From England – Colin Hannaford Reports

Mar 25, 2017 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

Colin, first of all, let me say that our thoughts and prayers go out to you and everyone in England after the horrific recent event. Can you summon your thoughts and share some of them with us ?

Let me try to keep this short.

Five people were killed in this attack on Parliament. Forty were injured. Their attacker was shot dead.

Our Prime Minister declared within hours: ‘The location of this attack was no accident. The terrorist chose to strike at the heart of our capital city, where people of all nations, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech – the values our parliament represents – that command the admiration and respect of free people everywhere. That is why it is the target for those who reject those values. Any attempt to defeat those values through violence and terror is doomed to failure.

Tomorrow, Londoners and others from around the world who have come to visit this great city will go about their day as normal. They will board their trains, they will leave their hotels, they will walk these streets, they will live their lives. And we will all move forward together. Never giving in to terror. Never allowing the voices of hate and evil to driver us apart.’

This attacker was once an English schoolboy, who is said to have ‘converted to Islam’. The question we need to answer is not why did he do it. This is easy.

He was instructed in Islamist propaganda three years ago that was broadcast worldwide: “If you can kill any disbelievers, rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner however. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him down with your car, or thrown down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”

Since then, trucks and cars have been used to kill hundreds of people. The drivers have also been killed. They require no other weapon. No training. Very little intelligence.

Londoners are angered, but are also unimpressed. A note was pinned the same day to the entrance of a nearby Underground station: ‘All terrorists are politely reminded THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on. Thank you.

A more serious response is the title of leading article in The Times today. It reads ‘Mental Warfare, the struggle against Islamic terrorism will only be won in the mind.

In whose minds?  The Times suggests that by ‘ensuring that children are exposed to a wide variety of outside activities and institutions’.

But fanaticism is not some kind of germ. This is also very typically treating children as if they can only understand cartoons. We need to take this problem for more seriously. We need to begin explaining to children how their mind, and how our minds, work

The origin of terrorism is the belief that making people afraid of you will get you what you want. There is no more complicated reason?

Late last year, the Oxford University’s Philosophical Society published an essay of mine entitled ‘Simplicity’. Its editors called it a good argument. This is their highest praise!

In it, I argued that most children learn the power of fear over others before they are ten. They learn it in the playground, in the gym, on the field. Their parents may use fear to control them. They start to learn it from other young kids, then notice that older kids frighten older kids. Quite possibly their teachers use fear. Religions have done so, and do so.  Hell is a wonderful invention. It has preserved order in countless societies for thousands of years. It still does.

My essay described how, as a teacher, I also began to use fear. This is so tempting, so because it is so easy. Most schools provide endless tests and examinations. Fear of failure in these tests controls most children’s lives. But I wanted my pupils to think.

To be expected, invited, encouraged, challenged by their teacher or others to think is actually quite scary for many children, especially if they are from homes where they have only ever been expected to learn to behave as their parents were taught to behave, and have been required to believe as unquestionably true exactly what their parents believe to be unquestionably true.  They would usually have been frightened. Some might be beaten. Most frightening might simply be not to understand why some apparently insignificant mistake or minor misunderstanding might trigger such terrifying parental rage.

To help my pupils to have the confidence to think for themselves, I had first to discover why this happens; and also to explain how not to be frightened by others’ criticism, insults or bad temper, nor be surprised by the direction from which it might come.

Recently, I attended a lecture in one of the Oxford colleges on the importance of Freedom of Speech by a famous British philosopher for whom I had some respect.

He was charming, and persuasive and witty, and also my age, so that when, towards the end of his lecture, he declared that there is a danger that free speech may cause, “offence in the deepest part of people’s being”, I was encouraged to offer a friendly suggestion from my own experience.

This was a mistake. I had no intention to offend him. But I was clumsy. He has written over thirty books. “It would greatly help your argument,” I told him, “especially for children, if you would describe the actual physical reason why free speech may be offensive to people in the deepest part of their being. What is that deepest part.”

There was a painful silence. He shook his head. “No,” he responded. “I can’t say what that is. But I‘m sure that you are about to enlighten us.”

I should have notice that ‘us’. It signified that I was no longer a relatively unimportant individual in his audience. I had become an adversary. I had challenged him.

This was obvious to everyone but me. “I learnt to explain to children,” I cheerfully explained, “that the right side of their brain is very good at remembering habits, but only the left side, the side that can talk, question, criticize, and revise its understanding of anything, is fully human. Its great pleasure is learning new ideas. The right side of their brain, of any human brain, is hardly able to anything other than just remember habits. But Darwin may also have missed, or thought it too provocative to say so, that whilst we have inherited much of the physical form and social behavior of apes, in the right side of our brain we have also inherited their emotions.

This is why we feel so safe if no one challenges any of our habits of behavior, or culture, or beliefs. We are relaxed and happy. But, if anyone or anything does challenge any of these habits that keep us feeling happy and secure, we are bound to VERY ANGRY, and will try to destroy whoever or whatever it believe is challenging them.”

I was rather pleased by my rapid, but complete explanation. Practice makes perfect. “This is why,” I managed to add, in what I thought was a stunned but receptive silence, “I was able to tell my pupils that with me they would learn to use left side of their brain to argue, and question, and criticize, and all of this without losing their temper with each other. This is what they learnt to do in my lessons, by arguing about mathematics with each other.”

And I could have added: ‘If children learnt like this everywhere, they would also learn to value liberty, democracy, free speech, and human rights, and could never be persuaded to choke, poison, slaughter with a knife, smash with a rock, or run over with a truck or car. They would want to live, and not die for someone’s stupid idea of revenge.’

But I didn’t. The tourists were safe on Westminster Bridge that day. The attack on Parliament had not happened.

“Well,” said the famous British philosopher, “but, you know, you named the wrong sides. It’s the right side that controls the left.”

I thanked him for his correction. Right controls left. Right.


Colin Hannaford

Oxford, 24th March, 2017.

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