequence of the political and economic crisis of the day and the ruling class imperative to establish a new order of power and influence. In its malevolent eyes, youth could and would pay the price,
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? — Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,— The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
As a few people know I’ve been trying in recent weeks to pull together my thoughts about the manufactured COVID pandemic, described by the British Prime Minister as a war within which we’re all in it together. Given my history within youth work, I’ve been struck from the outset of this campaign and the imposition of the lockdown by the thrusting of young people into the frontline of this supposed battle, starved of resources. Their mentors, be they youth workers or teachers, have not been the collective of conscientious objectors demanded by these times as youth centres were abandoned and schools closed. And, of course, as it has suited, young people have been accused without a shred of evidence of being traitors to the cause, irresponsible ‘super-spreaders’, failing in the responsibility to protect their elders.
However, my growing anxiety about what is being done to young people as part of the elite’s need to create a renewed capitalist order was deepened with the news a few days ago coming out of the USA. In key cities such as New York and Chicago, children, five years upwards are being offered a $100 bribe to get the experimental drug. On the basis of what medical evidence and what sort of ethics does a society agree to ‘vaccinate’ children, who are neither at risk themselves nor a risk to others? And in seeking to do so, hasn’t the slightest idea of what might be the medium and long-term consequences? This flagrant disregard of a fundamental principle of medicine that its practitioners do no harm is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to assessing the harm being done to today’s younger generation. Breasts are belatedly beaten as the inevitable impact on their mental health and their prospects for the future is revealed.
I fear that a Third World War of a contemporary character is unfolding. As in 1914 and 1939 capitalism is in crisis and seeks to establish a new order, a new normal that maintains, even increases its power over humanity. In this conflict, the younger generation is to the fore. Of course, my sweeping speculations, my problematic generalisations, my homogenisation of young people may be wide of the mark. However, in an immediate sense. whatever the failings of my broader analysis, young people and ourselves are facing an assault on taken-for-granted rights, unimaginable but two years ago.
To take perhaps an extreme example of the demands being made upon both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated from Australia, the first are obliged to carry proof to be ‘free’, the second excluded from New Normal existence. “If you want your freedoms, get the jab” cries the State Premier. **
Since October in France, the country’s health pass – or pass sanitaire – has been extended to under-18s, meaning all teenagers will need to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test to access places like cinemas, museums, restaurants and indoor shopping centres. Here on Crete, as of last Saturday, the everyday simple act of sipping a greek coffee in the village kafeneio requires showing QR codes and identity cards. Even on their own terms, these restrictions are riddled with contradictions, which I will speak to in Part Four of ‘Searching for an Understanding in the Face of Power and Propaganda.’
The generation, in whom we place our hopes for a more just and democratic society, is being trained to accept that freedom is the possession of the State. Obedience makes free.
To return to my father and his comrades statuesque and dignified as the Last Post pierced the cold November air, they believed they had fought for a better future. I remember to this day my dad’s explanation of why it was right to fight. ” We did it so my country would be a place where you would never have to show your papers to live”.
To put the Queensland draconian restrictions into context the official State COVID figures from March 1 to November 13, 2021, are:
Across the period of the pandemic, I have scribbled a host of responses in an effort to shed light on what has been going on. They have slid surreptitiously into my computer’s bottom drawer or spiralled away embarrassed into the hidden mists of the Cloud. However, I’m provoked to retrieve them. I do think we are living through a pivotal historical moment. It feels better to be wrong than be silent. The title of this post, ‘Searching for Understanding in the face of Power and Propaganda’, makes obvious my conflict with the endlessly circulated mainstream narrative. I will try to give substance to this discord in the hope that it’s possible to debate rather than declaim.
This first post is personal and biographical. It seeks to illustrate, amongst other things, why from the very beginning of the pandemic the leading role played by behavioural science set my dentures on edge. It will become plain why I was thus rattled.
It was a meeting out of the blue that woke me with a start and saw me climbing into the Cloud to rescue my thoughts. A few weeks ago, in the heaving embrace of a maskless Cretan taverna, I hugged and kissed a very dear friend, who I hadn’t seen since the authoritarian lockdown on association and expression was imposed, almost 18 months ago. The hubbub hardly lent itself to thoughtful conversation. Yet as we shook our heads in unison about the manufactured melodrama, within which we were playing our part, the question hung in the nocturnal, perfumed air, ‘Why?’
The morning after, my head clearing, I felt obliged to answer the question for myself, if nobody else. In trying to unravel ‘why?’ I won’t focus immediately on the nature of the virus itself, the deaths, the cost of lockdowns and so on. Such a necessary encounter will come later. For now I’m just trying to get my head around why I was suspicious about the pandemic from the very outset.
I will begin with a couple of truisms.
Firstly, across history, the first commandment of the ruling class in any epoch has been the retention of its power, the maintenance of its control over the majority, almost at whatever cost. Yet I would venture that even at the height of its hubris the elite has displayed a certain psychological insecurity, afraid of its own shadow, the people it dominates. In response, the powerless, the exploited and the oppressed have been forced to accommodate or resist or indeed to do both, most times unaware of their rulers’ fragility. From time to time, thank goodness, the ruling class has been ousted or where would we be now?
