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Joe Baron is a political and educational commentator. He writes for the Spectator magazine and he used to be a teacher. Politically, he is also a Conservative. In an interesting column recently, Joe described his experiences of being ‘the only right-of-centre teacher in the history department’. He explained that he found lunchtimes in the staff room particularly tricky due to the general direction of conservation.
‘My colleagues would sit around denouncing the British Empire, Michael Gove’s changes to the curriculum and the Government’s “ideologically driven” attempts to cut the nation’s deficit. But what worried me more was their willingness to indoctrinate their pupils with the same world view,’ he wrote.
At the time Joe was a supply teacher on a zero hours contract, so mostly he kept quiet, even though he didn’t agree with most of the opinions being offered. When he did break cover, try to debate subjects and offered his alternative view, that perhaps cuts were necessary to stop the nation going bankrupt, his opinions - he claims - were immediately discounted. Two days later, he says, he was told his services were no longer needed.
Whether you agree with government education policy or not, or indeed whether you think the Empire was a shameful episode in British history or a virtuous strategy which spread democracy, culture and education throughout the world, is not necessarily the point of Joe’s vignette. The crux for me is the importance of how we deal with other people’s beliefs and opinions and the inherent danger of judging people because of the views they hold and the lives they lead. As the saying goes, opinions are like farts, everyone else’s stinks, they are hard to hold in and when you let one go, at least one person will leave the room.
So do we dismiss other people’s opinions out of hand because they do not mirror ours, do we judge them through the prism of our own views or do we discuss them and, if we can’t agree, do we at least try and understand why those opposing opinions are held? These are some of the issues tackled in Laughology’s Happy Centred Schools Programme. Children should have the confidence to formulate their own opinions and to debate these constructively. Which is why the HCS programme encourages debate in a non-judgemental, neutral and open format. Debate, not argument or judgement is the key because it is the imposition of your own opinions on others that causes problems. And the trick is empathy; one of the most useful and powerful tools you can encourage in a pupil and also one of the most important qualities you can have in business and in life in general.
Good journalists have it in spades. Earlier this week I interviewed one; an investigative journalist called Paul Connolly. Over the past year Paul has spent time in some of the world’s most dangerous jails for the Channel Five series, Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons. Paul spent time behind bars in Honduras, Mexico, The Philippines and Poland and interviewed gangland executioners, drug lords and murderers. On some occasions no guards were present to protect him and his crew and twice he spent the night in cells with prisoners who trusted him and spoke openly about their lives, crimes and regrets. In those situations, the worst thing Paul could have done was to have opinions about the people he was with and to openly express them. But by being empathetic and non-judgemental he ensured his own safety, got to the heart of each inmate’s story and gained a glimpse of the human behind the crime.
He told me: ‘I tried very hard from the outset to disregard any preconceptions I had about the people I met or pigeonhole them. It would have been easy to define them by their crimes and that was not how they saw themselves. To them those moments which defined other people’s perceptions of them were flashpoints; they were moments of weakness and vulnerability that were out of character. They wanted to be known for their qualities, for being kind, generous, loving, and intelligent.’
Obviously no one is condoning crime or criminal activity. But what the point illustrates is that very often, opinions can stifle communication, rather than drive debate. Have opinions and by all means question others, but be careful not to judge. Empathise, even if you don’t sympathise. To use an analogy, rather than look at someone else’s shoes and critique their style and colour, try walking in them instead.