Yesterday I found myself in a regrettable misunderstanding over an early day motion from 2004 signed by Jeremy Corbyn. It supported the assertion by John Pilger that the NATO intervention in Kosovo was based on a lie, that the Serbian forces had not perpetrated a genocide.
The language of the motion seemed intemperate, but I had no knowledge with which to judge it.My first responses were thus:
- I wanted to find the facts, as a lifelong student of History. When I was 15, my history teacher, Michael Barlen, reinforced the need for “Facts, facts, facts. Who, why, what, where, when.” As an undergraduate, I was rarely content with secondary sources and would ferret out primary sources, even reacquainting myself with Latin so I wouldn’t have to depend on translations. In my brief spell as a research student, I was similarly obsessive in my pursuit of facts.
- I question anything I read or hear in any media, as a former communications professional (PR executive and marketing manager). I used to create some of the ‘spin’ so I look for it everywhere. I recognise my own tendency towards naivety, so I force myself to be sceptical.
- I want my daughter to understand and guard against inhumanity. I took her to Oradour-sur-Glane to see the consequences of inhumanity for herself.
- I need to understand what leads us to war. As a Quaker, I am a pacifist. But as the child of a diplomat and grandchild of a decorated bomber pilot, as a former member of the TA and as the friend of a serving army officer, I tend to listen to and respect what members of the armed forces say, and I’ve done a lot of listening over the years.
- I want to understand what makes humans perpetrate acts of evil time and again. As my friend served in a military-civilian liaison role in Bosnia, Basra and Kosovo, I have taken an interest in her work and saw a common thread of inhumanity. We just seem to keep doing it: why?
Distrust of ‘Authorities’
As an A level history student, I attended a debate at the Cambridge Union. Magnus Pyke argued that ‘History is bunk’. The case for the defence of History was led by Geoffrey Elton, not yet Professor of Modern History. Assisting him in its defence was David Irving, an urbane man who was introduced to us as an historian. He impressed me; years later, I shuddered at the thought of having been taken in for event a moment by this holocaust denier. It gave me even greater reason to question ‘authorities’ and to challenge my own first impressions.
Sources of Information
I feel no closer to understanding what happened in Kosovo, except that thousands died, far more were displaced and there were inhumane acts on both sides. I still feel ignorant and am not sure I will ever know. I will certainly not take John Pilger’s word for it, nor any source that’s readily to hand on the Internet. I will ask my friend, as she was there in the aftermath of the war, tasked with helping the civilian population to recover. I doubt that she will have a definitive answer but I will listen to her and weigh up what she says.
Implications for my teaching
I try to bring my own approaches and responses, in an age-appropriate way, into my teaching.
- I encourage pupils to search for evidence to back up any assertions they make.
- I encourage them to be sceptical about what they see, hear or read, to ask questions about its validity and to seek other reputable sources.
- I convene discussions about inhumanity and its causes, suitable for the Year 6 pupils I have taught. This has included a morning’s discussion with a holocaust survivor and, for others, a topic theme of refugees and asylum seekers.
- I try to offer a balanced view of warfare, honouring the men and women who fought in the defence of Britain and asking how we can avoid any future loss of life.
Quakers are, as well as pacifists, seekers after truth. When I am feeling tired and cynical, I sometimes wonder if I will ever find it; for the rest of the time, I’m the same obsessive dog with a fact-seeking bone that I was as a child.