Secondly, societies, simple or sophisticated, have sought to socialise their members into an acceptance of and adherence to a set of dominant values and norms. Overwhelmingly these rules were imposed from above, for example, the Monarchy, the Church or the State. Cornelius Castoriadis defined such societies as heteronomous, closed societies of obedience. Insofar as there has been a period of exception in the West, this began in the 17th century with the Enlightenment, the ceaseless questioning of the status quo and was inspired by the struggle for democracy, the clash between the working classes and their masters in the 19th and 20th centuries. Castoriadis dubbed this self-conscious, critical and collective activity, ‘the project of autonomy’. Thirty years ago he worried that the project had stalled. He suggested that there were increasing signs of a retreat into heteronomy, the abandonment of a radical, improvisatory vision of another world being possible, a flight from the struggle for an authentic democracy.
In retrospect, I wonder tentatively if I was born into what might be viewed as a promising but ultimately frustrating, even worryingly final period in the project’s progress, the post-1945 settlement between Capital and Labour. On my way in 1958 to being an upwardly mobile working-class young man, the culture of my grammar school was more open than closed, rich rather than poor in its choices. An English teacher, I loved, ran an after-school Music Appreciation Society, procured for us free tickets to the Halle Symphony Orchestra’s concerts and directed us in a performance of the ‘Seven Ages of Man’, a tableau of extracts from Shakespeare’s works with musical interludes. Meanwhile, a physics teacher, who was a famous international rugby player, found time to encourage me in my eccentric desire to be a successful race walker. Even my disastrous GCE results proved not to be the end of the world. I managed to get a place at a Teacher Training College and flourished in its welcoming, student-centred, liberal climate, strutting the stage as president of the Dramatic Society and representing the college in all manner of sports. I began to find my voice intellectually, even if it sounded through literary rather than political criticism. Whatever my political naivete in those days I always felt stimulated as well as manipulated. Does this marry today with the experience of a working-class lass or lad entering Higher Education?
Of course, my picture of the past is too pretty by far, brush-stroking away contradictions and inconsistencies at a personal and societal level. My first teaching post in a Church of England primary school witnessed a tense relationship with other members of staff, who thought I was far too friendly with the children, threatening the disciplinary ethos of the institution. Yet the gentle headmaster, who did still contrarily and occasionally use a ruler on ‘naughty’ children’s legs, allowed me full rein to teach as I thought fit. As indeed did the Council’s Education Department with a charismatic Director at the helm. He was determined that every child should have a rounded educational experience so schools vibrated in time with the arts, music and outdoor education, encouraged by an abundance of specialist advisers and teachers. When I moved into youth work my centre housed the Department’s very own challenging and controversiall theatre group. You must beware my rose-tinted spectacles. What I am sure of is that this was a period within which there was trust and faith in an open and improvisatory educational process. As best as I remember the words outcome and impact never passed our pursed lips.
Certainly, the 1970s, a decade of discontent and dissension, were the years of my political awakening and my conscious commitment to the project of autonomy, which at the time I would have called the struggle for socialism. Through youth work, I discovered humanistic psychology in its Rogerian variant. Through my growing political activity, I discovered Marxism, Anarchism and Feminism. All these influences in differing and imperfect ways were expressions of the struggle for an autonomous society, within which in concert with one another the people, and no one else, make the laws by which they [we] live. This was no academic experience. It was to be part of the passionate social movements of the time, sometimes at one, sometimes at odds with each other, which looked to develop in theory and practice the inextricably intertwined politics of class, gender, race, sexuality and disability. However, as I moved in and out of the worlds of youth work and political activism I was often dismayed by the crude judgements made about other human beings, whether as individuals or in groups. The person-centred psychology I advanced was devoid of politics. The politics I pursued was psychologically bereft. The task seemed plain – to bring politics into psychology and vice-versa.
In this context, Marilyn Taylor and I began to explore what might be a radical psychology that situated the unique individual and her actions within the matrix of social relations not of her choosing. From the beginning, our effort was plagued by behaviourism in its day-to-day ‘common-sense’ form and by behaviourism’s scientific pretension, its desire to create a theory of personality and human activity, good for all times, all places and all people. In both its amateur and professional manifestations on its best behaviour, it tends simplistically to know what is right or wrong, always confident it knows what is best for others. It nudges us to do its bidding. It is judgemental and disinterested in context or history. It generalises and categorises. At a theoretical level behavioural psychology posits the preposterous notion of a general individual, who floats above the messy complex reality of social relations. Hence the targets for its manipulation are always groups of undifferentiated human beings, for example, youth defined as a homogeneous category or, for that matter, the population of the United KIngdom in March 2020.
As neoliberalism in the late 1970s became economically paramount, behavourism became its favoured ideological tool. In 1981 whilst defending the notion of an holistic social education approach within youth work I criticised the Manpower Service Commission’s promotion of instrumental Social and Life Skills Training for young people, the arena of so-called Youth Opportunities. In an arcane turn of phrase I charged the MSC with desiring nothing less than ‘the behavioural modification of the young proletariat’. Getting on for three decades later I felt able to resurrect the charge.
