Assemblies? Do you listen to them? Do you pay attention to what’s said? Do you remember what you’re told? Can you hold on to a train of thought that an unkind observer might say skates obliquely from one idea to the next? Well, I propose to test these issues by asking you two questions now and seeing if you’re still with me when I get to the answers.
Question 1: How does Bob Marley like his doughnuts?
Question 2: What does Bob Marley say when his friends come round for doughnuts?
For those of you who don’t know, Bob Marley was a Jamaican singer-songwriter, a pioneer of reggae music and a prominent Rastafarian, and for those of you who don’t know about that, Rastafari is a religious and social movement developed in Jamaica that emphasises smoking cannabis, living naturally, wearing hair in dreadlocks and following patriarchal gender roles. It has an Afrocentric focus and was in opposition to the British colonial culture.
The use of cannabis in Rastafari is an interesting question for British culture because it puts into tension two of the fundamental British Values. You will remember – or rather I hope you’ll remember – the four British Values from Mr Johnson’s assembly last term. Congratulations to those of you who are rattling them off under your breath, please award yourself a gold star if you got them right. If, maybe, they have slipped your mind in the intervening weeks, then I hope that you’ll take them away with you from today’s assembly – I say I hope, and I really do – it is one of my responsibilities to do my best to teach you about them. The two I have in mind right now are Rule of Law and Religious Tolerance (technically the mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs) and the list is completed by individual liberty and democracy which I will get to before we leave today.
The rule of law is the idea that everyone has to obey the law, we don’t have different rules for the rich or well-connected, and that there is a process for creating or changing law, it’s not simply the whim of the ruler. Religious tolerance requires us to accept that there are different ways of understanding how the world works and how we should act in it and that we should be able to respect those who see things differently from us. Cannabis forces us to decide which is more important – the idea that the law against recreational drug use should apply to everyone or the principle that religious practices should be tolerated even if we don’t follow them ourselves. The answer is contested, but so far the conclusion of the courts is that the rule of law wins – there is no exemption in this case (so please don’t try to argue it with the authorities). We see here some of the challenges with making a list of fundamental values – you can find they compete with and set limits on each other and also that you might not always live up to your values: I’m sure some cynics among you were wondering if maybe the law does seem to bend if you’re on good enough terms with certain politicians, or harden based on racial or religious profiling. It gets worse when you try to name the values – are we claiming these are British in that they were invented here, or that nobody else is allowed or expected to hold them?
The best answer, I think, comes from response – as in so many aspects of life. When we look at an exam we did fairly well in and ask “how can I learn from this, how can I do better?” we’re not saying that our achievement is perfect, nor that there’s a way to spend our four hours to ensure perfection, and definitely not that nobody else can do this subject better than us – we’re setting out our ambition, our hope, our goal. So the government has said that these values: Rule of Law and Religious Tolerance, Individual Liberty and Democracy are important to us as a country, that they make us the kind of community we want to be, and that not everyone in the world holds to them, but that we see those who do as allies in our ambitions for the world. Whilst we’re on response, it’s been pointed out to me that my questions 1&2 rely on some cultural capital and might therefore be niche – which I guess will divide you into three groups. Those that get the joke and enjoy being in a select few, those that don’t and move on, and those that don’t but see it as an opportunity to learn more about this wonderful musician.
I have to teach you about these things – British Values, that is, Bob Marley is an optional extra - and being me that means trying to get you to think about them rather than simply memorise them – and being the kinds of scholars that you are it means you thinking critically about whether you agree with either the government’s expression or my interpretation. For what it’s worth, I think the Rule of Law is the most important – without it corruption is rife and no authority can be trusted, without it no other communal values make sense. I don’t think mutual tolerance and respect go far enough though – and so within our Harris Westminster community we try to do more, to listen and learn and celebrate the cultures, histories, experiences and religions of others. This half term is set aside in our calendar to indulge this desire: we call it “Resilience for a Better Tomorrow” and our assemblies will circle around issues of prejudice and discrimination, of marginalised people and untold stories. If there is something you’d like explored – and particularly if you’d like to do the exploring then please speak to Ms Scott: we have exceptionally high expectations of students who give assemblies, but we will help you to meet them – it’s a remarkable experience and something you should seriously consider taking on if you have something to say. And congratulations to those who had something to say, a story to tell over Christmas.
