Insults, banter, free speech and teaching

Warning: this article contains language some may find offensive.

In John Terry‘s trial for racially aggravated behaviour, his alleged victim Anton Ferdinand said he didn’t mind being a called a “fucking cunt”. He considered that to be mere “banter“. But to be called a “fucking black cunt” was of a different order. That “crossed the line” and was “hurtful and offensive”.

I have to admit that even though he wasn’t offended by being called a “fucking cunt”, I was. I not only felt offended on his behalf but on behalf of women and girls – half the human race – about whom this term is surely coined as a metaphorical insult.

But what has it all got to do with me? I was not the object of these insults (or banter..!). I am neither black nor female – so why should I take offence at insults that are not directed at me?

All this reminds me of the recent news that the human rights activist Peter Tatchell has campaigned to have the law changed around insult.

He believes that, in a free society, people don’t have a right be protected from ‘insult’.  Under Section 5 of the current Public Order Act he says, “there’s no requirement to prove alarm, harassment or distress has been caused… “Likelihood” is enough to secure a conviction, regardless of intention… and that stifles free speech.”

Tatchell to his great credit has recently succeeded, but it still provides an interesting conundrum for teachers. We know full well the damage insults can do, especially to young children, in the war of attrition played out on the ‘bullying battlefields’ of classrooms, playgrounds and social media platforms.  But is Peter Tatchell right? Does banning ‘insult’ close down free expression?

One day, many years ago, a white girl in my class of (ethnically diverse but highly cohesive) 10-11 year olds referred to the newsagents shop at the end of the road as “Paki Pete’s”.

I stopped her there and then. I told her it was a term I wouldn’t accept in the classroom.

“Why Sir?” she said, “I’m not being horrible… he’s my friend. We all call him Paki Pete… to his face. He doesn’t mind.”

I said it didn’t matter that he doesn’t mind, it was an offensive term that is often used abusively.  I told her it was a racist term and she shouldn’t use it.

I could see she was confused.

The next day her mother came in to school. She was a working-class East Ender through-and-through and like one of wartime V2 rockets that her grandparents had survived, she was heading straight for me.

“Dannie came home a bit upset last night…” she began calmly.  “Are you saying my daughter is a racist?”

I said I wasn’t accusing her of that but explained my reasoning – that even if she or “Pete” wasn’t offended by the term, I was. It was my classroom and I wasn’t going to allow it.

Then, just like a doodlebug, she went quiet… then exploded:

“I don’t see what it’s got to do with you.” she said, incredulous. “Pete’s been our neighbor for years. For one thing, if he wants to be known as “Pete”, that’s his business, not yours. Nor does he mind his shop being called “Paki Pete’s” by the people living round here. He’s our friend, not yours. He’s our shopkeeper, not yours. And I’ll tell you another thing… I leave my kids with Pete when I go out… my own fuckin’ kids..!  So don’t you tell me or my daughter what we can and can’t say about our own fuckin’ friend..!”

Now I look back on that incident and think she was right to give me, in true East End style, the full lock, stock and barrel. But was I wrong?

I think I was wrong to be offended by someone who had shown no intent to insult. Secondly, I think I was wrong to be offended on behalf of someone that I had no evidence of being offended in the first place. But perhaps most important, I misguidedly closed down “in my classroom” what was a great opportunity for debating an issue with the rest of the class.

Using the classroom as a forum for such a discussion would have helped rather than undermined the children’s ability to evaluate their identity and build the cohesion I wanted to promote.

Of course, it’s not just my classroom, it’s theirs too. As a teacher I think I should have respected their right to say things that in the context of innocent intent, I disagreed with – even if I did find it offensive or insulting.

So on the one hand I made some mistakes. But on the other, I think I was right to uphold the values of a civilised society that children should learn about mutual respect and dignity. I still reserve the right to put a stop to abuse and abusive language of course – and so does Peter Tatchell by the way.  That is a quite a different matter.

But classrooms in the UK these days are wonderful melting pots for constructing identity and values. Teachers should use their classrooms as forums to explore, define and validate identity – and that’s always been a mix of history, heritage, language, culture, religion, gender, race, class or whatever.

Our role is to challenge students to question, debate and argue – not close down discussion, as I did. It may get a little fractious at times, sure – but the process of children de-constructing and reconstructing values – such as free speech – is fundamental to the long-term cohesion that underpins society.

Banning the inoffensive use of insulting language won’t help children do that. And I actually believe that’s part of what makes us British.