Possessing no vision of a world beyond the present New Labour has been obsessed with the micro-management of problematic, often demonised youth. Yearning for a generation stamped with the State’s seal of approval the government has transformed Youth Work into an agency of behavioural modification. It wishes to confine to the scrapbook of history the idea that Youth Work is volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees.
Neoliberalism seems a broken economic model. However its ideology, the values and ideas it has promoted across three decades, remains hegemonic, ‘the common-sense of our age’ (Hall, 2011). Few remain untouched by a behavioural modification project conducted on the grandest scale, the manufacturing of a possessive and self-centred, satisfied yet never satiated, consumer for whom a notion of the common good is almost blasphemous. Individuals are forced to deal with the social problems outsourced by the state – of poverty, health, housing and indeed education. As for the last of these, neoliberal ideology is instrumental and reductive, deeply suspicious of critical thinking. Teachers teach to test, lecturers cram consumers and, as we shall see, youth workers are led by outcomes.
In July 2012 the Young Foundation produced a Framework of Outcomes for Young People, which sought to bring under manners the volatile world of informal youth work via the introduction of ‘measurable’ outcomes and impact. Marilyn and I wrote a rejoinder, within which we noted:
The die is cast immediately. The product of the framework is to be the ’emotionally resilient’ young individual, who through the planned interventions of youth workers, will shrug their shoulders at adversity. Utterly in tune with government policy this manufactured individual will have less need for public services such as health and social welfare and will be willing to work for whatever wages, zero-hour contracts or indeed benefits are on offer. This is the self-centred, compliant young person of neo-liberalism’s dreams. The last thing such an obedient cipher would do is to ask, “how come this is happening to me, my mates, to thousands of others?” Nowhere in the Framework is there an acknowledgement that to talk of personal change demands an engagement with the social and political circumstances underpinning young people’s lives.
Remarkably the Framework’s fix on young people takes us back half a century. Throughout its pages young people are viewed as a homogeneous category – young people are young people are young people. The young person is denied his or her class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith. Despite all the talk about the individual in the Framework the individual described is that theoretical monstrosity, the general individual, who in reality does not exist. It is as if the gains of the late twentieth century in understanding the social individual never occurred. For example a working-class black young woman does not experience the world in exactly the same way as a white middle-class young woman and so on. And indeed the individual working-class black young woman herself can never be reduced to a general expression of her own social grouping. Comprehending the individual is no simple matter.
Indeed I spoke to this critique at several youth work seminars and conferences within the UK , Europe and, even to my delight, Brisbane in Australia, the last of these at Plymouth in 2017. The analysis struck a chord with many who were led to apologise for not singing along. With sadness they advised that there was no option but to chant from the behaviourist hymn sheet or risk losing their place in the choir. As for the behavioural choir leaders they thanked me for composing an alternative tune, pinched a well-pitched note or two and continued to coach the enforced collective rendition of their mechanistic melody. Like it or not, and I didn’t, I returned from such gatherings, heavy of heart. Words were not wounding the confidence of the behaviourists. And on the ground, willing or unwilling, practitioners complied, appealing to each other for the latest in prescribed scripts and recommended tools.
Today, the voices in English youth work emanating from such as the National Youth Agency and the Centre for Youth Impact reflect the watchwords of the so-called ‘third culture’ -‘no politics, no conflict, no ideology, simply science, delivery and problem-solving’. The apolitical hypocrisy on display is par for the course, hardly troubling anyone anymore.
In this context, the dominance of the behavourists and fading resistance to their stranglehold, I had all but withdrawn, to my shame, from the fray. I had been involved in a running battle with a dehumanising opponent, who was well ahead on points. In the last year I’ve written just one piece, Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity, which, a single reply apart, did not take seed in parched pastures. Rightly or wrongly I felt isolated, even indulgently sorry for myself. Castoriadis’ concern seemed increasingly pertinent. An arrogant technocratic and managerial outlook prevailed. Intuition, compassion and love exiled.
In the early months of 2020 the dramatic arrival upon the scene of a virus said to be an existential threat to humanity jolted me from my malaise. From the begining I was deeply sceptical about the remarkable overnight unity of 198 countries in following the unelected World Health Organisation’s declaration of a pandemic and the blanket adoption of the same narrative by politicians and the mainstream media across the world. Perhaps it was merely a matter of coincidence.
In particular, given the above diatribe on the dangers of behaviourism, I was alarmed by the central role being played in the UK by the initially anonymous Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours [SPI-B]. The group was charged with providing ‘behavioural science advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical and epiemiological experts’. I bridled at the messages contained in the paper, ‘Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures’, March 22, 2020. Within its pages the group asserted that ‘a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently threatened’. Hence ‘the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased amongst those who are complacent using hard=hitting emotional messages’. Thus did a political, unethical and undemocratic campaign of fear begin. I was fearful – not of the virus but of the authoritarianism at the heart of of the SPI-B’s propaganda.
