How long must we sing this song? (February 2022)

I can’t believe the news today. Oh I can’t close my eyes and make it go away. Broken bottles under children’s feet, bodies strewn across the dead end street. But I won’t hear the battle call, it puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall. And the battle’s just begun, there’s many lost but tell me who has won. The trench is dug within our hearts, and mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart.

Those are lyrics from a song written by David Howell Evans in 1983. The title of the piece directs you not to the news of that year but a decade further back to the events of 1972 (before even I was born). You might have recognised the words, if not then I should say that Evans is better known as the Edge; the band that perform this song is U2 and the title is Sunday, Bloody Sunday.

On 30th January 1972 the worst mass-shooting in Northern Irish history took place. 26 people were shot, of whom 14 died. Most of them were shot whilst fleeing the killers, none of them were armed. The police investigation began thirty-eight years later and, unsurprisingly resulted in no successful prosecutions. Fifty years on, nobody has been brought to justice for this. All we know is that the killers were British soldiers acting under orders and on a peacekeeping mission.

The haunting chorus of U2’s song is “how long? How long must we sing this song? How long? How long?” because the euphemistically named Troubles that had brought the British Army to Northern Ireland and had created the background for the Bloody Sunday massacre started long before 1972 were still going on in the 80s. In 1981 ten imprisoned terrorists starved themselves to death in protest against having their prisoner of war status revoked; in 1982 the IRA bombed a parade in Hyde Park, killing four soldiers, seven bandsmen and seven horses; also in 1982 they bombed a disco in County Londonderry killing 11 soldiers and six civilians; in 1983 they set a car bomb off in Harrods in Knightsbridge and killed six; in 1984 a bomb in Brighton during the conservative party conference hit the hotel where the prime minister was staying killing five people including an MP.

The conflict in Northern Ireland was couched in religious terms: Protestants against Catholics – all the victims of Bloody Sunday were Catholics, but the differences are not religious: they’re not fighting over obscure doctrinal statements, over whether Purgatory is a real fate that awaits the dead, over quite what happens to the bread and wine in their ceremonies. No, they’re fighting over power, over who should be in charge, and using religion as an excuse, a weapon, a banner around which to gather their supporters. The British Army were in Derry to keep the peace – but also to show they were in charge, to stop people protesting against British laws on internment (which enabled the authorities to arrest and imprison without trial anyone suspected of being part of the IRA). In my more generous moments I reflect that this is further evidence for the thesis that having frightened people with guns makes any situation worse. The IRA, meanwhile, were demanding that the democratically expressed wish of the Northern Irish be overturned. The map of Ireland is how it is because the people of the south wanted to be independent, the people of the north wanted to be British, and the IRA didn’t think they should have that choice. The IRA thought they should be in charge, at least of that decision, and so they killed people.

The Edge has said that Sunday Bloody Sunday isn’t really about Bloody Sunday, it’s about the endless conflict that tears communities apart. “Broken bottles under children’s feet, bodies strewn across the dead-end street” could be so many places over the last 50 years. For me the key line is “the trench is dug within our hearts” – this is a song about barriers between people, tiny differences that dig battle lines into our psyche that we can’t cross, that the power hungry and amoral will exploit to expand their empires. And “there’s many lost but tell me who has won?” Hatred is a game where the only winning move is not to play.

On Friday I spent the afternoon with some Harris Westminster students chewing over the idea that our community is founded on Kindness and Scholarship and thinking about how well we exemplify those virtues, what we could do better. Kindness, we said, was putting the needs of others above our own desires, and Scholarship was listening, learning, thinking scrupulously and critically about difficult issues. Honestly, I believe that the problems of the world could be resolved if everyone approached them with kindness and scholarship, all of them except for unrequited love – I think that’s still going to be painful, sorry.

We are a hugely heterogenous community – so much so that starting a congeries with male and female, black and white, Christian and Muslim, gay and straight, does no justice at all to the broader and finer spectrum of our differences. A congeries, by the way, is a rhetorical device whose name means heap – it’s the same trick as Wordsworth plays with his ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples. There are so many different groups that it would be surprising if nobody put your back up. The key point is not to let that put your back up against the wall, a distinction made quite beautifully by U2 using another rhetorical trick called polyptoton – using the same words twice to mean something different, another example being John Lennon’s line Please please me. To put someone’s back up is to annoy them, to have you back up against a wall is to have no choice but to fight your way out.

If Kindness is looking for excuses not to fight, then Scholarship is listening to the people you’re not fighting with so that you know when their back hits the wall and they’ve got nowhere else to go. We need to understand each other better, and to do that we need to ask questions, and we need to treat each other’s questions as honest enquiries rather than a rhetorical pursuit of victory, and we therefore need to give each other reasons to trust our honesty and not to seek to push arguments into logical tangles. The bottom line is that a lot of beliefs aren’t logical – they don’t have to be – humanity isn’t a logical construction, it’s a group of people living messy, complex lives. Understanding someone better isn’t insisting they justify their existence, being clumsy and ignorant isn’t the same as attacking someone. One of the most important ideas that came out of our discussions was the idea that we’re still young – at least you are, I need a new excuse – and that being young means not knowing things, getting things wrong, making mistakes not through malevolence but incompetence and inexperience (actually, this isn’t restricted to the young).

How long? How long? Well, U2 sing, we can be as one tonight. Tonight if we make the commitment to kindness and scholarship. One of the wonderful ideas knocking round our Harris Westminster ethos is that of Passionate Doubt – scholars are by nature uncertain, if there’s always more to learn then there’s always the possibility we’re wrong – but scholars are passionate about that learning. You shouldn’t have to censor your thinking, you should be able to engage, challenge, question. But let me be clear – this is not license to say anything you like because some thinking is unkind, it marginalises others, it puts your comfort above their existence and if you’re thinking like that the answer is not to silence yourself, it’s to change your thinking. If someone says “hang on – that’s sexist,” or racist or homophobic, or just generally unpleasant then you have a duty to think about whether they’re right, and if they are to think differently. But you shouldn’t seek to silence those who think differently from you and who are exploring their understanding of the universe – find out why they think differently, what their starting points are, where their back hits the wall. Point out the unkindness, engage with the misunderstanding, learn from the different starting point.

Kindness and Scholarship. I call on you all to be interested in differences, to make the most of the opportunities of our congeries, our heap of heterogenous people. If you’re not part of our discussion societies then you should be – watch the notices, look out for posters, join Tirah, IFS, Intelligent Believing, GSA or ACT – you don’t have to be part of a marginalised group to want to make school a better place for those who are. The battle’s just begun – but it’s not a battle for power I want you to fight, but for understanding, for peace, for a better tomorrow.