The Carolingian Age is almost upon us and as we traverse the ocean of sorrow that has accompanied the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, it is only right that we begin to contemplate the future and to think very carefully about the sort of nation that we wish to become. The rise of the digital age has had an unpredictable impact upon the nature and tone of public discourse and the hyper-individualism that has accompanied a revolution in terms of mass communication has resulted in a volatile culture where self-interest trumps the concept of service. Indeed, the outpouring of grief at this time is born out of affection for a much loved monarch but it is an unconscious mourning for the passing of an age that valued civility, kindness and respect. The Queen was the living embodiment of virtues which are sometimes dismissed as old fashioned. Above all else, she was an eternal optimist. In her journeys through Britain and across the world, she demonstrated a genuine interest in the lives of those whom she met. She started from a position of positive intent and often reflected upon her belief in our potential.
If the world appears to turn more quickly, then it is because news is disseminated with an immediacy which was unimaginable in the past. The proclamation of the new monarch might seem an archaic tradition but it serves to highlight the fact that the opportunity to experience the world in real time is relatively new. When the Queen came to the throne, Pathe newsreels would report on events that had happened days or weeks before. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that such delays provided time for careful consideration and quiet reflection.
By contrast, the immediacy of Twitter provides a powerful and cathartic platform for those who wish to rage against the world. The Library of Congress stores every tweet that has ever been tweeted. Its digital vaults must contain billions of acts of microaggression. Of course, viewed optimistically, it gives a voice to the voiceless and provides a level of connectivity that empowers those who feel oppressed. Everyone’s opinion is valid and one could argue that there is a radically direct and quintessentially democratic aspect to such platforms which is, of itself, exhilarating.
In terms of supporting freedom of expression, Twitter and social media platforms have the power to do extraordinary good and yet the rapidity with which a Twitter feed can turn sour is frightening. Similarly, the hyperbole, vitriolic abuse and unthinking cruelty that characterises so much of what passes for public debate has an extraordinarily corrosive impact upon those who are most vulnerable within society. As someone who leads a community, I believe that I am fair game insofar as I should be held to a high level of account. Accepting accountability is a fundamental aspect of leadership and it is perfectly reasonable for people to criticise you if you have willingly accepted such a position.
This week, I had a taste of what it is like to be caught in a media storm. On a personal level, I do not believe that I deserve a shred of sympathy. I take full responsibility for a decision that I know that I took in good faith and after a good deal of thought. I am happy to accept that such a decision can and should be called into question. However, I have observed, with a sense of detached fascination, the trajectory of outrage that was explosive and unfettered. It was extraordinary to read tweets calling for my imprisonment or comparing me to Boris Johnson. Of course, there was an entertaining aspect to some of the more extreme comments but it was a serious issue and people had a right to ask questions and be provided with answers. As it happened, the court of public opinion softened and the focus gradually drifted away from a class debate and charges of elitism. Indeed, if the first 24 hours of online comments had been unforgiving, then the next 24 hours were more nuanced and tended to dismiss the notion that the playing of a friendly football match between school children constituted something that was truly newsworthy. Personally, I felt deeply uneasy that space was being devoted to what many were openly regarding as a non-story. On that front alone, I am apologetic.
Life moves on and one is soon yesterday’s news. However, I do wonder whether our potential to go from 0-60 sometimes spills over into real life. Schools are increasingly retaining lawyers and this is perhaps reflective of the litigious world within which we live. It is a rather tortured world within which positive intent is rarely assumed and people labour under the belief that misfortune or personal disappointment must be due to the failings of others. A culture of personal accountability is in retreat and we are becoming less adept at listening to the views of others . During the summer holidays, someone ran into the back of our car. There was little damage and despite being almost stationary, I got out of the car to apologise. Being British, we apologise when someone walks into us! The gentleman concerned also apologised and once it became apparent that everyone was fine, I had little appetite to pursue him for the cost of minor repairs. Technically, he was in the wrong but, in my heart of hearts I did not believe it was entirely his fault. After all, I was stopped behind traffic on a blind turn in the Lakes. Could he have legitimately have expected this?
So why are we so quick to take offence or respond aggressively?
- We live in an age where immediate gratification comes from being outraged. Platforms such as Twitter allow people to grandstand and enjoy the guilty pleasure of taking a pop at someone or something. The sense of gratification comes from the release of rage and the affirmation that others share one’s perspective. One is validated by ‘likes’, retweets or a cacophony of like-minded comments.
- We respond to events emotionally and this is because there is an immediacy to life which leaves us with little opportunity to process events calmly. A letter written with feather and quill and delivered by horse and carriage was an epistle worth investing care and time over. Words were carefully chosen. An angry email fired off at ten o’clock at night after a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc reaches its target in a nanosecond.
- We live in a blame culture where there is all too often a presumption of negative intent. In such a context, little room is left for honest misunderstanding, bad luck or human failing. It is not a culture that is forgiving.
- Perhaps we feel let down by those who should be looking after us. Our faith in our leaders has been rocked by issues such as partygate and, as a people, we are still coming to terms with the emotional trauma of living through a pandemic.
- Our sense of perspective has been distorted by a digital world within which algorithms entrench our prejudices rather than challenging them. .
However, there are many positives that we should celebrate….
- Student voice is growing in power and we are much more responsive to the concerns of young people. Consequently, schools are more inclusive communities and, intrinsically, more fair.
- Young people care about issues such as social justice, the environment and humanitarian issues like never before. They are massively impressive and the future will be safe in their hands.
- There are much more sophisticated policies, structures and mechanisms in place to deal with concerns than at any time in the past.
- Everyone has a voice and institutions embrace a culture of accountability that is fundamentally healthy.
So the challenge, moving forward, is to embrace the wonderful potential of digital media in a way that empowers those who are vulnerable without giving way to groupthink. As we enter the Carolingian age, let’s assume positive intent and treat others with a generosity of spirit that arises from understanding and forgiveness. Let’s be slow to pass judgement but quick to offer support. Let’s treasure that which is positive rather than seeking out that which is ugly or negative. Ultimately, let the lasting legacy of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign be a commitment to making a gentler world where kindness and civility are valued above all else.
Headmaster of Rossall School