As it was my critical stance did not lead immediately to the renaissance of a sense of solidarity with others, even good friends and comrades – far from it. Slowly, as I delved further into the dilemmas posed, I did discover new collective reference points, some unimaginable a few years ago. These will become apparent. In parts Two, Three and Four I will tangle with some of the tensions underpinning the divisions created by the pandemic. In part Two I will offer my best understanding of the political and economic aspects of the pandemic; in part Three I will look more closely at the propaganda of fear, which still continues; in part Four I’ll explore the suppressed conflicts of medical and epidemiological opinion; and, if I get this far, in part Five I will ponder what resistance and solidarity might now mean.
Further to my thoughts Tim Price, who was involved in all the collectives I mention, offers his distinctive take on life with Malx.
“Know what I mean..” Some of the time, yes, but a lot of the time ‘no’. Malx had a ‘Yes Minister’ ability to prevent me from ever finding out what he meant when he said “Know what I mean” after a verbal ramble over familiar or unfamiliar terrain. I tried on a number of occasions to unpick what he meant with very little success. But as long as he didn’t reach that phrase he was very illuminating.
He had intelligence in spadefuls, wit and humour that made his presence always a blessing – unless you were trying to get to sleep or were hung over. I can remember one occasion when I was seriously hungover and he decided to treat to me to his relentless cheerfulness. It’s torture!
It was through my involvement in Tony Taylor’s shenanigans in my early youth work practice in Leicestershire that I first met Malx. This soon evolved to our sharing attendance at the weekly miner’s solidarity pickets in and around Coalville where I was working at the time. That period was for me a time of great political development.
In CYWU (the youth workers union) we were both involved in first, the Broad Left caucus and after, its child, the Socialist Caucus. This became a very serious commitment with monthly weekend meetings around the country plus our inputs into union meetings, wherever they were. It is worth noting that we were very serious about doing what we did but we also had a collective sense of humour, liked a drink and so made these meetings largely thoroughly enjoyable. During that time the caucus issued a regular bulletin. Malx was not a prolific contributor in the written form. He was a phone person. He didn’t mind texting and when he finally did use emails, they were written in text. Nonetheless he was prolific in ideas and thinking.
He could see the limitations of a small craft union and always felt that we should be involved in wider struggle. So, when CYWU was forced to consider its future he helped bring us around to the idea that NALGO was a better option than NUT or NATFHE. And while it troubled me in some ways, when the membership chose the NUT we decided to leave as a group, recommending this course of action to others and joined NALGO.
In the next year or so I became the South West rep on NALGO’s national youth workers committee. (Who else was crazy enough to put themselves through it?) I remained on this committee and it’s recreation when UNISON was formed by the amalgamation of 3 local government unions until I retired about 10 years ago. This meant that I had to go to London a fair bit and usually met Malx, if he was in the country.
During the 1990s the Caucus crumbled until only Malx, Tony and I were left to meet.
After Tony and Marilyn moved to Crete Malx and I would spend a week or so every 2 years on Crete, usually with a few days stop off on another island. We went to Hydra a few times, an island we both liked.
Tony was not quite writing something (the book) much of this time. Malx came up with the idea of us each sharing our memories of being teenagers and involvement in youth work as young people then getting into youth work as workers. It was very memorable to me. In many ways our working class backgrounds were similar and proved very interesting. It is a shame that we never did put some of these discussions on paper. It gave me a greater insight into Malx and his sense of heritage, intelligence, rebellious nature and humour. One thing I remember clearly was him describing how he would skive off school to go to the local library to read. He was a prolific reader always.
He loved the real culture of the working class community where he came from and the area round about. Deptford was Gods Own Country. Apart from those few years in Leicester while at Scraptoft College, he lived in or near to Lewisham which was the theatre for his work.
There is much more I could say. But I will finish with one of his ‘lines’ that I think expresses who he was well:
Malx “You have to stick to rule 2.”
Me “What’s that?”
Malx “ You gotta keep the missus sweet.”
Me “So what’s rule 1?”
Malx “ Not only strive to understand history but also to change it.”
Following upon the momentum created by Gus John’s account of his clash with the BBC, Sanitising Racism, Past and Present it is all the more challenging to post his passionate rejection of the almost taken-for-granted and ‘hideous’ acronym, BAME – Black, Asia and Minority Ethnic. More than a few questions herein for the youth work world I have inhabited across the decades….and society at large.
DON’T BAME ME
Just before the lockdown, my granddaughter came home from school one day very upset and confused. That afternoon, a classmate sitting at her table suddenly announced that from now on we will all call Anna (not her real name) ‘nigger’. They are both 10 and British white and African respectively. Anna remonstrated with him and one of her mates, white, insisted that she should tell the teacher. In a discussion that ensued later, questions were asked about what the school was doing about race and one adult added ‘especially as there are so few Bame students in the school’. Anna had no clue as to what Bame meant and when she was told, she asked why it mattered that there were few students like her in the school, given the fact that it was the white boy who had used the racial slur. When on reaching home she called to tell me about it, I found it considerably less problematic to explain to her the origins and usage of ‘the n-word’ than that of BAME.