And today I have something to say, and something that relates to two British values because the situation in Gaza has got worse since Messrs Grant and Festus, Ms Scott and I gave our assembly just before half term. The humanitarian situation is a disaster two orders of magnitude larger than it was then, tens of thousands of dead and hundreds of thousands displaced from their houses facing hunger, cold and disease. And one of the issues is that Hamas does not run Gaza as a democracy – government of the people by the people for the people: its chairman lives in Qatar, and its aims are destroying Israel rather than finding peace and prosperity for the Palestinians. There was no vote in parliament commissioning the 7th October attacks. And another issue is that the Israeli government are not following the rule of law – they are ignoring international rules of warfare and the human rights of civilians both immediately in Gaza and longer term in the West Bank, the South African government has gone further and has started a case in the International Court of Justice saying that the Israeli invasion is genocide – something Israel angrily disputes. And although we can point at two of the values on our special list and say that things would be better if they were followed – I don’t think this gives us any way out of the situation. You don’t fix a country by asking angry people to take part in a democratic vote, and you don’t stop a war by telling one side it has to stop firing whilst putting up with rockets from the other side. British Values aren’t enough.
But maybe there is hope and maybe a way forward in South Africa’s history, in the person of one of my heroes – Desmond Tutu. He was born as a poor black boy in apartheid South Africa in 1931 and became a teacher and then a priest, rising to Bishop of Lesotho in 1976 and eventually Archbishop of Capetown – the first black man to hold that post. He spoke loudly and publicly against apartheid and won the Nobel peace prize as the international community wrestled with what to do about South Africa’s racist system of government. He spoke about the necessity of change, warned the leaders against stirring violence through oppression but spoke throughout in favour of non-violent protest. He popularised the term “Rainbow Nation” to describe an ideal South African identity and after the first free elections in 1994, he led the Truth and Reconciliation commission which examined the human rights abuses of the previous decade with a three-fold approach of confession – public admittance of wrong doing – forgiveness – an amnesty from prosecution – and restitution – making what amends are possible to the victims. He said “If you take a life when a life’s been taken that’s revenge not justice and warned the new government that “Yesterday’s oppressed can quite easily become today’s oppressors”. He worked hard for the right kind of future rather than retributive justice.
What if those in power today placed peace above revenge – rather than 100 prisoners for a hostage or 20 deaths for one; rather than an eye for an eye, what if Hamas and Israel committed to truth and reconciliation – an acceptance that wrongs have been done, forgiveness, restitution, and a shared commitment to a better future. And what if there was more kindness and less self-righteousness – if each side accepted that the other saw things differently, and sought to understand and address their issues rather than demand their own rights. And I don’t know how to get there in the middle east – the fourth British Value is individual liberty, but that’s as much freedom to be awful as it is to be wonderful and the situation doesn’t need more awful people in it.
But maybe the world needs another Desmond Tutu, someone who would use their freedom to speak out, to campaign, to demonstrate, and to remonstrate against revenge, violence, hatred.
And maybe there’s something there for us. Maybe we can make sure our interactions are filled with kindness, self-criticism (as scholars we call this being scrupulous), seeking and sharing peace. I know it must be difficult for those of you with friends and families in Gaza or Israel not to hold each other responsible for what’s going on – but none of us in London are to blame. Maybe all of us could do more – could model kindness, could listen and understand, could follow the example of Neville Longbottom and stand up to our friends when they are wrong – but none of us are to blame, none of us deserve to be attacked, to be made more miserable. We need mutual respect and tolerance to get to peace – and not just of different religions, but of different views of all kinds – but we need to go further and to offer to others the opportunities, freedoms and rights that we fight for ourselves. Israel can’t without hypocrisy keep Palestine poor and expect the Palestinians to accept their status. Hamas can’t refuse to accept Israel’s existence and expect them to stay peacefully behind the borders. Neither should be placing politics or ideology above the plight of the people stuck in the warzone.
’m sorry – it’s a depressing story to tell – it’s one I’d rather I didn’t have to – I hope there will be more joy in some of our other stories this half term, that there will be light as well as dark, that the better tomorrow that we are working hard for today will be evident, that as individuals we can be like Desmond Tutu, as communities we can find ideas like Truth and Reconciliation – and I think we can, it will, there will be, because I think that humanity is a story of light shining in the darkness. The point of individual liberty is not that individuals are particularly good or wise, but that without it voices are marginalised, people oppressed, stories untold. And that’s also the point of Resilience for a Better Tomorrow – a season of listening and learning.
And to leave those of you who listen with a smile, and to give you something light to learn about, I have the answers to those two questions I started with. They are 1) Wi’ Jammin’ and 2) I hope you like jammin’ too.
1. Desmond Tutu's life is given greater prominence in Archbishop Desmond
2. The 2023/4 Israel Gaza conflict was also discussed in A Tense Topic
3. Neville Longbottom's talismanic contribution to a better world came up in Being More Neville
4. The British Values are also explored in A Quadrichotomy of Values
5. The Bob Marley song referenced is Jammin