Why we haven’t forgotten about the racist abuse directed at the England players

The racist abuse of three of England’s football stars has been truly disgraceful. It has once more left us all having to think hard about the nature of the societies we are living in, who we are and who we want to be.

By chance, one of the players, Bukayo Saka, went to school in Greenford just down the road from where I went to school so I feel a little connection to him in a way I’m not to the others. And I mention this because making that sort of connection is how we come to make sense of ourselves and of others. We do it all the time.

Our identities comprise of many such affiliations, some stronger than others, some transitory, others more permanent, and all of them combining almost certainly in an inconsistent and contradictory fashion. For example, I support Manchester United and Bukayo plays for Arsenal.

There are going to be times when Arsenal play United and I’m not going to be rooting for him even though elsewhere, and now, I will always be rooting for him. Always and not always? That’s not consistent. But that’s the way identities work. It’s deliberate and written in to what we’re doing and who we are.

Class riddled society

I’m from a society where formal equality before the law has meant that hierarchy can only be expressed as class and not as caste. In a class-riddled society everything is coded into a many-tiered hierarchy whereby you can read off a person’s position in the hierarchy from what they wear, how they speak, which school and university they attended, where they live, their furniture and their car and so on.

But knowing this, people try and work out ways of escaping the meanings assigned so that they can disrupt and challenge them. Individuals play around with the codes and being able to play like this is a key way of knowing whether you belong or not. It’s the crucial spirit of this civilization.

This serious playfulness doesn’t just happen in a vacuum of course. Under the surface are things that pin it together. Equality and playfulness are a feature (not a bug) of a civilization which values individualism. England, where Bukayo and myself are from, has been peculiarly individualistic for a very long time.

According to the historian and anthropologist Alan Macfarlane, individualism has been written into the laws of England since the fifth century when the Romans were kicked out, and unlike Europe, which by about the thirteenth and fourteenth century had reverted back to Roman Law, and anywhere else, has retained this individualism through its legal system, it’s strong civil society interposed between society and the state, it’s peculiar democratic political system, it’s economic system and wealth, it’s weak family system, it’s weak religious authority, it’s island status, it’s education system and that argumentative, talkative, critical, playful spirit.

It’s also a rag bag of different groups which on the surface have very little in common with each other except that they all share the same print language, capitalism, and equality in law (no matter how rich or poor, no matter their sex, no matter their ethnicity, class or anything else).

Reading Adam Smith, de Tocqueville, Maitland, Montesquieu, and Macfarlane helps us understand all this and how it came about. I personally have a rich heritage reaching into Asia and the middle east, yet I am English through and through. And British. And Asian, And a woman. And a lover of Hollywood and Bollywood movies. And fancy handbags… and just like anyone, I could go on and on. The point is, as Bob Dylan puts it, I contain legions. This is what makes me unique. Just like everyone else.

A racist misunderstands all this. They don’t have the right spirit to understand their world. They have been poorly educated. Because as a school leader and educationalist one of the central things that schools are for is to induct people from the very start into this civilization so that they learn it from the inside. It isn’t enough to know the formal features. People must understand the spirit by which the civilization works if they are to be able to belong to it.

It’s the playful, critical and free spirit that allows a society to thrive and work brilliantly as individuals choosing who they want to be and who they want to associate with. It’s this spirit that has to be learnt and is why great schools spend so much time educating not just the mind but also the heart, spirit and bodies of their students.

A very different spirit

What might be making the world we’re living so frightening for some people that they are adopting a very different spirit to the one I’m trying to promote and maintain through my school? Well, there are several factors which could be contributing to the erosion of the playful, critical, tolerant spirit, many of them very familiar to us. So we can see that social media and the internet may well be destroying what the sociologist Goffman calls the ‘front stage’ and ‘back stage’ of life.

Without a difference between what we do in public and what we do when no one is looking the very idea of authority is undermined. With authority eroded, teaching and education, as well as governance and control, becomes difficult. Social media and the growth of private worlds of like-minded alternatives encourages conspiracy theories and undermines ideas of truth and generally agreed norms and values. And digital media’s ability to amplify everything exponentially can often present a multi-track crisis narrative designed to induce strong emotions and a sense of panic.

What these and other factors can do is weaken the institutions of civil society that give our lives meaning and allow us to be tolerant of difference and the other. Without this spirit of tolerance – and the key notion of equality that individualism is based on, as De Toqueville taught us – then we remove the very mechanism that prevents the state from being totally dominant, or other sources of power, be they ideological (e.g. religion, nationalism) or societal (e.g. kinship, tribe). The balance of power disappears and authoritarianism emerges.

A strong civil society is what makes civilization wonderful. Schools are a crucial part of this. Of course, what is rather wonderful and exciting about our global world is that this civilization is not alone. It is everywhere, but gets mixed in with different ones with different characteristics. You can find it in China and India, but with Chinese and Indian characteristics.

You find it in Dubai and Nigeria, France and Japan, but all with difference written in. Different histories and cultures means that there is no pure version anywhere. Globalisation in the very broadest sense (not the economists’ version) is about how great civilizations learn from each other, and give and take. It’s for this reason that a spirit of playfulness and generosity, an acceptance of difference and of change, are so very important.

The racist abuse of Bukayo Saka is not disgraceful because he and the other players are great footballers who deserve to be admired (although of course they are that too). It is disgraceful because it is the opposite of how any decent civilized person should behave to any other fellow human being. It is an affront to the spirit of what makes us who we are and cannot be tolerated by a civilization that thrives on intelligent minds, generous hearts, wondrous spirits and disciplined bodies.

Which leads me to end on this aside: We often hear anti-racists calling racists stupid, but I think that accusation misses the point. Racists might be clever, but they lack the right spirit and that, more than a big IQ number, is the mark of the best of us, and should be what we all strive to become.