So, here is a British born child, confident in her own skin, unapologetic about her blackness and totally comfortable with her white classmates having sleep overs at her home and vice versa, being made to feel that she was a problem; a problem that required the school to deal with the issue of race; being made to feel that if she had not been there, the white boy would not have had cause to call anybody ‘nigger’ and the school would have had no need to concern itself with race.
But, that school had long demonstrated to her that it saw no need to concern itself with race, not least by virtue of the fact that nothing in its library or displayed on its walls sent out to students, teachers or parents that there were people in Britain, let alone the world, other than white people like themselves.
So, why was it was more difficult to explain the origin and use of the word ‘nigger’ than that of the hideous and equally demeaning acronym BAME?
How does a parent tell a 10 year old that by virtue of the colour of her skin, by virtue of the fact that she is melanin rich, she is rendered ‘other’ and racialised as ‘black’ and as ‘nigger’ as the worst and most contemptible embodiment and existential manifestation of black? How does a parent equip that child with the mental energy, the self esteem, the self confidence and the determination to defend her essential humanity and make sure that no one takes liberties with her and denigrate her on account of her blackness?
And, while her parents are building with and within her those essential tools for resistance and survival, what are the parents of her white classmates doing to ensure that they are not being socialised within the putrid culture of racism in Britain to become racist oppressors, whether by commission or omission?
So, what is the context of this conversation about the terminology we use to denote racial identity and to denote ethnicity?
The context I suggest is the racialisation of difference and of different populations across the globe; racialisation of people, their ethnicity, their history, their culture and cultural products. Such racialisation has been the historical function of imperialism and colonialism and with it has evolved a language that serves the purpose of underpinning racial hierarchies and trapping those at or near the bottom of the hierarchy in mindsets and ways of being and of self-perception that correspond to those hierarchies.
We ignore the relationship between language, power and identity at our peril. Words matter. They convey deep meanings and they help to frame identities. They are the medium through which we give expression to our existential reality and through which others seek to deny, denigrate and negate our existential reality.
Before I arrived in Britain in 1964 aged 19, I had not heard the word ‘coloured’ used to describe African people except in the specific context of apartheid in South Africa. As a teenager, I was deeply affected by reading Alan Paton’s, ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’.So, when I heard white people and even Caribbean people calling other Caribbean people like myself ‘coloured’, I was quite alarmed. And then I read Stokeley Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s ‘Black Power’ and I learnt about the Negritude Movement and I read James Baldwin, Claude Mackay, Ralph Ellison and saw images of Black Panther and civil rights marches and of Jim Crow barbarism as African Americans struggled against state racism in the USA.
I found it interesting that the bestial British who for centuries had treated African people worse than they did animals had suddenly converted to humanity, such that they were insisting that it was not just impolite but downright offensive to call us ‘black’. We were being condemned for using our supplementary schools to teach ‘Black Power’. Black was considered to be associated with violence, armed resistance against the state and its apparatuses and generally with a radical and revolutionary mindset. ‘Coloured’ was more consensual and conformist and in any event, it made white folk feel better, except of course when they were ready to cuss us. I’ve never heard the racial slur ‘you coloured bastard’. No, we got the full monty, including and especially from the police: ‘You black bastard’.
And then, the contorted language of race relations brought us ethnic minorities and black and ethnic minorities. This gave rise to a protracted debate about whether we were ethnic minority or minority ethnic. That debate completely missed the point, i.e., a) that whether ‘ethnic minority’ or ‘minority ethnic’, we were consenting to being minoritized and ‘othered’ for all time and that we were considered and treated as ‘minority’, not just in relation to our ‘per capita’ representation in the population as part of the African and the Asian Diaspora, but minority in intelligence, in capabilities, in moral values, in our contribution to human evolution, etc. The society which automatically valued and validated white folk, began to demand that we prove ourselves and demonstrate that we had the capacity to hold certain positions before we could be accepted as eligible for appointment to a wide spectrum of posts; b) that as far as ethnicity was concerned, we were not just ethnic minorities, we were ethnic outcasts, vying with other ethnic minorities like ourselves and scrambling for crumbs and handouts from those in power, who were always facing a potential backlash from the white majority who saw us as undeserving and as taking what should have been given to them.
No one ever spoke or wrote about the ethnic majority in the society and how they engaged with their racial and ethnic identity. People and things were only ethnic when they were, or were related to, people and cultures that were not white. It is as if we had come into a land of ethnic neutrality and cultural homogeneity and were clumps of trees in vast forests of melanin starved corn; in other words, a population of people without colour (PWC) in more ways than one.
In time, those halcyon days when black denoted struggle of the sort that African people had waged for centuries against enslavement, colonisation and neo-colonialism and therefore was thought to encompass liberation struggles, broadly speaking, of oppressed and dispossessed peoples everywhere, including against the caste system in the Indian subcontinent, against Israeli occupation of Palestine and against the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australasia, those halcyon days gave way to a far narrower definition of black as signifying African – as in Africa and its Diaspora -, with most diasporan Africans seeing themselves as having either a hyphenated identity, – African-American, African-Caribbean, French-African – and many emphatically rejecting their African heritage altogether. Among the latter are significant numbers of Caribbean people of all ages, who while being comfortable with being called Black would never call themselves and resent being called African. In other words, they have no time whatsoever for Peter Tosh’s famous declaration:
‘Don’t care where you come from As long as you’re a black man, you’re an African’
Asians in Britain determined that they were not Black and they were no ‘ethnic minority’ either. In time, BME morphed into Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME).
