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John Amaechi is right, BUT...

In John Amaechi's video for children on BBC Bitesize

he shows young viewers - and us all - how to challenge racism in a respectful way and become what he calls an 'anti-racist' rather than merely a 'non-racist'.

I agree with him but he has omitted a very important part of this discussion that needs stating. (To be fair, it might be the constraints of the short video format that determined this, but I'm not sure of that).

He says that when we hear or see something that is racist we must say "That is not acceptable. That's racist.' I agree that we must challenge racism whenever we see or hear it, but John implies that people are not entitled to their opinions - even stupid and morally unjustifiable ones.

And they are.

In a free, democratic society a fool must be allowed to utter his or her foolishness. So what John has missed out is some absolutely crucial language that preserves the right of free speech in a democratic society.

We have limited the right of free speech - even in democratic societies - to that which does not 'abuse, threaten or incite violence'. Speech which is offensive - even deeply offensive - should and indeed must be tolerated if we are to preserve our liberal traditions and be able challenge untruths.

We must also be able to challenge ideas, beliefs, attitudes and opinions that we find offensive - but - we must tolerate their expression in the first place. Tolerance is a liberal virtue - that's something we should preserve.

For example, if someone says to me as part of a conversation: "Jews dominate the media and the banks" or "Islam is a religion with medieval rites and practices" I am deeply offended by such remarks.

However, I must tolerate their expression - they have not been abusive, threatening or incited violence against Jews or Muslims - they have merely expressed a deeply offensive remark that I now want to challenge. (It might be different of course if those remarks were being shouted in the face of a Jew or Muslim - that would clearly be abusive and threatening).

We must distinguish between the respect we show to 'the person' (what's called 'recognition' respect - respecting a person for who they are as a human being) and respect for 'the ideas' they are expressing (what's called 'appraisal' respect where we appraise and evaluate those ideas). We should always respect the person, but we don't have to respect their ideas.Those ideas might be absurd and even abhorrent.

So I would respectfully say to John that he should have said in his video: "That is not acceptable to me. It may be acceptable to you, but I think what you say is racist and can't be justified morally... (for the following reasons....) Not just say to someone: "That's not acceptable..." as though in effect, they mustn't speak their mind.

John's video gives the impression that people should not be tolerated to express their opinion - even if that is an offensive one. They can, should and must. Otherwise, they will take their offensive and perhaps bigoted and racist beliefs and attitudes underground - where we won't be able to challenge them - and where they are more likely to become entrenched.

By keeping them out in the open, we have a chance to hopefully, change minds.

When people do abuse, threaten or incite violence none of us has to tolerate that. That's illegal. Quite right too, but let's not conflate being offended with being abused. We have to tolerate being offended. We don't have to tolerate being abused.

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with 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: 'Becoming a teacher - the legal, ethical and moral implications of entering society's most fundamental profession' is published by Crown House Publishing on August 31st 2021. You can order a copy here.

You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’ – a 3-module course with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self assessment exercises and completion certificates.



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