So then… are you confident about letting your pupils and students discuss the “insults” and “banter” of John Terry and Anton Ferdinand or “jokes” about the Prophet Mohammad?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in February 2014.


6 thoughts on “Insults, banter, free speech and teaching

  1. Good piece, indeed! The “restorative justice” approach of creating a circle in which person(s) who feel impacted by others can express safely what that impact is to the one(s) perceived to have done harm, is a model for me and us in our high school. We grow in sensitivity when such a safe container is achieved and all who participate feel affirmed (win/win). We prefer “salad bowl” to “melting pot,” valuing the former image to embrace differences that can be honored rather than the temptation in the latter to seek assimilation into a “norm” (however that is defined by whom). I have a gay son, so when students call someone “gay,” claiming no offense–that nowadays it simply means “stupid” or “silly”–I have the opportunity to state my situation and ask the students to think through how that word emerged, where it’s going, etc. I am still offended, they know it, and maybe we’ll just keep talking about it. I expect no neat outcome, except, perhaps, increased mutual respect and trust. Thus, I would not support increased recourse to formalized laws and policies unless a community of persons–the class, the whole learning community, etc.–were able to identify and come to a consensus about a word, insult, or slur: that it seriously violated the code of ethics, the mission, and the core values of the community. Hard and exhausting work, but surely preferable to legislation that chips away at democratic freedom and community-building health.

    1. That’s a wonderful post revrafa – thank you very much for taking the time to make it. Your extremely articulate exposition of the issues is almost a manifesto for democratic freedom, but without any romantic idealism – for, as you say, teaching students to understand and cherish freedom can be hard and exhausting work, but infinitely preferable to legislation that purports to protect freedom but unwittingly may undermine it. Thanks again for a great post.

  2. Great piece. I work with software that is used in schools and helps pick up on really nasty attempts or actions to cyberbully. The main aim for using such systems is to stop blocking what kids can get to as they need to fall off the bike once in a while to learn the right from wrong for themselves. I was amazed by the amount of racist and verging on criminal dialog exchanged on You Tube – FaceBook and in emails written as text speak. It’s like holding back a tsunami with a body surfing board. If anything the use of racist or harmful language is on the increase but not out of the mouth, but from the finger tips. Even adults are starting to slip into a ‘who cares’ attitude to what they post and the language they use. Freedom must come with responsibility and that’s what’s missing. I have head teachers and senior staff shying away from using the system because it would identify too much wrong doing. That can’t be right but I do understand the time and money affects schools just like a business. I hope that lessons are learnt quickly before a whole generation become closet racists.

    1. Hi Weybridge Security – that post has just blown me out of the water – amazing. Thank you. On the one hand what you describe is extremely alarming but on the other it’s very important to say that with “freedom comes responsibility” – and part of the responsibility of teaching is to nurture and impart values, even if that exposes – as you put it “wrong doing” – and then having to spend time re-constructing the values that mis-informed the wrong doing in the first place.

      As I say in the blog, I defend the right of people to say insulting and offensive things, even when that reflects their own racist values. I think we should, by now, be able to tell the difference between someone saying that they “dislike a certain religion or culture” or even that “Britain should be white” without assuming that they are automatically using threatening or abusive language. The problem of course, is that the two are so often mixed. But that’s the role and skill of a teacher in my view, to extricate one from the other and be the “educator” – to lead people out of darkness and in to the light – from the Latin ‘ducare’.

      Your post has raised a really fascinating and compelling issue and I really hope we get more responses to this very important issue – thanks again for taking the time.

  3. Excellent article. As a fellow teacher who is daily, neigh, hourly subjected to the “fu**ing this and that” and has been often address as “fu**ing right sir” I understand the tension that making the distinction between locally accepted colloquialisms and offensive intent can be difficult.

    Where I teach, the “f” word is a form of punctuation, an adjective, verb and noun — all used interchangeably. When I am sworn at, I need to decide if it is AT me or just the “turn of phrase that my learners use”.

    When I started teaching, I would have pulled up every incident of the “f word” as being the end of education as we know it. Now, I am more able to distinguish between being sworn at (unacceptable) and the f-word being used as a colloquialism. The latter likley to be responded to with “languague” and always an appology.

    I too have learned that I can’t take offence on behalf of others and that we, the teachers are often overly sensitised to political correctness.

    Thought provking blog.


    1. Thanks Glen – very kind of you to say so. Sounds like you’ve got a real job on your hands there..! and that you have the patience of a saint..! Good Luck and thanks for your very reflective and generous post. Sounds like you are a great (and very saintly!) teacher.

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