BAME is a hideous acronym and it is one that does no justice to any of the sections of the British population encompassed by that ill-defined term. Black is an umbrella classification for whom exactly? Black African? Black British of African and of Caribbean parentage? Black British of African, or Caribbean and white European parentage? How about the large Indo-Caribbean population of Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, almost as numerous as the African-Caribbean population? In Britain, are they and their offspring Black Caribbean, or are they Asian as in BAME?
And what do we understand by Asian? What does that umbrella classification encompass? People from the Indian subcontinent only, as in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh? People from the Indian Ocean? People from countries that form the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN):Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Phillipines, Vietnam, Brunei, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos? People from China? People from Taiwan?
And if ‘Asians’ as in BAME signify people from the Asian continent and its Diaspora, why are people from the African continent and its Diaspora represented as ‘Black’ in BAME? I would suggest that ‘Black’ in that context has less connotations of Black as in “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’ than as black representing historical enslavement, reserve pools of labour, endless struggle for fundamental rights and entitlements and from the bondage of endemic racism.
As for ethnic minority/minority ethnic, we have to lead the way in abandoning this terminology.
The population of Europe’s ethnic majority, ie, white Europeans, is roughly 748 million. The population of the Indian subcontinent alone is approximately 1 billion, 765 million. 25% of the world’s population live in South Asia. Whites make up 60% of the population of the USA. The UK has a population of 68 million, of whom 9 million are non-white.
There is no evidence that I have seen of people from the Asian or African Diaspora regarding themselves as ethnic minorities in Britain. On the contrary, migrant and settler communities from those continents project anything but a minority consciousness. Yet, we readily adopt and persist with a language of hierarchy and of oppression, both here and in the USA. Among the bewildering array of terms that are in increasingly regular usage in Britain are: People of Colour; Black and Non-Black People of Colour and more recently Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC).
Who determined that Black or Indigenous people are ethnic minorities? Even numerically, why are we minoritizing ourselves who constitute 85% at least of the world’s population? Nigeria has a population of over 200 million. Britain has a population of 68 million. Why should Nigerians see themselves as an ethnic minority in Britain or anywhere else in Europe? And as for ‘People of Colour’ or ‘Visible Minorities’, why are we defining ourselves against globalised whiteness as some assumed norm and minoritizing ourselves as if we don’t fully belong, especially given Europe’s historical exploits around the globe?
There are little and large enclaves of white folk all over the world and on each continent. They never define themselves, nor do we ever define them, as ‘ethnic minorities’. We call them and they refer to themselves as ‘expats’, expatriates from their homeland who happen to be in some other country (typically seen as inferior to theirs). In other words, people are only ‘ethnic’ and ‘minority’ when they are not white. And yet, we fail to see how we ourselves are privileging whiteness as the ‘norm’ when we call ourselves ‘people of colour’, ‘ethnic minorities’ and the rest.
BAME is bad enough, but BIPOC for heaven’s sake…. So, we tacitly and implicitly accept that ‘white’ is a unified concept, all embracing, all encompassing. No diversity, ethnic minorities or multiculturalism in the white majority. It’s one undifferentiated, melanin starved mass. When it comes to us, however, we are BAME, POC, BIPOC, non-White ……and Backward.
If African people are People of Colour, why deny white Europeans the privilege of being called People without Colour, in other words, not having to carry the burden of blackness with all its historical baggage of unacceptability and undesirability?
The critical question in all this is: When is it going to end? It is estimated that in less than 50 years, the non-white population of Britain will outnumber the melanin starved, the WIPONC (White and Indigenous People of No Colour). Do we have to wait until then before we Africans and Asians develop and project a majority consciousness and stop minoritizing ourselves? Meanwhile, what does BAME tell us about the way the diverse populations we group as Black and Asian and Minority Ethnic experience the society and its endemic racisms? Do Indians, Bangladeshis, Chinese and Malaysians experience the society and its institutions in identical ways? Do they have equal access and equal opportunity? Similarly, those of us Africans who are lumped together as ‘Black’?
Convenient though policymakers no less than academics and journalists find it to use BAME and POC, I believe that we have a duty to disrupt the hegemony of that language and its power to racialise, marginalise and exclude. For one thing, young Black British people such as my children and grandchildren need a home. They need to see themselves as being the continuum of an Ancestral line, as having an African ancestry. Britain is where they live, but it can never be their ‘home’. Their ‘Mother country’ is Africa. While we believe in people’s right to self-identify and that therefore, Caribbean people have a right to declare that they are not African or Asian, or British for that matter, we would all consider it rather bizarre if they all started calling themselves Innuits.
I have no idea, any more than you do, how long it would take before we abandon the language of BAME and POC and BIPOC. But, we can all start by taking responsibility to avoid using it in our speech and in our writing. Although many regard it as being equally problematic, I increasingly use terms such as Global Majority, or African and Global Majority, instead of BAME. I never ever use ‘People of Colour’, for as far as I am concerned there is no difference between being called a person of colour, or a ‘woman of colour’ and a ‘coloured woman’.
Problematic it may be, but psychologically it nurtures my sense of wellbeing in this racist society to define myself and my offspring as African and Global Majority, rather than endorsing the label of BAME and POC.
I rest my case.
Gus John International Consultant & Executive Coach Visiting Professor – Coventry University Honorary Fellow and Associate Professor The UCL Institute of Education – University of London
A week ago I attended from afar the streamed New Cross Fire 40th anniversary memorial service. Through my close friendship with Malcolm Ball, a leading Lewisham youth worker and activist across the decades, my frequent visits to Deptford and indeed the St Andrews Centre, I felt I had an inkling of the grief and anger sparked by the tragedy. A week ago too Gus John was interviewed on BBC radio. You will find below his passionate, perceptive and uncomfortable account of the issues raised by the encounter.As Gus argues, ‘There is a serious debate to be had about all of these matters.’Responses encouraged and welcomed to firstname.lastname@example.org
From ‘Nigger-hunting’ to ‘Paki-bashing’ to Police Murders….Very British Pastimes.
On 18 January 2021, on the 40th Anniversary of the New Cross Massacre, I did an interview with Robert Elms, BBC Radio London
At the start of the interview, I was setting out the background to the New Cross Fire and the history of neo-fascist activity in London and the country generally and said that there had been years of neo-fascist activity in our communities including ‘Paki-bashing’ as the perpetrators themselves called it’…. And before I could complete the sentence with ‘and ‘nigger-hunting’, Elms interrupted saying ‘please don’t use that language. We cannot use such language on the BBC’. I determined that it would be more productive to move on to the core subject rather than remonstrate with him, but after the programme I wrote to the producer as below. His reply was both instructive and deeply concerning. What I said and Elm’s objection to my saying it have been elided from the recording in the link above.
I believe the BBC’s position is untenable and to invoke the potentially hurt feelings of their own black staff in support of dodgy editorial decisions is just disgraceful.
I joined the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) in 1965 and a couple years later I was one of those going around London and Leicester gathering evidence of the most vicious race discrimination, evidence which helped in no small measure to convince Harold Wilson and his government of the need for the 1968 Race Relations Act.
I saw my father stumble into our house that same year, bloodied, cut and bruised all over because he had been set upon on his way from work just after 06.00 on a winter’s morning and nearly beaten to death by a group of racists with baseball bats, motorbike chains and sticks. They seemed to come from nowhere and all he heard was ‘one less nigger’ and they were all over him. He had the presence of mind to run into somebody’s yard, pick up a bottle of milk, smash it and cut off the ear of one of his assailants, at which point they saw that he was ready to kill or be killed and they all ran off.
A matter of weeks later, my 16 year old brother was arrested for riding his bike in the park not far from our home. The police took him to Acton police station because he was ‘lippy’ and one of them defecated in a toilet and then pulled him out of a cell (he had not even been charged), took him to that same toilet and two of them held his head down in the faeces while they flushed the toilet. He nearly drowned in that filth. They then kicked him out of the police station. He arrived home totally traumatised and couldn’t eat for days. He remained traumatised for the rest of his short life. He went to prison for assaulting police a couple years later and was constantly having problems with them. He took to drink and died aged 49. Having drunk too much on his birthday, he fell down the stairs in his own flat and broke his neck.
My father came here in 1957 and by 1972 he and my mother were back in Grenada, having vowed never to set foot in England ever again. They both passed on without ever visiting the UK thereafter. They must have been among the earliest returners of their generation.
I fought off ‘nigger hunters’ in Notting Hill in 1968, especially after what had happened to my father and was angry at how nonchalant the police were about their activities, while being ever ready to frame us for having offensive weapons. As a youth worker in Ladbroke Grove at the time, I and other youth workers constantly walked young people home or to their bus because of the relentless harassment and provocation they suffered at the hands of the police.
I of all people therefore do not need the BBC to tell me how offensive terms like ‘nigger hunting’ and ‘Paki-bashing’ actually are. I conducted the Burnage Inquiry into the racist murder of 14 year old Bangladeshi student Ahmed Iqbal Ullah with Ian Macdonald QC and colleagues. Having stabbed Ahmed to death, his 14 year old white student attacker ran around the school shouting hysterically ‘I killed a Paki, I killed a Paki’.
There is a serious debate to be had about all of these matters.
One disturbing feature of the New Cross Fire story is the number of people in our communities and in the country generally below the age of 50 who have no knowledge of it. They have no knowledge either of the firebombing of premises in New Cross, Deptford, Ladywell and Lewisham generally and attacks on Asian families in their homes and on the streets that had been perpetrated by white terrorists and neo-fascists for more than a decade before the New Cross Fire. Such activity had a history that dated back to the 1919 racial attacks upon black service personnel demobbed from the First World War, through to ‘nigger hunting’ in London and elsewhere in the 1950s and ‘Paki-bashing’ right up to the present.
Throughout that period, also, hundreds of black people have been killed by the police with none being brought to justice since the murderers of David Oluwale in Leeds in 1969 were charged, not with murder or manslaughter, but with grievous bodily harm.
British historians have typically airbrushed the history of the barbarism of African enslavement and of British imperialism across the globe. Now, the media is leading the way in sanitising the barbarism of British racism, even as the police continue to kill black people indiscriminately while enjoying the full protection of the state and the judicial system. One could justifiably conclude that black people, males in particular, have an unnatural propensity to die of natural causes while in the custody of the police.
So, in a society where it is deemed offensive to spell the word ‘nigger’ and the word ‘Paki’ in full in any context, black people are routinely killed by the police without the state or the nation batting an eyelid. That is why this nation and its institutions reacted as if they needed a George Floyd event to trigger their epiphany, oblivious of the fact that we have ignored hundreds of British George Floyds, despite years of campaigning for justice in plain sight across the country. The hope is, no doubt, that it would soon be forgotten that there was a time when black people were called ‘niggers’ and ‘wogs’ and anyone who looked like they might be from the Indian subcontinent attacked and killed on the streets or in their homes with impunity.
Racism has been sanitised and recast as ‘unconscious bias’. British social history is being sanitised to expunge un-British activities such as ‘nigger hunting’, ‘Paki-bashing’ and police murders of black people. The expectation no doubt is that history will absolve the nation for this induced amnesia.
I am glad I had the opportunity to help put the events of 40 years ago in New Cross in proper historical and political perspective and I have full admiration for the way Robert conducted the interview. Please pass on my thanks to him.
When you reminded me to watch my language, I did not for one moment imagine that you meant I should not mention what the NF, Column 88 etc called that barbaric activity they indulged in up and down the country against the South Asian community. I am not naive enough as to expect you and Robert Elms to change BBC policy, but as a social historian, I do worry about the full scale attempt by broadcast or for that matter print media, to sanitise the nasty and unadulterated racism to which black people are subjected in this country by not reporting such phenomena as historical fact. In my writing and my lectures, I remind people of campaigns in the 1960s by myself and others against landlords and hoteliers who posted signs saying: ‘No Coloureds, No Dogs, No Irish’, or ‘No Wogs, No Dogs, No Irish’, or against what the neo-fascists themselves called ‘Paki-bashing’ and ‘nigger-hunting’. To report the barbarism of the Far Right and the atrocious terminology that they used AND THAT THE MEDIA REPORTED at the time is important in my view because Britain needs to be reminded about that history and about the fact, as I was saying in the interview, that the state did not react proportionately, or at all, to those barbaric attacks which left scores of people of the African and Asian diaspora dead. If I say that the activities of such Far Right groups resulted in the deaths of people who were targeted only because of their ethnicity and that the perpetrators called their actions ‘Paki-bashing’, I am neither appropriating that language myself, nor using it to inflame passions within the Pakistani or Bangladeshi communities. Context is everything, even in broadcasting. I cannot understand why the BBC should want to so infantilise its listeners as to assume that they cannot tell the difference between describing neo-fascist activity and what that activity was called by neo-fascists themselves on the one hand, and the same term(s) used contemporaneously by myself or anybody else.
The murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959 was a consequence of the routine ‘nigger-hunting’ that black communities in Notting Hill and elsewhere endured at the time. What is of consequence it seems to me, is not the fact that that terminology was and remains deeply racist, offensive and oppressive, but that white neo-fascists were allowed by the state and its police to indulge in those murderous activities with impunity. That fact is incontrovertibly more obscene than the words themselves.
The question is though, where in the BBC is this debate taking place and whom does it involve?
Turning to matters over which you do have some control, please send me a recording of the interview and a link to it so that I can share with others here in Wales and elsewhere.
From: Jamie Collins Sent: 18 January 2021 16:43 To: Gus John <email@example.com> Subject: RE: BBC Radio London / Robert Elms Importance: High
I thought you were great – extremely important and poignant considering to this day many of the issues faced by those then are still having to be fought against and survived to this day. We received several messages and calls from listeners that appreciated the way we highlighted the anniversary on the show and you were integral to this.
We as an editorial team and the wider station have had numerous conversations on the use of words such as the n word or p word in full – even for illustrative purposes as you did. While I fully understand and accept why you feel it is important to say it – many of our listeners of colour and indeed staff members are offended by the full use of the word and can find it triggering. And so the reason we do not use such words is so as to ensure it does not offend those minority communities- but we also recognise that this in itself divides opinion.
I fully understand the worry that by censoring the words in this context might dilute the threat, violence and racism faced by the Black and Asian community at the time by those groups. I also recognise that a white person using the words for illustrative purposes is hugely different to a person of colour who is doing the same.
The editorial decision has been made to edit out that portion of the interview when it goes live in iPlayer/BBC Sounds and I’m planning on clipping the interview separately for our BBC Sounds page and will send you the link as soon as it’s up.
If you would like I would be happy to refer you to the Editor and Assistant Editor if you would like to discuss further – and I would sincerely like to thank you once again for your contribution – it made a real impact.
Professor Augustine John International Consultant & Executive Coach Visiting Professor – Coventry University Honorary Fellow and Associate Professor The UCL Institute of Education – University of London